Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. Jesus’s followers have been promised that a companion, an advocate will come to them from God to help them share the good news, to empower them to do what’s needed next.
The result is a strange episode where Mary and the apostles are surrounded by a rush of wind, and find flames dancing above their heads. They can suddenly speak foreign languages from every part of the known world.
It seems like we’re the ones who must be drunk on new wine in the morning to believe a story as far-fetched as this. This seems to be one of the passages in the Bible which is simply the product of a superstitious people. A sensibility that is strange to us. At best, this story must be symbolic. There are obvious echoes of other Bible stories here – the Tower of Babel, when human languages were created. And Christ’s baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended. That time, it was like a dove, this time like tongues of flame. It’s enough to make us want to close the book and move on. To forget about this sequel, which is nowhere near as good as the original.
The reason we feel this way is that since these words were written, our entire society has changed the way it thinks about who we are. We have increasingly come to think of individuals as self-sufficient, self-enclosed beings. Our heroes are the self-made man, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. We flock to movies to see powerful people like James Bond, the Avengers and Wonder Woman. Each of them has a power that comes from within – they have no need for prayer or the presence of the Holy Spirit. We love how self-reliant they are - that’s who we want to be, too.
As churches have declined, New Age spirituality has grown. For every church that closes there are at least as many yoga studios which open up, and mindfulness meditation has become very popular. They promise inner peace – a peace that can be found within us. It is always there, something covered up by misconceptions about ourselves. If we can clear those away, we will find a treasure within us that was always there.
This is spirituality for the age of the individual – the person who cannot be divided, that’s what in-dividual means. 1 We are all that we need. We have an inner spiritual spark which just needs to be kindled, then we will be able to get through this life well.
The Christian vision, which we heard today, is the opposite of this. It insists that we are not self-sufficient. We need an external force, the Holy Spirit, to enter us, to fill us with God’s love and guidance. And, it is called “spirit” for a reason. Spirit is the English translation of the Greek word for breath, pneuma. A breath is something which goes in and out of you. It moves, like the wind. In today’s story, we heard that the Holy Spirit came like a sudden rush of wind. That holy wind, or breath, cannot be locked up. If you try to hold a breath inside of you, without inhaling again, it ceases to be life giving. Hold your breath long enough and you will faint, or even die. The Holy Spirit is like a breath, because it moves in and out of us, it is not already within us. Like a wind, it comes in when we open our doors to it.
So, how do we do that? Christianity asks us to be open to the Spirit in multiple ways. It starts with baptism, and then continues our entire lives with prayer, and with communion, where we ask God’s spirit to land on the bread and juice, and to enter us. The implication is that we need regular infusions of the holy spirit, each day, each week, throughout our lives. It is like a medicine which needs to be taken regularly to inoculate us against the deceptive and evil forces in society.
That idea that we need some medicine has been all of our minds lately, as we anxiously await the arrival of a vaccine for covid-19. I think it is fair to say that at this point in time, our society has more faith in vaccines than the holy spirit. We’re not so sure about this religious idea, but everyone agrees that a vaccine is the solution to our pandemic problem. Even anti-vaxxers believe that vaccines work, they just claim that they come with side effects which make them too dangerous. Now to be clear, I believe that vaccines work, and that it would be a good idea to have one against covid-19. However, there is a difference between what the politicians say about vaccines and what scientists have been saying. Politicians have said that the covid-19 crisis will end once we have a vaccine, and we can expect that sometime in the new year. In the United States, the President has announced the creation of a “warp speed” vaccine development project, which should produce 100 million doses by November.2
Scientists do not share the President’s optimism. There has never been a successful coronavirus vaccine.3
This kind of virus causes one quarter of the cases of the common cold, and was responsible for the SARS outbreak in 2003.4 There is still no effective vaccine almost twenty years later. Creating vaccines also takes time, even once you get the right formula. Vaccines are gestated in chicken eggs.5 This is where de-activated versions of the virus are grown. As a result, vaccines cannot be simply whipped up in vats and sent out on trucks. They take time.
Moreover, there are just 60 factories in the world that create vaccines, produced by a handful of pharmaceutical companies.6 The largest single production of vaccine is the annual flu vaccine, which worldwide requires 620 million doses.7 To effectively fight covid-19, we will need billions of doses. That infrastructure does not yet exist, and never has. Scientists and philanthropists like the Bill and Melinda Gates are arranging for funding new factories. One prominent researcher has compared the current situation to building a plane while you are flying it.8
Even if a vaccine can be produced, there are reasons to fear that it will not be shared fairly. In 2009, the new vaccine for the H1N1 virus was bought up by Western nations, including Canada, and the developing world was left with too little for their citizens.9 Two weeks ago, the European Union proposed a resolution that would avoid this situation for the pandemic vaccine. They suggested that when the vaccine is produced, normal patent law be waived so that the formula and technology for producing the medicine can be shared all over the world. 10The United States and Switzerland, who both have major players in big Pharma, objected to the wording. 11The United States has subsequently withdrawn all funding from the World Health Organization, asserting its desire to produce its own vaccine with no promises to share it with the rest of the world in an equitable and timely way. The United States has also invested in a major European vaccine producing firm in France, so that if it succeeds in producing a vaccine, the United States will get it first.12
It appears that history is poised to repeat itself. Almost half of all vaccine production takes place in North America. One of the firms is located in Quebec. The United States is clearly looking out for its own interests first. Even the head of Canada’s chief vaccine lab has said that if Canada produces a vaccine, it will vaccinate us first, and share with the rest of the world later. 13 It is entirely possible that if a vaccine is produced, the wealthiest nations will serve themselves first, while the virus continues to circulate in less developed nations. Moreover, anti-vaxxers in Canada and the United States will probably refuse to take it, insuring that the virus continues to circulate even within countries with the vaccine.
Our scientific know-how is not enough to solve our problems, it never is. Just because we have an effective cure or vaccine does not mean that it will be shared equitably. Those decisions are not made in test tubes, but by human beings, who have voters to please, reputations to maintain, and shareholders who expect dividends. Science alone won’t solve this problem. We need to change the way we think and act to address this issue.
And that takes us back to the Holy Spirit. On our own, humans can be counted on to look out for the people in their immediate family, neighbourhood, and nation. We will always first think of ourselves, and those who we care for. That was true 2000 years ago, and it is still true today. That’s why, when the Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit appeared among the disciples on Pentecost, it did not settle on them and tell them you are everything you need. It didn’t whisper in their ears, follow your bliss, look out for yourself, be calm and stay home. That impulse was already there.
No, when the Holy Spirit came, it filled the disciples with a sense of love for others which they didn’t have before. In fact, it gave them a love for the entire world, which is why we are told that they were suddenly able to speak languages from all over the world. The holy spirit gave them a mission to spread the good news that God wants to help every single human being on the planet.
To rescue us from self-doubt and condemnation. To release us from the myopia that comes so easily. To grant us the chance of a self-esteem grounded in God’s love which can transform us from anxiously worrying about ourselves to being a force of good in the world.
And what did the disciples do once they were open to this fiery holy spirit? They fanned out, first in Jerusalem and then the rest of the Middle East. They preached, but they also healed. They touched people and rid them of their infirmities. In time, the disciples reached places like India, Africa, and Europe. Whatever the Holy Spirit is, it is not just for one group or nationality. From the beginning, it has had a world-wide mission, to reach people in every corner of the world to heal them, physically and mentally.
The gospel writer Luke is desperately trying to get across this mind-blowing vision of how God wants us to live by speaking of fiery apparitions over their heads, speaking languages they couldn’t possibly know. It is a fantastic, special effects laden vision because when God breaks into our lives, it is with a vision of love which takes in the entire world, not just one individual at a time. From the beginning, Christianity’s call to love each other has meant the entire world, not just ourselves, our family, our kind of people.
That love is needed more than ever now. The temptation in the months ahead will be to get vaccinated, and move on with our lives. But we risk creating a world where the West is partially vaccinated, and becomes fearful of immigrants whose countries can’t afford the vaccine. The distrust of immigrants could spread to all of us, in which case fear will have won. Now is the time to remember that God did not send the Holy Spirit as a security blanket, but as an in-spiration to help the entire world. To dream dreams that are bigger than ourselves, for it is in that global vision that the kingdom of God lies. God knows us well, that we will need help and encouragement. We will need many doses of the Holy Spirit to brave this future ahead of us. So let us let God in, through prayer, through baptisms, through communion, through gatherings like this. Let us dare to dream God’s dreams for us, and offer healing to the entire world – and in doing so, heal ourselves.
2 “L’accès équitable au vaccin: l’âpre bataille à l’OMS,” Le Temps, May 19 2020. 3 Jeff Wise , “We Might Never Get a Good Coronavirus Vaccine” New York Magazine May 20, 2020
3 Jeff Wise , “We Might Never Get a Good Coronavirus Vaccine” New York Magazine May 20, 2020
4 “Why we might not get a coronavirus vaccine,” The Guardian, May 22 2020
6 “L’accès équitable au vaccin: l’âpre bataille à l’OMS,” Le Temps, May 19 2020.
7 , “Global Challenges in Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Supply, Use, and Policy,” Intersect, Vol 12, No. 1 (2018) , 11.
8 Amy Maxmen, , “As President Trump terminates the U.S.’s relationship with the agency, experts foresee incoherence, inefficiency and a resurgence of deadly diseases,” Nature magazine May 29, 2020
9 “Global philanthropists, experts call for COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan,” Canadian Press , April 30 2020.
10 Elaine Ruth Fletcher, “China Announces US$ 2 Billion COVID-19 Initiative; US Assails China’s Pandemic Response; WHO Decries Global “Amnesia” About Epidemic Lessons” Health Policy Watch, 18/05/2020. https://healthpolicy- watch.org/china-announces-us-2-billion-covid-19-initiative/
11 Elaine Ruth Fletcher , “WHA Concludes With Call For Strong WHO And Equitable Access To COVID-19 Treatments-– But US Assault Casts Shadow Over Future ,” Health Policy Watch 19/05/2020
12 Elaine Ruth Fletcher , “WHO Member States Agree On Draft Resolution For COVID- 19 Response – Overriding US Objections,” Health Policy Watch, 14/05/2020
13 “Global philanthropists, experts call for COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan,” Canadian Press , April 30 2020