Today is the day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit empowering Jesus’ first followers to spread his loving, liberating, and life-giving message. If you were listening closely to the readings, you might have noticed we actually read two different versions of the sending of the Holy Spirit. In the first one from the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit spirals into the house like a rushing wind from heaven and anoints the disciples with tongues like fire. In this story, we sense the glorious upheaval in the lives of the disciples as these elemental forces – wind, fire – disrupt and invigorate them to embrace their new ministry as Jesus’ witnesses.
In the second story from the Gospel of John, Jesus comes to his disciples on the evening of the resurrection. They lean in close as he breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In this intimate story, Jesus delivers the Comforter, the enlivening companion the disciples need to be about their work.
Sermon for Sunday, June 8, 2014 || Pentecost, Year A || Acts 2:1-21
Being a creative type, I have found myself relating to the Holy Spirit more readily than most people do. Whenever I sit down to write or play my guitar, I try to acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s presence in that creative activity. I’ve always thought of the Holy Spirit as God’s creativity in the act of making and molding and speaking existence into being. And I’ve always thought of my own creativity as my response to the Holy Spirit moving in my life. The Holy Spirit, then, is the in-spir-ation for my creativity. The Spirit inspires. The two words even come from the same Latin root!
But after many, many conversations with parishioners across several churches, anecdotal evidence suggests that most people gravitate to God the Father or God the Son, rather than to God the Holy Spirit. For a long time, I’ve honestly felt a bit strange due to my affinity for the Holy Spirit. After all, so many people have told me they have real difficulty relating in any meaningful way to this creative force, this inspirer, the Holy Spirit.
But here I must confess something. I’ve come to realize that my process of anecdotal evidence gathering has been totally flawed. For years, I’ve been shortchanging the Holy Spirit when conversing with people about their relationships with God. I’ve been shortchanging the Holy Spirit because in those conversations, I’ve described how I relate to the Holy Spirit as if it’s the only viable option. If the other people didn’t relate to the Holy Spirit in the way I do – in the creative, inspirational way – then I failed to help them name the way the Holy Spirit was, in fact, relating to them. And they assumed they just had no share in the Holy Spirit.
So the rest of this sermon is the beginning of my own remedial training in how the Holy Spirit moves, apart from the raw creativity I’m used to. When I was in college, I often studied by recounting aloud to other people what I had learned, so consider the next several minutes a study session on the Holy Spirit’s movement. As this is a remedial course, I’m going to stick close to our textbook and even to the word “Spirit” itself.
Here goes. We’ve already talked about in-spir-ation, the creative spark that I mistakenly reduced the Holy Spirit to. But what about a-spir-ation. Each and every one of us experiences the Holy Spirit because each and every one of us has aspirations – goals, dreams, hopes for the future. The Holy Spirit fires these aspirations within us, and gives us strength and support to realize our own potential.
The Holy Spirit was present at creation as the wind that swept over the face of the waters. In the tremulous moment before God said, “Let there be light,” there was nothing. But there was aspiration. There was God’s dream for creation. In that tremulous moment, the Holy Spirit gathered the potential energy of all that would be.
We are each of us small pieces of that potential energy. We are each of us small pieces of God’s aspirations. When we set goals, when we dream, when we aspire to accomplish all that God invites us to do, then we are resonating with the Holy Spirit’s movement. It’s no wonder then, that after the Spirit descends in the rushing wind and tongues of fire, the apostle Peter quotes from the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
Are you beginning to see how much bigger the Spirit’s movement is than my pigeonholing it to simple creativity? We have inspiration. And we have aspiration. How about per-spir-ation? Each and every one of us experiences the Holy Spirit because each and every one us has worked hard to achieve something worthwhile. We’ve put our backs into it. We’ve used our elbow grease. We’ve sweated, perspired.
The Holy Spirit, as our constant companion, gives us the perseverance and endurance to see things through. Those tongues of fire that descended on the heads of the apostles didn’t vanish. No, they kept descending and lodged in their guts. Have you ever heard the expression “a fire in your belly?” The fire of the Holy Spirit catalyzed the apostles to spread the good news of Jesus Christ far and wide, and to be witnesses for the love and grace of God, come what may. It’s no secret that most of Jesus’ original followers came to untimely and grisly ends, but they did so with the fire un-extinguished. They kept perspiring for the sake of the Gospel because the Holy Spirit kept fueling their fire.
When we sweat for things, when we put our hearts and souls into a worthwhile project, then we are ever so much more invested in the outcome. Habitat for Humanity calls the work their homeowners put into their own homes “sweat equity.” Their perspiration gives them a deeper sense of ownership when the work is done. And so does ours when we partner with the Holy Spirit and perspire for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
We have inspiration. We have aspiration. We have perspiration. Finally, in our remedial course on the Holy Spirit’s movement, we have re-spir-ation. Each and every one of us experiences the Holy Spirit because each and every one of us breathes. It’s that simple. Each breath we take is a gift from God. We inhale this gift. The breath of the Holy Spirit infuses us; keeps our bodies, souls, and spirits intact and integrated; and animates us with the desire to serve God in our day-to-day lives. Then we exhale the gift of the Holy Spirit in our actions, in our service, in our love.
The Church calls the Holy Spirit the “sustainer” and the “comforter.” The “sustainer” evokes the constancy of the Spirit’s presence; the “comforter” evokes the peace that comes from breathing deeply. During the last supper, Jesus told his friends he would not leave them orphaned, but would provide them the Spirit to abide with them. After the resurrection, Jesus met them again in the upper room and breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Our constant respiration – whether we are conscious of our breath or not – links us to the Holy Spirit.
Inspiration. Aspiration. Perspiration. Respiration. We participate in the Holy Spirit’s movement in each of these ways. The Spirit sparks our creativity. The Spirit fuels our dreams. The Spirit fires our determination. And the Spirit breathes on our embers, rekindling us again and again. If you have never given your relationship with the Holy Spirit much thought, I invite you, I urge you, to pray about these things. Do not ask if the Spirit is moving in your life. Ask how.