The Holy Spirit: More Than We Could Ask for or Imagine

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Acts 2:1-2

My husband and I spent last weekend catching up with close friends, John and Lynnell, who are traveling the world. Lynnell is a freelance writer and community activist. John is the chaplain and religion teacher at an Episcopal day school outside of Minneapolis. His school awarded him, if you can believe it, a year-long sabbatical. He and Lynnell are visiting sacred sites of the world’s major religions. They are also spending time in places where religion has played a prominent role in the most violent of wars and where religion has been a force for peace and reconciliation. They’ve met with leaders and practitioners of many faiths, listening to their stories and observing their rituals.

After listening to story after story, I asked them how observing, studying, and experiencing the amazing diversity of religious expression around the world has informed or affected their Christian faith.

John’s reply: “I’ve become less religious in terms of ritual and practice. I haven’t been to church very often and I don’t pray as much as I used to. But I love Jesus more. I’ve fallen in love with the guy. I’ve taken to memorizing his parables and teachings, and I strive to follow him in all  I say and do.”

Lynnell said something similar, but ever the journalist, she told me a story. By way of background: Lynnell grew up Baptist and attended Wheaton college, a conservative evangelical school in the Midwest. One of her Wheaton classmates moved to the Middle East shortly after graduation to start a Christian mission among Muslims. He and family have been there for over 30 years, and their ministry now invites young evangelical Christians from the United States to spend a year or more in Christian missionary work.

John and Lynnell visited her college friend and listened to his story. In the early years, he told them, he had assumed that his mission was to convert Muslims to the Christian faith. But what he learned is having an agenda like that is a non-starter in the Muslim world, because no one would trust him. (That’s a lesson for all of us, actually. If we have an agenda for other people, if we’re trying to “get them” to do something, we’re not trustworthy, either.) So he’s learned, and he is teaching a rising generation of Christian evangelicals, to follow Jesus, and love like Jesus, among Muslims in the Middle East with no agenda whatsoever.

Early last Friday morning I was privileged to be at Washington National Cathedral listening to your good friend and mine, Ray Suarez, interview Dean Randy Hollerith and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. As the interview was coming to an end, Ray asked the Presiding Bishop to give the nearly 500 Episcopalians in the room his charge. What did he want us to go out and do?

Bishop Curry paused and said that he’d rather defer to Jesus. Then he told a story found in the Book of Acts, Chapter 1,  just before the passage we read today of the coming of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost. The disciples were still in that in-between, mysterious time after Jesus’ resurrection in which they had been experiencing him as alive–showing up on the road to Emmaus; meeting them on the shores of Lake Galilee and inviting them to breakfast; mysteriously appearing behind closed doors and then disappearing. This astonishing turn of events was  awe-inspiring and amazing. But they didn’t know what it meant and what they were supposed to do. Jesus told them, in essence, not to worry about all that they didn’t understand. “Stay put,” he told them. “Wait. For you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

What I want most to give you today, as your bishop and friend in Jesus, is an invitation to fall in love with Jesus. Don’t spend a minute more arguing with those whose of caricatures or misrepresentations of Jesus cause you to be embarrassed or ashamed to claim him as Savior and Lord. Read his words. Study his teachings. Follow in his way, which is the way of mercy, forgiveness, justice, and sacrificial love.

And I remind you, on this the Feast Day of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus promised that the same Spirit that dwelled in him would also dwell in us. The Spirit comes to us in a variety of ways, empowering us to do amazing things.

Every time the Spirit is mentioned in the Bible, something important is happening or about to happen: it was the Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism, and that same Spirit who drove him out into the wilderness to wrestle with demons and gain clarity about vocation. And as Jesus was preparing to leave his disciples, he assured them they would not be left alone, that the Spirit would come and give them what they needed.

The Spirit’s presence is always a gift.  Sometimes it comes from beyond us, as it did  in the story told from Acts, giving us strength and power in a particular moment or circumstance that enables us to do what we alone could not do. Sometimes it comes from within, as Jesus describes it, as a kind of peace and consolation. St. Paul speaks of the Spirit in yet another way, as the one who endows us with gifts. “There are a variety of gifts,” he says, “but the same Spirit.”

Some of the Spirit’s gifts are synonymous to what we would consider talent or aptitude. And yet we pray on days like today for those being confirmed that their endowed gifts will be released, amplified, and sent forth to do good in the world.

It takes courage to acknowledge oneself as gifted in particular ways, for with the gifts, come the responsibility to exercise them. It takes courage to receive a gift that propels us forth to accomplish things we know we otherwise could not do. And it takes humility to acknowledge that we’re sometimes given strength and power beyond ourselves what we need precisely when we need it. The strength comes through us but it is not from us.

The preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote evocatively about how the Spirit works in us: “Say you’ve been in a bad mood, or a bad place, for the last year,” she writes.

It seems as if all you are doing is moving bricks from one poke to another in every realm of your life. Then one of those nights when you are lying awake in your bed, you hear one bird sing outside. Why is a bird singing in the middle of the night, you wonder, and then you realize it is not the middle of the night anymore. It is the edge of morning. The bird sings again and something in you softens. You take a deep breath for the first time in months and your chest opens up. You get a second wind. You can call this anything you like. I call it a gift of the Holy Spirit.

“Once you get the hang of it,” she goes on, “the evidence is easier to spot.

Whenever two plus two does not equal four but five—whenever you find yourself speaking with eloquence you know you do not have, or offering forgiveness you had not meant to offer, whenever you find yourself taking risk you thought you did not have the courage to take or reaching out to someone you had intended to move away from, you can be pretty sure that you are being gifted by the Holy Spirit.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit,” in Home by Another Way. (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1999), p.144.)

It is, for me, the most reassuring thing, to know that it’s never all up to me to make things right; it’s never all up to us to bring all the required strength, courage, wisdom for goodness to prevail. God’s Spirit, fully present in Jesus, is also at work in us, accomplishing, as St Paul said, far more than we could ask for imagine.

My final word to you this morning: if you’re going to be a Christian, be a robust Christian. Be a joyful, rigorous, fully engaged Christian. Follow Jesus. Study his teachings. Memorize his parables. Imitate his way of love in the world.

And just when it dawns on you that there is no way for you to live with that kind of selfless sacrificial love on your own, that’s exactly the moment to pray for the gift and power of the Holy Spirit Jesus promised. Through the Spirit you will be given power to love others without agenda, as he loves; serve without remuneration as he serves; forgive not counting the cost, as he forgives, and with him fulfill your uniquely gifted purpose to renew the face of the earth.

May it so for us all.

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