Richard Maxwell

27 May 2012
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It’s great to be back and see all of you!  I’ve missed you!  And what a great Sunday to return:  Pentecost, the feast that’s often referred to as the birth of the Church.

That’s what happened in the story we heard from the Book of Acts this morning:  the Church got born.  Describing this, Peter quotes the prophet Joel, saying, “God declares that 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.”  The Holy Spirit swoops down and fills the disciples with her power, and they become apostles.  They leave that upper room where they’d been hiding only a few days before, and go out into the city to tell the story of Jesus.  What follows, as all the Jews in Jerusalem gather ‘cuz of all the ruckus, is an amazing triumph of evangelism.  It’s a reversal of the story of Babel.

You remember the story of Babel, right?  We humans got so full of ourselves that we thought we could rival God, and started to build a tower to reach the heavens.  So God decides to show us what’s what.  God swoops down and scrambles up our language – until this time everybody lived in the same place and spoke the same language – but God zaps the people of Babel and everyone begins to speak a different language.  Nobody can understand anybody else, people start to wander off, and everything falls apart.  So much for all our human pride.  But on that day we remember today, the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit reverses the mess of Babel.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, everyone can understand the Apostles’ message in their own language.  Now, instead of nobody being able to understand anybody else and everything falling apart, everyone can understand the Christian message and be united by the Spirit.

The whole thing is so amazing that 3,000 people are converted on the spot.  They’re baptized and they, too, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  That’s why today is often referred to as the birthday of the Church.

Whew!  That Holy Spirit sure is powerful . . . and rather mysterious, too . . . .

Back in the olden days, when I was in seminary, one of my fellow students decided she wanted to figure me out . . . we had grown up in completely different circumstances and she wanted to try to understand how I worked.  She was black and from the south; I was white and from the north.  She was straight; I was gay.  She’d been brought up in a conservative church . . . I’m not certain that it was Pentecostal, but I think it probably was . . . and she was training to be a minister.  I had been raised a Roman Catholic, and had drifted away from the church when I was in college . . . at this point in seminary I wasn’t much of anything and didn’t really know what I was doing there.  I could go on . . . but you get the picture . . . we were very different people.

So one day she sat me down in the seminary courtyard to ask me some questions.  The question I remember most clearly was this . . . she asked me, “When you pray to God do you pray to God the Father, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit?”  This question threw me for a loop . . . I’d never thought of my prayers in this way before, as addressed to one particular person of the Trinity or another.  I just prayed to “God” in general . . . but I knew that this was not a good answer for this young women.  I don’t remember what I DID say . . . I probably said God the Father ‘cuz I thought that might be the safest answer . . . but I do remember that she nodded sagely – although not approvingly – and went on to ask her next question.

I remembered this story as I prepared for this sermon because today is all about the Holy Spirit.  Because that day, years ago, sitting in the seminary courtyard, that young woman was hoping I’d say that I prayed to and with the Holy Spirit.  If she knew that I was baptized in the Holy Spirit, she would know that I was saved.  But that’s the LAST answer I would have given her.  Not because there’s anything WRONG with the Holy Spirit but because the Spirit is, I think, the vaguest of the three persons of the Trinity . . . the most difficult to get a handle on . . . and so, perhaps the most frightening.  It doesn’t help that when we say “Holy Spirit” a couple of unhelpful images come to mind.  Those of us who are old enough, remember when we talked about the “Holy GHOST” not the Holy Spirit . . . and those of you who are my age might then also immediately think of that old cartoon character, Caspar the friendly Ghost.  Not helpful.  And I suspect that if this association of the Holy Ghost with Caspar is not a problem, that almost ALL of us, when we think of “Holy Spirit,” immediately picture a white dove.  Who wants to pray to a bird or to Caspar the friendly Ghost?  But, nevertheless, if we can get past all of this nonsense, the Holy Spirit is a very fruitful thing to meditate upon . . . perhaps because the Spirit IS so seemingly mysterious, and rather frightening.

This mystery is not a new thing.  Remember, God’s Spirit is mentioned at the very beginning of the Bible.  In the second verse of the book of Genesis we hear that the ‘Ruah,’ the spirit of God, was moving over the face of the waters.  This verse at the very beginning of the Bible begins a particular way of thinking and talking about God’s action in and towards the world . . . the action of the Spirit . . . that can sometimes be described as mysterious, unpredictable, and powerful as the wind.  You see, the Hebrew word ‘ruah,’ which is correctly translated in the second verse of Genesis as ‘spirit,’ can also be translated a few others ways.  This can be seen best perhaps in Ezekiel (37:1-14) where a sustained pun on the different meanings of the word ‘ruah’ is found . . . wind, breath, and spirit, are all meanings Ezekiel gives to the word . . . and through this wordplay the mystery and power of the Spirit are heightened.  Ezekiel even anticipates definitions of the Spirit as the giver of life.

Now, theological debates about the nature of the Holy Spirit and the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity have raged since the beginning of the Church.  One of the primary reasons why the early Church split into the eastern and western Churches was because of just such an argument.  I’m certainly not going to try to solve – or even describe – these differences of opinion now.  But I am gonna suggest that each of us think some more about the Holy Spirit, and maybe even dare to pray to this powerful, mysterious person of God . . . the Holy Spirit who birthed the Church.

Now, when I say that word, ‘church,’ what do you think of?  I would be willing to bet that most of you immediately think of this building we call Grace, even as you may think of other things as well.  I kinda like the idea of all of you thinking about this physical place at the same time . . . it’s just a teeny step away from all of us praying for this place at the same time.  But that’s not really what I’m talking about when I’m talking about the birth of the Church.  Nor am I talking about any kind of organization that has an office somewhere.  When I’m talking about Pentecost and I say the word ‘Church’ I’m really talking about US . . . you and me.  WE’RE the church . . . along with all of our brothers and sisters who are sitting in pews all over this city at this very moment . . . along with all the believers in the world . . . including those who have gone before . . . even the 3,000 people who were baptized on this day 2,000 years ago.  Through our baptisms, we became part of that organism that came into being 2,000 years ago.  We, too, have received the Holy Spirit.

What if we all prayed, right now, for the Holy Spirit to become known to us right here?  Who knows what might happen?  Remember, the ‘ruah’ . . . the wind, the breath, the spirit . . . of God can be as mysterious, and unpredictable, and powerful as the wind.  I imagine that it would be rather terrifying if a great wind began to blow through the building and flames, like tongues of fire, came to rest on each one of us.  (Gives you a whole meaning to the phrase, “hair on fire!” doesn’t it?)  But, seriously, what if we could do it?  What if we could be brave enough to give ourselves over to the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit?

Maybe, just maybe, we’d be inspired to reach out to each other in love.  Maybe, just maybe, we’d discover God’s love not only ablaze in our hearts, but working through our words and actions.  Maybe, just maybe, we’d be part of another amazing triumph of evangelism.

Come Holy Spirit!  Fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.  Come Holy Spirit that our young may see visions and our old dream dreams, that your Church may be built up.  Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the earth.  Come!

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