by Rev Nathan Empsall, Episcopal priest in New Haven, Connecticut, USA
NOTES ON THE READINGS
First Reading: Acts 2: 1-21
This passage from Acts is the quintessential Pentecost reading. Its central themes and symbols are also ripe for a focus on creation and sustainability: Wind, fire, language, prophecy, and community.
Wind: The Spirit arrived “like the rush of a violent wind.” Because of this and other verses, the Holy Spirit is often equated with breath – the breath of God, filling us with God’s presence and bringing us into the interconnected Trinity.
This is a powerful reminder that wind and breath also unite us together in this world. What you breathe out, the animals of the forest breathe in. What the animals breathe out, I breathe in. And global air currents carry all of our breaths – and all of our pollution – across the entire planet, linking every living, breathing thing together in nature and in the Spirit, just as God intended. This in turn reminds us that when we ask, “Who is my neighbour that I must love?”, the answer is the whole of creation.
Fire: Though the Spirit arrived like wind, it was “Divided tongues, as of fire,” that rested on each of the disciples. Thus, the Spirit is depicted as a flaming tongue perhaps even more often than it is portrayed as breath. We think of fire as a destructive force, but that is not the role it plays in nature. Wildfires – at least when they are not made unnaturally large by human-caused climate change or poor forest management policies – clear out dead growth to make room for new life. One of the most remarkable stories in United States ecology is the recovery of Yellowstone National Park since its immense 1988 fires, burning more than one-third of the park. Portrayed as a tragedy at the time, the remarkable recovery has yielded countless lessons for scientists and ecologists regarding the resilient design of creation.
We humans are also part of creation, and have a similar design. This is why Jesus repeatedly urges us to let go of our belongings and our unhealthy attachments in order to follow him. What dead weight do we carry with us in our lives even now that still needs to be burned away, making room for a new life in Christ through the Spirit?
Language and Prophecy: In some ways, this passage is a bookend to the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. In that earlier tale, set when humans all spoke the same language, people grew too arrogant. They began to see themselves as God’s equal, worthy of climbing to Heaven to touch God’s face. God reminded us of their limits by forcing us to speak many language, so that we could no longer understand each other nor work together.
In Acts, the reverse is true. Now, the people are not working against God, but for God – and suddenly, the Spirit allows them to understand one another (and thus work together) across the language divides.
Today, humanity faces many great challenges: The coronavirus pandemic, unequitable vaccine access, racial injustices, climate change, a massive extinction wave. Christ calls us to love our neighbours, which means we must address these challenges that cause our neighbours (and ourselves) pain. We can only rise to such an enormous occasion if we work together across our language barriers and other differences – and we can only bridge those divides if we unite in something larger than ourselves. That means calling on the name of the Lord together through the Holy Spirit, and prophesying like the disciples of the “great and glorious day” that is to come and the work that must be done to get there.
Community: The disciples were all gathered together in one place, and were able to share their collective amazement and astonishment together. After more than a year of COVID-19 lockdowns, it can be hard to feel like we still share in this community. In some places, the pandemic is beginning to ebb, but in other corners of the world, capitalism has ensured that vaccine access remains limited and inequitable, and the coronavirus continues to rage. Scripture reminds us that we stand with the communion of saints. Even when we cannot be together in person, the Spirit unites us across time and space just as it united the first disciples were across languages. We pray with those disciples and the whole communion of saints even now, just as we continue to pray with one another, as united in the Holy Spirit and in the bonds of holy community as ever.
The next two readings, from Psalm 104 and Romans 8, are two of the classic texts for ecological theologians and creation advocates. And yet, there is not much to say about this Psalm, for in so many ways, it speaks for itself:
“O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great… These all look to you.”
Scripture often uses this sort of natural imagery to praise God – and to reflect God’s glory to the reader. As Aquinas would write millennia later, the imago dei, or image of God, is too large to be contained in any one species, even humanity. Creation is diverse to show that God is infinite. Whenever we harm creation, we shrink the choir that sings to God, breaking the first commandment. And whenever we allow another species to go extinct, we close our eyes to another part of God’s image.
Epistle: Romans 8:22-27
This passage from Romans 8 is selected for Pentecost no doubt because of its description of the Spirit interceding in our prayer and in our lives when we need it most: “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words… The Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
As perfect a match as this epistle is for Pentecost, it is equally well suited for the creation-minded preacher, beginning with one of the most famous ecological passages in all of Scripture: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
What does it mean for Creation to groan in labor pains? God birthed Creation; is Creation now giving birth to something new as well? And what role are we, God’s redeemed children, to play in this process?
Creation certainly groans in pain, from all that humans have done to it over the past several centuries. Larger hurricanes, longer droughts, hotter fires, and the cries of the mothers and children who suffer these calamities are surely the groans of creation. But if we acknowledge that our collective consumption and the oligarchical systems that run our societies are the cause of these pains, then we can turn back to God, acknowledging that we have never known how to pray or even live as we ought. The Spirit will intercede, we will be able to begin the healing process in Christ, and today’s groaning will indeed give way to something new.
Gospel: John 15:25-26; 16:4b-15
This passage foreshadows what we have already heard today in Acts: The coming of the Spirit of the truth to the Apostles. When discussing creation, two verses stand out in particular:
15:27: “You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”
16:15: “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
When Jesus says that all that belongs to God is Jesus’s, we are prompted to ask, what is it that belongs to God? The answer, of course, is everything – the whole of God’s earthly and cosmic creation. Therefore, when Jesus says that everything that belongs to God is declared to us, his disciples, he does not just mean the truth of sin and salvation, but also the truth of creation. We are to reflect on everything the Spirit has ever breathed into being, accepting it (as portrayed in Psalm 104) as a holy witness to God’s greatness that must be treated accordingly, then testifying this truth to one another.
In today’s reading from Acts – the story of the first Pentecost – the Holy Spirit appears to the apostles through two forms of nature: A rush of wind and tongues of fire.
In nature, fire and wind are both powerful forces. Wind can shape rocks and canyons, and even connect the entire globe through weather patterns, air currents, and atmospheric pressure. Fire provides heat and warmth to those who need it; it also clears out dead growth to help forests regenerate with new life.
But when not treated with respect, fire and wind can also prove enormously dangerous to humans. We see that now through climate change, when the winds of hurricanes blow faster, the hot winds of drought punish as much as an ocean breeze rewards, and wildfires in seemingly every corner of the globe grow hotter, larger, and more deadly.
God is good, and God is love. As the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, is fond of saying, if it’s not about love, it’s not about God. Therefore, it cannot be said that the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit have the same potential downside as do the fire and wind of nature. And yet, like with nature, if we forget our limits and do act recklessly, we will find ourselves suffering.
Jesus calls us to love one another. Burning more and more fossil fuels, consuming more and more resources, and allowing more and more species to go extinct – erasing part of God’s creation and thus God’s image from the earth – is anything but love. It is precisely because we have turned away from the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit that we have come to suffer at the hands of the fire and wind of the earth.
It does not have to remain this way. Let us acknowledge the image of God in all parts of creation, seeking to protect that image — and one another — by embracing the Holy Spirit not just at Pentecost but all year long. If we step back and allow the Spirit to intercede in our prayers and our actions, we can find ourselves united across language, time, and space like never before, working together for the healing of God’s creation and the good of God’s kingdom.
by Rev Nathan Empsall, New Haven, Connecticut, USA