Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
May 27, 2012
Year B: The Day of Pentecost
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
May the Wind Be at Our Back
It’s been fifty days since Easter, so following the chronology of Luke the Evangelist, today we celebrate the second greatest Christian feast, Pentecost.
Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the Church. And that’s about right. Before Pentecost the disciples of Jesus were dazed and confused, still reeling from all that had happened to Jesus and all that had happened to them.
The disciples had put their trust in Jesus of Nazareth, believing that he was the long-promised and long-hoped-for messiah. And then everything seemed to go horribly wrong. When Jesus was arrested and executed in the most shameful way the disciples’ world seemed to come crashing down around them.
But then, when all hope seemed lost, the disciples meet the Risen Christ. Just when their heads must have been spinning and their hearts were broken, suddenly they knew for sure that God’s love is more powerful than death itself.
The Evangelists Matthew, Luke and John reach the limits of human language trying to describe what it was like to meet the Risen Christ – it was still the same wounded Jesus, yet it was a transformed Jesus – able to appear and disappear without warning. It was still the same wounded Jesus, but now sometimes even those who had known him so well in life couldn’t recognize him, at least not right away.
Luke tells us that then, when the disciples were just beginning to wrap their minds around this new reality of resurrection, the Risen Christ takes his leave of them at the Ascension.
As Lauren described last week the disciples then entered an uncomfortable in-between time when we’re told they busied themselves with bureaucratic matters such as finding a replacement for Judas.
But now on Pentecost that in-between time comes to an end in an amazingly dramatic way.
And once again, an evangelist reaches the limit of human language.
Luke writes, “suddenly there came a sound like the rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.”
As Jesus had promised, the disciples received the Holy Spirit.
At Pentecost the Church was born and the Good News of Jesus began its long journey from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
But, the greatest thing about Pentecost – and one of the reasons it’s such a perfect day for a baptism – is that Pentecost is not just a historical event that happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.
Pentecost happens all the time.
Now, maybe our experience isn’t as dramatic as what happened in Jerusalem back then, but like the first disciples you and I receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. We receive the Holy Spirit at our baptism and throughout our lives.
But, like the evangelists, it’s hard for us to put into words, isn’t it? We push the limits of language to describe our experience and understanding of the Holy Spirit.
There are some visual images of the Holy Spirit that maybe are helpful – the tongues of flame and, of course, the dove. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus uses a legal term, the advocate, to describe the Holy Spirit.
Our word “spirit” comes from the Latin word meaning breath. And, that’s the oldest and most powerful image of the Holy Spirit. And, given the limits of language, it’s probably the best we’re going to do.
The Holy Spirit is the breath of God. The Holy Spirit is the wind from God that in Genesis sweeps over the waters at creation.
The Holy Spirit is the wind from God that prevents us from falling down. The Holy Spirit is the wind from God that keeps us aloft when our world seems to be crashing down around us.
The Holy Spirit is the wind from God that carries us into the future that God has dreamed for us.
The image of the Holy Spirit as the wind of God reminds me of the Irish Blessing, which begins, “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back.”
The Holy Spirit, God’s wind, really is always at our backs, keeping us aloft and carrying us into the future.
Pentecost really does happen all the time.
The Holy Spirit keeps us aloft when it feels like there’s no way that we can get through this, no way that we can find the strength to deal with a crisis or a loss, no way to take care of - to love enough - the people who count on us.
The other day I gave someone a ride home from Morristown Hospital. As it happens, I was meeting her at the entrance to the cancer center. While I was waiting there, I saw maybe a dozen patients come and go through the hospital doors. Most of them bore the obvious marks of chemotherapy. I was moved by the fact that all of them were accompanied by a family member or friend who - often literally - held them up as they inched from car to hospital or hospital to car.
For a moment, I could sense God’s Holy Spirit somehow holding these people – both caregivers and patients - aloft.
Sensing the Holy Spirit at work that day reminded me of what I’ve witnessed many times as a priest. Over and over I’ve been with people – with some of you - who in the face real suffering are somehow kept aloft by God’s holy wind.
Sometimes the suffering is caused by our own illness or the illness of one we love. Sometimes the suffering is caused by broken relationships or economic anxiety or worry about a child or a friend making bad choices.
Many times people have said to me things like, “I don’t know how I can get through this” and yet they – you – have discovered vast reservoirs of strength, patience and comfort.
God’s Holy Spirit is always at our back, keeping us aloft.
With God’s wind behind us we’re somehow able to keep going and we’re able to discover and pour out seemingly bottomless amounts of love.
Pentecost happens all the time.
But, God’s Holy Spirit doesn’t only keep us aloft. God’s holy wind also carries us into the future that God has dreamed for us.
After the day of Pentecost, the first disciples could have gone back home and picked up their old lives. Who knows, maybe from time to time they would have reminisced about that amazing day in Jerusalem with the sound of wind and tongues of flame and people from all around the world somehow able to understand the Good News of Jesus. Over time, though, Pentecost would have become an increasingly faint and kind of embarrassing memory.
But, of course, that’s not what happened. Instead, Jesus’ first followers said yes - and allowed the Holy Spirit, God’s holy wind, to be at their backs, carrying them into a future they could scarcely have imagined.
There were lots of struggles ahead and many of those first followers gave their lives for Christ yet, through it all, God’s Holy Spirit carried them forward, spreading the Good News and sparking the transformation of the world.
And what was true for the first disciples is just as true for us.
In a little while, Eve Zoila Albiston will be sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism. Throughout her life, no matter what, God’s holy wind will hold her aloft and carry her into the future that God dreams for her.
But just before Eve is baptized we’ll all renew our baptismal promises. Like the first disciples, we’ll say yes, allowing the Holy Spirit to carry us forward. We’ll promise to spread the Good News and play our own part in the ongoing transformation of the world.
It’s a lot to promise. And the only way we can hope to ever keep those bold promises is with God’s help.
Fortunately, Pentecost happens all the time.
God’s help is the Holy Spirit – the holy wind of God that keeps us aloft when it feels like our whole world is crashing down.
God’s help is the Holy Spirit – the holy wind of God that carries us into the future that God has dreamed for us.
May the wind – God’s Holy Spirit – be always at our back.