Saturday, May 22, 2010



I read somewhere this saying attributed to an old rabbi: "God is not nice. God is not your uncle. God is an earthquake." I've found it a useful reminder from time to time in my own life. Just when I start getting comfortable with the calm, quiet, and comforting side of God, and begin to think that the Almighty is supposed to be "nice," I experience some struggle or tragedy. Then I remember that there's that other side of God. A good place to glimpse this other aspect is in Luke’s account of the story of Pentecost.


In the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells the familiar story of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles when they are huddled together in a room, afraid that at any moment they will be found and arrested(Acts 2:1-13). A close look at the passage reveals some surprises. Take, for instance, the tongues of fire that appear above each apostle’s head (2:3). Fire is never used in scripture as a symbol of peace or contentment; it is rather a means of purifying or even destroying (as in Luke 3:9, 16-17). The phrase "tongues of fire" appears in Isaiah as an image of destructive power: "As the tongue of fire devours the stubble…" (Isaiah 5:24). The fire of Pentecost, then, should remind us of what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews warns us: “Our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29). This is hardly a soothing image!

Another detail in the story of Pentecost brings out this unsettling side of the Spirit: “They were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong, driving wind, and it filled the entire house where they were" (Acts 2:1-2). The metaphor of "wind" already gives us a hint that the Spirit may not necessarily be something soothing, static or passive. In fact, it is Luke's description of the wind that sends the clearest warning that what is about to happen is anything but peaceful and gentle. The Greek says literally “And there came suddenly out of heaven a sound as of a rushing, violent [biaios] wind" (Acts 2:2). The adjective biaios comes from the noun bia, “violence, physical force.” A quick look at the other places in Acts where Luke uses bia gives an idea of what he is implying with his image of the wind.

In chapter five, as soon as the angel had led the apostles out of jail, they hurried back into the temple to continue preaching. Then “the captain and the court officers went and brought them in, but without violence [bia], because they were afraid of being stoned by the people" (Acts 5:27). Bia is the kind of force that can unleash a riot in the streets. In fact, Luke later uses the word to describe just such a melee: with the whole city in turmoil, a mob rushed in and dragged Paul out of the temple. A cohort of Roman soldiers was sent to break up the riot, and “When he reached the steps, Paul was carried by the soldiers because of the violence [bia] of the mob" (Acts 21:35). In Chapter 27, during a fierce storm, the captain deliberately runs the ship aground, and its stern is shattered to pieces "under the violence [bia] of the waves” (Acts 27:41).


Biaios leaves no doubt, then, as to the kind of wind Luke is talking about at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is not a gentle breeze, but a gale force wind. I picture one of those television news clips of a hurricane tearing the tops off of palm trees and heaving houses from their foundations.
Biaios warns me that the same "mighty wind" that troubled the waters in Genesis (Genesis 1:2), and that blew on the apostles, continues to blow today. Now and then the wind of the Spirit is going to roar into my own comfortable life and uproot my favorite assumptions, and perhaps tear the roof off of my snug spirituality. Luke wants me to remember that this is a part of the mysterious, creative pattern of God’s work in my life: the Spirit sometimes needs to remove obstacles that are standing in the way of my spiritual growth, so as to replace them with new possibilities and new promises.

It may be easy enough to sense the presence of the Lord in the midst of loving friends, in the gorgeous colors of autumn leaves, or after a good meal and a glass of wine. But when things are going wrong in my life, when there is upset and confusion and pain, I need the eyes of faith to see that even in the midst of my chaotic situation the Spirit is right there with me. It is at times like this that biaios can be especially helpful -- it reminds me that God is not necessarily supposed to be "nice" all the time. The same Spirit that brings us the sweet infant Jesus and Christ's healing miracles, also comes as a violent wind and a searing fire, to renew the face of the earth.

............................Martin Sharp. "PENTECOST"

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