The Rev. Dr. Wade: “Work of the Spirit”
The Pentecost scene described in the book of Acts is pretty chaotic with wind rushing through a closed room, tongues of fire dancing on people’s heads and strange words coming from their mouths. It feeds the notion that God lives in the extraordinary, literally blowing people away on contact. I have no doubt that there are such experiences. I have known moments that were difficult to ascribe to anything but the unique hand of God. By definition the extraordinary is rare but the experience of God is not. God does startle us and overturn our notions and preconceptions but God is far from limited to moments of Wow! and What was that? I have found that God, who wrote the Laws of Nature, apparently feels honor bound to obey them. In that way God is for the most part law abiding. And common, in the best sense of that term. It is important to remember that the reason the ordinary is ordinary is that God likes it and made a lot of it. God is most often found in the common of life.
Pentecost at a glance is certainly extraordinary. The Holy Spirit at a glance is beyond understanding. But if we allow our glance to linger long enough to become a look, something else emerges. Look with me at the passage from Acts and the Gospel lesson for today and see what else they tell us about the work of the Holy Spirit.
In the Upper Room where the dramatic debut of the Holy Spirit in the Christian story took place there is so much going on that it is easy to miss the crowning moment. The point to which all of the strange phenomena leads is the important but not very dramatic experience of people understanding one another. The crowd responds in wonder that they are actually able to tell what the Galileans are saying. “How is it we hear, each of us in our own native language…speaking about God’s deeds of power?” All of Pentecost’s sound and fury boils down to people communicating across barriers. That is the work of the Holy Spirit no less than tongues of fire and rush of wind.
We are divided for good and ill by race, gender, age, language, politics, culture, religion, education, and income to name only a few. Those divisions give us identity but make it hard to communicate with one another. Genuine understanding between parent and child, men and women, Republican and Democrat, Muslim and Christian, is no less the work of the Holy Spirit than high drama. The tongues that manifest the Spirit’s presence can be heard to say things like “I see… I never knew… Oh really” as much as the deeds of God in Phrygian or Pamphylian. Jesus once said that the Kingdom of God was for those who have the ears to hear and we have all heard the Spirit’s words.
In the Gospel Jesus tells us something else about the Spirit when he refers to the Advocate. The term is carefully chosen because the word Satan is rooted in a Hebrew word meaning adversary and accuser, which is the opposite of an advocate. In thinking about this we cannot get tied up in images of Satan because we have seen too many cartoons with pitchforks and horns. Consider instead the real experience of being accused. Be aware of the waves of inadequacy that sometimes wash over us, the way life sometimes frightens us and peace eludes us. We all know the voice from inside that assures us that if we were really known we would not be really loved. Satan the Accuser may not be real to us but all of us have been accused. That is the experience our ancestors were referring to when the talked about Satan.
Because that internal accusation is so real God has given us the Advocate who knows and affirms that with God’s help—the phrase that is sprinkled all through the Baptismal Covenant—we can do what life requires and more so; we are genuine and more so; we are brave and more so; we can have peace and more so. And it is the Advocate’s voice that assures us over and over that we are indeed fully known and fully loved.
The problem is that everyone can hear the Accuser but we need help to hear the Advocate. So in addition to giving us the Holy Spirit, God has given us one another. Churches and faith communities bind together in order to be the voice and presence of Advocating and Affirming Spirit for each other. We know the Accuser is real because we have all been accused from the inside. We know the Advocate is even more real because we are known and loved by the living God.
The Holy Spirit we meet today is the connector, the bridge across the barriers of human understanding and the Advocate in human hearts and minds. Jesus also spoke of the Spirit of Truth and promised that this Spirit would lead us into all truth. So the work of the Spirit includes every discovery of truth from fossils to fractions, archeology to Zoology, history to hormones. It is through the Spirit’s work that we have a cure for polio and garage door openers, the U.S. Constitution and engagement rings, evolution and electricity, space probes and spell check.
There are many who cannot accept this role of the Spirit, cannot imagine that God would lead us to new truth that expands our concepts and deepens our experience of life. Even though it is obvious that the Holy Spirit has already led us to new understandings of slavery, the Divine Right of Kings, the conquest of native people, and the property status of women many still will not consider the possibility of being led to a new understandings of sexuality, other religions, or the constructs of marriage. Every new idea is not the work of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit’s work includes ideas new to us. Sorting through the possibilities, separating the wheat from the chaff is the work we must do to follow that Spirit.
This is Pentecost, the Holy Spirit’s Day, a day of extraordinary phenomena and a day of ordinary discovery, a day of fiery tongues and human understanding, a day of dramatic wind and quiet affirmation, a day of truth breaking in and life expanded. A day a lot like every day and for that we can thank God.