Today is one of the high feasts of the church year, the Feast of Pentecost, the day we call the birthday of the church. We just heard the strange, exotic story of tongues of flame, strange winds, and miraculous communication in many languages. The church was born in a whirlwind of energy and power that made timid, ordinary disciples into Spirit-filled agents of Christ’s love.
Thomas Long, at the Candler School of Theology, described once teaching a small Sunday school class of three youngsters about the festivals of the Christian year. None of them knew what Pentecost was, so he explained that it was when the church was sitting in a group and the Holy Spirit landed on them like tongues of fire on their heads. Then they spoke the gospel in all the languages of the world.
Two of the young people took this information in stride, but the third looked wide-eyed and astonished. Long looked back at her, and finally she said, “Gosh, Reverend Long, we must have been absent that Sunday.”
Most of us would probably say that we missed that Sunday, too. That’s not our usual way of doing things in church—at least in the Episcopal tradition. We like everything tidy, dignified, predictable. We have a leaflet to keep it all straight. But Pentecost tells us about a church that got started when things broke loose and people found themselves caught up in a life bigger and stranger than they had ever known.
Did you know the word “spirit” refers to breath? “Inspire” means to breathe into, “conspire” means to breathe with. What happens here on Sunday is that the Holy Spirit breezes in and out among us, inspiring, conspiring, knitting us together as we sing our songs and pray our prayers. People who are separate become one, just as they did that first Pentecost. It can happen with two people or two thousand, but something stirs in them and they find themselves being drawn into Christ, the Life at the heart of everything.
The problem is you can’t see the Holy Spirit. Most people I talk to can do pretty well if I ask them to come up with an image of God the Father or Creator. And having in mind a picture of God the Son as teacher, savior, or friend isn’t too hard. But what do you think of when I say picture in your mind God the Spirit? A cloud? My guess is that some vague image of Casper the friendly ghost will pop into your mind.
The Scriptures say think of wind, fire, breath. You can’t hold or pin them down. There are some things that we can only know by their effects. You can’t see electricity, but you see its effects everywhere around you. You can’t know light simply by staring at a light bulb. You see what it is by going into a dark room and turning on a light and finding everything lit up. You can’t actually see a hurricane when it rips its way up the Atlantic coast; the wind after all is invisible. But you see its impact as things fly through the air and in the path it leaves behind.
“Holy Spirit,” God as wind and fire and breath, is the best we can do in describing what it’s like when God hovers and moves and draws us closer together. According to the Acts of the Apostles, there were about a hundred and twenty of Jesus’ friends waiting, wondering what to do next, when something like a hurricane swept through them, lighting fires in their hearts, and sending off sparks. Thousands had gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world for the Jewish festival of Pentecost. They heard something stirring among the disciples and came to find their own languages being spoken by a band of country Galileans. Something had happened, and a group of frightened, anxious souls had become bold, articulate, passionate.
Do you remember the story of the Tower of Babel in the book of Genesis?It’s an ancient myth to describe why we human beings are so alienated from each other. Proud, arrogant humans, all speaking the same language, decided to build a city and a tower up to the heavens, the story went, so that they could become gods themselves. But their ambitions were shattered when their one language broke apart into many so they couldn’t understand each other, and the alienated human race spread across the globe, all divided from one another. They became babblers, people cut off from each other.
Pentecost is the story of God’s movement to heal what divides us, to heal the babble of divisions of race and nation, of haves and have nots, of gender and background, of our self-absorption. We call Pentecost the birthday of the church because the healing Spirit that filled Jesus began to fill a whole people whose one mission was to undo the babble of the world by building the healing community that God has wanted for our world from the beginning. That’s why we’re here. To be the church is to be Spirit people, spreading this Spirit of communion every way we can, on the vanguard of healing of the world.
Now all of that talk can, I know, sound pretty churchy. Talking about the Holy Spirit is one thing. But we’re meant to experience the Spirit. I am convinced that every one of us here has experienced the Holy Spirit stirring in our lives, and we probably weren’t even aware of it. You see when the Spirit is moving, we don’t think about the Spirit; we’re just more alive, more aware of each other, of the beauty of nature or music, of a striking act of forgiveness, or more moved by God’s passion for hope and healing.
You can’t miss the Holy Spirit in a short story by Raymond Carver called “Cathedral,” even though the Spirit is never mentioned. The speaker in the story is a gloomy, cynical man who is so grim and unpleasant that it’s clear he doesn’t have a friend in the world. As the story opens he’s irritated, really irritated, because an old friend of his wife is coming for a visit. The husband doesn’t like anyone, but he’s especially irritated that the man coming to visit happens to be blind.
In fact the husband is appalled at having to waste time around this blind man. He makes wise cracks. “Maybe I could take him bowling,” he says. He tries to imagine what it would be like to be married to a blind man, and he finds it all, as he says, too “pitiful” to think about.
Well, the friend arrives, and things are awkward. The husband is surprised he doesn’t wear dark glasses and use a cane. He studies the man’s every move. The meal is awkward and punctuated by long silences. Eventually the two men end up in front of the television, having a drink, not knowing what to say.
On the TV though is a program about medieval cathedrals, and slowly the men start talking about those grand old buildings. “Something has occurred to me,” the husband says, “Do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like, that is?” “Not much,” the blind man replies. And the more they talk the more engaged they slowly become with each other and this odd subject of cathedrals.
Then the blind man has an idea—that the husband get some paper and a pen, and they sit down on the floor in front of the coffee table while the husband draws a cathedral. They do that, and as the husband draws the blind man rests his hand on top of the husband’s. “Go ahead, bub, draw,” he says. “You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you.” And so the husband begins to draw, and the two hands move together.
“You’re doing fine,” the blind man says. “Never thought anything like this could happen in your lifetime, did you, bub?” And so the husband draws arches, windows, flying buttresses. And on it goes. “You got it, bub, I can tell. You didn’t think you could. But you can, can’t you? We’re going to really have us something here in a minute.”
“So we kept on with it,” the husband says. “It was like nothing else in my life up to now.”
Then the picture is done. “What do you think?” the blind man asks.
Now, as the story ends, the husband’s eyes are still closed. “Well?” the blind man says. “Are you looking?”
“My eyes were still closed,” the husband says. “I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel inside of anything.”
Then he says to the blind man, “It’s really something.”
There it is, the movement of the Holy Spirit, taking two people divided by prejudice and life experience and misunderstanding, who slowly find themselves being drawn together, made one, one in the Spirit of God.
Do you see how ordinary the Spirit’s work is? The Holy Spirit is constantly working to draw people together beyond the alienated babble of their days—the babble of differences over race or nation, over wealthy and poor, different religious beliefs, the awful wounds inflicted within families, among neighbors, within communities.
The Spirit hovers on an early summer day when you’re overwhelmed by how good it is to be alive. And the Spirit stirs and moves when a piece of music carries you away. The Spirit is loose bringing new beginnings when lives seem stuck and empty. The Spirit can descend on someone feeling lost and alone after losing a job, on a family that has decided to go to work on its relationship. The Spirit can move in a whole church full of people feeling drawn closer to Christ and to each other and so called to serve, to give, to connect.
I don’t know about you, but last week I was sure I sensed the breeze of the Spirit as Dr. Tim Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, spoke compellingly about the gifts that people who are intellectually or physically challenged have to give us. And I remembered a summer camp for special needs young people years ago when I was a counselor, and the time I spent with Nathan, an 11-year-old, African-American boy with epilepsy and mental handicaps. For six days I was his companion, spending nearly every waking moment with him, including being with him through grand mal seizures—but he ended up being the one who taught me about love, gratitude, living in the present. It was the Spirit of God at work.
You know, we meet here in this Cathedral every week, or in your home church, to trace together the shape of holiness in our lives. And the Spirit comes and it happens. People gathered here from the farthest reaches of the globe, the most distant towns in this country, and the farthest corners of this city—and we sing and pray and listen—like one hand touching another—and the Spirit comes, drawing us closer to Christ, to each other, and to the world’s need.
If you haven’t sensed the Spirit in your life in awhile, why not ask for the Spirit to come? But I wouldn’t advise it if you want everything to stay tied down, just as they are. Because when the Spirit blows, and God starts working, like that husband in Raymond Carver’s story, you may find yourself doing things you never dreamed—thinking of a new direction in your work, stepping back from the rat race your life feels like, serving meals, studying the Bible, giving more than you can afford.
And so be careful what you pray for. But if you want a life that is anything but dull, try a prayer like this:
Come Holy Spirit, and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Take our minds and think through them.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our souls, and set them on fire.
I hope you’ll try it. It’s really something.