If you want to believe in Jesus, just look at the disciples before and after Pentecost. Before, they were fickle, fearful followers, ready to run away at the slightest hint of trouble. After, they were bold, articulate leaders. These guys who didn’t think they could tie their own sandals without Jesus’ instructions, suddenly ran outside, and started to talk, and somehow it sounded like Jesus. They healed the sick, and they cast out demons. They went to jail, where they sang hymns – and the prison walls came tumbling down. If you want to know how this transformation happened, just pick up the Book of Acts… There we read that three thousand people were baptized that day – a miracle – when a dozen bumblers received some kind of power that turned the world upside down – from Jerusalem to Athens to Rome to Alexandria – across nations, centuries, and cultures.
And Acts tells us it was all the work of the Holy Spirit. Usually, we think of the Holy Spirit as the abiding presence of God in Christ, that relationship of comfort and presence and safety, we cherish so much.
But today, we see the other side of the Holy Spirit – and it’s not so comforting. As one of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor put it, this is the Spirit “who blows and burns, howling down the chimney, and turning all the lawn furniture upside down1.”
We can relate to that “before” picture of the disciples, can’t we? None of us is a stranger to the same fears that paralyzed them – pandemic diseases, economic uncertainty, global terror. Has there ever been a time when we’re more in need of the coming of the Holy Spirit? But whether we believe that this kind of Holy Spirit will come – the one who transforms our lives – I think, goes to the heart of what kind of God we really believe in.
As Rev. Taylor puts it:
“The question for me is do we still believe in a God who acts like that? … who blows through closed doors and sets our heads on fire? … a God with a power to transform us, as individuals and as a people? Or have we come to an unspoken agreement that our God is pretty old and tired by now, someone to whom we may address our prayer requests, but not anyone we really expect to change our lives.”2
Mostly, I think, we succumb to a kind of collective amnesia about the Holy Spirit. Just the other day, a parishioner confessed, “God the Father I get. Jesus, I certainly get. But the Holy Spirit – what’s that about?” Or maybe, in the hubbub and busyness of our lives, we’ve simply lost touch with an active experience of the Holy Spirit. Maybe, we’ve realized that slowing down, and rooting around inside, opening ourselves to how the Spirit might be calling, can be anything but comforting – it can feel unsettling, even dangerous.
In fact, the Holy Spirit is so unruly, that we’ve spent centuries, as a church, just trying to tame her. We either try to individualize or to institutionalize her. By individualize, I mean we try to make the Holy Spirit’s coming a private act, a set of astonishing gifts bestowed on certain select individuals. They’re in such a different league from the rest of us, it’s easy to let them do the spiritual heavy lifting.
But the Spirit doesn’t call only the most spiritually distinguished. Remember, this is the unruly Spirit who engineers the pregnancy of a frightened girl; the one who inspires Mary to proclaim the good news not through the worthy priest Zechariah, but through his pregnant wife, Elizabeth. And when Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the Temple, the Spirit enables not the local church authorities, but the aged Simeon, to recognize Jesus as Israel’s Messiah.
If we don’t individualize the Spirit, we institutionalize it, somehow assuming that the Spirit moves only through the church. The church’s activities are where we find the Spirit, who we then come to see as part of the institution itself.
But notice that when God pours out the Spirit on the disciples in Acts, they neither fall on their knees individually, nor do they immediately form a committee, or call a rector, as a church. No, they go out into the streets…. together. The Spirit empowers this gathered community to proclaim what they’ve witnessed; to seek out others to join them (regardless of nationality, economic status, race, or creed); and then together to enact the coming kingdom of God, not only in their worship, but also in their life work.
The Spirit doesn’t move Pentecost off the streets of Jerusalem and back indoors where things are safe and secure. No, she stays out in the open, where people will ask questions, challenge, and demand to know how this “Good News” has anything to do with the lives they’re living.
Pretty wild stuff, huh? Well, that’s because, as theologian Michael Dwinnell reminds us, the Spirit of Pentecost is as simple as she is bold. She calls us to
“… set each other on fire… to innate generosity, like the wild mint that gives itself away, sacrifices itself by releasing its fragrance…, to spread the good news about God’s love affair with the world – and with all creation – and especially with us.”3
That’s a tall order, of course, especially for us staid Episcopalians. Which may be why Alan Jones, dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, once quipped, “Only a fool would pray for the Holy Spirit to come… and only fools for Christ do.”
But the good news is that opening ourselves to the coming of this Holy Spirit is the fastest way to cast out our fear, to help ourselves come alive again, to receive this same kind of boldness.
So whenever we find ourselves speaking with an eloquence we know we don’t possess; or offering forgiveness we hadn’t meant to offer – whenever we find ourselves taking risks we thought we didn’t have the courage to take; or reaching out to someone we’d intended to walk away from – we can be pretty sure that we’re breathing in and breathing out the Holy Spirit, taking God into us and giving God back to the world again, just as those first disciples did.
Welcome to Pentecost! It’s the season of the Holy Spirit – totally dependable and utterly unpredictable; gentle and wild; challenging and comforting – the Spirit that can’t be described or contained. It blows where it will, taking us along for the ride – a wild Pentecost ride, to which we’re all invited. Hold on to your seats – and each other. And discover that God can be found not only in a faint whisper, but in the fury of fire.4
Let us pray. Come Holy Spirit. Enkindle the fire of your love. Transform all that is fearful into boldness of heart. Inspire your servants with wonder and awe at the mystery of your presence. Conform your friends in compassion and forgiveness. Whisper discernment in the midst of confusion. Be wisdom in times of trouble; reverence in the face of diversity; patience with the unfolding of life. And forever anoint your messengers with joy. Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor (1997). The Bread of Angels, p. 67. I am grateful to Rev. Taylor for several other images used in this sermon.
2Barbara Brown Taylor (1999). Gospel Medicine, p. 145.
3Michael Dwinnell (1993). Being Priest to One Another, Ligouri, MD: Triumph Books, pp. 14, 145.
4See Joyce Hollyday, “The wild ways of the spirit,” Sojourners, May – June 1995.