We’ve become accustomed to rapid change in our culture and in our lives but still, sometimes, the speed and amount of change can be breathtaking. Take gay marriage for example. Two or three decades ago, it was unimaginable. Less than a decade ago, voters in Wisconsin passed a constitutional amendment banning it. Still, in the months since the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Defense of Marriage Act, courts all over the country have struck such bans down, including the one in Wisconsin. And over the weekend, we’ve been treated to scenes of marriages taking place at the City-County building a few blocks away. Wherever one stands on the issue, the rapidity of the change is unsettling. In this, as in so many other aspects of our lives, we’re often not sure what it all means, where our culture and world is moving, and where we as individuals, and as the body of Christ, should take a stand.
Change is unsettling. It’s unsettling in the world around us, it’s also unsettling in the life of a congregation. As we struggle with the next steps in our master planning process and capital campaign, we are in a very anxious, unsettling place. We’re trying to discern a way forward and waiting to hear from architects and construction managers what the scope of a first phase might be, given what we’ve learned from our capital campaign feasibility study. We’re looking for clear direction and guidance, and right now, things are rather murky.
In times of rapid change, we look to God for guidance. We seek God’s will; try to discern where the Holy Spirit is leading us. But often, usually, when we find ourselves in the midst of change, doing that work, sensing God’s movement is especially difficult. Often, in times like these, our tendency is to be like the disciples in today’s gospel reading, to hunker down, to lock our doors, and hide from all of the change that’s happening out in the world. But today is the Feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to us. Pentecost is a celebration of the spirit’s power to change lives and to change the world. Pentecost is a celebration of the spirit’s power to change us in ways we can’t imagine and can’t predict.
As I’ve lived with these texts this week, the reading from John’s gospel has worked powerfully on me. It’s a wonderfully blend of the very feast we celebrate today. As we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit that came on Pentecost, this text draws us back to Easter. Today is the 50th day of Easter, the last day of Eastertide, the Easter season and our text challenges us not to separate the two, resurrection and Holy Spirit, Easter and Pentecost, but to understand them, and experience them, as part of a single whole.
Both of our Pentecost texts today, both John and Acts, connect with the larger story of God’s activity in history. The Holy Spirit that comes as a rushing wind is the Pneuma, the Ruach, in Hebrew, that brooded, or hovered over the face of the deep in Genesis 1:1. The Word that was uttered in creation becomes the words that everyone hears in their own language on this miraculous day.
In John, the echoes are even louder. Jesus breathes on the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit. It’s the very same word that is used in the Greek version of Genesis to describe God’s actions when God breathes into adam and makes him a living being. As simply and subtly as that, John tells us that the Holy Spirit’s coming is a new, or re-creation, bringing about the repair and perfection of God’s original creation that was damaged in the Fall. Creation, and new creation is underscored in this story by the repeated mention that it was the first day of the week. Just as God had created in six days in Genesis 1, now the resurrection on the first day of the week ushers in new creation with the gift of the Spirit to the disciples.
Even the Psalm alludes to the ongoing creative work of the Holy Spirit:
You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.
Creation continues in the lives of God’s creatures, including all living things as well as human beings. Creation is playful, arbitrary, God’s delight. God created Leviathan out of sheer joy, for the sport of it—because God could. God’s Spirit continues that life-giving, creative, delightful work. The Spirit empowers the disciples of Jesus Christ to participate in the new creation that is unfolding among us.
There’s another important lesson in all this. The spirit is unruly, uncontrollable. Just as it hovered over the chaos at creation, the spirit rushes like a mighty wind and like a mighty wind, it can wreak havoc in its path. In Acts, Peter quotes 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.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
We see already in this quotation something of the Spirit’s ongoing activity. Peter, or Luke (the author of Acts) has added a couple of things that connect the words of Joel with this working of the Spirit in the new community of the followers of Jesus. First is the phrase “in these last days”—so the Holy Spirit is itself a sign of the new age that began with Jesus’ resurrection. Second, the word “signs.” “Signs and wonders” recur throughout Acts. Throughout the text, they are evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit and the resurrection of Jesus Christ; evidence, too that God is present among this new movement.
But there is something chaotic in all of this, beginning with the mighty rushing wind, the tongues of fire, and then the ecstatic behavior of the disciples in the public square, behavior that amazed and perplexed bystanders, some of them drawing the conclusion that the disciples were drunk. There is unsettling chaos too just under the surface, or behind the scenes, when we reflect that the Holy Spirit came upon all of those in attendance in the Upper Room, men as well as women, including Jesus’ Mother. The Spirit is unruly, uncontrollable. It blows where it wills.
The disciples were cowering in fear behind those locked doors when Jesus suddenly appeared among them. The gift of the Holy Spirit changed their fear into courage, their weakness into power, their sadness into joy. The direction the Spirit is leading us may not be clear, we may not know what God’s will is, in our own lives, in the life of this congregation, or in the world around us. But we can know this. God is present here, among us. Jesus Christ is present with us. The Holy Spirit is present here, hovering over us, filling us, inspiring us, pushing us forward and outward. Nonetheless, let us pray that the Spirit continue to come upon us, as Isaac Watts wrote,
“Come Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove, kindle in us a flame of sacred love [help us]… shed abroad the Savior’s love”