A sermon preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 19th, 2013, and on the occasion of the baptism of Abby, Nicole and Madilynn, and the re-affirmation of faith and reception into membership of Chick, Jennifer and Mary.
Jesus said that the Holy Spirit is like the wind, it blows where it will – you can not see it, but you can sometimes you can see the signs of its presence. Carol, the grandmother of Abby, Nicole and Madilynn told me a remarkable story about the baptismal outfits they are wearing this morning. A year before the triplets were determined to be on their way, Carol made a trip down south to help clear out the house of a cousin her cousin’s who had recently died. She found three baptismal outfits that her cousin had made. Two were exactly the same, and the third was different. Abby and Nicole are identical twins, and Madilynn is fraternal. The outfits were a sign of good things to come for a couple anxious to have children.
It was Kassie who pointed out to me the striking symmetry of this day: we baptized three babies, received three adult members — all of this on the day of Pentecost, which emphasizes the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. The concept of the trinity can be off-putting for many people. It’s easy to get tripped up on the question, “Exactly which person of the trinity am I supposed to address at any given moment?”
And the truth is, it doesn’t really matter. Address God however you feel like it. The thing about “God as Father” though is that it’s easy to imagine such a God as being far off somewhere up in heaven, watching us from a distance. And similarly, the Bible pictures the “God the Son” – living his life on earth 2000 years ago before, he too, ascended to heaven – again, rather removed from our daily life.
When we speak of the Holy Spirit, however, the point is we are talking about a God who is close at hand – more near than breath itself (and in Hebrew, the same word is used for both “breath” and “Spirit.”) It’s the Spirit that is pictured in Genesis hovering over the chaotic waters to do the hands on work of bringing forth creation, and it’s the Spirit that breathed life into a handful of dust to create a human being. And it was that same Spirit that was with Kassie and Scott to bring forth the lives that are Abby, Nicky and Madeline.
It was the Spirit that Jesus promised when he said before he would not leave us orphaned – a companion and guide for the journey of life. It is this same Spirit that has been with Chick, Jennifer and Mary through the twists and turns of their life, nudging them onward, leading them even when they had no clue they were being lead. It is this same Spirit that led them to this day — to the recognition that you can’t go it alone in life — you need to be a part of a community, and not just any community, but a community that can help you live in the flow of the Spirit. A community shaped by a sacred story, a story that provides clues for how to keep in sync with the Spirit.
And so I want to take a few moments to talk about some of the clues this strange story of Pentecost gives us.
Before Jesus departs, he tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the receive power from on high. Initially, they weren’t supposed do anything, simply wait. Sometimes we go thrashing forward into life because doing nothing makes us anxious, and we end up heading in a totally wrong direction. There are times in life where it’s best not to do anything – to seek, as best one can, to empty ourselves of all notions of what we think we know regarding what our lives should be about next. To be patient in the not knowing, waiting expectantly, trusting that the way forward will be revealed to us, and the power given to us to do what needs to be done.
On Pentecost morning, the first sign that the Holy Spirit had arrived was the sound of a great wind. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, you can’t control the wind. When the Holy Spirit begins to blow, the important thing is try and move with it, not against it.
That morning when that great wind began to blow, and then the tongues of fire began to fall, it felt like things were coming unhinged. It was confusing. It was scary. Sometimes that’s how it is initially when the Spirit moves. There is a sense that life is coming unhinged, that the old certainties are falling apart. It can be unsettling, because instinctively we prefer to know what’s what, to have things settled.
But sometimes things have to be shaken loose before there can be room for the new creation the Spirit intends to give birth to. So in those times when your life seems to be coming unhinged, keep this in mind. Remember that this is what it feels like when the Spirit is moving. Trust that God is at work, and that things need to be shaken up before they can be re-created.
There were some present on that day who were determined to get rid of the uncertainty as quickly as possible. They witnessed the wild things that were happening, and they felt threatened, though they were loathe to admit it. So they were quick to offer an explanation. “We know what’s happening here! We’re the answer men. We can explain this to you. This is nothing more than people getting drunk and acting crazy. That’s all.”
If you want to be open to the Spirit, it’s better to confess, “I have no clue what’s happening, but I trust God is in charge.”
I suspect that the people who presented themselves as answer men weren’t pilgrims to Jerusalem. They were the year round residents of Jerusalem. They expected to hear their own language spoken. They were the insiders who had an advantage over the pilgrims – the outsiders. It gave them status – it gave them privileges. And so they experience the Spirit in its determination to invite everybody into the inner Circle as a threat, because it meant they would lose their status as insiders. There’s always room in the circle, but sometimes people like to shut down the circle so they can feel in charge.
It makes sense that they accused the Spirit-filled followers of Jesus of being drunk, because like alcohol, the Spirit loosens the inhibitions that keep us from truly expressing who God made us to be. When the Spirit comes upon us, we cease to be consumed with living up to other peoples’ expectations of us. We’re set free. We’re able to come out of the shadows – out of the closet – and into the light. We come alive.
If you visit a church and everybody there pretty much looks and thinks and acts the same, be suspicious, because the Spirit doesn’t turn people into clones. It gives people permission to let their light shine.
When the Spirit comes upon us, we are given the capacity to love people where they are, for who they are. We no longer require people to be like ourselves before we can love them. We no longer need people to reflect back our own image. We can let them be who God made them to be. We can trust that God has them on their own journey, and we don’t have to be in charge.
Abby, Nicky and Madelynn may look a whole lot a like, but they are each unique, and if we are lead by the Spirit as we raise them up, then they will be given permission to become the distinctive person God intends them to be, rather than what we might need them to be for ourselves. If we let the Spirit lead us in this church, then this will be for Chick, Jennifer and Mary a place where their light can shine.
Often times in this world it seems like we are given a choice. Either you can be the unique person God made you, or you can have human connection, but you can’t have both. On the day of Pentecost, this false choice was overcome. People were given permission to be themselves, and they were enabled to communicated, to connect and to love. The people didn’t give up their unique cultural heritage, but their backgrounds no longer created a barrier. They were given eyes to recognize that even as they were different from one another, on the deepest level, they were all the same: they were all God’s beloved children.
By the end of that first Pentecost, the church had grown from 120 to about 3000 persons. When a church is in tune with the Holy Spirit, that church will be inherently attractive, and that church will grow.
I want to finish with a story I love. Clarence Jordan was a visionary Christian who formed an extraordinary Christian community in Georgia back in the 1950s. Part of what made it distinctive was that it was made up of blacks and whites together, fully integrated at a time when the rest of society was fully segregated. They were persecuted by the larger community, accused of being communists.
Clarence told a story of a time he was invited to preach at a revival meeting way out at a little hillbilly church. When he got there and stepped out into the pulpit, he was surprised to find a packed church with black and white folk all together.
After the meeting was over, he asked the old hillbilly preacher how it had gotten this way.
“What way?” the hillbilly preacher asked.
“You know, black and white folk together.”
“Oh, well, a few years back, the preacher, he died, and we didn’t have no preacher. So I said, `I’ll preach.’ And the deacons, they didn’t have nobody else to preach. So they let me. On my first Sunday, I got up in the pulpit, I opened up the Bible, and I came to the place where brother Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female, there is neither slave nor free, but you are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And I preached it.
After the meeting, the deacons took me into a back room and said to me they didn’t want to hear anymore preaching like that.”
“What did you do?” as Clarence.
“I fired those deacons! If the deacons aren’t going to deac, then fire those deacons!” He went on to describe how he kept preaching the same Gospel week after week until he’d preached that church down to just a handful of people. And then with those who would try to block the Holy Spirit out of the way, the church had the room to grow.
It was the real deal.
Come, Holy Spirit. Make us a community where Abby, Nicole and Madilynn, there mom and dad, Kassie and Scott, and also Chick, Jennifer and Mary, can grow in your love, and let their light shine.