John 7:37-39 & 20:19b-22 and Acts 2:1-4
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
May 20, 2018 – Pentecost
Evil stalks this world. Witness the latest school shooting, the beating of that poor man within an inch of his life in a dispute over a parking space, and all those hateful, horrible things that happen so regularly that we scarcely notice them anymore: the selling of people into sexual slavery, the abuse of oppressed folks, the starvation of children, the neglect of the elderly, and on and on.
The forces for good need to rise up in answer to all this evil. We Christians need to rise up. But the evil in the world is so great that the world cannot afford us to arise in just our human ability. Winning in this good fight requires more than we can bring to the battle.
Thanks be to God! The Lord wants to give us the “more” we need, wants to put into us His own Spirit, a power for good that comes into play through us though it does not come from us. The good news of Pentecost is that we are not limited to our natural potential. God seeks to supernaturally enable us to make a difference by infusing us with His life, energy and potency.
The Holy Spirit is mysterious – in part, because the Spirit is God Himself and God is beyond human comprehension – and, in part, because the Spirit is all about showing people who Jesus is and thus is uninterested in showing much about who He is.
The Scriptures tell us no more than we need to know about the Spirit – and thus reveals less about His Person than His effect. The Bible talks about how He can empower us to have an impact beyond what our unaided efforts can achieve. It reveals the Spirit’s work by comparing it to that of three forces of nature: fire, water and wind.
The Bible says the Spirit works like fire. Both the Old and New Testaments refer to God as “a devouring fire”, and John the Baptist prophesied that Jesus would baptize people “with the Holy Spirit and fire”. When the Spirit came upon the believers at Pentecost, He appeared among them, and on them, with “divided tongues, as of fire”. When years later the Apostle Paul told the Thessalonians not to suppress the Spirit, he told them not to “quench” the Spirit – employing the word used for putting out a fire.
Having an effect like that of fire, the first work of the Spirit is to bring light. Jesus told His disciples that the Spirit would “lead them into all truth” about God and His ways.
Fire also sets other things aflame, and the Spirit sparks in the hearts of believers a fiery passion for justice, compassion and witnessing to the truth. Like a purifying fire, the Spirit burns away distractions from, and inhibitions to, devotion to God and His concerns; and like a heating fire, the Spirit causes people to boil with determination and resolve in fighting the good fight.
Just as the Spirit works like fire, the Spirit works like water. When the Spirit came at Pentecost, Peter had to explain what was going on since some interpreted what was happening as the product of drunkenness. I’d bet anything he was thinking of the promise God made through the prophet Isaiah, saying, “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants and my blessing on your offspring,” Peter cited, however, the very similar promise God made through the prophet Joel, saying, “I will pour out” – like water! – “my Spirit upon all flesh”.
Jesus Himself also predicted the Spirit’s coming and bringing about a great change so that “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” – a reference, John’s Gospel hastens to make explicit, to “the Spirit, whom believers in him were to receive”.
The Spirit works like water in that He inundates believers with a life-giving force. He also works like water in that He washes away the dirt from the “lamps” they are becoming and so enables them to shine with God’s bright light and warm love. Finally, He works like “rivers” of water in that He lifts up what is stuck in the mud and carries it forward in a strong current of divine grace.
The Spirit works like fire, like water…and like ruach — ruach being the Hebrew word behind the Greek word pneuma and the translating English words: “wind”, “breath” and “life”. In its most basic sense, ruach refers to air in motion – whether it is the wind in nature or the breath in a human being. But because Adam became a living being when God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” and because there’s only the presence of life when there’s the presence of breath, ruach also came to mean “life”.
Knowing this helps us make sense of Jesus’ breathing on the disciples Easter evening and telling them to “receive the Holy Spirit.” He was urging them to get ready for the reality that would become theirs fifty days later on Pentecost.
When, on Pentecost, the Spirit came upon them, He came with “the rush of a violent wind”, and that symbolized the Almighty’s breathing into them His own life. By the Spirit, they could be more than themselves and bless the world beyond their human capacity. For, by the Spirit, God would be in them to work miracles of love, to defeat evil, and to accomplish immense good.
We understand the Spirit, however, no better than we understand wind. Jesus, after saying no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born anew of the Spirit, remarked, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The Spirit remains ever mysterious; and we cannot comprehend Him any more than we can control Him. Yet, it is up to us to allow Him to infuse us with the divine presence and move us beyond our normal, natural life.
Isaiah told the people of God that they may “mount up with wings like eagles”. Think then a bit with me about how eagles fly far and high. They get off the ground by flapping their wings, but they soar by availing of a power outside of themselves: what meteorologists call “thermals”. Thermals are columns of heated air rising from the ground. These upward drafts are strong as they push higher and higher; and they can lift up even the biggest birds.
By instinct baby eagles begin flight training at two months. When they feel a gust of wind, they stand up in the nest and spread their wings to catch it. By four months, they start to step out of the nest and to flap their wings to keep from falling. Once they get the hang of flying, they soon learn that, most of the time, they don’t have to work that hard. If they follow the thermals and ride on their elevating power, they need make but little effort to soar. For they are sustained and carried by a power beyond their own.
As disciples of Christ, we sometimes need to flap our wings in vigorous effort. But we soon learn that it is not from our own strength or effort that we gain our greatest capacity to elevate our lives and to expand our territory of impact. To soar like eagles in the way of justice, compassion and witnessing to the truth, we just follow the thermals of the Spirit, ride the currents of grace, and let ourselves be lifted past our limits. All it takes is our giving up on trying to make it on our own, and giving ourselves over to God’s Holy Spirit. Let us pray.