It has been said that we cannot speak of religion apart from economics, culture and politics. It is undeniably true, because how and where we live out our faith always implicates the larger forces in society. The church is being called to keep an open eye and a discerning spirit on the peculiar traits and habits of its neighborhoods and communities. If the church is to be present in its neighborhood, it must have an informed awareness of its reality.
This inevitable responsibility of the church brings her to face to face right now with the current reality of the entire planet’s struggle with the COVID-19 Pandemic, with the US as the country to have been affected the hardest. As of this writing, more than 1.8 million cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in the US, with more than 106,000 deaths. The number of people who have filed for unemployment benefits has passed 40 million, obscuring the unfathomable suffering of human beings behind each of those data points. The economy is in shambles. And now the streets of the US are filled with demonstrations and riots triggered by the killing of an unarmed, subdued, and handcuffed black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer.
Christians are celebrating Pentecost tomorrow. With the profound crises facing America and the world right now, how does the church celebrate this vital season? As it is, Pentecost is perhaps the most neglected season in the Christian liturgical calendar. In the normal times before the pandemic, Pentecost easily gets lost in the shift of psychology brought about the changing of the seasons. Being always adjacent to the Memorial Day holiday in the United States doesn’t help. The holiday serves as a cultural switch in the society to signal that summer is here. In turn, summer brings a different cultural rhythm both in practice and in our mindset – it is a time for vacations, things slow down, we adjust our activities, including most worship hours, to take advantage of the extended daylight hours. The “summer doldrums” also come – the stock market traditionally slows down because of the change in investor psychology during summer, and the climate tends to be calm during this period.
But Pentecost is formative for the spirituality of the church. It is considered the founding of the Christian church – its birthday. It is understood to have taken place as the risen Jesus had promised the disciples before he ascended to heaven, when he told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait to receive their “power.” When the time came, ten days after the Ascension, scripture tells us that while they were gathered in one room, the Holy Spirit blew through and around the gathered disciples like a raging wind that filled the entire house. But that raging and mighty wind also brought spiritual fire. We are told that the flame of the Holy Spirit did not rest only on Peter or on a select group of elite disciples. In fact the Spirit willfully and intentionally separated into several tongues of fire and sought out and rested gently on each of the disciples. Tongues of fire gently burning in the midst of a raging wind, defying the laws of physics and thermodynamics.
The pouring forth of the Spirit is understood to be the birth of the church, the imparting of its very life. Its birth and its power is directly linked to her task to be witnesses of Jesus and his work, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Pentecost is, therefore, the commissioning of Jesus’ community, its authorization to continue the work of Jesus in the world.
And what is that work? When Jesus announced the nature of his ministry in Luke 4 through the concrete social and political words of the Jubilee in Isaiah 61 – preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, setting at liberty the oppressed, giving sight to the blind – Jesus was not only laying out the blueprint for his ministry on earth – and by extension his disciples – but also he was announcing that, once and for all, through him God’s reign has come. “In your hearing, today, this scripture has been fulfilled”, Jesus said after reading the passage from Isaiah. Jesus was saying that the Reign of God is truly at hand, and it looks like him.
The whole experience of the raging wind and the gentle spirit of Pentecost moved Peter to remember the words of the prophet Joel, and revealed to him with powerful clarity the desire of God. It dawned on Peter that the new reality of God’s reign will reorder the present arrangement of things and create a radically new order of relationships. Like a raging wind, God’s Spirit tears down and uproots structures to make way for God’s gentle spirit and creative love to shape our lives and society closer to God’s intended and loving purpose for us all.
The continuing work of the Holy Spirit is to interpret for us the teachings of Jesus. The ways of the Holy Spirit are disruptive, because where the Holy Spirit is present the walls and barriers of control and domination that we are apt to build time and time again are shaken up. The Spirit, like a mighty wind, rages at structures that prevent the divine flame in each of us from being expressed. The Spirit is – and has been, and will be – at work in the world, with or without the church. We are being invited to take the journey or miss the boat and be left behind at dockside.
Two of the strongest trees in the world are the coconut and the bamboo tree. There are lots of those trees in the Philippines where I come from. When typhoons came (hurricanes here in this hemisphere) raging winds would destroy fixed structures in its path, even hardwood trees. Coconut and bamboo trees always survive because of their flexibility. They bend with the raging winds, no matter how strong. And when the typhoon passes and brings the gentle calm behind it, the bamboo and the coconut trees restore themselves to their original shape. In fact they are renewed, as the winds scrape off dead leaves and branches, and carry seeds that propagate new trees.
We have a choice. We can stay behind the comfortable confines of the barriers of fear that our biases and prejudices are prone to build. Or, we can face these barriers like a raging wind and gentle spirit, claiming the power of the Holy Spirit that has been granted to God’s people, and be visible participants in the ongoing work of the reign of God.
How is God’s call heard today? How can the church be present in the midst of the tumult? In these pandemic days of COVD-19, and the racial unrest on the streets of the nation going on right now brought about by the killing of George Floyd, what will the pulpits of Christian churches proclaim tomorrow? If the Holy Spirit were to blow through your churches in these days like a raging wind, what would be scraped off? What would remain standing, bending with the raging wind and awaiting renewal of the gentle Spirit? What trees in your soul need to be brought down? What trees in your soul bend with the Spirit?