Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Rush of Wind: Sermon on Acts 2:1-21

Two weeks ago we had a brief spring windstorm. Late that Saturday night we hunkered down in our homes, listening first to the whistle and then to the roar of wind outside. It blew through the rafters and rattled the windows. It made the hair stand up on the backs of our necks. It blew around items that weren’t strapped down—recycling bins, light patio furniture. I wondered, at a certain point, whether it might not lift the roof right off my house. In the morning, we surveyed the damage: downed branches, the occasional power line, and worse. For one neighbor the casualty was a beloved old tree. The wind has amazing and unpredictable power.

Our passage from the Acts of the Apostles depicts the coming of the Holy Spirit in a violent rush of wind. The Spirit comes in power and is frightening in its intensity. Both Hebrew and Greek use a single word to signify “wind” and “spirit” and also “breath.” At the heart of this image of “Spirit as wind” lies a fairly simple truth: like the wind, the Holy Spirit is most easily described by what it does.

It is fifty days after the Passover celebration. It is fifty days after the great Easter event, the resurrection of Jesus. For forty of those post-resurrection days Jesus has walked once again with and among his friends, alternately hiding from them and revealing himself to them, cooking for them, eating with them, and returning with them almost to a state of normalcy. People speak of finding the “new normal” after a major life event. But what is “normal” for someone who was dead but who now is alive? What is “normal” for one who has always been recognized as a man but who now is recognized as belonging to some other newly revealed categories as well—Lord, Messiah, even, God?

In a sense there has been no pretext of “normal” for Jesus and his friends since the resurrection. They exist in terra nova, a new land, in which the mission and ministry of Jesus must now be accomplished in a new way. This is dramatically demonstrated to them forty days after Easter, when Jesus is “lifted up, and a cloud [takes] him out of their sight” and into heaven, leaving Jesus’ work squarely in their hands. And yet… they haven’t exactly thrown themselves wholeheartedly into their work. They have not been preaching or teaching or casting out demons or healing the sick. In fact, the disciples and friends of Jesus have been in a kind of limbo. They have been hunkered down in an upper room. They have been praying a lot. They have attended to what you might call administrative details, choosing Matthias to replace Judas, for example. Their numbers are at a healthy “small church” level of 120. But they’re not growing. They’re not trying to grow. Frankly, they’re mostly trying to avoid dying.

Finally, the day of Pentecost arrives. For Jews, a harvest festival associated with God giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The friends of Jesus have spent the night, once again, hunkered down in that upper room, all together in one place. “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…” [Acts 2:2, 4a] It happens in an instant: in a whistle, and then a rush, and then a roar… the Spirit comes.

It is easier to talk about what the Spirit does than who the Spirit is. Here are some things the Spirit does:

• The Spirit gives Jesus’ followers the ability to speak in other languages.

• The Spirit prompts Jesus’ followers to tell of God’s deeds of power.

• The Spirit promises insight—vision—to “all flesh”—sons, daughters, young, old, slaves, free—there is no limit placed on who will receive this particular manifestation of the Spirit’s power.

And that’s just in our passage. The same author composed the Acts of the Apostles and the gospel of Luke—they are a kind of two-part book, telling of Jesus and the early church. Together they have been described as “the acts of the Holy Spirit.” And that is so true. In chapter after chapter, verse after verse, the acts of the Holy Spirit are recounted. Luke’s gospel begins with the birth of John the Baptist—Luke tells us, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit” [Luke 1:15]. By the power of the Holy Spirit a young woman conceives Jesus, the one who will be called Son of God [Luke 1:35]. In adulthood John the Baptist tips off his followers that “one who is more powerful than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” [Luke 3:16]. Jesus begins his ministry quoting that powerful passage from Isaiah; “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…” [Luke 4:18-19]. And on and on and on: the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in the life of Jesus.

The book of Acts reads the same way—the Holy Spirit is hiding in every upper room, providing courage in every jail cell, inspiring believers to prayer down by every river, and filling the mouths of Jesus’ followers with words—on the streets where they are compelled to share the Good News, and in the courtrooms where they plead their cases before the mighty. And on and on and on: the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in the life of the church.

And the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in our lives. As one theologian has explained it: if God the Father is God over us, and Jesus is God for us, then the Spirit is God at work in us. The Spirit gives us the gift of prayer. If you have ever been moved to say a prayer, whether at the bedside of someone you love or to simply say “thank you” for the glory of an early summer day—you have experienced the work of the Holy Spirit in you. The Spirit gives us the gift of the church. If you have ever chosen to do something that binds you more closely to the other members of the body of Christ—you have experienced the work of the Holy Spirit in you. The Spirit gives us the gift of forgiveness. If you have ever been moved to forgive someone who wronged you—or to seek forgiveness from someone whom you have wronged—then you have experienced the work of the Holy Spirit in you.

As dramatic and astonishing as we find the power of a wind that can uproot a tree or send a house spinning, it is nothing compared to the kind of power that can enter the human heart and change it. There are at least two astonishing examples of that specific use of the Spirit’s power in the Acts of the Apostles. First, we have the famous story of Saul the Pharisee, who at one moment is “breathing threats and murder” against followers of Jesus, and in the next is calling Jesus Lord and becoming his apostle Paul [Acts 9:1-20]. And second, we have the story we read several weeks ago, about Peter having a change of heart through a Spirit-given vision that persuades him that God’s love is for everyone, and we cannot construct walls to prevent others from having access to the Good News [Acts 10:1-11:18]. The Spirit can enter the human heart and change it. Both Paul and Peter know that, first hand.

Look again at the actions of the Spirit in our passage: they cluster powerfully around communication and understanding. The Spirit allows people to come together in understanding, who, before, spoke completely different languages. The Spirit fosters the best possible use of language—allows it to be used, not as a weapon or a wall, but as a bridge. It is no accident that on Pentecost Sunday we celebrate the birth of the church—a body of believers that is possible only because the powerful, awe-inspiring Spirit, has knocked down the walls that divide us, replacing “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, [and] factions” with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” [Ephesians 5:20b, 22-23]. We can’t do that on our own. The Spirit has to do it for us.

And now: The Spirit has been poured out. And so Jesus’ work has been placed squarely in our hands. And yet… something holds us back from throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into our work. We friends and followers of Jesus have been in a kind of limbo. We have been hunkered down in our own beautiful upper room, the church. And we have been praying a lot. And we have attended to what you might call administrative details, conscientiously keeping up strong rosters of deacons and elders. Our numbers are at a healthy “small church” level of about 77 in worship. But we’re not growing. Frankly, we’re mostly trying to avoid dying.

The Pentecost story speaks to our situation, point for point. Hunkered down. Worried about the future. Scared of dying. But then it comes: the strong rush of wind, and the Spirit entering in with a new imperative: Jesus’ friends and followers are no longer content to wait around inside. They are compelled to step outside their doors. They are driven to speak to others, even across boundaries of language and custom. They cannot help themselves: they are inspired to share the Good News of what God has done!

Pentecost is now. It is not merely some moment in the distant past, to be fondly remembered with a tear in our eye. It is now. The moment to step outside our doors is now. We know the Spirit by what it does, and the Spirit promises to be with us:

• The Spirit will continue teach us how to speak to one another, and how to reach out to others, even across great divides, how to share the Good News.

• The Spirit will continue to show us—every single one of us— a vision for the life God dreams for us.

• The Spirit will continue to dwell inside us, so that God’s dream for our lives becomes our dream.

Pentecost is now. The Spirit is as real as the breeze that will blow across your face and ruffle your hair when you step outside the sanctuary doors. The Spirit stands ready to renew us, from the inside out. Pentecost is now. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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