The Day of Pentecost
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that in Lutheran circles, the Holy Spirit is the least understood and least discussed person of the Holy Trinity. My theory for this is that it’s hard to figure out what the Holy Spirit IS. We can imagine God as a loving parent. We can imagine Jesus as our brother and our redeemer. But the Holy Spirit? What is that? Scripture uses images—a bird? A blast of wind? It’s hard to grasp the Divine in that.
Nonetheless, the Holy Spirit has been a vital part of the story since the world began. According to Genesis, God’s Spirit moved over the waters and the cosmos was created. Throughout the Scriptures, in both the Old and New Testaments, the Holy Spirit goads God’s people onward and upward, often in a blaze of fire. Didn’t Moses first encounter God in burning bush? Weren’t the Israelites escaping from Egypt led forward by a pillar cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night? And today, in our reading from Acts, God’s Spirit shows up as fire again—with flames above the disciples heads.
The thing about fire is that it both warms and burns. It is both beautiful and frightening. The same could be said about the Holy Spirit. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk about the Holy Spirit much: according to theologian Barbara Brown Taylor, “We don’t keep the Spirit of Life in the back room because she is shy but because she is dangerous.”
Dangerous? Well, yes, especially since there’s no predicting what the Holy Spirit might do, or when, or with whom. Take today’s OT lesson, for example. Moses has been leading God’s people out of slavery, marching them toward the Promised Land. Unfortunately, the trip was taking a lot longer than anyone expected; everyone was tired and cranky. Moses had been trying to do everything himself and was completely exhausted. (I think he needed a sabbatical.)
He takes his problem to God, who suggests that Moses create a church council to help him. Pick 70 elders for the job, God advises. (Can you imagine a church council of 70?!). Then have a special service where you bless and appropriately install them according to synod guidelines and bylaws and procedures (or their Hebrew equivalent.)
Meanwhile, as this official service was going on, on the other side of the camp, two guys who were NOT part of the appointed 70 started preaching! The audacity! Neither Eldad nor Medad had been to seminary. They hadn’t been ordained or elected or in any way chosen to represent God to the congregation, or to share with them God’s dreams! They had no business telling others what they heard God saying. But when frantic people bring this crisis to Moses’ attention, he is unperturbed. He only comments, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!”
Maybe there’s an echo of that yearning in today’s reading from Acts too. Jesus’ disciples gathered with other faithful Jews for a festival honoring God’s giving the Law to the people. I’m guessing that no one expected anything extraordinary to happen during that celebration, anymore than any of you showed up for worship today expecting something weird to happen. But the Holy Spirit came flying in on a rush of wind, leaving holy chaos in her wake.
Suddenly, all kinds of people were proclaiming the mighty works of God, and folks around them were hearing their testimonies in their own languages! God’s words and deeds were being proclaimed, not only in the Temple by the priests, but in the marketplace, by everyday mortals! Fishermen and tax collectors!
So, while we may not understand what the Holy Spirit IS, we certainly can see what the Holy Spirit DOES, which, it seems, is to invite everyone to share in God’s grace. In his Small Catechism, Luther describes the various jobs of the Holy Spirit as calling, gathering, enlightening, forgiving, and making us holy. Just for starters.
Our imaginations limit what the Spirit’s activity in our lives can be. We trust that the Spirit is at work only when what we experience affirms what we want to hear, not what we need to hear; only if the Spirit is encouraging what we find comfortable and convenient, and allows a reasonable getaway plan. Our default reaction to the potential and possibility of the Spirit being radically at work in new ways among us is to blame it on new wine.
One thing is for sure: the Holy Spirit is at work, often in places and among people we would never choose or even imagine. Perhaps even here! Among us! Now! Perhaps how the Spirit acts will affirm, surprise, even upend our faith. It might be uncomfortable and awkward—so much so that we’ll want to attribute such movement to other sources.
Maybe you find it improbable that you’ll see the Holy Spirit in or around you. Surely the Holy Spirit surely has better things to do than to show up in our lives, you might think. But we limit what the Spirit is and does when we restrict the divine fire to burning only inside a church building, or at least in a spiritual setting among holy people. We don’t like to attribute disruption and chaos to the valid and necessary manifestations of the Spirit. But the Spirit deliberately comes to places and people that are messy and flawed.
Take today’s Gospel lesson, for instance. On Easter evening, Jesus disciples are hiding in a upper room out of fear that those who crucified Jesus may come after them. Besides that, they are dealing with the shame of abandoning Jesus when he needed them most. Suddenly, Jesus shows up among them, offering these losers not a scolding, but peace. But He doesn’t take them away from Jerusalem or fortify the room in which they’re hiding. What Jesus does is breathe the Holy Spirit upon them, and then send them out into that dangerous world: “As the Father sent me, so I now send you” (20:21).
The Holy Spirit is not a super hero in a cape, descending on us to rescue us from all harm and sin. Instead, the Holy Spirit sends us right out into the danger and chaos. The Good News is now we are breathing the Holy Spirit in and out. This creates in them all the courage they need to follow Jesus’ command. That’s Good News because—though we might wish it were otherwise—the Holy Spirit doesn’t eliminate trouble, but does accompany us through it. The Holy Spirit helps us perceive the needs of our neighbors and community, and gives us the strength and desire to rise to the occasion of meeting those needs with tenacity, competence, and courage.
In John’s Gospel, remember, the Spirit is described as parakletos, the one who “comes along side” us, the one who advocates for us, remains with us, strengthens and helps us.
It’s because I truly believe that God is working through us, and along with us, the Church, for the common good, that I have peace about leaving this congregation for a sabbatical. It is a good reminder to me and to you that this is not my church. It’s not your church either. This is God’s church. And God has a mission in this neighborhood, in this synod, this country, and around the world. And the Holy Spirit will fulfill that mission even if it means choosing people from outside the approved and appointed circle of leaders to get it done. For that matter, even if it takes setting your hair on fire, God’s will will be done!
So breathe. The Holy Spirit is in charge here. The Holy Spirit does indeed send us out to every corner of the world as the Body of Christ, authorized and equipped to care for this world God so loves. But the Holy Spirit also enables us to fulfill this role, even when it’s challenging. The Holy Spirit goes with me and David to Europe and stays here in Madison. The Spirit goes wherever each one of you goes—to school, on vacation, to work, to play. In all times and places, the Holy Spirit is busily stirring up trouble, and also guiding us to use all we have and all that we are for the sake of the Gospel. This is the promise of Pentecost. It is thrilling and scary. Thank God we get to be on this journey to a new beginning together!
~Pastor Susan Schneider