Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, the Day of Pentecost, year A; texts: Acts 2:1-20; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
We live in a mocking world. A world where if someone doesn’t understand another person’s point of view, or passion, or excitement, often enough the first person makes fun of the other one. “How can you like that?” “Why do you spend so much time doing that?” “That’s kind of strange, don’t you think?” Humans sometimes find it difficult to honor that which we do not know, respect that which does not inspire us ourselves, and be gracious about something that seems utterly foreign to us. It’s easier to jibe, to make fun, to act as if we’re superior.
What we do in this room today, for example, would seem mightily strange to many in our culture, even to some other Christians, our gestures, rituals, practices. What other Christians are doing this morning might seem just as foreign to us, even if they worship in this very same city, in the same language as we. I suspect that some of the school classmates of these three fine young people might think it strange that they got up this morning, got dressed up, put on white robes, and will stand in front of God and this congregation and claim their faith, promise to serve God with their lives.
Well, it might be a little comforting to you three, and to all of us, really, that we’re not the first to be thought strange, worthy of a little derision. On the first Pentecost of the Church, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on 120 believers in the midst of tens of thousands of pilgrims thronging the city, they acted with such openness and lack of inhibition, such delight and joy, that lots of those who heard them thought they were drunk. I’m sure that wasn’t said with any kindness, either.
But the thing about the moving of the Holy Spirit in our midst is that she gives birth to life that is different, that is not like life we’ve known before. We may not be able to suddenly speak in ways a German or a Senegalese could understand in their language, though that would be wonderful. But when the Spirit blows through the Church, she leads us into a new life, and that life is often strange and different.
And not everybody’s going to understand. Some might even make fun. And sometimes that’s just enough for us to hold back, to resist the Spirit even, or to keep quiet.
So here is our question on this Day of Pentecost: what would we say and do if, to quote Acts today, we spoke in our own language God’s deeds of power? Can we even imagine doing it? Do we know what we would say if we did?
Whatever we can say about that day, it seems clear that the Holy Spirit could not and cannot be controlled.
Sounds of rushing wind, flashing light that looked like flames of fire, and 120 people speaking in ways that people of at least 15 different nations and languages could understand, though these speakers were uneducated. This day was out of control.
This lack of our ability to control the Spirit is part of our hesitance to admit we know where the Spirit is moving. Doctrine we can control. Dogmas and teachings, too. We can and sadly do fight about them, even. We can control how we structure our work, how we shape our ministry. We can control what we say, when we say it, to whom we say it, most times.
Maybe that’s why sometimes it seems we Lutherans – who really like to be in control – are really good at talking about the work of the Son of God and a little quiet about the work of the Holy Spirit. You can get into a good fight about your atonement theology, though I doubt our Lord would be pleased with you. But when it comes to the Spirit, whom Jesus said is like the wind, where we can only see where she’s been, it’s a lot less certain.
And that’s frightening, to feel that we’re out of control. We certainly can’t control if others in our own community even feel the Spirit’s movement and drawing. Just the idea that God speaks to hearts through the Spirit is a little daunting, for ourselves, but also for others. What if they start acting in ways we don’t think are proper or right, or start seeing God lead us in ways that feel risky or challenging? We can be nervous about that.
But what’s really challenging is realizing that the Holy Spirit has always been moving in the world in ways far beyond our control.
We can’t control where the Spirit goes, whom she touches. So we have to be open to seeing the Spirit move even among people who aren’t like us, who think differently, maybe even believe differently. But if we believe the Spirit is alive and breathing through the world, that’s exactly what we should expect.
We can’t control what the Spirit does, either. She could be – and certainly is – inspiring all sorts of things that we can’t manage or maintain, in all sorts of people that don’t look to us for permission. The Spirit will go where she will go, and we can’t control that. And that’s often enough reason for us to act as if we don’t see the Spirit. To be fearful to speak, to tell what the Spirit is doing.
In part because foolishly we might think if we don’t talk about the Spirit, she’s not actually going to be messing around in our lives and in the world. This doesn’t make any sense, I know. But it seems it’s what we imagine.
But we also fear this: what if someone tells us we don’t get to say it was the Spirit? That happens a lot. People believe the Holy Spirit spoke to their group, or to them personally, and someone shoots it down, saying it’s not something you can claim.
And there’s maybe good reason for that. People can do lots of bad things and claim the Spirit for leading them to that, can claim God’s authority over their power mongering or manipulation or antagonism. And obviously we need to learn how to discern what is truly of God and what is not.
But what if the Spirit truly is speaking and leading and giving birth to new things? Do we ever get to say that out loud, claim it?
And we fear this: what if someone thinks we’re unbalanced, needing help if we talk about the Spirit as actually working in our lives? I don’t mean this as a joke at all. Some of the great saints who lived in the past spoke and acted in ways that today might lead people to want to medicate them. And what gifts would the Church have lost if that had happened?
Of course there are real mental illnesses, and there are medications that are very helpful. But if just thinking that God actually and literally speaks to us could be construed as unbalanced, how will we ever dare listen for the Spirit’s leading?
The problem is, we all know the Spirit is moving and acting and changing us.
We experience it in this place, in our worship, in our life together, and out in the world.
This place, this community is not the same today as it was ten years ago, fifty years ago. We have learned new things, become new people, grown more into the way Christ would have us be, and welcomed all sorts of other new people who were led here by the same Spirit. We’ve got much more to grow, of course. But if you’ve been here long enough, you’ll be able to find ample evidence of the graces of the Holy Spirit moving and shaping us.
And the same is true for each of us, too. In our Tuesday Bible study it became clear to me this week that there is no problem for most of us to think of times we’ve felt God’s Spirit move us, shape us, change us. Or to think of stories of when others we know have had that happen. None of us are the same today as we were last year, or five years ago. The Spirit has deepened our faith, shaped our behavior and our lives, moved us to grow in discipleship.
Just look at these three confirmands today as prime evidence, how they’ve grown and matured, how the Spirit has brought them to a point where they can stand up in faith and claim their life in Christ.
No, there’s no doubt the Spirit is moving in and among us. But somehow we’re not talking much about it.
So let me ask us all again: what would happen if we spoke in our own language God’s deeds of power?
If we, like these three, stood up before the congregation or our friends and said what we believe, and where God has been moving?
What would happen if we spoke of this to others, witnessed to what the Spirit is doing in our lives and in the world?
Well, I think, as on that first Pentecost, people would start to believe, would start to see the Spirit working themselves. Because when I can’t see where the Spirit is, I know that it makes all the difference in the world when one of you witnesses to me that you’ve seen her at work in your life. And I can see where I didn’t before. That’s how it goes, how it works with us. When you hear these confirmands speak, you absolutely will see signs of the Spirit’s work. And you might even start realizing where you’ve seen her in your life as well.
So let’s see what happens if we just start telling what we’ve seen, what we know. If, in our own language, we start speaking God’s deeds of power to others.
Telling them and each other of the love of God we’ve seen change lives. Telling them and each other of the way grace and forgiveness can transform even seemingly impossible situations. Telling them and each other of the times we felt as if the Spirit of God was leading us to something and we found life and hope and purpose in it.
It’s possible we’ll be made fun of. It’s possible we’ll be told we are wrong. And if we’re that uninhibited, people might even think we’re out of control.
But that’s not the worst thing in the world. What would be far worse would be our seeing and feeling and knowing the grace and love of the Holy Spirit and keeping it to ourselves out of fear. What would be far worse would be our resisting the movement of the Spirit in our hearts to become different people because we’re afraid people won’t like us if we do.
And it’s possible that if we speak what we’ve seen, lives could be changed, the world could be changed. It happened before. Paul says today that to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. That’s why we speak, witness, tell. Because the Spirit is giving birth to new life for the whole world, for the good of all. And we have witnessed this in our own lives. It’s time we let someone else know.
It’s a really good thing that on the Day of Pentecost we ask the Spirit again and again to come and fill us and inspire us.
Because that’s what we’re going to need. We’re going to need the help of the Spirit of God to not only see where she’s been in our lives and in the world, but also to help us boldly act like those first believers and speak in our own language God’s deeds of power that we have seen.
It might get a little out of control. But think what God could do with that!
In the name of Jesus. Amen