There is an indelible image that I carry with me. It comes from a description of the Holy Spirit which one of my seminary professors shared with my class early in my seminary career that has forever changed the way I think of the Holy Spirit. It is inspired by Greek vocabulary, the biblical witness, and our understanding of the character and nature of the Spirit of God. And here it is:
While we often think of the Holy Spirit in images of a soft white dove, lightly descending onto a scene, blessing its inhabitants with grace and peace as when the dove descended on Jesus at his baptism, and while we visualize the Holy Spirit as many artists have imagined and portrayed her in countless works of art, again as a rather sweet, radiant white, harmless-looking dove, there is another image that is likely far more likely in tune with the nature of the Holy Spirit.
So, when I read this account of Pentecost Day and what it was like in that upper room where the disciples were all gathered, what comes to my mind is the voice of Dr. Carlson, in Intro to New Testament Greek, translating this text and rendering this image of the Holy Spirit, now imprinted forever in my mind. Rather than a white dove sweetly descending on the disciples that day, the Holy Spirit enters that room as a dive-bombing pigeon, swooping into the room with force, accompanied by deafening sound and a powerful, hot wind, blowing new energy and vitality into these followers of Christ. This Holy Spirit with its power and force is able to do what disciples of Christ cannot do on their own – equip them for mission they can’t even imagine they are destined for.
While he was still with them, Jesus promised his disciples that he would send an advocate. He promised that he would NOT leave them alone. He promised that he will, through his spirit, equip, accompany and empower them for mission in the world. Those are promises that can only be kept through the powerful intervention and presence of God through the Holy Spirit.
When you come to think about it the dive-bombing pigeon may truly be the best way to come to full realization of how the Holy Spirit can inspire, empower and thrust us into the world and into the true mission of God as God intends it.
Debbie Blue, in her book, Consider the Birds, A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible, makes this distinction: “The dove has come to seem banal and bland and cutesy as far as Christian symbols go. It has come to represent something polite and petite and pure. Maybe this has worked to deprive us of a more robust view of the Holy Spirit. Isn’t it sort of limiting to imagine the spirit of God as something dainty and white?” Blue continues, “We are made of dirt, according to the creation account in Genesis. We are full of bacteria. We each carry two to five pounds of bacteria in our bodies – two to five POUNDS. We could kill a dove with one or two blows from the back of our hand. We need a spirit that can handle us.”[i]
We read Luke’s account from in the Book of Acts: 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 began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability.” And the people who witnessed this, people of many tongues, who could suddenly each understand the disciples’ speech? What was their reaction? They were amazed and perplexed – everyone was. And why shouldn’t they be?
The dive-bombing pigeon image appeals to me because it truly is how the Holy Spirit has worked throughout the history of the church and especially on that day – amazing individuals with abilities they never thought they could possess, surprising the world with unexpected gifts, disturbing structures of complacency and division, and always, disrupting the status quo, serving as God’s presence breaking into the here and now in and through the Spirit’s impassioned work, through inspired acts of love, dramatic acts of faithfulness and devotion, and encounters of grace and mercy with unparalleled promise. Jesus spoke at the beginning of his ministry, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” the dive-bombing pigeon demonstrates to us that what God promises, God, in God’s abundance pours out, for the sake of the world.
Jesus came and stirred the fear and wrath and even hatred of those who were absorbed within the structures of human power and sin. But Jesus also showed us a new way to live – a new vision of the kingdom of heaven to focus our dreams upon – and a new covenant that included all people everywhere, a new commandment, to love as Christ loves, and a call to feed, clothe, shelter, forgive, pray for, accompany, and protect those who are placed along our path.
In his homily for Pentecost last year, Pope Francis, stated, “Only the Spirit can awaken diversity, plurality and multiplicity, while at the same time building unity. Here too, when we are the ones who try to create diversity and close ourselves up in what makes us different and other, we bring division. When we are the ones who want to build unity in accordance with our human plans, we end up creating uniformity, standardization. But if instead we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit, richness, variety and diversity never become a source of conflict, because he impels us to experience variety within the communion of the Church….. The Holy Spirit is the soul of mission. The events that took place in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago are not something far removed from us; they are events which affect us and become a lived experience in each of us. The Pentecost of the Upper Room in Jerusalem is the beginning, a beginning which endures. The Holy Spirit is the supreme gift of the risen Christ to his apostles, yet he wants that gift to reach everyone.”
Today we celebrate Pentecost, and the reality that through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, unity is not the same as uniformity, and diversity does not need to bring division. The spirit that was poured out on the day of Pentecost as the disciples huddled in the upper room, came swooping in, burst through the walls of fear and limitation to be seen, felt and heard beyond those walls. That same spirit is still at work in the church today, is still meant to be seen, and felt and heard well beyond our walls and beyond those of us sitting here today. God’s presence is breaking into the now through the Holy Spirit, and the ongoing work of the spirit takes place through us.
And yet we acknowledge that the work is long and hard and it is far from easy. We look at the state of the church today, and we wonder, how can this little church, how can I make a difference? How can my voice be heard? We look around and we see a pretty homogeneous gathering in this room. How do we welcome and embrace the kind of diversity that the spirit calls us to?
So, I invite you today to read the faith papers of our confirmands, printed in the back of your worship bulletin and you will see the spirit at work. More than one of them state that they certainly feel the tension created by an increasingly unchurched society and pool of peers. They feel it, perhaps more than many of us who grew up in what we now affectionately call the “glory years” of the church – when religious activities and commitment were held in esteem by our society rather than being judged by it.
These young adults feel that tension yet are committed to claiming for themselves the gifts of the Holy Spirit of God in order to live lives of faithfulness and to work for the good of God’s holy church in the world. In a short while they will stand up and affirm their baptisms and claim for themselves the faith of this church that is calling them - and each of us - to mission and ministry. They will stand here and lead us all in reciting the creed that confesses faith in the God who works through adversity, in unexpected ways, redeeming us from our sin, and granting us new life. They will lead us as we profess our confidence in the Holy Spirit who grants us identity, who accompanies, empowers and unites us in our work and makes it a holy offering to God.
This Holy Spirit of God blurs the walls of difference we create for ourselves. Then she opens the door and lets in the unfit, the sinner, the blind, the lame, the poor, the sick, the weak and the meek. Rather than pure white innocence and gentleness, this dive-bombing spirit of God in fact makes of us a fuller, richer, more varied and blessed body of Christ, equipped for sharing our individual gifts, working together for the benefit of the church and the good of the kingdom of God, for God’s sake.