John 20:19-23 CEB
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Acts 2:1-21 CEB
When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”
Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
The sun will be changed into darkness,
and the moon will be changed into blood,
before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Howling winds or gentle breath? Souls rekindled into blazing flames or wounds and brokenness meet with a soft healing touch? Which is it? Which are you Spirit of the Living God? Here we are this Pentecost Sunday faced with choices. Do we prefer Luke’s account in Acts or do we prefer the version from John’s Gospel? What do you think about the Spirit? What makes the Spirit the Spirit? There have been many attempts throughout the centuries to reconcile these two scriptures, these two versions of Pentecost. Some say the account we heard from John is simply symbolic, anticipating the actual outpouring of the Spirit in Acts. Others have said, well this is a partial outpouring, an appetizer before the main course. Still, others have said well, maybe this is just John’s version, his way of expressing Pentecost. After all, when you look at the scriptures, the early church was not bothered at all by the different accounts, having John just before Acts, a mere three chapters separating the two versions. In fact, maybe that’s the point, we don’t have to choose. We don’t have to pick, we need both. We need all the understandings of the Spirit we can get to be the kind of kindled people of God, a people that are both quiet and loud and yet fully Christ’s body in the world.
Turning first to Acts’ familiar account, we see all the remarkable features of the Spirit! It blows around like “the howling of a fierce wind,” tearing through closed doors and filling whole houses with its presence! Visible flames appear over the heads of those the Spirit overwhelms, causing them to speak out in other languages and with prophetic words! We see God show up in a loud and dramatic way, reinforced by Peter’s quote from the prophet Joel where he recounts:
“‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.’”
God is not quiet here in Acts but loud, as God will cause “‘wonders to occur in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.’” Too often we see the Spirit as only this way. Those touched by excitement, joy, and divine power have the Spirit! Loud exuberant voices and dancing, raised hands! Curing illnesses, casting out spirits, and speaking in tongues! We look to the prophets and the apostles as our examples of what it means to have the touch of God on our bodies and souls, but is that the whole picture?
John gives us a different, but complementary vision. Here the disciples are not gathered to celebrate the Feast of Weeks that falls fifty days (Pentecost means fiftieth) after Passover. Rather, these disciples are still in hiding after the death of Christ on Easter day. They have the doors shut and locked out of fear. It is not wind and fire, but peace that greets them in their hiding place. Jesus appears, saying “‘Peace be with you.’” It is the peace Christ promised earlier in John 14:27: “‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you’” (NRSV). Christ is that peace for these disciples, shaken and scared as they are. Jesus gives them the Spirit with a breath, exhaling softly on them and saying “‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Here is a church, a body, brought to life by Christ.
I hope this image tickles your brain because John’s account echoes other accounts of breath and life. Back in the very beginning, God breathes into dirt and clay to bring humanity to life. Later, the prophet Ezekiel is told by God to prophesy to the breath, to have the wind “‘breathe upon these slain, that they may live’” (Ezekiel 37:9 NRSV). God’s breath gives life to the lifeless. God’s breath restores the dead, both those dead to life and the dead in spirit. Christ’s breath gives life to the church, and to all of us as a new creation, formed out of the ash and dust of death to be life and to give peace.
I have said many times that Pentecost is my favorite day in the church calendar, and I think part of this is the simple richness of Pentecost itself. It shows us the depth of God’s Spirit. Look at the words we use for Spirit! In Hebrew, the term is ruakh, and “the meaning of ruakh [...] is elusive,” as the word “can just as easily be translated with ‘spirit’ as ‘wind.’” This simple word encompasses so many meanings from “divine energy and presence,” “the human core,” “breath,” “the waxing and waning of life itself,” and even spiritual beings like angels and demons. Even turning to the New Testament to John and to Acts, the Greek word there translated as Spirit comes from pneuma which means wind, but when you turn to how it is used in scripture, it becomes breath and spirit. It is used to refer to “the resurrection body,” “visions,” “the character” of a person, and even again “angels” and “demons.” The words, like the Spirit itself, resist easy definitions and simple understandings. What changes and even determines ruakh and pneuma’s meaning is the context of the words, the environment where they find themselves in our scripture.
How like the Spirit! Depending on the person, on the church, and on the time, it will look different and do different things. At its core, the Spirit of God is “the divine energy that resides in all living and breathing human beings.” Is it loud? Yes! Is it quiet? Yes! It is life itself! We all have this breath in us and it moves us all in the different contexts it finds itself in, each of us. At the same time, like these scriptures themselves, we are ultimately united in this Spirit, tied together by holy strands of divine life and energy.
That’s the thing, there are more similarities between these two accounts than differences. In particular, both show “a resurrected Jesus sending the Holy Spirit to renew and empower his followers to carry on his mission.” In John, Jesus tells his disciples outright, “‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’” In Acts too, the disciples are empowered and sent out to carry on Jesus’ mission. Do they all go out in the same way? Not at all! Instead, they speak the varied tongues of the gathered audience, “from every nation under heaven.” They speak different languages by the Spirit while still being unified through that same Spirit. It is the same today. We are all different but we are all united by the same Spirit. There is no one way the Spirit acts or empowers the children of the Living God, and yet, through the Spirit, we too have something essential in common making us more united than divided. Sent by love to love. That is if we are willing to see the Spirit in our neighbor, the stranger, and the many varied people of God’s creation.
For us, it means we don’t have to look like anyone else, and no one has to look like us. People, I am sure, wonder why I revel in Wesleyan theology and United Methodism so much, and it is because I love this particular expression of the Spirit! It is needed and it is valuable! We can never make everyone happy but we can be true to what the Spirit is calling us to do while also recognizing that the Spirit might be doing something different but no less sacred in our neighbor. So today, on this birthday of the church, what does the expression of the Holy Spirit look like for us in Community Federated Church? How are we being shaped by our unique nature to better be sent by Christ? After all, Jesus didn’t just breathe on the gathered disciples in that one room, Christ continues to breathe peace, healing, fire, wind, and Spirit into each of us today. Receive it. Breathe it in, and then breathe it out into the world. Amen.
 The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: D-H, vol. 2, ed. Katharine D. Sakenfeld (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), s.v. “Holy Spirit.”
 Spiros Zodhiates, “Lexical Aids to the New Testament” in Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, NASB, ed. Spiros Zodhiates (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 1990), s.v. “Pneuma.”
The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: D-H, vol. 2, “Holy Spirit.”
 Richard E. Cornell, “John” in Wesley One Volume Commentary, eds. Kenneth J. Collins and Robert W. Wall (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020), 644-678.
Pastor Paul Grossman