Pentecost came early this year: divine ruah broke through the walls of our here-and-now, interrupting racial oppression, instigating hope and action for change. In Hebrew, the word ruah denotes spirit, breath, and wind, and it is almost always connected with the life-giving attribute of God. Spirit-ruah—paradoxical, elusive, uncontrollable, absolutely free, repeatedly entering into human history—inspires, exhorts, reproves, prompts, animates, empowers, and sustains human persons in our active imaginative engagement with one another, and with the transcendent Triune God. The breath of Spirit-ruah rushes through our land. Can we hear it crying out in a dying man’s words––“I can’t breathe”? Can we feel the energy of Spirit-ruah rousing hundreds of thousands of people to protest the deaths of George Floyd and of so many others suffocated by white racist supremacy? Can we allow ourselves to be moved by the power of Spirit-ruah to understand what it would mean to be able to breathe freely in America?
The Gospel reading for the Feast of Pentecost is instructive for us in this moment. Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple report to other disciples that they found Jesus’s tomb empty, yet Mary Magdalene declares that she saw the Lord (John 20:1–18). Wary and unsettled, the disciples meet at the usual place, making sure to lock the doors of the house. Perhaps they are tense and fearful of reprisals, either from imperial or religious authorities: Did not Jesus predict that those who believe in him would be persecuted just as he was (John 16:2–3)? Suddenly, Jesus stands in their midst; he walks not only through walls and well-secured doors, but also through the fog of their anxiety and sorrow. He speaks a traditional Jewish greeting, “Peace be with you,” then shows them the signs of his crucifixion. Anguish and shock give way to joy.
“Peace be with you; As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21–22).
With these words, Jesus gives his disciples more than the comfort of his bodily presence; he empowers them with the presence of the Spirit, sending them forth, just as he has been sent (John 20:21). In this passage, the Johannine writer uses the verb apostellein, “to send forth,” from which we get the noun “apostle.” Jesus sends forth the community of disciples as a whole, to continue his mission, to proclaim the kingdom of God. This sending forth calls the community of believers as a whole to humble openness and dependence upon the Spirit’s differentiated gifts, or charisms. Moreover, these gifts are poured out not as personal entitlements or as privileges of institutional office; rather, the Spirit’s gifts equip the assembly of God to further the mission of Jesus and to strengthen the common good. The Spirit knits the community of disciples together as “one body,” irrespective of former religious or cultic practices, of culture and language, of socioeconomic and societal standing, of gender and sexuality, of ethnicity and race (1 Corinthians 12:12–13).