Pentecost is this Sunday, June 8. To celebrate, we’re sharing Brian McLaren‘s incredible chapter on Pentecost in this exclusive excerpt from WE MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING. We hope you (and your friends) will use these powerful reflections and engaging discussion questions to make this year’s Pentecost meaningful, soul-igniting, and transformative.
Don’t miss WE MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING on June 10!
THE SPIRIT IS MOVING! (PENTECOST SUNDAY)
Following Jesus today has much in common with the original disciples’ experience. We are welcomed as disciples by God’s grace, not by earning or status. We learn and practice Christ’s teaching in the company of fellow learners. We seek to understand and imitate his example, and we commune with him around a table. But there is an obvious and major difference between our experience and theirs: they could see Jesus and we can’t. Surprisingly, according to John’s gospel, that gives us an advantage. “It’s better that I go away so the Spirit can come,” Jesus said. If he were physically present and visible, our focus would be on Christ over there, right there, out there . . . but because of his absence, we discover the Spirit of Christ right here, in here, within.
Jesus describes the Spirit as another comforter, another teacher, another guide—just like him, but available to everyone, everywhere, always. The same Spirit who had descended like a dove upon him will descend upon us, he promises. The same Spirit who filled him will fill all who open their hearts.
Take Paul, for example. He never saw Jesus in the flesh, but he did experience the Spirit of Christ. That was enough to transform him from a proud and violent agitator of hostility to a tireless activist for reconciliation. Through this experience of the Spirit, he seemed to live inside of Christ and look out through Christ’s eyes upon the world. And the opposite was equally true: through the Spirit, Christ lived inside of Paul and looked through Paul’s eyes upon the world. “I in Christ” and “Christ in me”— that captures so much of Paul’s vision of life.
For Paul, life in the Spirit means a threefold sharing in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. First, as we turn from old habits and patterns, our “old self ” with all its pride, greed, lust, anger, prejudice, and hostility dies with Christ. That former identity with all its hostilities is nailed to the cross and left behind. In this way, life in the Spirit involves a profound experience of letting go of what has been so far.
Then, Paul says, we join Jesus in the powerlessness and defeat of burial, symbolized by baptism. We experience that burial as a surrender to silence, stillness, powerlessness, emptiness, and rest, a letting be.
Then we join Jesus in the dynamic, surprising uprising of resurrection. The surrender, silence, emptiness, and rest of letting go and letting be make us receptive to something new. Like a vacuum, that receptivity welcomes infilling and activation . . . and so we experience a letting come of the Spirit of God.
The Bible describes the Spirit with beautiful and vivid imagery: Wind. Breath. Fire. Cloud. Water. Wine. A dove. These dynamic word pictures contrast starkly with the heavy, fixed imagery provided by, say, stone idols, imposing temples, or thick theological tomes. Through this vivid imagery, the biblical writers tell us that the Spirit invigorates, animates, purifies, holds mystery, moves and flows, foments joy, and spreads peace.
For example, in the first chapter of Genesis, God’s Spirit hovers over the primal waters like wind, creating beauty and novelty out of chaos. The Spirit then animates living creatures like breath. Then, in Exodus, God’s Spirit appears as fire in the burning bush, beckoning Moses, and then as a pillar of cloud and fire moving across the wilderness, cooling by day and warming by night, and leading the way to freedom. Centuries later, when John the Baptist comes on the scene, he says that just as he immerses and marks people with water, his successor will immerse and mark people with the Spirit. When John baptizes Jesus, bystanders see the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus dramatizes his mission by turning water, which is kept in stone containers used for religious ceremonies, into a huge quantity of wine to infuse joy at a wedding banquet. Later, he promises people that if they trust him, they will experience rivers of living water springing up from within.
At the core of Jesus’ life and message, then, was this good news: the Spirit of God, the Spirit of aliveness, the Wind-breath-fire-cloud-water-wine-dove Spirit who filled Jesus is on the move in our world. And that gives us a choice: do we dig in our heels, clench our fists, and live for our own agenda, or do we let go, let be, and let come . . . and so be taken up into the Spirit’s movement.
That was what the disciples experienced on the day of Pentecost, according to Luke, when the Spirit manifested as wind and fire. Suddenly, the Spirit-filled disciples began speaking in languages they had never learned. This strange sign is full of significance. The Spirit of God, it tells us, is multilingual. The Spirit isn’t restricted to one elite language or one superior culture, as almost everyone had assumed. Instead, the Spirit speaks to everyone everywhere in his or her native tongue.
What happened at Pentecost reverses the ancient story of the Tower of Babel, when ambitious Babylonians grasped at godlike power by unifying everyone under one imperial language and culture. At Babel, God opposed that imperial uniformity and voted for diversity by multiplying languages. Now, in the Pentecost story, we discover a third option: not unity without diversity, and not diversity without unity, but unity and diversity in harmony.
In the millennia since Christ walked with us on this Earth, we’ve often tried to box up the “wind” in manageable doctrines. We’ve exchanged the fire of the Spirit for the ice of religious pride. We’ve turned the wine back into water, and then let the water go stagnant and lukewarm. We’ve traded the gentle dove of peace for the predatory hawk or eagle of empire. When we have done so, we have ended up with just another religious system, as problematic as any other: too often petty, argumentative, judgmental, cold, hostile, bureaucratic, self-seeking, an enemy of aliveness.
In a world full of big challenges, in a time like ours, we can’t settle for a heavy and fixed religion. We can’t try to contain the Spirit in a box. We need to experience the mighty rushing wind of Pentecost. We need our hearts to be made incandescent by the Spirit’s fire. We need the living water and new wine Jesus promised, so our hearts can become the home of dovelike peace.
Wind. Breath. Fire. Cloud. Water. Wine. A dove. When we open up space for the Spirit and let the Spirit fill that space within us, we begin to change, and we become agents of change. That’s why we pause in our journey to gather together around a table of fellowship and communion. Like the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost, we present ourselves to God.
We become receptive for the fullness of the Spirit to fall upon us and well up within us, to blow like wind, glow like fire, flow like a river, fill like a cloud, and descend like a dove in and among us. So let us open our hearts. Let us dare believe that the Spirit that we read about in the Scriptures can move among us today, empowering us in our times so we can become agents in a global spiritual movement of justice, peace, and joy.
So, are we ready? Are we willing to die with Christ? Are we willing to let go?
And are we willing to be buried with Christ? Are we willing to let be?
And are we willing to rise with Christ? Can we inhale, open our emptiness, unlock that inner vacuum, for the Spirit to enter and fill—like wind, breath, fire, cloud, water, wine, and a dove? Are we willing to let come?
Let it be so. Let it be now. Amen.
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped, or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time you experienced the Holy Spirit in a special way.
3. How do you respond to the imagery of death, burial, and resurrection with Christ?
4. For children: What do you think it means for a person to be filled with God?
5. Activate: Make it a habit in the coming days to take a deep breath and then exhale to express letting go. Then remain breathless for a moment—to express letting be. Then inhale to express letting the Spirit come to fill you.
6. Meditate: In silence, hold the word “open” in God’s presence. Let images of openness come to you. Direct this openness to God’s Spirit as a desire to be filled.
Copyright © by Brian D. McLaren
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