The Surprises of the Holy Spirit

Fiery HeartA sermon for June 9, 2019, the Day of Pentecost. The scripture readings are Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:14-17 , and John 14:8-17, 25-27)

Listen to the sermon HERE.

There’s a cartoon that has been making the rounds of social media this week.  It shows a group of people who look like the disciples, all kneeling in a circle.  Above their heads are tongues of fire, like the ones we just heard about in the Reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  But then, in the cartoon, there’s another disciple talking to a little boy, over to the side.  The little boy, seeing the flames, has brought a long stick with what appears to be a marshmallow on the end.  The disciple frowns at the little boy and says, “Don’t even THINK about it.”

Though it might not be what one typical says or hears in a sermon on the Day of Pentecost, I think one of the most powerful ways the Holy Spirit makes herself known in our lives is through humor.  Like humor, the Holy Spirit can be unpredictable and unruly.  The Holy Spirit sometimes defies custom or expectation and rarely stands on protocol or good manners.  The Holy Spirit is not to be ordered and measured and kept within bounds. The Holy Spirit moves through wind and fire and water, and just when we think we know what to look for in our lives, the Holy Spirit can move in yet a new, surprising way.

In today’s first reading, the Holy Spirit is described as like the “rush of a violent wind, filling all the house, and appearing in fire, as if in tongues of fire dancing over the heads of the disciples.” Like a mighty wind, the Holy Spirit often blows away whatever barriers there might have been between the disciples, barriers in understanding, barriers in language, barriers in experience or theology or personality. Like the wind blowing over desert sand, with the Holy Spirit, what was rough and uneven is made smooth and similar.

And yet, remember the old story about Elijah, tired, hunted by the queen, wondering if God had forgotten him.  Elijah hides in a cave and God shows up–but not exactly like Elijah imagines.  There blows a great wind,  but God is not in the wind.  Then there’s an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake.  Finally, there’s fire, but God is not in the fire.  Once all of Elijah’s preconceptions of God’s appearance have been sorted through, God’s Spirit eventually makes herself known in a “still, small voice.”  Or as some translations say, “the sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kings 19:11-13)

Though it was not the case for Elijah, God’s Spirit often does come as fire.  For Moses and the people of Israel, God’s Holy Fire led them through dark times, through the desert, and eventually into liberation.  In the Acts of the Apostles, the reading we heard a few minutes ago, we hear how these timid, scared, disorganized disciples are practically set “on fire” by the Holy Spirit. They leave their hideaway house inflamed with the love of God and a sense of mission that takes them to the ends of the world with the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit moves through wind and like fire but also moves through water. The Spirit moved over water at the beginning of creation, way back in Genesis. The Holy Spirit parted the waters at the Exodus, and opened up the way of freedom. The Holy Spirit used the image of a great fish to wash Jonah, bring him to himself, and set him again on the course of God.  And then, famously, at the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove over the water, with blessing, cleansing, and anointing.

Last week, we called down the Holy Spirit in a particular way over and in the waters of baptism, as we baptized Marion Diaz. We asked God to move with Spirit over the water and into the water and into little Marion:  to cleanse her from the power of sin (that she will doubtless face one day) and to strengthen her for a life lived in faithfulness.  As the priest or bishop anoints with Holy Oil, we say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

As powerfully as those disciples in the upper room, in our baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit. The water in which we die is holy water. The water in which we are reborn is holy water, and no matter what we do (no matter what sin, what harm, what disaster we might create), we never fully outgrow its residue of that Holy Water. It clings to us. It stays with us.

At our baptism, we receive the promise of the Holy Spirit’s presence and movement, thought we get no promises on exactly how the Spirit may show up for us. She might come wind, to blow away whatever is extra and no longer needed. The winds of the Holy Spirit open our ears to hear scripture in a new way, or to hear music in a way that we might have never heard before, or perhaps like those early disciples, to open our ears to one another in some new way. Or perhaps the Holy Spirit comes as God’s sense of humor, to help us laugh at ourselves, to take ourselves less seriously and admit we might not be the center of the universe and have all the answers.

When I think of God’s Holy sense of humor, I think of words and images used by the 13th century monk and mystice, Meister Eckhart.  In words that lead us into next week, Trinity Sunday, Meister Eckhart laugher as a profound theological expression and linked it with his understanding of the Trinity. He asked, Do you want to know what goes on in the core of the Trinity?

I will tell you. In the core of the Trinity the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us. (Matthew Fox, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, 1983).

On this day when we celebrate the Holy Spirit, may we be open to the Spirit’s reminding, to her strengthening, to his inflaming, to peace-bestowing love that unsettles and eventually smiles us into smiling in the face of God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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