08 June 2014


Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost, 8th June 2014

I often wonder why Pentecost doesn’t have the same fascination, the same amount of celebration as Christmas and Easter.  We’ve all heard of C & E Christians—Christmas and Easter Christians—you might even know one or two.  But have you ever met a C, E, & P Christian?  I don’t think so. We don’t have to set up extra chairs in the sanctuary on Pentecost, as we did on Easter this year.  We don’t have packed pews this morning as we had on Christmas Eve.  No brass quartets.  No Pentecost carols.  No one has ever complained to me that we didn’t sing enough Pentecost hymns leading up to today—not that there are that many to choose from.  No Pentecost bonnets or candy for the day. There are no Hallmark cards to mark the occasion.  So, where are you going for Pentecost brunch after worship today?

            Given the theological weight of Christmas—Annunciations, Incarnation, “God with us,” and the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”—and the profundity of Easter—death and resurrection, empty tombs, garden encounters with the Risen Christ—it’s tough to compete with these two events.  Not that it’s a competition, of course.  But Pentecost has never measured up against these two days.  All that I remember about Pentecost as a child is that it was the day we had a delicious, buttercream sheet cake during fellowship hour that read “Happy Birthday” to the Church. That was my earliest association with the day.  But it didn’t measure up against Christmas and Easter.  Pentecost is the day we celebrate the birth of the church.  That is the way Luke describes it here in Acts 2. The formation of the church is worth celebrating, of course, but Pentecost has never really obtained “big-religious-holiday” status. 

            Perhaps this is because Pentecost has to do with arrival of the Holy Spirit, and the Church has never known what to “do” with the Holy Spirit.  She’s often cast aside as the orphan of the Trinity, the “third-wheel.”  The early Church theologians insisted that the Holy Spirit is one of the “persons” of the Trinity, equal to the other two, sharing the same essence.  Yet, many Christians who claim to believe in the Trinity are really Binatarians, who worship God and Jesus and ignore the active, dynamic presence of the Spirit.

            This brings me back to my quandary about Pentecost.  At times I think we should elevate Pentecost above Christmas and Easter—a little loopy, I know, maybe even heretical, but hear me out. 

             By Pentecost I mean not the formation of the Church, but the unleashing of the Holy Spirit upon the world.  Now, whether the Holy Spirit arrived in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension, as we have here in Acts 2, or, whether she arrived on Easter when Jesus breathed his Resurrection Spirit into the disciples, as we read in John 20, is the beside the point.  They both point to the fact that something happened, that the presence, power, and purpose of the Holy Spirit was given to disciples to equip and empower and direct them for Christ’s ongoing work in the world.  The Spirit was unleashed upon the world, blowing as a gentle breeze to comfort fearful disciples, assuring them of Christ’s ongoing presence, or, raging as a forceful, violent tempest to challenge, disturb, and ultimately thrust disciples beyond the confines of an upper room, locked away by fear, sent out beyond Jerusalem to a world waiting to hear the gospel, sent out to introduce the world to the presence of the Risen Christ.

         You see, the Holy Spirit makes Christ present to us. 
The Holy Spirit presents us with the very life of Christ. 
The Spirit is the life-giver, the giver of resurrection,
who brings new life to the dead parts of our lives,
and, ultimately brings us into the
presence of the Resurrected One at the end of our days.
The Holy Spirit is the fons vitae, as John Calvin (1509-1564) liked to say,
the fountain of life,
The Spirit makes Christ real.
The Spirit makes the gospel real.
The Spirit gives us faith.
The Spirit allows us to confess our faith.
The Spirit conveys the love of God.
The Holy Spirit whispers to the depths of our spirits
and reminds us again and again that we are beloved children of grace,
children of the covenant, bound to God. 
The Spirit extends Christ to us so that we know that “God is with us.” 
The Spirit comforts and assures us, gives us strength when we are weak,
calms our nerves when we’re afraid and anxious.
The Spirit is an agent provocateur who pokes and prods and pushes us
to grow and to grow up into the image of God in Christ.
The Spirit is continually working within the depths of the psyche
in order to yield life for us,
true life,
abundant life,
hopeful life,
meaningful life,
God-praising, Christ-serving, sacrificial life,
a life that is even willing to suffer for the sake of God’s love. 
The Spirit, as Paul knew, plumbs the depths of our spirits and prays for us,
prays with us, even when we don’t have the words to pray (Rom. 8:25).
The Spirit groans with us—groans!—groans for us, as Paul says,
with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26).

            You see, the Spirit translates for us—we who were untimely born, living more than twenty centuries after Jesus—the meaning, the power, the presence of his life, death, and resurrection.  For without the work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are merely events that occurred a long time ago, historical “facts,” something we “believe” occurred in the past that we remember or commemorate. Jesus and his message then become distant, instead of something, someone close to us, that we experience here and now.

            Kevin Kling, playwright and storyteller, recently said at the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis, “There was a time when the Bible has a skin cover and floated on the breath of spoken words.”  He’s right.  There was a time when we didn’t need the Bible, as heretical as this might sound, because the Spirit was alive within Christ’s followers, in their experience.

            The Lutheran theologian Regin Prenter (1907-1990) made this clear in his classic work Spiritus Creator. He said, “…the Spirit is the real, divine sphere in which Christ comes out of the remoteness of history and the realm of pure ideas and becomes living, present reality—becomes experience.”[1] The Holy Spirit gives us an actual experience of Christ.
            Long before Prenter it was John Calvin (1509-1564) who spoke eloquently and provocatively about the person and work of the Spirit. “Till our minds are fixed on the Spirit,” Calvin said, “Christ remains of no value to us; because we look at [Christ] as an object of cold speculation without us, [that is, outside us], and therefore at a great distance from us.”  Without the Spirit, Calvin insists, Christ is far removed from us, buried in a remote past, someone we view remotely, objectively, cold, a “fact” of history to be studied and learned about, instead of a Christ encountered, a present reality, Christ known, Christ with us and for us and within us. Calvin insists, “It is only by his Spirit that he unites himself with us; and by the grace and power of the same Spirit we are made his members,” so that “we may mutually enjoy him.”[2]

            And because we are in relationship with the Risen Christ, through the Spirit, the Spirit of the Risen Christ extends resurrection to us. The Holy Spirit raises us up from our own personal tombs of death and decay, all the places we are dead or stuck. 
The Holy Spirit is power, fire, energy, vital and vitalizing. 
The Holy Spirit is dynamic, moving, swift and invisible,
like the wind, a wind—sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce—
to bring us to life,
to animate our souls,
to move our feet forward,
to get us to stretch out our hands in service, mission, and witness,
to cause our hearts to beat faster with joy. 

It’s only when the Holy Spirit is giving life to us that we can say the Spirit is bringing life to the Church. A Church that God is trying to take some place, moving us along, empowering us and inspiring us to be the people of God.

            It’s been said that the Church is dying.  Perhaps it is.  Some say Christianity is dying.  Perhaps it is.  Its message doesn’t seem to connect with folks the way it used to.  The way the Church perceives itself is definitely changing.  Christianity is changing.  Change is inevitable, it’s natural.  We can resist the change—which the Church loves to do.  Or, maybe—just maybe—the change we’re experiencing is actually a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in us, reforming us.  That’s what I think, primarily because I trust in the movement of the Spirit. The Spirit doesn’t want to take us back to the past, but to propel us forward into God’s future. 

            I was reminded of this recently.  Over the past six months the driver side mirror on my Jetta was knocked off, ripped right off.  Not once, not twice, but three times. The first time occurred in December, in front of my house; it was clipped by a snow plow that drove too close and smashed the mirror. The second time occurred right here in front of the Church House on Beechwood Avenue.  Hit and run.  This time the fender was dented, the mirror shattered.  And the third time occurred two weeks later, also on Beechwood Avenue, same location.  This time the person left a note.  I don’t park there anymore.  Was there a message in all of this for me?  It’s easy to go crazy trying to read meaning into events, but perhaps all of these incidents were trying to say to me: stop looking back.  Look ahead.  Drive forward. The Spirit propels us forward, into tomorrow, into the future.          
            The Spirit wants to move us.  That’s why it’s important to remember that God is a verb and not a noun; this distinction makes a considerable difference in our lives.  A verb implies movement, action. A noun is an object. It doesn’t move.  The God revealed to us on Sinai is a verb.  God said to Moses, my name is: I AM. Yahweh.  I am who I am; I will be who I will be (Exodus 3:14). Being itself. Jesus Christ and the Spirit share the same dynamic life of God and offer that life to us.  Yet it’s so easy to see them as nouns, instead of verbs. Jesus, Yeshua, means “Yahweh saves,” and the Spirit, pneuma in Greek, means “breath” and “wind.”  They both imply movement. 

My friend, James Hollis, a Jungian analyst, suggests that we would be better served by transforming some of our nouns to verbs.  It might make for “inelegant English,” but we would be better off.  We need to think of the human self, for example, not as a noun, but as a verb: a self selfing. Our stories are storying us.  Nature is naturing, it’s not static.  Hollis says, “Our ego, in service to understanding and the need for control converts the elemental processes in life into nouns.  We foolishly convert even ‘the gods’ into nouns, into objects ‘up there,’ looking down, rather than metaphors” for something at work in us and through us.[3]  When we turn verbs into nouns we fixate them, stop their movement or development or change or transformation, we grab hold of them and control them.  We do the same with our images of God; we’re often guilty of turning a verb into a noun, into a static idol. “We turn the mystery into nouns and make them objects.”[4] 

Perhaps, this, too, is why the Church has been reluctant to embrace the work of the Spirit, because the Spirit is pure verb: movement, action, blowing wherever she will, beyond our control—and that scares us. And it should!  But fear not!

            What if we faced that fear and let ourselves go?  What if we opened the sails of our spirits and allowed the Holy Spirit to blow through our lives in new ways, moving us forward, carrying us wherever we need to go? What would happen to us? What would happen to the Church? I don’t know for sure. But what I do know is that it will take the form of Christ: his grace, his joy, his goodness, his suffering-love, taking on flesh in our lives in tangible, life-changing, transforming ways.  It will be a church—a people—alive and always coming alive!  Come, Holy Spirit! Come!

[1]Regin Prenter, Spiritus Creator, trans. John M. Jensen (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000 [1946]), 198-199.
[2]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), II.i.3.
[3]James Hollis, Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run OurLives (Ashville, NC: Chiron Publications, 2013), 1-2, 30.  Hollis is making a psychological point here, not a theological one, but it’s equally relevant.
[4]James Hollis in a talk given to the Jung Society of Washington, Embassy of Switzerland, Washington, DC, 7th June 2014.

No comments: