John Howard Griffin was 16 when he left his home in a small south Georgia town to study in France in the years before World War II.

Once there, he joined the French Underground and began helping to smuggle Jewish people out of Germany, putting them on boats to safety in England. Griffin and his colleagues managed to save quite a few people in this dangerous enterprise.

But the night before France fell to Germany, things went wrong. The French Underground could not provide the paperwork needed to move anyone over the age of 15 out of the country.

It was Griffin’s somber task to go to the places where Jewish families were hidden and tell them they would not make it to freedom.

“It was going into those rooms where we had hidden these families that the whole thing, which has haunted me ever since, hit me square in the face,” Griffin recalled years later.

“I went into the room where the mothers and fathers and children were hidden. I didn’t have to tell a single one of those families that we  were not going to succeed. They told me that it was all over; they said the first thing the Germans would do when France fell was round them up and ship them back to Germany.

“Then they asked me to do a heartbreaking thing,” Griffin recalled. “They asked me to take their children, because we could move children under the age of 15.

“And suddenly you were sitting in those rooms and you became aware of the fact that there are only two people in the world who knew who was in those rooms, myself and my teammate.

“We were in the presence of a massive human tragedy – the tragedy of parents who loved their children and were giving their children away to someone they barely knew, so at least the children would escape the death camp.

“I have often in talks in this country wished that I could take people into such rooms – rooms that were filled with grief-torn and fearful human beings.”


In today’s scripture readings we encounter such a room– filled with grief-torn and fearful human beings.

In John’s Gospel, it is the Sunday evening after Jesus’ death. His disciples are locked in a room, grieving the death of their leader and friend, fearful that the authorities who killed Jesus may now be looking for them.

And suddenly, Jesus, the one who was dead and buried, appears in the locked room with them and bids them peace. And then he breathes on them, the breath of God, and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

In today’s reading from Acts, it is 50 days after that Easter Sunday, and the followers of Jesus are once more locked together inside a house. Again they are fearful and grief torn. Their beloved Jesus, who had risen from the dead, is gone from them once more, ascended now into heaven.

Before his ascension, Jesus promised them that the Holy Spirit would come upon them, but they have no idea what this promise means or when or how it will be fulfilled.

For the past 10 days these followers of Jesus have been locked in the room in Jerusalem, praying and fearfully wondering what will happen to them now.

And suddenly in that locked room there is a sound like the rush of a violent wind. And tongues of fire rest on each of the people gathered there. And everyone is filled with the Holy Spirit and suddenly speaks in other languages.

Then the Holy Spirit propels those fearful followers of Jesus out of that locked room and into the streets, where they begin to preach. Devout Jews from around the world are in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost, and amazingly, they can all understand everything the disciples are saying.

“Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’”

What has happened is that Jesus’ promise to the disciples has come true. The Spirit of God has literally blown them out of the security of that fear-filled room and into the world filled with strangers.

But now they have the common language of God’s spirit enabling them to understand one another.

Before they received the Spirit, the followers of Jesus, like the Jews trying to escape from Nazi Germany, had dramatic reasons to be afraid, to hide themselves away from the world. They were in jeopardy, it was a matter of life and death.

Today, our fears may not be so dramatic, but fear is still an active force in our lives, all too often keeping us confined to our rooms, hesitant to leave the security and constraints of the space and people we know.

Fear may keep us locked in a job we no longer find fulfilling. It may prevent us from getting to know people who are different from us. We fear failure, we fear rejection, we fear aging, illness, and death.

But the only way to be fully alive is to overcome as many fears as possible.

That is the gift of the Holy Spirit on this day of Pentecost – the courage to put our fears aside, leave the confines of our narrow rooms, and go into the world filled with the power and love of God.

Today we do not just celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to a ragtag group of fearful followers of Jesus almost 2,000 years ago.

Today, we celebrate the Spirit’s ongoing presence in our lives – both as individuals and as a community, giving us courage and the grace to be more fully alive.

The Spirit always urges us to look beyond the safe confines of our own walls.

She moves to broaden and expand us, to lead us to new ways of thinking and seeing and acting in the world.

Recently I read a story of a woman who had made dramatic changes in her life – leaving a destructive relationship, going back to school, living on her own for the first time.

She described her life this way: “We live in an enormous house, in an enormous countryside, with an enormous sky. And we stay in a closet all our lives because we don’t know anything more than just this tiny little thing.

“The house is our prison. And somehow we have to open up the doors, to at least enlarge the house.”

This modern-day woman’s plea echoes the centuries-old prayer of one of the Church’s greatest theologians, St. Augustine. May his prayer be our own on this day of Pentecost.

“My soul is like a house, Lord; small for you to enter, but I pray you to enlarge it.”


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