From this experience of Pentecost, the new community of Jesus-followers received gifts. Not one gift. Not the same gift for everyone. Except that these are not ordinary gifts. The Greek translation means something more along the lines of “spirit induced phenomena.” We think of a gift as something given freely once and for all. But spirit induced phenomena only works when the spirit is at work. A gift should be something we can pull out whenever we need or whenever it pleases us. A spirit induced phenomena is not about us and what we can do. It doesn’t rely on our willingness to share whatever our “gift” is. A spirit induced phenomena is what happens when the spirit works through us.
In this passage, we hear Paul writing to the community. He identifies that the community used to be pagan. Again, the translation needs an explanation. Pagan in the Greek simply means a group of people who share something in common. This group was outsiders. They were not part of the Jesus group. Nor were they viewed as part of God’s people. And yet the spirit of God worked through them. The Jesus followers wondered how this group of outsiders could say “Jesus is Lord.” They wondered how this group of outsiders could praise God. The Jesus followers clearly saw this group as outsiders who had no claim to God or to Jesus. Paul reminds the community that following Jesus is not a head decision. It isn’t something that is necessarily logical or even tangible. The spirit comes upon people unexpectedly and moves people to extraordinary actions. Through those actions the spirit—and by extension—God is experienced.
We run into problems when we want to only use our heads and think logically about using our gifts. Our minds sometimes limit the possibilities. We might ask “what’s in it for me?” We might think to ourselves, “I’m tired of sharing my gifts and no one notices anyway.” “What difference does my little gift make in the grand scheme of the world…It seems like a pretty pointless gift.” When we think this way we think of our abilities and resources as gifts. They are something that have been given to us. They belong to us and we can choose to use them and share them—or not. Our ability to use our gifts relies on how generous we feel at any moment.
In that first Pentecost story, it wasn’t gifts that were at play. It was a spirit induced phenomena. Who knew those Jesus followers could speak so many languages? Who knew that speaking a different language could influence so many people? Three thousand people were baptized. And it wasn’t an orderly, planned experience. It was spontaneous and unexpected. It was a moment where the spirit moved in a community and the entire community recognized and was touched by that spirit of God. It wasn’t about the spirit touching one person for their own benefit. The entire community was touched by the spirit for the benefit of the entire community.
The way that the spirit moves is different in each person. It looks different and we are not expected to all receive the same abilities through that spirit. But each of us do receive a little bit of the spirit, which the spirit uses for building up the entire community. When the spirit is at work we no longer ask, “How does this benefit me?” Instead we ask, “How does this benefit my community or the world?” Maybe we don’t even stop to contemplate the benefits. Sometimes the spirit is described as a whirlwind. If you get caught up in a whirlwind there isn’t time to stop and think. It isn’t until the whirlwind stops that you can reflect on the experience. The whirlwind might seem scary as we see it coming towards us and we might hope that thinking, asking questions and getting caught in our answers will stop the whirlwind or at least slow it down. And so we ask: “What if…?” “What will so and so think…?” “What’s in it for me?” Sometimes this works—temporarily. But the Spirit doesn’t stop or do what we want. The Spirit is always in motion and always working through us—even when we try to slow it down or stop it. So we have a choice. Fight against the Spirit. Resist the Spirit with all our might or embrace the Spirit. Get caught up in the whirlwind and see where we land.
One of the other images used for Holy Spirit is fire. I’m hesitant about using this image right now because we all have the destructive images from Fort McMurray in our minds this week. These images conjure up danger, horror, worry, despair, desolation, grief, lament and helplessness. There may be some similarities between fire and our experiences of the Spirit but to draw those similarities out feels unhelpful. It seems to trivialize the very really experience of people whose worlds have just collapsed so I am not going to attempt to draw that parallel today.
But I will ask some questions to help us see the Spirit in a place that seems desolate. How is the Spirit at work in the midst of destruction and grief? How is the Spirit rebuilding and restoring the community?
The Spirit is messy, disorderly and inexplicable. It brings with it chaos and uncertainty. It doesn’t stop because we are hesitant or uncomfortable. It brings with it moments and experiences we can’t explain. It works through us and others to transform the world.
. Bruce J. Malina, and John J. Pilch, Social-science commentary on the Letters of Paul (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 112.