John Macintyre, speaking at the Edinburgh Festival on art of religion, spoke of Pentecost as, "wholehearted expression of the almost unlimited imagination of God." That's a great thought. The Holy Spirit is an experience, let loose in the church and in the world, of the imagination of God.
On Pentecost, we celebrate the triumph of the Spirit. Over all of our differences, even the difference of our nationalities and our languages, of class, of race, of gender, over all these differences, the spirit prevailed. On Pentecost, over all of the hindrances to speech, the spirit prevailed.
You see this so dramatically in Acts 2. There we were gathered, so many different, divisive languages, nationalities (what divides us more deeply than language and nationality?) and, at the Spirit's descent, those differences were overcome. The Holy Spirit prevailed at Pentecost.
Let us be clear. There is a "human spirit." We speak of the human spirit as that power within humanity. We say that the human spirit is "indomitable." When the track star stumbled in the marathon, but recovered, got up, picked up the baton and finished the race, the sports commentator said, "That woman has great spirit," he was speaking of the human spirit. When writer William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, he gave a speech saying, "I believe in man. I believe that man will triumph, despite everything." Faulkner believed in the ultimate victory of the human spirit.
And yet, the human spirit is also at times an adversary with God. The same human spirit which, in times of difficulty, is able to take a deep breath, to clench its fist and move forward is also the spirit which clenches its fist in rage at God, in defiance and rebellion against the Creator. How ironic that the human spirit is both the source of some of our greatest achievements, and also that which brings us the greatest grief.
But today we focus upon the Holy Spirit. Lisa Fishbeck notes that, from our perspective, history is a long history of interactions, conflicts, and cooperation between the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit and the human spirit have at times been at odds, at times they have danced together, encouraged one another, at times they have been in combat with one another. Yet always, thank God, the Holy Spirit has prevailed.
Pentecost was a Jewish festival which took place not long after the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus had been raised. The disciples had seen him, resurrected and returned to them. Yet now he had ascended and left them. He told them to wait in Jerusalem until he would send them his Spirit to be with them. They waited. Was Easter something which had happened to Jesus, but not to them? Were they now in a position where they would be forced to take a deep breath, to clench their fists and move forward with a positive attitude, despite the absence of Jesus?
Many of them felt doubt and despair. Fear. Yet on Pentecost, there was a rush of mighty wind, fire, tongues of fire. The church was born. The once disheartened disciples moved out, prodded, enabled by the Holy Spirit which gave that which the human spirit could not. And the Holy Spirit prevailed.
And who will compose this church? Jews, of course. Those were the only ones gathered at Pentecost. Pentecost was a Jewish festival. The promises of God are clearly promises just for Israel. And yet, not long after the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, there are other stories. Peter has a vision, a vision which we studied just a couple of Sundays ago (May 10). In that vision a great sheet was lowered with all kinds of animals. "Don't call anything I create unclean," the voice had said.
Peter came to see that the vision was not about unclean food but about "unclean" people. He met the gentile Cornelius and baptized him. The church could have become a sect within Judaism, a gathering place for disgruntled Israelites alone. But no, the promise of God was sent even to the outsiders, to the gentiles. The Holy Spirit prevailed.
Fifteen hundred years later, the church which began at Pentecost languished. There was widespread corruption, abuse of power by the church. The church had become wealthy, complacent. Would the movement begun at Pentecost go the way of so many other organizations who mature and die? From Rotterdam Erasmus wrote his satirical, passionate, reasoned criticism. An Augustinian monk in Germany, Martin Luther, attacked, called a church back to its biblical roots. You may know the rest of the story of the reformation of the church: the Holy Spirit prevailed.
Eighteenth Century England was going through the trauma of urbanization and the first industrial revolution. Alcoholism was a plague upon the land. Poverty degraded the lives of millions. The church seemed far removed from these tragedies. Remote, privileged, cold. A priest in the Church of England named John Wesley felt his heart "strangely warmed." He began a dramatic revival which swept through England and transformed the hearts and minds of millions. The Wesleyan revival showed the resilience of the church, yes. It also showed something else. What had strangely warmed Wesley's heart? The Holy Spirit had prevailed.
Early Twentieth Century America was not that different from Eighteenth Century England. The young country's burgeoning cities where characterized by wretched tenements where recently arrived immigrants huddled. There was great poverty and despair. A young man named Frank Mason North was led into the worst of the poverty, an area of New York known as "Hell's Kitchen." There he worked among the poor, devising new structures for the uplift of the poor, giving them hope. He wrote one of our favorite hymns in this setting -- "Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life." Again, despite all, the Holy Spirit prevailed.
Women, once key leaders of the church, if the New Testament be believed, had been pushed aside as the church fell back into the patterns and mores of the surrounding culture. There were exceptions such as William and Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army. But mostly the gifts of women for leadership in ministry were ignored or repudiated. Finally, in our own century, the church awoke to the tragedy of its past practices. The gifts of women were affirmed. Our mainline Protestant churches began ordaining women and thousands flocked to our seminaries and into the pulpits of our churches. A sign that the church was finally catching up with the times? An idea "whose time had come?" A more biblical way to characterize this: the Holy Spirit prevailed.
Here's how Walter Kasper puts this matter between us and the Holy Spirit:
"Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being,
everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles,
and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is
violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain--
wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God
is at work."
Over our boundaries, leaping over our walls, throbbing, intruding, calling forth, the Holy Spirit prevailed. In our church, in our own congregation, time and again, when we have been cold of heart, slow to move, timid and cowering, the Holy Spirit has prevailed. In your own life, in those moments when all seems lost, when there is no way out, no way forward and yet you have been surprised when a door was opened, a way when there was no way, the Holy Spirit has prevailed.
We therefore do not loose hope. We therefore are kept on tiptoes, expectant, eager,
sometimes even nervous! For the Holy Spirit which gave birth to our church continues to
prod, cajole, and beckon forward our church. Just when we get all settled down,
comfortable with present arrangements, our pews bolted securely to the floor, all fixed
and immobile, there comes a rush of wind, or a still small voice, a breath of fresh air,
tongues of fire and.....the Holy Spirit prevails!
(I am indebted to the Reverend Lisa Fishbeck and her 1995 Pentecost sermon for the basic metaphor which is developed in this sermon.)
Come, Holy Spirit. Come with wind and fire. Shake us to our foundations. Breathe upon us.
You know us, how well we love the predictable, the secure, and the stable. You know how we curl up in the comfort of conventional. You know us. We are always attempting to turn church into a merely human fellowship. We are quite content with present arrangements. We die.
Yet we know that without your life-giving breath, we are nothing. Without some power, greater than our own, we are powerless in the face of death, prejudice, the walls which divide, words which hurt, diseases which will not be cured, and problems which seem insoluble.
Come, Holy Spirit. Come with wind and fire. Shake us to our foundations. Breathe upon us. Amen.