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Sunday, June 9, 2019 | 4:00 p.m.

What’s the Deal with the Holy Spirit?

"Big Questions" Sermon Series

Lucy Forster-Smith
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 104:24–34, 35b
Acts 2:1–21


It is no surprise to me that one of the big questions that arose from that box of questions we collected some months ago—questions you hoped would be addressed in a sermon at Fourth Church—relates to the Holy Spirit.

“What’s the deal with the Holy Spirit?” is a question that brings us squarely into this day—the Day of Pentecost, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit for the church. What may come as a surprise to some of you and may make total sense to others is that the idea of the Holy Spirit and its role in the church is one of the most challenging questions we have. It is largely so challenging because of the story we have read from the Acts of the Apostles today.

The story is dramatic; it is unsettling. It brings us face-to-face with just how upending the work of God’s Spirit was for the early disciples. It takes us to the last days of one story and the first days, the birthday of the church, of another. For many of us who are followers of Jesus, we simply don’t want our faith to be tied to a phenomenon that upends what we have been so careful to keep in check. That is our faith.

In today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles it is important to set the context. It had been fifty days since Passover, and in the Jewish calendar there is a great and glorious festival to celebrate the first fruits of the spring planting. The Festival of Weeks was one of three important festivals for the Jewish community. So it makes sense that the disciples, this group of Jewish believers, would have gathered together to celebrate this holiday.

But it is also important to note that they were likely a timid group, having lived through the highs and lows of crucifixion, resurrection, promises of presence, and then Jesus leaving them in the ascension. So on that Pentecost Day, the disciples are praying again in an upper room together. As they wait together, the next move is God’s.     

Indeed, the next move was God’s. And what a move it was! They were gathered together, perhaps huddled together, fearing for their very lives. I suspect that after waiting for quite a while they felt like they were staring out at the sameness of their life, wondering if anything had changed with Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is remarkable that they waited. But then the dawn broke; there was an eruption of sound; a gale-force wind; and with it things were coming loose, breaking open, bringing something to life.

Does this sound strangely akin to the wind across the face of the deep at the dawning of creation? Indeed, when wind arrives, something new comes to life!

But it wasn’t only the wind that came into that house. There were tongues of fire on each and every one of them, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit not only came over the disciples who waited, but it came upon those in the street. They were from places all over the earth, and in a wondrous moment they were able to understand every other person around them. The biblical text enumerates all of the native lands and tongues. We can only imagine the confusion. They are stunned, bewildered, overwhelmed by the experience.

Of course there are always the naysayers, who try to tame the overwhelming, bewildering, stunning moment, naming it inebriation. At one level, it was, because when something so radical, so new, so remaking and shifting occurs, heels dig in, the old guard comes out, the walls go up, and the agitators inflict. But the naysayers could not be hospitable to the goodness of life. And when there was a baptism by fire, the erupting intension of an inclusive, life-bearing Spirit that birthed a new way of engaging the world, it probably was terrifying to have old order coming unglued!

So, what’s the deal with the Holy Spirit? The deal is that it is a reality that simply cannot be contained by explanation or by study. What is even more challenging is that the Bible does not speak with a single voice about the role of or idea of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit shows up throughout the Bible in all sorts of places and with many expressions. From the wind sweeping across the dark waters on the first morning of the creation of the world—the wind, or spirit, brings something to life—to the encounter in John’s Gospel when the scholarly Nicodemus in an evening chat with Jesus asks, “Can a man enter his mother’s womb and be born again?” Jesus leads him down a clear path to the Spirit when he says, “You must be born anew. The wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or wither it goes; so with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” And we feel something stir in us, because we also know that in our very breath the power of God arises.

We can swallow these stories because we know the creation story, and we also know that Jesus called this man to be born anew. The personal encounter with Jesus infuses a new reality into this individual, and for many of us, we’ve also had the personal encounter and have found our way into an individual relationship with Jesus Christ. But I have a feeling that the question “What’s the deal with the Holy Spirit?” arose from the confusion about the role of the Holy Spirit in the collective church today. And it is truly quite confusing, indeed.

In these days, when the vision is dim and there is a cosmic crisis afoot, when we wonder if anything can pull us back from the brink of extinction, do we really believe in the gift of the Spirit for the church in our time? Do we actually believe that God’s Holy Spirit is an actor in the cosmic sweep? Or are we still waiting in the upper room for the Spirit to arrive or standing with the naysayers, because the truth entrusted to us is simply too stunning, too pressing, too outright unbelievably life-giving? Do we bury the idea of the Holy Spirit because it is untamed or is leading us to speak truth to power or is there to bring wonders and signs, miracles of healing, economic sharing, and community?

That same Spirit guided and empowered that early church to have courage in the face of threats and even martyrdom. The Spirit came to the Gentiles, bringing those who are outsiders inside as full participants. The Holy Spirit provided guidance in major decisions that the church faced as it came to life. The Spirit-led freedom has contributed to the radical inclusivity of the church—for instance, women and minority communities in the first century (think Lydia and Priscilla and the Ethiopian eunuch)—and shattered the received religious and cultural patterns.

In addition, the Apostle Paul developed an elaborate theology of the Holy Spirit—its role in sending spiritual gifts to equip the church for ministry; giving cooperation and guidance to leaders; inspiring interpretation for the prophetic ministry in the world and in songs. It was as if the early church was, as one commentator put it, “remarkably open to a dynamic and fluid way of operating, based on its theology and experience of the Holy Spirit” (Feasting on the Word, p. 16). Immediate guidance in the polity and practice of faith arose from the Holy Spirit. But it was not without problems. What if one group understood the Spirit leading in one way and another sensed it was leading in another?

With a wide latitude in which Spirit-led communities discerned and engaged, problems emerged. Even in the story of the early church we see the Spirit-driven freedom giving way to a more hierarchical and structured communal life. They almost structured the Holy Spirit out of the church’s life by establishing rules for every aspect of it; the freedom and radical reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit was muted. But I want to say on this day it is far from silenced!

In our day, we see Christian brothers and sister practicing Holy Spirit traditions. On the planet today Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing expression of Christianity. The emphasis on religious experience and strong sense of community are markers of this Holy Spirit expression. In a more subdued way, the Quakers, with their inner light and silent waiting, practice a quiet Holy Spirit tradition.

But what about Holy Spirit traditions in the Presbyterian church? God’s Spirit will not be bound by one expression. It is manifold. It is magnificent!

We see it at our birth, yes—God’s Holiest Spirit of life arrives. My spouse, Tom, recorded in his journal his account of the birth of our son, Christopher. The recounting of all that led to his being pushed out into the world is very moving. But the part that I, as the birthmother, did not experience was the moment when Chris was born a gray, mucus-covered little being, and as soon as the birth fluids were cleared, Tom witnessed our son’s first breath, the animating inspiration—and suddenly what was a gray little being, who made his way through the birth canal and out into the world, became pink, totally alive, shrieking with life. The birth comes with pain, and the birth comes with Spirit hovering close and bringing life on the first morning of our son’s life.

Another way I experience the Holy Spirit is as comfort and healing presence as well as in times of crisis. My seminary professor Jim Loder told a story of a personal crisis, when he was changing a tire on a busy highway and the car was hit from behind. He was pinned under it and severely injured. Several interventions happened, and he was released from under the car and moved to the side of the road until the ambulance came. At that moment, lying by the side of the road, this brilliant theologian, who knew the theory of God’s presence, found himself filled with a gracious presence from head to toe. In his wounded and near-death reality, a Holy Presence filled him with love, with joy, and with confidence. He told this story to us in a classroom, weeping for its truth and power. In vulnerability of injury, addiction, pain, illness, we find the Holy Spirit’s power.

Another way of God’s Holy Spirit is its distinct capacity to drive the church into all the world as it did that early church on the Day of Pentecost. By contrast to John’s understanding of the Holy Spirit as an interior phenomenon, “Luke goes to great pains,” writes one commentator, “to insist that the outpouring of the Spirit is anything but interior. The Holy Spirit inspires us to ‘go public’ with the good news, attract a crowd, and say something worth hearing” (Feasting on the Word).

There may be times when a preacher or teacher draws the congregation or classroom into territory in which there is a sort of holy terror, when a very urgent and absolutely unrelenting charge is given to a community and everyone feels the electricity of the moment. I’ve seen it in worship, and I’ve also seen it during peace vigils and justice marches, when people, young and old and all in-between, step out and protest something going on in the world. I’ve been in vigils to grieve the shooting of the Muslim dental students in North Carolina, seen students gather in great numbers following Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida, stood alongside sexual assault victims on campus, and witnessed those calling attention to the perennial worry about environmental sustainability.

When communities gather, there is often a feeling that the small action of a few or even a thousand is pretty insignificant, given the stakes of the issue. But they step out. And then, almost without fail, something remarkable happens. Someone starts a chant or a song breaks out—“We Shall Overcome” borrowed from the sixties or ‘We Are a Gentle Angry People” or some other popular song, and it starts in one part of the rally and then, like wildfire, erupts in another and another. And these people stand in the Pentecost tradition, proclaiming that the future is never closed, fixed, or finished. Rather, the Spirit’s power that showed up on that Pentecost day has a stubborn refusal to keep quiet and accept the world as unalterably given.

The pattern at Pentecost begins in fear and vulnerability: a community that is worried that all they pinned their hope to is not going to be. They wait as a very tiny community, and they wonder if the promises are vaporous. But then comes the Spirit’s might, more than they ever dreamed, and rather than leaving that forlorn band of disciples to fend for themselves, to figure it out on their own, through the power of the Holy Spirit they are given the capacity to imagine the world in a new way and to see in the world they inhabited  its remarkable potential.

Siblings in Christ, I am convinced that God is not finished with the church or with our dreams or our fear or our sorrow! God comes to us in this place on this day, to the church, and a great wind is blowing. Do you trust it? Do you feel it? Do you believe it?

Just wait. It is coming to you, and to me, and to this church in its fullness and power.

And for this we give thanks and praise. Amen.