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"God the Spirit" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on June 9, 2019 by Kathy Miller

God the Spirit

(Pentecost Sunday)

Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day.  Amen.

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:


‘In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

    and your old men shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

        and they shall prophesy.

And I will show portents in the heaven above

    and signs on the earth below,

        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

The sun shall be turned to darkness

    and the moon to blood,

        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’


The Go-Between God

There has been more than one occasion when Jenny and I have been planning that we have wondered aloud, “if we do this this year, what on earth will we do next year? How will we ever step up our game?” And while the asking of the question itself implies that we do not have an answer, my reading for this morning’s service did give me some ideas for how we might up our “decoration” game for next year’s Pentecost. If you’re on the Facilities Committee, you might want to pay attention.

In the late middle ages in Europe, the story and celebration of Pentecost, through the use of what was referred to as a Holy Ghost Hole, took on a particularly dramatic flair. Often disguised by the murals and architecture of cathedral ceilings, the Holy Ghost Hole was a round door that was opened at a particular point in the service while choir boys drummed and whooshed to recreate the sound of wind and doves or white pigeons were released into the sanctuary, followed by rose petals or in some cases burning straw to signify the tongues of fire (though that last practice was discontinued when it resulted in people catching fire externally rather than internally).

While all of these images and dramatics not only must have made for a more vivid and visually stimulating service (and, I suspect, frequent turnover in the facilities committee), they also serve as important reminders about who God is and how God relates to each of us individually and the world as a whole.

One of the primary images for the Spirit in the Bible, that doesn’t appear in our text for this morning is that of breath. In the second chapter of Genesis, God forms humanity out of the dust of the earth and breathes the Spirit into our bodies, filling us with life. The Spirit becomes the breath of God within us, that which enables us to live and move and have our being. In the Gospel of John, when the risen Christ appears to his disciples, he breathes on them and says “receive the Holy Spirit.”

In both Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament) and Greek (the language of the New Testament), the word for Spirit is also the word for breath or wind.

One theologian writes about the image of the Spirit as breath: “it is both a reminder of God’s presence and a window through which we may be drawn toward God’s presence at any time and place . . . [It is] the go-between, rising and falling, tracing an invisible thread of connection between the respiration of the body and the Spirit of God.”

Our breath then is like a gossamer thread that goes between us and God so that when we breathe in, we breathe the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Life, into our very beings. The Spirit, the breath of Life, of God, in us connects us to the Divine each time we breathe, whether we are aware of it or not.

As often as the words for Spirit are translated and described as the gentle breath of God that gifts and sustains us with life, the Bible does not let us forget that it is also the wind—a gentle breeze that caresses our face, but also (and perhaps more frequently) the harsh winds that blow us places we do not always want to go. The prophet Ezekiel has been called the prophet of the Spirit because he talks more than any other biblical writer about the ruach (the Hebrew word for Spirit of God). For the majority of Ezekiel’s prophecies, the ruach is the harsh north wind that comes as a force of judgment and punishment, bringing with it deluges of rain and hailstones and pushing the people into Exile. Yet it is also the ruach that moves God’s presence out of the Temple in Jerusalem before it is destroyed, assuring that God is with the people in their exile. And finally, near the very end of Ezekiel, there is a vision of the ruach blowing in from the four winds, knitting together the exiled and broken Israelite community and filling them with the life-giving breath (or Spirit) of God.


Picturing the Spirit as breath or wind conveys with it a sense of the Spirit as a go-between—that which connects us to God with each breath and that through which God pushes us where we need to go and fills us with life and hope when we have none. This image of a go-between continues with the image of the Spirit as a bird; in particular, a dove that descends at Jesus’ baptism, identifying him as God’s beloved Son.

There is something particularly comforting about this image of the Spirit. Jesus is at the very beginning of his ministry, he hasn’t yet done anything of note besides being born, and yet the heavens open and the Spirit, as if a dove, descends to rest on him carrying with it a blessing from above—this is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. Indeed, the image of the Spirit as a hovering, protective, bird can be found in the very beginning of Genesis when a Spirit of God hovers or broods over the waters just before creation begins.

Likewise, the image of the Spirit as fire can be one of warmth and comfort. Growing up, my family was big into camping, and camp fires were, in my opinion, the best part. They were what allowed us to cook our food and what kept us warm at night, but they were also what brought us together at the end of the day, they created community among whomever we were with—they inspired stories and confidences, music and laughter. It was when I was older and a camp counselor in the high desert mountains of New Mexico that I came to value the protective capacity of fire, especially its ability to hold the howling coyotes at bay when we were sleeping out in the open.

In the Bible, we first see God’s presence in the world take the form of fire when Moses encounters the burning bush. Much like Jesus’ baptism, this is a story of choosing and commissioning. It is here that God reveals God’s self to Moses, here that Moses learns what his identity and ministry will be, here that a connection is forged between this stuttering shepherd and the divine creator of the universe.

And in our passage for this morning, the Spirit is seen to descend and rest on the heads of the disciples as though tongues of fire. This too is a commissioning and community forming-fire. It is an energizing fire that pulls people together and gives them a common understanding and purpose.

Yet the Spirit is not all campfires and cooing doves. In Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are not described as prettily separating for the Spirit; instead, the text tells us that they are torn apart. And the Spirit’s role does not conclude with the blessing from on high. It is the Spirit who, immediately after Jesus’ baptism, drives Jesus into the desert for forty days where he is tested and tempted and eventually forced to contend with the Satan. Likewise, in our passage for this morning, the Spirit falls upon the disciples and causes them to become objects of ridicule as the people around them accuse them of being drunk.

Moses’ story is no better. While there may be something warm and fuzzy about being singled out by God for a special task, Moses is the first to realize what this new calling will require and where it will take him. He does not hesitate to object—strongly—and for some time—as he reminds God of all the reasons that he is not suited for the task at hand. Moreover, God’s self-revelation (I will be who I will be) evokes as much mystery (and perhaps frustration) as it does identity.

Celtic Christians have long understood this more abrasive and ridiculous dimension to the Spirit. If you’ve read the Tidings for this month then you know that in Celtic Christianity, the Spirit is pictured not as a dove but as a wild goose. It is hard to imagine a goose descending to rest upon you as any kind of blessing. Indeed, the Goose is far more fierce and far more loud than the dove. With its abrasive honking and propensity to bite if you get too close, the goose often signals change—the approach of someone or something new. If you’ve encountered geese before then you know that (like the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism), they too can drive you places you might not want to go, often by simply standing in your way and honking if you get too close. In Celtic Christianity, the wild goose is valued for its untamable, unpredictable nature. It is an image of the Spirit that is both wild and free. It reminds us that the Spirit is both comforter and disturber.

The Spirit, then, is both the tender breath of God that gives us life and connects with the divine and the punishing wind that can sweep clean the messes we make of our lives and our relationship with God while also pushing us into places of exile and even despair. The Spirit is both the dove that gently rests upon our head and reminds us of God’s unconditional love and the wild goose who honks and nips at us until we are paying attention and going in the direction God desires. The Spirit is both the exciting fire that reveals God’s presence to us, connects us to one another, and energizes us for the work at hand and the fire that is able to consume and purify the parts of us we do not need, whether we want it to or not.

In the end, the Spirit, “is as intimate and abiding as our breath, as elusive as the wind, as powerful and consuming as fire”⁠[1] and as free as a bird.  Which means that the God we worship is also as close as our breath, as mysterious as the wind, as powerful as fire, and sometimes even as obnoxious as a goose.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Eck, 133.

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