Pentecost Lectionary: earth, air, fire, and water

This coming Sunday is the Feast of the Pentecost, the amazing culmination of the season of miracles that is Easter.  The lectionary gives us a couple of options for our readings for this week, and what sang for me through these readings was a thread containing the four elements.  The Greeks described the world as being made of the four elements of air, earth, fire, and water, and the philosophy and understanding of the natural world based on these elements would have deeply influenced the authors of the New Testament as well as the medieval and Renaissance thinkers, philosophers, and theologians who have interpreted the bible since.

In my own journey, I have found that meaning is often revealed to me through the elements.  As I work through an issue in my mind and heart, I usually find that it has facets or angles that are an example of, a reflection of, or a need for one of the elements.  Examination of my life and my choices, especially when I am struggling with something, often shows an imbalance in the elements.  I don’t usually go so far as to chalk things up to the four humours of Hippocrates, but I can usually tell when I’m getting too much fire and not enough earth, or whatever the imbalance is.  And I often find, that when I am praying for a blessing or protection on someone I love, I pray in the names of the four archangels, asking the divine to work through the four elements; then I pray in the name of the Trinity, and usually for wholeness in the body, mind, and spirit or heart; sometimes following up with Father and Mother, One God.  So I work from the four, to the three, to the two, to the one, and this journey from many to one whole Divinity and one whole Creation is an important pathway for me to walk.  We are many people here on earth, and we are also one, one body unified in Christ.  And that is very much what the story of Pentecost is about.

Most Christians are familiar with the Holy Spirit appearing in the Pentecost story as tongues of flame, inspiring the disciples to speak to everyone present in his or her own language.  There are also wonderful images in the bible of the holy spirit as water and as wind or breath.  The two gospel lessons offered for Pentecost offer images of water and of air, and the psalm this week includes the playful image of the leviathan sporting in the ocean, created by God in sheer delight.  In the Pentecost story, Peter and the disciples and the people in the marketplace – all of these are made of flesh, as we are, from the dust of the earth.  The psalm tells how the earth is full of God’s creatures, and sings of the earth trembling and the mountains smoking at the voice and touch of God.

And this Sunday – the day of Pentecost – God brings together the four elements into one divine whole.  The elements of creation are made one in this powerful miracle of God, and all people are made one, as the gospel story is made known to all through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The fire and divine wind of the Holy Spirit are breathed upon and into the disciples, the men and women made from the earth, and the Living Water that Jesus has poured into their hearts.

In this story, I am beginning to explore and ask questions, and I know I’ll be pondering these through the week as I make my way to that place in Jerusalem where the Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus.

  • What does it mean to be set on fire with the Holy Spirit?  What does it feel like to have a tongue of fire resting on me?  Is it pleasant to be on fire?  Is it angry, passionate, loving, urgent?  Is this something I can be comfortable with, or is it supposed to make me uncomfortable?
  • If God can make the Leviathan for the sport of it, then what does that mean for me?  Does God delight in me in the same way?  How much more would God delight in God’s human children than in a great whale or sea creature?
  • That upper room… how must that experience have felt for the disciples?  To be afraid for their lives, after watching their Lord die?  And to have Jesus walk right through the locked door, unable to be stopped by things of the earth.  Peace be with you. And to accept the breath of Jesus, to receive the Holy Spirit as breath.  What does it feel like to have the Holy Spirit breathing in me?
  • Am I thirsty?  What are the places in my life – in my heart, in my mind – that are thirsty, that need to be quenched?  Do I believe that Jesus can fulfill them?
  • What does it mean to have rivers of living water flowing from my heart?  What rivers flow from my heart now?  What rivers are dammed up, blocked up, preventing God from flowing through me?

And in the midst of all of this – in the midst of the glory of the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit, of the living water and breath of Jesus, of the earth that God shaped into our world and our bodies – one might wonder what it all means.  And I think that the conclusion of the story from the upper room speaks to us of this.   Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. This business of becoming one, of being made one with God and the elements and all of the people here on earth – it all comes down to one thing: forgiveness.

Forgiveness is the hardest work that God calls us to.  The first part of this work is to love everyone, and this can be hard enough.  Some people are easy to love, and some are hard to love, and many, many others are just simply unknown to us.  But in order to live in community with our brothers and sisters, love is not always enough.  We must engage in the work of forgiveness.  Notice that Jesus says that when we forgive, the sins are forgiven them, but he does not specify what happens when we do not forgive.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.  Because the truth of the matter is, someone who has hurt me may not hold that sin, but if I never do the work of forgiveness, that sin is retained… in my thoughts, in my feelings, in my heart, in my mind.  It’s not entirely fair to continue being wounded by someone else’s sin, but that is the way we flawed humans are.  And yet… God doesn’t want us to fail at this work.  So God sent Jesus, and Jesus sent the Holy Spirit.

And this Sunday, on the Feast of the Pentecost, God brings together earth and air and fire and water.  God brings together Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God brings together Creator and Creation.  God brings together Parthians and Medes and Elamites and Romans and Cretans and Jews.  God brings together you and me and every other person who lives here now, who ever has lived, who ever will live.  And God gives us the means to live together, to love each other, and to give each other the gift of forgiveness – the same gift God has given us.   And in this gift is the way to eternal life.

Today, as you read this, I pray for you.

I pray that your flesh made of earth will be strengthened and upheld by the Creator who shaped you, who knew you before your birth, while you were forming in your mother’s womb.

I pray that your soul will be set on fire by the Holy Spirit, that the fire of God will shine light on your path and warm your hearth and banish the darkness.

I pray that with each breath you take, you breathe in life from the Creator, you breathe in peace from Jesus, you breathe in love from the Holy Spirit.  And when you breathe out, I pray that you breathe out darkness and fear and anger.

And I pray that your heart will be refreshed by the living water that is Jesus, so that it will overflow with living water that pours out upon those you know and love.  And just maybe, that you will be so filled with living water that you become a sea, a place you can rejoice in, a place of great delight to God, where the Leviathan plays, just for the sport of it.