The Reverend Kathleen Killian
John 14:8-17, (25-27)
On the Fiftieth Day
Today marks the culmination of a long liturgical journey, from Ash Wednesday through Lent and Holy Week to Easter resurrection; from earth and ashes, through water, wind and fire, we have been carried upon the great rhythmical tide of the worshipping church to this day of Pentecost or as the word means, the fiftieth day; the fiftieth day after Easter and the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to his disciples.
In our reading from Acts, when the day of Pentecost had come and the disciples were all together, it was fifty days after the Passover, at the time of an agricultural festival of great thanksgiving for the first fruits of the wheat harvest. Pentecost also marked the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jerusalem would have been teaming with Jewish pilgrims who had come from every nation under heaven to worship and celebrate—except that is—for a small band of Jesus’ disciples who were huddled together in the upper room of a small house. In the midst of the busy noisy city, the disciples were waiting, as they had been instructed to by the risen Jesus. But Jesus was now no longer with them, having ascended to the Father. It’s as if they were suspended in time and holding their breath—though exactly for what—they didn’t know.
Then suddenly from out of the blue, from nowhere but somewhere, a tempest of wind and fire erupted—the doors and windows flew open, the furniture went flying—and I bet the disciples did too. Enter in She of the Wind, the untamed Holy Spirit of God. No sooner had the disciples picked themselves up did tongues of the Spirit’s fire flame down upon the their disheveled heads; filled with the Holy Spirit, they began speaking in a cacophony of languages other than their own, the riotous uproar drawing the attention of the crowds outside.
While some were simply perplexed at not only hearing but understanding so many languages, others assumed this to be a house party of epic proportions and nothing but drunken ravings. But Peter set them straight: of course we’re not drunk, he says to them, it’s only nine in the morning—as if it’s more likely that at nine in the morning God’s Holy Spirit is creating holy havoc! I must admit to having a chuckle at Peter’s statement. But on that wild and ferocious day, fifty days after the Resurrection, the Church was born, midwifed by the Holy Spirit in a messy noisy birth, as most births tend to be.
God’s Holy Spirit is indeed a mothering one, generous and embracing of new life; all of the pilgrims from far and near could hear what the Spirit was saying, no need for translation; the words of God were directly perceived in this spirit of adoption.
But this was not the first appearance of the Holy Spirit. We find her in the very first page of the Bible and in the beginning when the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters (Genesis (1:2). This is the same Holy Spirit who birthed Jesus through Mary (Luke 1:35); who anointed him in the form of a dove (Luke 3:21-22); but then drove the newly baptized Jesus into the wilderness for forty days, only to send him back into the world with the Spirit of God upon him(Luke 4:1,14)—a mantle, a weight, a force, and energy—with which to declare the good news of God’s kingdom to all. Our scriptures show us that though the Holy Spirit can be unpredictable and interruptive, her work is to ultimately empower and inspire life.
In our gospel passage, the Spirit is known as the paraclete, which most often is translated as advocate, counselor or comforter, though it literally means one called alongside. The Holy Spirit is the one called alongside to help us; and, as the Spirit of truth, to teach us God’s truth or Word, and help us to grow in Christ. As translated from the Greek aletheia, “truth” is an “uncovering” or a process of revelation. Truth is revealed by peeling back the layers and peering under the surface into the dark of the depths; or simply put, truth is an ever expanding awareness of God’s reality, which like the Spirit, is never as straight forward or time-bound as we perhaps would like. God’s truth unfolds in the midst of our heartbreaking and achingly beautiful world, and so Jesus says to his followers: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.
I need to hear this truth and these words more than ever, better than ever, clearer than ever, because the heart of the world is troubled indeed. I would imagine that I am not alone in my continued sense of frustration and helplessness in the spate of mass shootings that have occurred over these past few weeks, in the ordinary and sacred places of our common life: a grocery store, an elementary school, a hospital, a church, at a funeral. It is too easy to despair. But, as St. Paul tells us, when we are overwhelmed and can’t even pray, the Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting and prays for us and in us, carrying our burdens and pain to the holy One (Romans 8:26). I found this quote from Howard Thurman especially helpful at a time when it’s hard to know what to do, and because it points to the vivifying work of the Spirit: Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive (Thurman). Amen to that. What the world needs is people who have come alive in the Spirit.
God’s Holy Spirit has been sent and is here, abiding with us and in us, as Jesus says in our gospel today. If you look into those places of your life that are not whole but lacking or wanting, there you will find the Counselor; listen to Her wisdom. If you are feeling weak in body or faint of heart, there you will find the Comforter; lean heavily upon Her strength and peace. Watch for the guidance of the Guide in your dreams, your imagination or waking conversations with others; allow Her creative work to flow.
When you are less efficient and more spontaneous, less capable but more receptive, then you know the creative movement of the Holy Spirit; when you wake up with a knowing or unfamiliar restlessness, when you simply trust with the abandon of a child then you know the vibrancy of the Holy Spirit; when you forgive without reward, confess without defense, and love freely, the Holy Spirt is helping you to remember God’s truth; when you are quiet and still, when you are called to wait while the world rushes by or called to set out while everyone else stays home; when you brave becoming who God created you to be; when you choose death-defying life over life-denying fear; when you accept defeat without losing hope, letting the world turn as it must; when you risk believing; when you receive the sacrament; when you take your very next breath, then you know the the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is that simple and that profound.
May She of the Wind blow through our hearts and upturn its carefully arranged furniture, sweeping us across the threshold of the flung-open door, taking us where She will, as She did those first disciples on that first Christian Pentecost, which we are celebrating today. Let us not be afraid to follow that which is beyond our grasp but within our reach. Let us allow this flame of God to burn in our hearts and set our feet on fire, that we blaze a trail of light and hope.
Jesus has broken through the barrier of death to life; a bridge has been laid for us to walk, from the backwaters of sin to the sea of love. In a few moments, we will renew our baptismal vows and take a step along the way of this crossing, once again empowered and birthed anew in One Spirit by One God.