The lessons appointed for Pentecost all have in common reflection on the spirit. However, there is clearly no single understanding of spirit to be found in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament and even within a given author there is variation as to the meaning of spirit. For example, in the scriptures the Spirit creates, protects, calls, empowers, directs, sends forth and comforts. We observe that for Luke the Spirit empowers and directs the disciples in their mission to the world. For Paul the Spirit is the presence of Jesus in the faithful. For John the Spirit has a more personal quality than in Luke or Paul. The Spirit/Paraclete dwells in the faithful to teach and witness to them and to strengthen them in their witness. In Isaiah, Ezekiel and the Psalms the spirit is Yahweh’s creative and life-giving presence. – Jeffrey Galbraith
But what does this gift of the Spirit mean? All those languages! All that cacophony!
The Pentecost story from the Acts of the Apostles puts the issue of the multiculturalism of the Gospel firmly before us . . . The growing practice in our congregations of having the Pentecost story read in multiple languages simultaneously is a nice approximation of the originally described Pentecostal experience. – John Rollefson
If Pentecost is the reversal of the Tower of Babel story, the image is of a church that speaks many languages and is confounding to outsiders. In other words, the we offer ourselves as a puzzling community to the world. And in the face of that mystery which is the church, our work must involve constant “translation” to make sense of what is so very rich––not a simple prospect.
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Pentecost does not “mean” only one thing, even as the Hebrew word ru’ah and its Greek equivalent pneuma connote. In fact, the Pentecostal experience has an astonishing multivalency that the church qua human institution has from the first found discomfiting. The meaning of Jesus’ explanation to his disciples as to how “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you” (John 6:7) was nicely clarified for me years ago by Henry Nouwen in his book, The Human Reminder (New York: HarperCollins, 1984). There Nouwen recalls how he suffered from the inability to have frank and intimate conversation with his father whom he deeply loved but in whose physical presence he found it impossible to communicate that love. Only, Nouwen remembered, in his own physical absence from his father, through letters, was he able to express his deepest thoughts and feelings and thereby deepen the intimacy of their relationship. – John Rollefson
Romans 8 might be called the Spirit chapter. . . Paul explains what it means to live in the Spirit... In verse 23 Paul reinforces the notion that it is all creation that groans when he writes that “we ourselves… are groaning inwardly.” The eschatological event, therefore, involves not just people, but all of the creation. Paul points out that Christians have the Spirit as the firstfruits. In other words, they have a down payment on the future, which can help to sustain them while they await the redemption of their bodies. – Jeffrey Galbraith
Pentecost, then, tells about the gift of God’s Spirit not just to humanity but to all of creation. While some preachers seek to find readings that invite preaching on the value and healing of the natural world––air, water, soil, and creatures––we may find in this day’s scripture many places of entry into that vital subject.
Jeffrey Galbraith is pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Greenfield, MA, and a professor of business administration at Greenfield Community College.
John Rollefson is a former pastor of Lutheran Church of the Master in Los Angeles, California.
Homily Service 39, no. 7 (2006): 3-19.