Winds of God

05 June 2022 Pentecost 2022 St Ninians.

Do you ever stop and think about something you just said, and wonder, now just exactly what did I mean by that? We have our routines of greeting and parting. ‘How are you?’ we say? ‘How’s life?’ Do we really want to know – in detail? How about supermarket staff with their: ‘How’s your day been?’, or: ‘Have a good day’ when we know perfectly well they don’t want to know.

And we also  do things without thinking what we’re doing – even in church. We often begin worship by affirming the presence of God’s Spirit. Whenever we celebrate communion, we tell the story and we invoke the Holy Spirit – we call on God’s Spirit, using a prayer of transformation. Do we really know what we’re doing when we call on the Holy Spirit? How would we respond if God’s Spirit was made known in a truly dramatic way?

Sometimes we call Pentecost ‘the church’s birthday.’ That’s fine – but by using the word ‘birthday’, we risk turning it into a comfortable party, and losing the sense of awe and mystery, because there is a mystery here. Something happened at Pentecost that transformed a small, frightened group, some of whom were social misfits, into effective apostles, who went out with passion and confidence to spread the good news of God’s new realm. That same something set many others aflame in the days and years that followed.

We struggle to put words to the Pentecost experience, especially if we haven’t had anything like it ourselves. We use metaphors to explain the meaning and message of God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is like a dove covering us with warm, bright wings. It’s a wind that blows over us and we can’t see where it comes from or where it’s going. It’s like a flame that sets us on fire with passion and reveals unexpected gifts in its brilliant light. It’s all these, and more. Words can only do so much and sometimes we limit God’s Spirit by the words we choose.  Take the dove. Doves are fine – so are the blessings we often use that speak of comfort, shelter and ‘warm, bright wings’, but there’s more to wind and fire than warmth and shelter. Doves can be tamed – never even think of taming the Holy Spirit!

That beautiful metaphor of the Spirit of God moving over the face of the waters of chaos is another image – the movement of the grace of God’s presence that breathed life into creation and touched Jesus at his baptism. But here, in Aotearoa, I also see tairoa, the albatross, hovering over the southern seas, and I think of the strength and power of that wing span, and of the great bird supported on the winds as we are supported by God’s love. The two images are interchangeable – the Spirit shines out of both the gentle dove and the majestic albatross.

The image of fire carries with it light and warmth and exuberance and passion. It speaks of burning away the dust and dross of our lives to reveal our true centre. It calls us to active love. It’s an energizing metaphor. We’re asking for the right gifts when we pray that the Spirit will ‘set us afire again with passion and help us communicate God’s love for all people and all creation.’1

The Spirit of God brings change and transformation and challenge – as God always does. Let’s think about Babel for a moment. The people of the plain of Shinar wanted to be the greatest – and they wanted everyone else to see that they were the greatest. It makes a good story – it makes good art as well! But what does it say to us today?

The traditional Christian interpretation is that it’s God’s response to the people’s sin of pride. They wanted to control knowledge and power, and make themselves equal with God. The next step would be to put God aside. Some Jewish theologians interpret the story differently. They say, the real problem – and it wasn’t necessarily a sin – was the people’s fear of dispersion. They were ignoring the first commandment in the Bible – to go and live in all the earth. This interpretation says it wasn’t so much that the people wanted to be like God – they wanted to stay together in a tight group instead of getting on with being God’s people in the whole wide world. Either way, the end result’s much the same. Whether there’s a single-minded drive for power that ignores all surrounding needs, or a fear of change and difference that refuses to look over the walls, it’s a fortress mentality.

We build both sorts of towers. Take the first sort. A lot of people in our society had or have – a dream of scientific progress, leading ever onwards to better and better things. You could look at it as a ladder reaching upwards – another tower built to reach the heavens. ‘And the Lord said: “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”’ This dream says: We’ll do it all ourselves. We don’t need God any more.

Then there’s the other kind of tower of Babel. Science spread its wings, and religion retreated into its own compound, and developed a blind spot. It decided that intellect went with science, and had nothing to do with religion. Some people are victims of a knowledge gap that puts them at a level of religious understanding more appropriate to the 17th century than the 21st. People can manage to persuade themselves that it’s wrong to look for new understandings and new knowledge about matters of faith. This Tower of Babel is about people refusing to spread out and diversify.

We ask the wrong questions. The question shouldn’t be: ‘What can God do?’ but ‘What did God do?’ All knowledge is a gift from God. All truth, however it’s revealed, is a part of the same whole. All learning journeys through the same processes of discovery, trial and error, failure and success, truth and falsehood. Love is the cornerstone of our faith, but knowledge is an essential component of the human personality, and love and knowledge are interrelated.

When the Tower of Babel fell, it brought separation – a refusal of relationship, and of all the gifts that go with building relationship with God and with God’s creation. Pentecost, which we celebrate today, is our great image of reuniting – of healing and transformation and empowerment. Pentecost is about God’s spirit breaking into the world in a new way, and changing the relationship between God and God’s people. There’s a long tradition of God’s spirit transforming creation. When God breathed life into God’s creatures, the possibility of relationship between God and created life began.

The Spirit of God not only changed the relationship between God’s people and God, it empowered them for mission. Over and over again we read of God calling people who felt inadequate, and yet found themselves doing unimagined work for God.  It didn’t stop at the first Pentecost. We need to take a deep breath and acknowledge that God didn’t call a halt to new possibilities of transformation at Pentecost. Our Pentecost will be different – given our different cultural heritage this is almost inevitable – but God will act if we allow ourselves to be open to God.

It’s OK to push the boundaries. It’s being honest to have doubts and to voice them. In our Gospel reading Jesus told the disciples that to know him and see him is to know and see God, and Philip wants proof. We shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Philip was being incredibly slow in the uptake. It’s more surprising really to note how long it took before a disciple asked to ‘see God’. How many of us would secretly wish to see God? Mind you, we’d be unlikely to ask anyone to show God to us unless we were convinced that that person could actually do it. Maybe Philip wasn’t so slow to believe in Jesus after all.

What Philip got in response was an unpacking of the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with God, and the promise of the gift of the Spirit of God – the advocate and giver of divine power – which enabled the disciples to accomplish great things. Including Philip, who went where the winds of the Spirit blew him (as we read in Acts). Down the ages, the followers of Jesus have continued to do great things – healing, comforting, encouraging, converting and making life better for people they come in contact with. That, after all, is still our calling.

We have to be open to God’s Spirit. But no-one has the right to make choices for this openness on behalf of any other. It’s no business of mine how the Spirit enters into anyone else. There’s no one right way to be open to God, and in a lifetime it may be ‘right’ for to use different ways at different times. Your Pentecost won’t be the same as mine. Let go of the idea that if we don’t get it ‘right’ according to someone else’s experience, we’ve somehow fallen short. We will never get to the end of possibilities for transformation.

I have another image of Pentecost. I was flying home from Auckland one winter night and I looked out of the window and saw the colours of Pentecost. Below was a flat sea of dark cloud, hiding the evening landscape. Above were wisps of grey cloud, feathered by the solar winds, moving against a deep blue that looked impenetrable. Every now and then, unseen winds shook the plane. And suspended between these two layers and sweeping the horizon, was a band of clear and brilliant red shading to yellow and orange. The wonder and the mystery of infinite possibilities written clear across the sky. The colours of Pentecost held in balance between earth and infinity.

Pentecost comes with a warning and a promise. In Acts, the Holy Spirit came to the body gathered together, not to separate individuals. But each one of those individuals was essential to the whole body. The community is the primary concern. But it’s a community of diversity. At Pentecost the lines of communication that were broken were at Babel were restored. But although everyone understood, the diversity of tongues remained. There was no suggestion that the languages should be one again. God delights in diversity. We’re called to embody unity in diversity. Better still, unity in reconciled diversity.

At Pentecost, God announced God’s mission of redemption – new creation. It’s not the church’s mission, it’s God’s mission, but we’re called to be part of it. We share in the hope – and the challenge – of re-creation. It’s a scary calling, but we have the promise of the Gospel that we’re accompanied all the way – even when the way takes unexpected turnings.

Lord, Holy Spirit,

you blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks,

inside and outside the fences,

you blow where you wish to blow.

J K Baxter



Rev Dr Barbara Peddie