Preached from the pulpit of Good Shepherd Church, May 25, 2015 – the Day of Pentecost – by The Rev. Dr. Wm. L. Countryman.
Year B: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27 & 16:4b-15
Pentecost is all about the Holy Spirit. And there may be no subject in the world that’s more difficult to talk about because the Spirit never lets us pin her down—which, of course, is exactly what we want to do. So much of humanity’s religious mindset is really about getting a handle on God, about making sure what God will do, about making sure we’ll be on the right side of whatever God does do. That makes the Spirit really frustrating for us.
So I’m not going to try for a neat package with all the loose ends tied up. I want to take a different approach and say just three things about the Spirit and leave a lot of open space out there in the middle.
The first thing is what Jesus said in his conversation with Nicodemus, the great dignitary and religious teacher who came to visit him secretly at night. The Spirit, Jesus said, is like the wind. It blows where it likes. You hear it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. But it gives new life, says Jesus; and you, Nicodemus, great man though you are, need new life just like everybody else. (John 3:1-10)
The Psalm we read this morning had something similar to say. The Spirit gives life; but death and life alike are beyond our control:
You hide your face, and [all the creatures of the world] are terrified;
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.
You send forth your Spirit, and they are created;
and so you renew the face of the earth.
Ps. 104:30-31 (The Saint Helena Psalter)
The Spirit comes and goes, always beyond our control, always changing the face of our world, and somehow, though not in a simple, predictable way, bringing life.
God is a great mystery. Of course, God is a great mystery. Human life, after all, is a great mystery. The world is a great mystery. A God who is not mysterious couldn’t have produced this extraordinary world or the extraordinary beings that live in it. And despite the mythology of endless growth that has held sway for the last couple of centuries, human beings, for all our power, are not in control of the world or of God. Our present drought is a sharp reminder of our limits.
The Holy Spirit, then, is fundamentally beyond our grasp: beyond our understanding and and our control. That’s the first thing.
But that’s not enough. By itself, it might leave us feeling that the Spirit is not only beyond our grasp, but largely indifferent to us. Yes, she brings life to the world, but to you? to me? Maybe not so much.
So the second thing I particularly want to say about the Spirit this morning is that she is always deeply engaged with us and our lives. We heard these words of Paul from his Letter to the Romans, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:22-27)
We don’t understand the Spirit, but the Spirit understands us—and that at the very deepest level, much deeper than we understand ourselves. She intercedes within us “with sighs to deep for words,” praying for gifts that we couldn’t pray for because we don’t even understand our need for them. Our vision of our own lives isn’t yet wide enough or wise enough for that kind of prayer. But the Spirit understands us and stands by us in the lifelong task of drawing us into new and larger life. The Spirit is there, working to foster in us the power to trust and hope and love, for without these no one comes to human maturity.
Mysterious and ungraspable as the Spirit is, her aim is always that we grow and flourish and blossom. Strange as her ways often seem, her great purpose is always and only love.
We’ve said that the Spirit is beyond our grasp and yet that the Spirit aims at life for us. And the third thing I want to say about the Spirit this morning—and three things, I think, will be quite enough—is that the Spirit gives gifts. We heard the story from Acts about the first disciples on the Feast of Pentecost. They began their morning full of fear and with no real sense of a future. And what human being has not been in that spot at some time or other? But they finished the morning discovering new and wonderful gifts.
They discovered a gift of speech—to speak about their lives and the part God played in them. They discovered the courage to talk to the great world. (The Spirit, to be sure gave them a big boot in the rear on that one: she created such a commotion that they couldn’t really avoid it.) And, wonder of wonders, they found that Spirit had also given to the throng of people around them, some of them very different from themselves, the gift of being able to hear and understand what they said.
Now the Spirit, of course, doesn’t always do the big show when she distributes gifts. That would be a little too predictable, wouldn’t it? And we already know the Spirit isn’t going to be predictable because that would mean we could grab hold of her and organize her and run the show ourselves. Berkeley in the twenty-first century is probably not much easier a place to talk about Jesus than was Jerusalem two months after the crucifixion. And we haven’t exactly been seeing the big crowds. But the Spirit draws people to this little gathering of disciples one here, one there. And then the Spirit gives to each one of us gifts to share, gifts that enrich the life and understanding of the whole ongoing community—the people who are here now, the people who will yet come.
What gifts? Look around you and you’ll be reminded of some that your neighbors are sharing. Look within and you’ll be reminded of some that you have been given to share. No community of faithful people can survive without the gifts that the Spirit has given us to share with one another.
Three things, then, about the Spirit: she is ungraspable, she brings life, she brings gifts for us to share. Not a very detailed portrait, is it? No. But a detailed portrait would run the risk of being a lie, for it would seem to grasp her too completely. Only in the sharing of her gifts do we grow in the life of grace; and as we grow in the life of grace, we begin truly to understand something of the mystery of God.
Yes, Jesus taught us much. But how do we learn what we have been taught? It isn’t just a matter of learning words. Sometimes words become instruments of death rather than life; they succumb to our passion for certainty, for pinning God down, for knowing more than we can know. True understanding comes with the living of a life, not just the repeating of words. Jesus himself said, in this morning’s gospel reading that we would have to be guided into all truth by the Spirit of truth.
The Holy Spirit will lead us if we give her half a chance—that wind that blows where it likes, that inner companion who prays in us when we ourselves don’t know how to pray, that giver of gifts for us to share with one another. She is, strange to tell, active in us and among us even when we are least aware of it. Active right now. Active tomorrow and the day after, yesterday and the day before. You won’t get a grip on her. But she has a pretty good idea of you and me. And she still has some devices up her sleeve for dealing with stubborn people like us.
There will be further surprises.