Listen to the sermon HERE.
If I were to ask you to picture the Holy Spirit, what image would come to mind? Do you picture flames of fire? A spark, flickering deep within the heart, somewhere? Do you picture a dove? A cloud? Perhaps you think of holy oil, chrism given when someone is anointed, chrism given at baptism. Maybe you imagine a wind—a mighty wind blowing with justice and truth and righteousness; or a small wind, like that still, small voice that Elijah heard.
Today is the Day of Pentecost, which was a Jewish feast before it took on particular Christian significance. It was to mark the fifty days since the Passover and often coincided with the end of the wheat harvest. So it was a celebration. In the Christian observance of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit in new ways. And in today’s scriptures, we’re given a variety of images for understanding the work and way of the Spirit.
For me, every Pentecost is filled with those images from scripture and with images from art and music. But this year, in particular, I saw a new image for the Holy Spirit—right on Madison Avenue the other day.
I was walking up Madison and keeping almost the same pace as two young people. As I watched them, block to block—sometimes I would be ahead, if they stopped to look at something, and then at other times, they would pass me—I noticed they were speaking Spanish and seemed to be tourists. They were taking in everything. The girl was maybe 15 or 16 and the boy maybe 9 or 10. A fancy car passed by and they pointed and were delighted. A musician was playing on the street, and they loved that. Over and over again, the boy would point to something and the sister would begin to explain.
It was fun watching them, and to try to imagine things through their eyes. As we got to 79th Street, the boy kept going at full speed. Just then, a truck came barreling around the corner and would have completely taken him out except for his sister. It was his sister who yanked him by the arm, pulled him out of the street, and held him tight.
It occurred to me then, how much that young woman was like the Holy Spirit of God. With care, with speed, with love, with force—she saved.
On this Day of Pentecost, we (again) try to open ourselves more fully to the gift of God’s Spirit, and we, like most of the Church, struggle with the images.
The Spirit of God at the beginning of creation is like a wind, or like a breath. This Spirit hovers over the creation of all things.
In the Wisdom Literature of the Bible, the Spirit is personified as a woman running through the streets, Lady Wisdom, seeking for any who will stop and listen to what she has to say.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit descends like tongues of fire and does quick work at helping all of the disciples who have gathered—disciples from all directions and languages and cultures and backgrounds and differences—understand each other. Of all the work of God’s Spirit, helping people who are very different from one another be able to understand each other while retaining their individuality and difference—that is surely the work of God, and work we should pray for and welcome.
In the Gospel of John, the Holy Spirit comes not by fire, but through the breath of Christ—a human, God-breath. Like with other people, his disciples would have recognized Jesus from his breath, carrying with it the things he ate and drank, the area he was from, the condition of the day, all kinds of things local, and immediate, and particular. There’s nothing vague about the breath of Christ. And yet, there is in that breath, the power of God.
Jesus breaks into a locked room, Jesus breaks into our hearts– with the strength of that young woman who pulled her brother out of danger. And Jesus pulls us out of danger with the same loving force. He pulls us out of sin. He pulls us out of the clutches of evil. He pulls us from following the wrong way or the wrong road or being with the wrong people.
When that young woman pulled her brother from the path of a car, I bet it hurt him a little, and I bet his arm felt it later. There may have even been a bruise. But again, this is like God’s work with us sometimes. Like Jacob who wrestles with the angel of God, God renews us and strengthens us, but we often feel his strength in ways that are painful reminders of the struggle. For Mary to give birth to new life, there was pain, just as any mother goes through—tears and pain, pain that seems unjustified, inexplicable, good-for-nothing— and yet, on the other side, there is life, and laughter, and love.
Christ’s Spirit comes with peace, but it is no easy peace. There’s a hymn in our hymnal that sings about this. It begins by talking about the disciples as simple, peaceful fishermen and villagers. “Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful, and broke them too.” It goes on to describe “Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died, Peter, who hauled the teeming net, head-down was crucified.” And finally, the hymn summarizes this strange life-taking, life-changing, life-transforming peace: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod, Yet let us pray for but one thing — the marvelous peace of God.” (Hymn 661)
I sometimes wonder, when we pray for peace, are we open to the true peace of God—a peace sometimes brings turmoil and commotion, before a gentle peace can set in. This is the way of God’s spirit, sometimes to yank us out of where we’re heading, so that we can be in the right place.
Those kids I was watching on Madison Avenue did a funny thing just after they avoided the car. The sister sort of hugged her brother close, “Cuidado!,” “Be careful!,” and kissed him on the head. But then, seeing that the car had passed, (the “walk” sign still was red and saying “don’t walk”), the big sister saw an opening—other cars still coming, but she grabbed her brother’s hand and said, “Now.” And they ran across. Undeterred. Unafraid. Fearless and ready for life’s next adventure. Again, a good image for the Holy Spirit of God.
Sometimes I might prefer to stand still, gather my wits, breathe deeply and just “be.” And sometimes that’s the faithful thing to do. But too often, I get comfortable standing still, enjoying the scenery. That’s when, if I’m open to it, the Spirit can grab me, provoke me, push me into the streets of life to get busy, to get faithful, and to begin rely on God in new ways.
The Holy Spirit comes in fiery love and in the strong, bright breath of Christ. May we allow Christ’s spirit to grab us, hold us, love us, change us, push and pull us into new faithfulness.
In the name of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.