Pentecost | John 14:8-27
Peace Like a Waterfall
We don’t always know what we have inside us. That is true in more ways than we care to imagine.
Science tells us that there are as many nonhuman cells in our bodies as human ones, at least by number if not volume. (Here’s a link to a recent article on Nature.com.) As repelling as the thought of trillions of bacteria roaming our skin and gullet may be, we appear to benefit from their presence. Something we usually don’t realize is there, something we think is alien to our biology, turns out to be essential to our well being.
Nature is astonishing. Icky, revolting, but also beautiful and astonishing.
Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus spoke to his followers about his eminent return to God, though what he said must have been baffling to the disciples. He spoke of sending an Advocate, another different aspect of God to dwell with them, alongside them, within them.
They must have wondered what he was talking about. There was no developed idea of a Trinitarian form of God. These disciples did not have any thought-out model of God as One in Three, no Father, Son and Spirit. His followers had barely wrapped their minds around the notion that this Jesus was himself, somehow, from God and of God. Now he was talking about sending someone else, the Spirit of God, to them.
They had some notion of the Spirit. The stories of the prophets prepared them a little. Elijah had the Spirit of God upon him, didn’t he? They had heard that much when the scripture was read. And didn’t Elisha, his servant, ask for a double portion of the Spirit to come upon him as Elijah left him? It was not an entirely new idea, but getting from those old stories, even in scripture, to one’s own life? That was a reach.
It is still a reach.
If we spend any time at all in the world of Christianity, then we become used to certain ideas. Sin is easy enough—we all have a pretty good grasp on how to fall short, and other people are generally helpful in pointing out our failings. Repentance, now, is a bit more difficult, especially as we often confuse our regret at being caught with the notion of genuine repentance. We tend to substitute belief for actual faith, preferring to cling to a litany of ideas about God rather than attempting, or expecting, to engage with God, particularly a God we cannot see or hear or touch. That last thought brings us to the problem of Pentecost—the Christian teaching about the Spirit of God falling onto the faithful.
In the book called Acts, we read of the Spirit falling upon the disciples like tongues of fire falling from the sky. Those on whom the fire fell, those imbued with the Spirit of God, are changed, empowered, and they begin acting and feeling and talking differently than before the fire fell. John’s Gospel tells another version, the minority report, if you will. Here, Jesus speaks of the Spirit in quiet conversation. He himself breathes on the disciples, telling them to receive the Spirit of God. There are no flames falling from the sky, no tumult in the marketplace, and the followers remain much as they were: quiet, thoughtful, perhaps wondering whether anything had changed.
We still wonder.
Come, they tell us, become a Christian, be baptized, receive the Spirit of God, and so we respond. And then we wait. Perhaps there is a feeling of euphoria at making a commitment. We may feel moved by the sensations of baptism, the water and the litany of words. Sooner or later, the feelings fail, and we are left wondering. Is there anything in us that is of God? Is the Spirit of God real if we cannot feel it, touch it?
Sitting by a stream, it is difficult to hear the sound it makes. If there is more water, a river instead of a stream, then we begin to perceive the susurrus of the water. The murmur of the water was there in the stream, of course, though we did not hear it.
We become accustomed to sounds, even accustomed to the most astounding conditions, sounds, and sights. Stand by a waterfall long enough, and our minds grow used to the roar and crash of the water. It becomes something that we know is there, but that we no longer notice, like a heartbeat.
Science tells us that our minds have developed to mask the sound of our own heart. (Here’s a link to the short abstract of a recent article.) Otherwise, the sound of the organ that pumps to keep us alive would drive us insane. Perhaps that is something of the way the Spirit of God works—the masking part, not the insanity.
If God is real, if as Christianity claims God is greater than everything we can comprehend, then perhaps a true glimpse of God would leave us staggered, blind, insane. Instead, perhaps this Spirit of God who may sometimes, for a moment, flash like firelight, chooses to fill our lives like the sound of the wind in the leaves, or like the murmur of water flowing past. It may be that at Pentecost, and all the other days, we should not look for God on the mountain tops like Moses. God surely is on the mountains, if God is anywhere, but most of us do not live our lives up there.
We are more likely to hear the still small voice of God in the everyday things, the sunlight, birdsong, the voice of a stranger. Instead of expecting fire to fall from the sky, we should listen for the steady susurrus of the Spirit, the quiet murmur of God.