Peace Like a Waterfall


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 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.

StreamThey 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.RapidsUnderTree

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.


Better Unseen

Day of Pentecost  |  John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Sparkler HandsOn this Sunday, the Church celebrates the Day of Pentecost. The Christian remembrance of this day depends upon accounts left by the early followers of Jesus, left leaderless after his crucifixion. They told of experiencing the presence of the Spirit of God in ways that make little sense to modern readers. To make the matter more mysterious, the accounts do not even agree with one another.

According to the book of Acts, something “like tongues of fire” appeared to these earliest Christians, or happened to them, or by some other difficult to describe experience changed them. Afterward they left off their new practice of withdrawing from society, as they had done partly in fear of persecution and partly for lack of a clear idea of what else to do, and went out among the streets and people of Jerusalem, telling everyone that Jesus had been resurrected.

That makes a string of odd experiences.

John recalls the events differently than the other gospels. In the verses outlined by the lectionary, Jesus tells his followers that he is leaving them, and that only when he has left them will they come to know another aspect of God, the Advocate, the Spirit of truth. In this gospel, after the crucifixion a resurrected Jesus and some of his followers are gathered in a room when he breathes on them—another peculiar detail—and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit.Candle in Salt

The New Testament accounts are not clear, and they do not tell the same story. We might agree that something happened to change the way these earliest Christians understood the presence of God. We might agree precisely because of the lack of agreement in the texts—if these folks were making it all up, surely they would have done a better job of getting the details down, but their focus appears to have been on the result, not the method.

Whether some of these people had a visual or physical experience of fire, or were merely expressing their experience in such language as a metaphor, or were more apt to describe some quieter occurrence as in the Gospel of John, all of them claimed that something happened. More to the point, these early Christians began to behave in a different way—something changed in them and something changed in the way they related to the people and the world around them—and as a result our own civilization changed with them. Whatever they experienced was powerful enough to change history.

Oddly, in this passage of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that “…it is helpful to you that I go away.” The word translated as helpful, or as to your advantage, literally means bring together. (Even today, to ‘get it together’ means something a little different than what the words convey.) We find a version of the same term in Acts 19:19 — “…those who had practiced magic arts brought together their books and burned them….” The greater oddness of that passage aside, it is interesting to think that the words of Jesus have a double meaning: it is to your advantage and it will bring you together.

SparksAt a stretch, then, we might translate the verse this way: But I tell you the truth, you will be brought together if I go….

Whatever the meaning, that was the effect.

Watching a teacher is a good way to learn, but we don’t really know something for ourselves until we do it for ourselves. Hearing the gospel taught, listening to the words, is not the same as living and sharing the gospel. Hearing that God draws near to us, whether we recognize the moment or not, is not the same as internalizing it, having faith that it is so. Hearing that our failures can be redeemed, that there is always an opportunity for grace, is not the same as accepting it, walking with it.

The followers of Jesus got it together when he left them. He got out of the way. If we hope to experience love and grace and God in our lives, sometimes the best thing we can do is to get out of the way.

Holding Sparklers

Finding Your Spark – Pentecost

Pentecost  |  John 20:19-23, John 7:37-39, Acts 2:1-21

Were they waiting or were they hiding?

There were about one hundred and twenty of them in all, gathered somewhere according to Acts (which is really Luke II, the Sequel.) The group included the inner circle of followers and Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. Luke is careful to record that Jesus told his followers to wait until they had received the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, we are told, the Spirit descended upon these followers like sparks falling from the sky.

Sparklers Adj 026John told the story differently, or perhaps told a different part of it. In the words of this gospel, Jesus himself appears and breathes upon his followers, conferring in some mystical way the Spirit of God upon these men and women. In this version, they were all definitely hiding behind locked doors out of fear, fear that the Romans and the temple leadership would do to them what had been done to Jesus.

Perhaps they were both hiding and waiting. At any rate, by the time about seven weeks had passed and the religious festival of Pentecost or Shavuot began (commemorating Moses receiving the law directly from the Lord,) something radical happened. Either the Spirit fell upon them, or they realized that they already were touched by God.

They found their spark.

Whether you read John or Luke or Acts, this story is not anything that you can really accept strictly on an intellectual basis. There appear to be contradictions. There is the troublesome detail of the appearance of tongues of flame. Either people speak in languages that they did not previously know or other people begin to understand foreign languages as their own. It would be interesting to hear an explanation of this narrative from the perspective of group psychology. It would be interesting, and it would not be a matter of faith.

We want to understand things. We want to know the reasons, explain the magic trick, be able to tell why an apple turns brown after you bite it. There are limits to reason, though. We can explain a great many things, but our explanation has little to do with whether we have faith in them. When you are jumping out of an airplane, understanding how a parachute works is extremely helpful. Having faith in the person who packed your chute is even better.

Understanding informs our faith, but it is not our faith.

John also records that Jesus stood and cried out, “The one believing in me, as the scripture has said, out of him will flow living water.” Living water, he says—the spring of life, the Holy Spirit. No fire falling, no blowing wind, but the Spirit of God flowing quietly from within until suddenly we notice.

Life can be surprisingly simple and surprisingly complex. Often we find ourselves hiding, either hiding from something or hiding something that is within us. We find ourselves waiting, sometimes for years, and sometimes for something that we finally realize we had all along.

Perhaps this is a good moment to remember the words of the late Maya Angelou from Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now. “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”

We may not ever be able to explain what happened to those early Christians at Pentecost. Maybe they hid and they waited until they simply changed the way they thought about what they were waiting for. Either way, there is no need to understand everything, and there is no need to wait for God to change the things around us—that may be for us to do ourselves. Pentecost means that God is already changing the things within us, the things that matter, the things that last. Eternal life has less to do with the time that passes by us than with the Spirit that flows within us.