Pentecost Sermon: Rewild Us Again

Acts 2:1-21 & the children’s story book Wild by Emily Hughes

At the end of our story from last week, we left Yeshua’s disciples in an Upper Room, praying together. Yeshua — the Hebrew name for Jesus — had just left them  — again. After being with his community for 40 days after his Resurrection, he is taken up into heaven but not before telling them to wait in Jerusalem for the big event — they were going to be “baptized in the Holy Spirit,” he promised. The Holy Spirit here is Divine power, what I call the Spirit of Life, a resurrecting Power that works within human beings and creation to bring about the realm of God on earth, a realm that is always in contrast to the systems of death that have been so evident this past week.

So, the disciples wait, together, praying constantly. We talked last week about what this constant prayer might have looked like. I believe that this “constant prayer” is important to what happens in today’s story, because it tilled the soil of their soul, such that they were able to receive the spiritual empowerment we’re going to hear about today.

As they pray and wait, Jews from all over the region have come to Jerusalem for one of the three pilgrimage festivals in the Jewish calendar — Pentecost is its Greek name; Shavuot is its Hebrew name, and it is still a festival observed by Jewish people today. Pentecost or Shavuot comes 50 days after Passover and celebrates the gathering in of the harvest as well as the giving of the divine Law to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai. Jewish legend says that on that occasion, a flame came down from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire, one for each nation of the world. All nations could understand the divine Law) but only one nation promised to keep it, Israel (from here). 

Luke’s story is thick with symbolism that the Jewish followers of Yeshua would have totally understood. There’s the tongues of fire on the heads of the disciples that echoes the tongues of fire on Mt. Sinai, of course.  This metaphor of the Spirit as fire would also have reminded them of God appearing to Moses in the burning bush, where God says God’s name for the first time: “I am who I am who,” and where the I AM calls Moses to free the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The rushing wind would have reminded them of the wind from God that swept over the primordial waters at the very beginning of their creation story. (By the way, the same Hebrew word — ruah — translated as wind, also means breath and also means Spirit.) 

And the people hearing this story would certainly have heard references to the story of the tower of Babel. In that story from Genesis, humans try to usurp the authority of the Creator by building a tower to the heavens, and the Creator punishes this pride by making humans speak in different languages, so that they can not understand each other. The events of Pentecost — where the disciples are able to speak languages not their own and where the people are able to understand them — these events undo that ancient curse of not understanding each other. 

That’s not the only ancient curse that is undone here. Peter’s speech to the crowd begins with a prophecy from the book of Joel, in which it is promised that God’s Spirit in the last days will be poured out upon men, women, old, young, slave, free — and all those who defy such binaries. Everyone is included in this outpouring of the Spirit, such that the ancient curse of hierarchy and domination will be undone. Indeed, the early church formed from this outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost drew people from all social classes to form a new community in which hierarchies were leveled and in which all things were shared in common.

Though Luke is using poetic, metaphorical language to describe this baptism of the Spirit — wind and flame —  I believe this story is grounded in a literal event, a spiritual empowerment that this early Yeshua-following community experienced. They were too bold and brave and alive and changed for it to be otherwise. The rest of the book of Acts will document them directly engaging the Roman Empire and its systems of death, and for this they are repeatedly put under arrest, beaten and threatened with death. They always respond, as Scripture scholar Wes Howard-Brook says, by “maintaining their dignity, fearlessly and boldly standing firm in their positions, and embodying love of enemies.” (From his book Come Out My People: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond.) The Divine Spirit, that Life-force that animated Yeshua, was now accessible to them. That Spirit, that Breath, that Ruah was now present in the human community that was continuing to live out Yeshua’s life-affirming vision and way of relating to each other and creation.

Pentecost keeps happening. There have been continual outpourings of Spirit in the centuries since. I think of Francis of Assisi and the revolutionary movement that sprang up around him that gave San Francisco its name or the revolutionary Anabaptist movement, that gave birth to us. I think of the Pentecostal movement of the early 20th century, which was started in Los Angeles by a man who was the son of freed slaves and whose adherents quickly came to include men, women — who often had significant leadership positions — children, Black, White, Asian, Native American, immigrants, rich, poor, illiterate, and educated. Talk about undoing ancient curses. This happened during the height of the Jim Crow era of racial segregation and domestic terrorism against Black people, an era that has unfortunately never ended.

As the Biblical scholar William Loader says, whenever we allow the Spirit to move in us, the ancient curses that divide us are undone, we connect with God, with the Life-force in a new and powerful way, and we gain a new sense of identity.

So many ancient curses press upon us, waiting, waiting to be undone. Like the ancient curse of white supremacy that resulted in fire in the streets of Minneapolis and cities all across the country, as African Americans and allies, sick to death of their black kin dying at the hands of white police officers and a of pandemic that is disproportionately killing them and of the failure of the state to protect them from both of these plagues unleashed their rage and lament in full-out rebellion. Those fires will burn — they will not stop burning — until we allow the Spirit to move in us and undo that ancient curse. 

The fires this week reminded me of the unprecedented fires of a few months ago that swept through Australia, burning an area the size of South Korea and injuring or killing up to one billion animals, which reminded me of the wildfires of the past two years here that forced us into masks for the first time. Those fires, some of the first flares of the consuming fire that is climate change, come from the ancient curse of humans having an unholy, un-sacred relationship with Creation. Those fires will burn — they will not stop burning — until we allow the Spirit to move in us and undo that ancient curse.

In Lent, this year, I read a seasonal devotional written by Dr. Randy Woodley, a Cherokee theologian and activist, along with two of his students. It was called “Drawing Closer to Creator and Creation: An Indigenous Journey Through Lent.” It named the ancient curse of seeing Creation as a “resource to be bought, sold and consumed” rather than as “a relative and teacher with whom we are deeply connected.” And, of course, this same mindset treats other people the same way it treats the rest of Creation — as resources to be bought, sold, consumed, used, thrown away, rather than as relatives and teachers with whom we are deeply connected. 

As I read these daily reflections, I felt keenly what I — as a white settler woman — have lost, the ancient curse that is upon me. I was once wild, a part of Creation, capable of being taught by birds how to speak, by bear how to eat, by fox how to play.  I was capable of communion with Creation because I was — and am — a part of it, not separate from it, not given dominion over it. I am a human formed from the clay of this earth, breathed into being by the same Ruah, the same wild Spirit of life, that animates all of Creation and that tore through the Upper Room at Pentecost. But I was domesticated. Civilized. And I came to see myself as separate. Trees became scenery or building products rather than teachers, siblings. Wild animals became something to fear; domesticated ones something to eat. And those other humans, the not-me — I was supposed to be afraid of them or think of myself as better than. More civilized, perhaps.

But Pentecost reminds me — reminds us — that we can be rewilded. Last week, I talked about how Yeshua’s’ Ascension is the beginning of our initiation into adulthood. Yeshua is gone, and we’re it now. We’re the Body of Christ on earth. But we were promised the Holy Spirit to help us become adults and take on adult responsibilities. And that Spirit of Life has come. And that  Spirit is always moving over the waters of our present creation, looking for a people in which to move. We who have become separated from Creation because of false teachings can unlearn separation. We can learn to listen again to the many ways Creator speaks through Creation to us and we can learn from Her patterns and ways. We who have become separated from each other because of false teachings can unlearn separation. We who are white can stand with we who are Black and demand justice and an end to police violence. We who are settlers and migrants can stand with we who are Indigenous and demand tribal sovereignty and reparations for stolen land. 

We can stand with systems of life against systems of death. We can be re-wilded into the web of life and serve it and let its strength flow through us.  We can allow the Spirit of Life, the resurrecting power of God, to move through us, just as it moved through our spiritual ancestors in the upper room 2000 years ago. 

Spirit of God, move through us. Rewild us again. May it be so. Amen.