I just can’t resist this story. I can’t resist a good story, generally, but the story of Pentecost is really so wonderful.
The risen Jesus is gone from sight into heaven. Jesus’ friends and followers—hundreds of them—are all gathered together in one place. They are undoubtedly studying scripture together, because that is what Jews do on the feast of Pentecost (Shavuot is the Hebrew name for it), the commemoration of God’s giving of the Torah to the people. So here they are, all gathered together, waiting, watching, wondering what on earth could be next. And suddenly, all heaven breaks loose. A mighty wind blows through, filling the room. Tongues of fire appear on all their heads, young and old, male and female. They all begin to speak in new languages, languages they did not know before. The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God and of Jesus, has come upon them.
They pour out into the streets, where their ability to speak new languages means that everyone can understand what they are saying, what they are preaching, the Good News. All the people who have come to Jerusalem for the festival, no matter where they come from, can hear the words being spoken in their own tongues.
So many beautiful things are happening, it’s hard to convey them all at once. Those who were hidden away in fear are filled with courage, and come out into the open. Those who were silent are speaking out. Those who were divided, separated, are united, they have become one. So many beautiful things. The power of the Spirit unleashed.
But—and you knew there was a “but,” didn’t you? Wait a minute. Hold on. A sour note is sounded. A sour note intoned by at least some of the bystanders. “But others sneered, and said, ‘They are full of new wine’” [Acts 2:13]. And there it is. Where some see a miracle, others see dissipation. Where some see God’s power at work, others see misbehavior, or worse. Where some see a marvelous example of people coming together, others see drunken revelers who ought to be off the streets, home in bed.
And there you have it, the problem of Pentecost. A mighty wind blows through, and suddenly you have a mess of downed tree limbs and power lines. Tongues of fire alight on everyone’s heads, and sooner or later someone complains that they’ve gotten burned. You start speaking new languages, and now old friends are acting strange. They shake their heads. They say you’ve changed.
And we are left wondering, what on earth (or in heaven) has just happened? Hasn’t the Spirit come in power? Isn’t this a great victory? Yet, we’re left feeling more like the people in the cartoon I just saw this week, in which a voice from heaven declares, “I shall send down my Spirit, and it will be like a flame upon your head.” So one person says, “Does this mean I can’t wear a hat?” And another says, “We’d better have a fire drill.” And another says, “This is a health and safety nightmare!” And yet another says, “What if I set off the fire alarm?” And, of course, someone says, “But my church is a non-smoking [facility]!”[i]
The Spirit comes. And we are not sure what on earth to do about it. We’re not even sure if we’re happy about it. We’re not even sure what it means.
So, perhaps, a refresher course is in order. Title this part of the sermon, “Holy Spirit: 101: A brief introduction.” Except for Pentecost, when the Spirit comes with so much bluster and fanfare, lots of us tend to think of the Spirit as the “shy” member of the Trinity. We are much more aware of God the Father or Creator, and of God the Son, in Jesus Christ. But God the Spirit? Slippery. Invisible. Dare I say, ghostly. And yet, a look at our creeds reveals that the Spirit is where the action is, in terms of our lives and faith. The Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (USA) describes the work of the Spirit in this way:
“We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere, the giver and renewer of life.”
“The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church.”
“The same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture, engages us through the Word proclaimed, claims us in the waters of baptism, feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation, and calls women and men to all ministries of the church.”
“In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”
Here’s how I like to think about it: anything we do that in any way enables us to more fully and authentically love God and to love our neighbor is the work of the Holy Spirit. That means that the Spirit is busy, busy, busy at work, in us, around us, through us. That means that everything we do that is good—whether it is praying, or reading scripture, or reaching out in kindness, or bearing witness to our faith, or hugging our children, or listening to our beloveds, or visiting someone who is lonely, or helping someone who is in any way in need—everything that we know is good and pleasing to God, we are empowered to do by the Holy Spirit.
And here’s where the problem of Pentecost comes in. As one working preacher has put it:
“The Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them. Think about it: absent the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples could go back to their previous careers as fishermen. I can almost hearing James and John explaining, "Sure, it was a wild and crazy three-year-ride, and that Jesus sure was a heck of a guy, but maybe we needed to get that out of our system before we could settle down and take on Dad's business." Once the Spirit comes, however, that return to normalcy is no longer an option. They will now be propelled throughout the ancient world to herald the unlikely message that God has redeemed the world through an itinerant preacher from the backwaters of Palestine who was executed for treason and blasphemy. The Holy Spirit, take note, doesn't solve the disciples' problems, it creates them.[ii]
The mighty wind of the Spirit does fill us with inspiration, but it also takes down tree branches and power lines, blowing away old structures and requiring us to create new ones. The flames of the Spirit do set us on fire for God, at the same time they expose us to the risk that we will be burned by the passion of our love. The ability to speak a new language will mean that we find ourselves sharing the love of Jesus with new friends, but that can result in all kinds of complications with our old ones. Allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us is not a guarantee of a life free from complication, or pain, or difficulty. It is just the opposite. Case in point: Jesus.
Jesus let the wind of the Spirit blow through him, and in everything he did, he was at one with the will of God. And that ended in a spectacular defeat, failure, ignominy. In Jesus’ day, it just didn’t get any worse than crucifixion, because it was not only death, it was a painful, humiliating death at the hands of an oppressive state. But God raised Jesus from the dead. God vindicated him. God created the most spectacular victory from the most horrifying defeat, because that is how God works. As a dear friend of mine likes to say, in God’s economy, nothing is wasted. The question is not whether we are successful. The question is whether we are faithful.
The problem of Pentecost boils down to this question: are we willing to be faithful? Are we willing to be punch-drunk with love for God, so much so that people start looking at us a little funny? Are we willing to throw ourselves into new ventures on behalf of God’s hurting people, create new structures from the wreckage of the old—even if we risk failure in doing it? Are we willing to listen for the voice of God in the words of those it is all too easy to ignore or discount? Because that is where God has told us he will be speaking—in the completely powerless, and those who are too young, and those who are too old, the ones who will prophesy, and see visions, and dream dreams. Are we willing to listen to them?
Here we are, all gathered together in one place. The wind of the Spirit is already blowing through this place—stirring up new ideas in one, setting another one’s heart on fire with conviction, teaching another a new way of speaking. The Spirit comes, ready or not, to upset, complicate and, in the end, remake our lives in strange, unexpected and beautiful ways. So many beautiful things are happening already! Those who were hidden away in fear are filled with courage, and come out into the open. Those who were silent are speaking. Those who were divided, separated, are united, they have become one. So many beautiful things, as the power of the Spirit is unleashed. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[ii] David Lose, “Pentecost Paradoxes,” Working Preacher, June 5, 2011, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=481.