Pentecost Sunday – May 23, 2021
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
John 15:25-26, 16:4b-15
Get ready for a holy adventure! Get ready to enter the spiritual twilight zone, to join the mystics and go one step beyond into the paranormal. Not the supernatural, because the natural world is more amazing than we think! Strap on your seat belt, put on your helmet, and get ready for a mighty wind or a persistent calling! Today, we celebrate the lively Spirit of God, blowing freely and wherever God wills, God’s gentle and occasionally wild presence, that transforms our lives and communities, breaks down barriers, and gives life to weary and uncertain persons and communities.
On the day of Pentecost, less than two months after the resurrection and a few days after the ascension, and the call to look to earth and not heaven for salvation, a wild spirit unexpectedly encompassed the early Christian movement, shaking everything up and breaking down the barriers that separate humankind. Fire and wind, turning everything upside down, uniting the separated, and inviting everyone to be part of God’s community. In this Pentecost, diversity becomes a blessing not a source of alienation – there is no in or out, or superior or inferior, but a democracy of the spirit embracing the least and the most as equal recipients of divine inspiration.
Pentecost defies our rational categories; it is truly a mystical experience that invites us to consider moments of spiritual transcendence in our personal and congregational lives. Pentecost is a holy day that challenges us to be both spiritual and religious; to ride the winds of the Spirit and then bring that vitality back to the institutional patterns and traditions of our congregations. Pentecost disorders and brings novelty, and novelty is precisely what we need to energize the valuable and beloved, yet sometimes static, structures of our churches.
Dorothy Solle once asserted that we are all mystics. And I believe she is right, even if our experiences are not technicolor or we don’t hear the voice of God or see the heavens parted. We are all capable of having transcendent experiences, even within the everyday routines of our lives. Indeed, God is whispering to us every moment of the day, and sometimes we notice. A Pew Study report noted that nearly half of North Americans claim to have had some form of mystical or transcendent experience, compared to 22% in 1962. These experiences range from paranormal visions and intuitions, near death experiences, encounters with angelic beings, feelings of awe, and dramatic visions and healings.
Today, seekers as well as congregants are more open to the holy and to sharing their experiences of the divine. In my own context as a pastor and professor, my seminars on mysticism, spiritual practices, and paranormal experiences are popular and reach out beyond the congregation. They are always well subscribed when I have taught mysticism and healing at seminary.
Pentecost provides an opportunity to blend mysticism with rationality, and transcendence with everyday life. We never know when the winds of the Spirit will blow, but they always blow in the direction of healing and unity. Today’s church is called to be a laboratory for spiritual experience, open to divine whispers, welcoming of the mystic, while tying these experiences to social transformation and care for the vulnerable. (For more on mystical experiences and their relationship to personal and congregational transformation, see Bruce Epperly, “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” Upper Room, 2017; “Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: A Progressive Vision,” Energion, 2017; “Mystics in Action: 12 Saints for Today,” Orbis, 2020; and “Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure,” Energion, 2017.)
The passage from Ezekiel surely addresses our congregational lives and our hopes for the future of the churches we pastor and love. Ezekiel asks, “Can these dry bones live?” And then a divine breath, the breath of creation, the breath that moved over the waters to bring order to the primordial chaos, brings new life to a dead people. God’s Spirit brings hope to our hopelessness and fear about ourselves and our institutions. This is a message to the church, that is, to the church given up for dead, tired, aging, losing influence and membership and apparently on its last legs. There is hope for new life. God’s breath of life can change everything, inspiring us with hope, energy, and possibility. The form of this energy take may force us to transform our congregations. New life means change, but it is a change that gives vitality and inspires mission. Still, when energized and renewed, the dry bones of a congregation can get up and go, running without weariness and rising like an eagle, regardless of size or challenge. Let us breathe in the Spirit and then exhale creative love. (For more on a living church, see Bruce Epperly, “Church Ahead: Moving Forward with Congregational Spiritual Practices, 2020.)
The words of Romans 8 are also inspiring and worthy of reflection, if not preaching, this Sunday. God’s Spirit gives life to all things and is not confined to human experience. God’s Spirit also gives life to us. The spirit moves within us, interceding within us, and giving us wisdom to aim for what is best for us and the world. The Spirit is our deepest reality and source of holy energy. We are never without guidance or insight in our personal and congregational lives. Indeed, the sighs too deep for words are the ground of mystical experiences. The Spirit is constantly at work in our lives and in the creative process of the universe. Our mystical experiences are more dramatic manifestations of what is present everywhere in our doxological universe.
The words of Psalm 104 describe the wondrous diversity of life and the Holy Energy that is constantly giving life to all. God’s breath enlivens and inspires, birthing creation one moment at a time.
John’s Gospel describes God’s promise to his first followers and to us: the spirit will give us wisdom and insight now and forevermore. Jesus never leaves us alone; we receive divine gifts even when Jesus is absent. There is an advocate, comforter, fortifier, who will reveal to us what to say and do. God’s presence is a “spirit of gentleness” (Jim Manley) and it is also a “mighty wind” shaking our lives’ foundations. The Spirit comforts and agitates as we need, and always sends out in the world in mission.
The Spirit we receive as a community of believers will be countercultural, challenging the norms of our society and unmasking false values. The Spirit – the Advocate – will give us new visions, unexpected possibilities, and the courage to bring them about. Today’s churches need to ask themselves, regardless of their current condition, “What new visions is God giving us today? Where are we receiving divine guidance? How can we be attentive to God’s forward movements in our congregation?”
Today, we affirm that God’s Spirit is unhindered, breaking down barriers, inspiring, illuminating, life-giving, and present in all creation. God’s Spirit unites our congregations in their diversity and invites us to go beyond our borders to welcome others. God’s Spirit provides wisdom when ours appears meager and guidance for the challenging journeys ahead.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books, including “Process Theology and Politics,” “Prophetic Healing: The Contemplative Activism of Howard Thurman,” and “101 Soul Seeds for Grandparents Working for a Better World.”