Wind and Fire
By: Patricia Datchuk Sanchez
Patricia Sanchez has been writing for Celebration for over 33 years. She lives in Hattiesburg, Miss. This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Celebration.
1 Cor 12:3-7, 12-13 or Gal 5:16-25
John 20:19-23 or John 15:26-27; 16:12-15
Could there be any better way to portray the emergence of a community of believers than in terms of wind and fire? These elemental forces of the universe are immeasurable, unpredictable and often uncontrollable. Wind and fire remind us that ours is a church that is characterized by mobility and not stasis, by charism rather than constraint, and by ecstasy rather than entrenchment. Wind and fire blow and breathe and burn with life and with an energy that cannot be quenched. Wind and fire attest to the difference the Jesus movement has made, is making and should be able to make in the world.
The imagery of wind and fire is not unique to Pentecost. Fire and wind have figured importantly in many encounters between God and humankind in both Testaments. Fire signified the presence of God sealing the everlasting covenant with Abraham (Gen 15:17). Fire summoned Moses to the presence of God (Exod 32) and purified him for his mission. Leading Moses and the escapees from Egypt through the desert, a pillar of fire assured them that their path was struck and protected by God (Exod 13:21). Fire burning on Sinai announced the presence of God and accompanied the gift of the law, regarded by the Israelites as a fire that lit their path (Exod 19:18). Fire also purified the prophets who were chosen to speak God’s word (Isa 6; Ezek 1) and devoured the sacrifices offered in worship. A perpetual fire near the altar bore witness to God’s choice to draw near and linger lovingly among the people (Lev 6:2-6).
From the beginning, as told in the book of Genesis, wind has also signified the power and presence of God. Sweeping over the primordial waters, wind brought forth life, order and a wondrous, symbiotic harmony in the universe. From creation onward, wind would be variously featured through the scriptures as the breath of God, the inspiration of God and a sign of God’s Spirit, who blows wherever and whenever and in whomever God chooses.
For Moses and those leaving Egypt, an east wind sent by God enabled their safe passage across the Sea of Reeds (Exod 14:21-22). Job’s encounter with God was depicted as a theophany within a whirlwind (Job 38:1; 40:6). The visions of Ezekiel (1:4) were similarly characterized. When his prophetic ministry was ended and his ministry had been assumed by another, Elijah was caught up to heaven and to God in a whirling wind (2 Kings 2:1, 11).
Almost every time wind is referenced in the Lectionary, says Gail Ramshaw, its effects are vehicles of God’s grace (Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary, Augsburg Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2002). Wind is no terror but the movement of God’s mercy.
Against this rich and colorful background, the Lucan evangelist and author of Acts has told his version of the gift of the Spirit. God’s presence is announced in a strong driving wind, and tongues as of fire appear and come to rest — not in a burning bush or on Sinai or even on the altar of sacrifice in the temple, but on every believer present. In that moment of wind and fire, all were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in such a way as to be understood by all. In that moment of wind and fire, something new and different had begun to happen. As if shaken by the wind, traditional prejudices and parochialism began to give away to a spirit of inclusiveness, openness and welcome. As if blown by the wind, the seeds of the good news began to spread far beyond Jerusalem, Judah and Samaria. With the wind at their back, the bearers of those seeds knew themselves to be inspired by someone greater than themselves.
With fire in their bellies, those early believers established a viable and energetic movement that caused the world to take notice. Does the world continue to take notice of us, who have inherited this legacy of wind and fire? Does the wind at our backs still prompt us forward into the fray? Is there fire in our bellies to excite others to believe? If the event narrated by Luke has dissolved into distant memory and has no bearing upon our present experience, then today is the day to make a new beginning. God’s wind still blows; God’s fire still burns and enlightens. Jesus’ Spirit continues to breathe upon us. We, for our part, must be willing to be blown to places of God’s choosing.
As professor of Old Testament Phyllis Bird has explained (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Harper and Row, San Francisco: 1985), for the ancients, wind, like fire, was a mysterious force, one that moved endlessly from unknown origin to unknown destination (Sir 1:6; 1 John 3:8). God alone could control fire and command the wind (Mark 4:41), sending it forth at will from its storehouse (Jer 10:13), riding upon the wind in the clouds (Pss 18:10; 104:3; Ezek 1:4) and commissioning the winds to do the divine will (Exod 15:10; Ps 104:4). Therefore, when Luke called upon wind and fire to describe the spiritual phenomenon we call Pentecost, he was telling his readers: “This is God’s doing.”
Moreover, as Eberhard Arnold has pointed out, the Pentecost event revealed “God’s doing” in all those who were present (“Spirit of Fire,” Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, The Plough Pub. Co., Farmington, Pa: 2003). No one person or group, no heights of oratory or flaming enthusiasm could have gathered unto Christ the many who constituted the early church. When the Spirit descended and when wind and fire moved the speakers to preach, they did not address an unenlightened crowd. Rather, insists Arnold, fiery tongues of Spirit ate their way into the hearts of the hearers and inflamed all with one common experience of the same Spirit and the same Christ. Difficulties arose for the early believers and continue to arise today when one person or one group claims to enjoy a monopoly of the Spirit. This wondrous Pentecost scene reminds the praying community that inspiration can be experienced in both pulpit and pew.
Although Christians associate Pentecost with the gift of the Spirit and the emergence of the church, the feast was originally an agricultural celebration in thanksgiving for the grain harvest. Called Sheruoth, or the Feast of Weeks or Firstfruits, Pentecost was later associated with the gift of the law on Sinai. An ancient tradition held that Moses and company had travelled for seven weeks from Egypt to Sinai. On their way, the people were in formation so as to be ready to receive the law. In later Jewish practice, the seven weeks between Passover and Sheruoth were dedicated to the intense religious education of the youth of the community. Duly formed and fostered by God’s word, these would affirm their willingness to live in accord with the law on the feast of Sherouth or Pentecost. In Jesus’ day, the community at Qumran, also called the Essenes, welcomed new members to their community on this day. Perhaps Luke was considering some or all of these ideas — moral and spiritual formation, the law, affirmation, new membership and the harvest not of grain but of humankind — when he constructed his Pentecost narrative.
Also evident in his writings was Luke’s intention of establishing the continuity between the life of Jesus and that of the post-resurrection community. That continuity was assured by the presence of the Spirit. With Jesus throughout his ministry, the Spirit would remain with the followers of Jesus until his return. Because the same Spirit continues to enlighten and enliven the contemporary Christian community, we have the same capacity to preach and teach, to serve and to witness as did those early believers.
John 15:26-27: 16:12-15 (Alternate text proposed inliturgical calendar)
Concerning the importance of the Spirit for the community of believers, Orthodox priest and author Thomas Hopko once wrote: “Just as the work of Christ would be devoid of power without the power from on high in a Pasch without Pentecost, so would the Way remain unwalkable, the Truth unknowable and the Life unliveable. The Spirit comes to make possible in men all that Christ is by nature, by the gracious gift of its presence” (The Spirit of God, Morehouse-Barlow Pub., New York: 1976). Hopko’s understanding of the role of the Spirit is similar to that of the Johannine evangelist, whose discourses on the Spirit encouraged the late first-century church to constantly avail themselves of one of their most powerful resources. Promised by the earthly Jesus and bestowed by the risen Lord, the Spirit will pick up where Jesus left off.
Contextually, this excerpted Gospel lies at the heart of the Johannine Jesus’ farewell discourse. He was about to depart from them and desired to provide for them in every way. To that end, he promised One like himself who would be their parakletos, a Greek term that has been variously translated as Advocate, Comforter, Helper, Counselor and Defense Attorney.
Two of the several functions of the Advocate, also called Spirit of truth (v. 26), will be to testify to Jesus and to guide his followers to the truth. As Charles Cousar has explained, the testimony of the Advocate is linked to and precedes the testimony that the disciples are to bear (Texts For Preaching, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.: 1993). This linking of witnesses, says Cousar, is crucial for the church; without the support and affirmation of the Spirit, the church becomes a voiceless, irrelevant institution. The fact that the disciples are to offer witness after the Spirit testifies is also remarkable. A servant of the Spirit, the church must maintain a vigilant discernment of the workings of the Spirit so as to be ever consonant with its testimony.
A second function of the Spirit will be “to guide you to all truth” (v. 13). Implied in the wording of this promise is the idea that, just like a horse can be led to the water but cannot be made to drink, the disciples of Jesus are not coerced. Respectful of human free will, the Spirit chides and guides but does not force. When the truth is revealed through the gift of the Spirit, it devolves upon the believer to recognize and appropriate that truth, freely and fully. Stanley B. Marrow says that in specifying that the Spirit will lead Jesus’ followers to the truth, the evangelist is referring not to a cumulative process whereby the deposit of the faith grows by accretion, but to the integrity and wholeness of the truth in every generation of every age (The Gospel of John, Paulist Press, New York: 1995).