This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. Winds and flames, swirling fire and the stimulus of the spirit, are the images that come to mind when we think about this day. All very energising and inspiring. Yet how often do we take the story of the first Pentecost, that Luke tells in Acts 2, and focus it inwards, into the faith community? It becomes a story of “the birthday of the church”—the day on which the church was breathed into existence.
But the readings provided by the lectionary for this festival day point in precisely the opposite direction. They are outward-oriented texts, inviting and encouraging people of faith to be open and inclusive towards others in society.
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me”—an invitation placed on the lips of Jesus, as he speaks to the crowd of pilgrims who were gathered in Jerusalem for the a Festival of Booths (John 7:37). The invitation is to anyone, to anyone who is thirsty. It is a wide, open, welcoming invitation. Jesus welcomes all. Anyone. Everyone.
“God declares, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh”, proclaims Peter, quoting the prophet Joel, in the account that Luke provides of the time when the spirit energised and inspired the early followers of Jesus, gathered also in Jerusalem, this time for the Festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:17). Those words declare that the gift of God’s spirit is given to all. Anyone. Everyone.
The gift is not for a select few, not just for chosen minority amongst humanity—but to all flesh. And that must surely include the possibility, not only of human flesh, but of animal flesh. God’s spirit is gifted to all creatures. Any creature. Every creature.
This hypothesis is confirmed when we turn to the psalm set for Pentecost Sunday. “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures”, the psalmist declares. “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (Psalm 104:24, 30).
The creative force that God sets to work in the world breathes spirit, ruach (Hebrew), the very life-force itself, into all living creatures. God’s spirit is present in every single living, breathing creature—humans, marsupials, reptiles, insects; even plants. Any of them. Every one of them. That is an amazing thought!
And the story of Noah and the ark, the flood and the rainbow, confirms this: it ends with a covenant, made not solely with humanity, but with all living creatures: “As for me (God is reported as saying), I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” (Gen 9:9-10). Any animal. Every animal.
This spirit is a generous spirit, a creative energy moving in the lives of all people and all creatures. We live in a world that is God-breathed, spirit-imbued. In any of us. In every one of us.
Alongside this, scripture indicates that the spirit also bestows particular gifts upon specific human beings. Filled with the spirit is a phrase found in both testaments, referring to individuals or groups who were granted particular ability—to prophesy, to proclaim good news, to speak in tongues, to discern the spirits.
Being filled with the spirit, or having the spirit poured out, to enable particular activities, is a regular biblical refrain; see Num 11:17; 1 Sam 10:6; Neh 9:30; Isa 11:2, 32:51, 37:7, 42:1, 44:3, 59:21, 61:1-3; Ezekiel 2:2, 3:24, 11:1, 36:26-27, 37:1, 14; Joel 2:28-29; Micah 3:8; Haggai 2:5; Zechariah 4:6, 7:12, 12:10; Luke 1:15, 41, 67; Luke 4:14; Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 7:55; 9:15; 13:9, 52; Rom 5:5, 8:1-17; 1 Cor 2:9-13, 12:1-13; Gal 4:6, 5:22-26; 1 Thess 1:5; Eph 5:18; Heb 2:1-4.
The Hebrew Scripture narrative chosen for Pentecost Sunday gives an insight into the width of generosity inherent in the spirit. Moses had appointed seventy elders to assist him in leading the people of Israel; the spirit granted them the ability to prophesy (Num 11:26).
However, two other men, Eldad and Medad, who had not been appointed as elders, were also prophesying. In response to the mean-spirited request, to stop them prophesying, Moses responds, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Num 11:29). He does not consider the spirit to be limited in the people that can be so inspired. Prophecy could be for anyone. For everyone.
The apostle Paul follows in that vein with his affirmation to the Corinthians about the wide reach and inclusive invitation that characterises the work of the spirit: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor 12:13).
I rejoice that these words have been taken up in my church as the basis for fostering a broad community of faith, across multiple social factors which could divide rather than unite (in paragraph 13 of the Basis of Union). Ministry is enabled by the gift of the spirit. To anyone. To everyone.
So the Lukan story of the first Pentecost embeds this strong sense of yearning to include all, with the glittering description of what was, in Luke’s mind, the first Christian community. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:4) All of them. Every single one.
The good news is for all. Anyone. Everyone. The community of faith is for all. Anyone. Everyone. The spirit is in all. Anyone . Everyone.
May it be so!