"The Day the Spirit Broke Through," by Zachary Helton
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them.
Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue? We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome—all Jews, or converts to Judaism—Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!”
All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “Women and men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, it’s what Joel the prophet spoke of:
‘In the days to come—
it is our God who speaks—
I will pour out my Spirit
on all humankind.
Your daughters and sons will prophesy,
your young people will see visions,
and your elders will dream dreams.
Even on the most insignificant of my people,
both women and men,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
And I will display wonders
in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below:
blood, fire and billowing smoke.
The sun will be turned into darkness
and the moon will become blood
before the coming of the
great and sublime day of our God.
And all who call upon the name
of our God will be saved.’
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-30
YHWH said to Moses, “Gather together seventy of your elders, those you know to be leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the Tent of Meeting and take their place there with you. I will come down and speak to you there. I will take some of the Spirit that lives in you and give it to them. They will share the burden of your people, so that you do not carry all of it by yourself.
So Moses went and told the people what God had said. He gathered seventy elders and had them surround the Tent. YHWH came down in a cloud and spoke to Moses. Taking some of the Spirit that was in Moses, God bestowed it on the seventy elders whom Moses had gathered there; and as the Spirit came to rest on them, they were seized with prophesying, and did not stop. Now two other elders, one named Eldad and the other Medad, were not in the gathering but had stayed behind in the camp. They had been summoned to the tent, but had not gone; yet the Spirit came to rest on them also, and they prophesied in the camp.
When a youth came running to tell Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp,” Joshua, ben-Nun, who from youth had been Moses’ aide, cried, “Moses, stop them!” But Moses answered, “Are you jealous for my sake? If only all of God’s people were prophets! If only YHWH would bestow the Spirit on them all!”
Then Moses returned to the camp with the elders.
This is one of our sacred stories, Thanks be to God.
The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection has been rolling over and over in the church’s heart for a very long time, but we can’t seem to get on the same page about what it all means. Over thousands of years, they’ve come up with several theories on what it’s all about, what it actually accomplishes in the story of the People of God.
You’ve probably got your favorite theory, whether you know it or not – some interpretive key that makes it all make sense for you. Some theories are about metaphysical deals between God and Satan, or an angry God demanding blood sacrifices… but I’m guessing those don’t exactly take root in your soul. Frankly, they leave a very bad taste in my mouth, and I think they hurt more people than they help.
I bring this up today because, for me, one of the deepest meanings of the Jesus story, that key that makes it all make sense, is found in the story of Pentecost. To me, this story of the Spirit unleashed into the world is at the heart, not only of the Jesus story, but of the entire story of what it means to be human. Pentecost is about what everything has always been about, from the beginning to the end.
Let me show you what I mean.
In the beginning, God breathed God’s Spirit into the dust, and it became a living being. The perfect union of dust and divine, the eternal in the temporal, the great in the small. As innate as the nose on its face was the Spirit in its being, and the Spirit was the source of all love, trust, joy and peace. The human lived their days in trust, acceptance, and contentment… but then, a voice whispered in their ear.
“You know, you are not enough,” it hissed. “To be enough, you have to know more, you have to achievemore. How can you accept yourself as you are? You are ignorant. Look at yourself. Look at your body, aren’t you ashamed? Come on. You’re not enough, not yet.”
Different generations have found different names for this voice - The Accuser, The Adversary, The False Self, The Ego - but we all know it well. It usually shows up when we’re about twelve or thirteen, drawing boundaries and conditions around our worth… and it changes everything.
In this story, which is also our story, the Accuser’s voice finds a foothold. The human wonders if maybe it’s right. Then the human are sure it was right. They sew together fig leaves to cover themselves. They hide away, certain they were somehow displeasing - certain love could not reach so far as to cover their perceived iniquity.
Shame and doubt stretch out like a thick veil, covering the light of the Spirit… but it could never snuff it out.
And so it begins.
Freed from their Egyptian captors, the People of Israel gather at the edge of the holy mountain. At the top, tongues of flame leap high into the air and a thunderous voice dictates the laws by which they are to live. “I shall be your God,” the voice booms, “and you shall be my people.” Again, God with God’s people, the people with their God – a society ordered by trust, justice, and plenty.
But then, that voice whispers in an Israelite’s ear.
“You are not good enough,” it warns. “You are not clean enough to be in the presence of a Holy God, it would consume you! Look at yourself, sinner that you are, harboring thoughts and desires so dark no one would love you if they knew. Well, God knows, so why should God love you?”
Then, in the ear of another, “You will not be safe enough! Turn your eye to that fire, to the uncontained, unpredictable passion threatening to consume you all!”
The voice finds a foothold. The people grow afraid. “Moses,” they beg, “you speak to God for us and we will listen. We can’t bear to hear the voice of God ourselves, or we won’t survive!”
“What?” Moses asks, pushing back. “Don’t be afraid! This is the God that brought you up out of Egypt!” But Israel doesn’t believe. The people move some distance away, putting a priest and several miles of desert between themselves and this presence offering a new way of life.
And so it goes.
Wandering in the desert in a seemingly endless quest for the Promised Land, an elite few are chosen to help Moses in the work of leadership and discernment. The arrangement is that God will pour God’s Spirit out on these select few who are considered worthy, who have gathered at a certain place at a certain time.
The Spirit, though, ever the troublemaker, also wanders off into the unclean masses of the camp. It danced around among those too afraid to approach the mountain. There, it comes to rest on two others, Eldad and Medad, elders who had not obeyed the call to gather at the certain place at the certain time. All the same, they open their mouths and begin to prophecy, the Voice of God intertwining with their own and singing the song of the cosmos. The people stand in awe, surprise taking them beyond their fear, for the first time imagining a world where such things could be possible.
But then, a voice whispers in Joshua’s ear.
“They do not know enough to prophesy,” it accuses. “Who are they compared to your great Moses? They did not come to the gathering when called! They have not earned this! You are far more loyal and obedient than they, and yet the Spirit has not fallen on you, has it?”
The voice finds a foothold. Joshua is furious. “Moses!” he cries, “you have to stop them!”
“Joshua,” Moses says, still caught up in the joy of the scene unfolding before him. “Are you jealous for my sake? Joshua, this,” he gestured to Eldad and Medad, “is what it has always been about! I wish that all the people were prophets! A whole nation of prophets, the Spirit of God blazing through human flesh!”
But Joshua, along with the rest of the elders, separate themselves from Eldad and Medad with a wall of bitter suspicion, the camp seeing them and following their lead.
And so it goes.
On and on, the People of God glimpsing the Spirit within and among them, hearing the voice’s accusations, and covering over the light with something easier to look at. The Prophets look forward to the day when the people would understand, would transcend their judgment and pageantry, and recognize the love, joy, and peace that was already theirs. They look forward to the day when everyone, regardless of gender or social status, would let go and remember who they were, would share in God’s dreams… but on and on, the shouts of the prophets are drowned out by the constant, humming whisper of the Accuser.
And so it goes…
Until one day, the story is interrupted.
A young girl conceives a child out of wedlock, his parentage uncertain, their future bleak. She is very afraid. The voice of the Accuser whispers in her ear like so many others. “You are no longer good enough for your fiancée,” it tisks, “or your parents. Why would they want you now? Oh, how ashamed you must feel. No one would be caught dead with you after this. You are alone.”
The Accuser’s voice easily finds a foothold… but then, a different voice, speaking words that had yet failed to find a foothold in earlier generations.
It says, “Don’t be afraid,” and it casts a new vision onto the horizon, no longer a sunset, but a sunrise. “You are a beloved daughter of God, and so is your child,” it says. “You will give birth to a son, and he will do wonderous things. Customs and scandal be damned, this is a child of God and so are you. Will you believe it? Because if you do… it could be the beginning of something brand new.”
And then she does what her ancestors could not. She believes it. Against all odds, her fiancée believes. Grace begins to tear at the veil, and they catch a glimpse of the Spirit again.
Weary from travelling, Jesus chooses to stay in Mary and Martha’s home. After dinner, he sits reclined on the ground telling stories, and Martha watches him, watches those sitting enraptured at his feet, including her sister. It looks, to her, that there is nowhere else Jesus would rather be than with these people, in this moment. Martha imagines herself there next to her sister, hearing about the possibilities of the Kingdom of God, imagines Jesus delighting in her company as well. She takes a step, but then the Accuser whispers in her ear.
“Hold on,” it halts. “You have not done enough. You do not have the time. They would think you were lazy and, frankly, they’d be right. Look at the state of your home. Why should they want you to join them before you finish your work, your work which never seems to be finished, does it?”
The voice finds a foothold. Martha feels a shame which easily overflows into anger. “Mary,” she whispers harshly. “Get up and come help me. Look at this place!”
She begins to move away from Jesus, to put a room between them, taking her sister with her, but Jesus interrupts.
“Hold on!” he says. “Martha, you’re worried about so many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen that thing. The work doesn’t have to be done for you to step away from it and enjoy the ones you love. You’ve done enough. You are enough. Let the house be a mess. We’ll all help in the morning. But look around! No one accuses you but yourself!”
And Martha believes him. She lets go and rests in grace, in that present, elusive Spirit of Joy. She never forgets that night… especially after what followed.
Over time, Jesus’ grace grows wilder, and the Accuser grows more desperate – desperate for safety, to keep things as they are, reasonable motives, really, and so begins telling all that will listen that Jesus is a grave threat. Oh, and the people listen. Jesus is arrested, and just like that, he’s gone.
Three days later, though, he comes back, confounding the Accuser’s rules, and leaving the disciples reeling and confused. What does this mean? they ask themselves. What has it all meant?
Fifty days later, they find out.
The disciples gather in one room. It’s now the Festival of Pentecost, the completion of the harvest when they tell of the day the law came down from Mount Sinai.
“Freed from their Egyptian captors,” one of them preaches the familiar story, “the People of Israel gathered at the edge of the holy mountain. At the top, tongues of flame leapt high into the air and a thunderous voice dictated the laws by which they were to live. ‘I shall be your God,’ the voice boomed, ‘and you shall be my people…’”
And as the disciples pondered this, they too, heard the familiar whisper.
“But you are not clean enough to be accepted,” it said to one. “God would strike you dead.”
To another disciple, it chided, “But you’re not good enough, sinner that you are. Think of what you’ve done. You abandoned your friend, and now you’re hiding up here. Why should you be loved, you coward?”
Then, urgently, in the ear of another, “You aren’t safe enough here! Look at the fire, the uncontained passion and unpredictability! You will be consumed, just like Jesus was!”
The voice begins to find a foothold, as it always does… but then, an interruption. Another voice.
“That’s not true,” the new voice says firmly in their ear. “When I looked upon unclean skin, did I recoil or touch it with tenderness? When I saw your deepest shame, did I throw a stone, or did I embrace you with an grace that went just as deep?”
In the ear of another disciple it says again, “It’s not true. Remember the way we’d pool our resources and feed the people? Had they done anything to deserve that? To earn it? Remember when soldiers stripped me of my dignity and cast lots for my clothes? Did I condemn them and curse their name, or did I say ‘Abba, forgive them, because they just don’t understand?’ You may have abandoned me, but did I ever abandon you? Was I not waiting for you three days later with open arms and breakfast?”
To the third, it says again, “That’s not true. I may have been consumed by the fire, but in so doing, I was and am more alive than so many who walk around dead to their heart, dead to their world, living but not alive. Risk and death are the only ways to find eternal life!”
“Children of God,” it said to them all as they remembered the stories, “you are enough. Right now. Just as you are.”
And the voice of the Accuser, for the first time, can’t find a foothold anywhere. It’s exposed. It’s empty. It always has been.
And with that, the dams are broken. The Spirit pours forth.
Over thousands of years, the church has come up with several theories about what it’s all about, what the Jesus story actually accomplishes in the story of the People of God. One of those theories is called the “Ransom Theory,” suggesting that, somehow, Jesus ransomed us from the power of Satan… but before you roll your eyes, did you know that the word satan is not actually a proper noun, but is a generic Hebrew noun that literally translates to “the accuser?” As in, in a courtroom you’d have the prosecuting satan/accuser on one side arguing all of the reasons you deserve judgment. Suddenly, things start to make a little more sense. Perhaps there is something from which Jesus’ grace ransoms us.
Different generations have found different names for this voice - The Accuser, The Satan, The Adversary, The False Self, The Ego - but we all know it well. It is that voice which stands between you and love. It is that voice, obsessed with safety and accomplishment, that finds infinite ways of telling you that you are not enough, that you are not worthy, that it’s not okay to take a break, to accept the world as it is and enjoy it… and it is a liar.
What if the Pentecost story isn’t powerful because it’s about a Spirit being bestowed or poured out from somewhere else? What if it’s powerful because it’s the human story about what finally happens when the voice of the accuser is met with the voice of grace? What if Pentecost is what the story of Jesus is really all about - what happens when we dare to believe that we don’t have to be good enough or clean enough or safe enough or have accomplished enough for someone to come to us and love us, to die for us, just as we are?
It’s the very first image in scripture: God breathing a Spirit of Love into humanity. The union of dust and divine. It’s the very last image in scripture: the great wedding banquet between God and humanity. The union of dust and divine. It’s everything in between. It’s where we came from and where we’re going. It’s now, “at hand,” waiting to be embraced.
And when we dare believe it, with a sound like a violent, rushing wind from heaven, a noise will fill this entire earth, and the fire of Life will course through our hands, rest on our heads, ignite our voices with the universal language of grace, and the world will never be the same.
Amen, and Happy Pentecost.