Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Last Sunday, a beloved long-term member of our parish announced that he is moving away and, necessarily, leaving Grace behind. This is a loss felt by many of us, including me, but it is particularly painful for those who know his generous and loving heart best. “What,” lamented one such person, “are we going to do without him”? It is the same question that so many of us have asked on other occasions – when someone we love dies –after a divorce –when a long-term beloved rector retires from a parish – and it is the same question that scripture tells us the first apostles asked and prayed about during the fifty days after Easter. “What will we do without him”?
Today we celebrate the event that answered that question: the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost, best known to most Episcopalians as “that Sunday when we wear red,” is probably the most undervalued feast day in the Christian calendar. Few of us understand the great significance of Pentecost and many of us don’t even show up for it, since it often coincides with “summer vacation time.” But we should, because, just as the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection on Easter teaches us what we believe, Pentecost – the fiftieth day after Easter- tells us what we should do – and gives us the strength to do it. We call that power the Holy Spirit.
For the last several weeks, we have been hearing the story of the post-crucifixion disciples, who appear to have spent most of their time after the resurrection hiding together in locked rooms and arguing over whether Jesus really appeared to them after his death. It’s hard to blame them for this behavior – remember that every one of them left their professions, families, and homes to follow Jesus. They believed they were prepared to give up their lives for him, but after witnessing his death they were almost quite literally paralyzed with fear and grief. Jesus was their friend, their teacher – their whole lives –and they didn’t know what they were supposed to do without him.
As with many things, Jesus anticipated this, which is why he reassured them prior to his death with the words that we heard just two weeks ago. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he told them – or, as it is alternatively translated, “I will not leave you comfortless.” I will send you an Advocate – and that entity will never leave you. That is the Holy Spirit.
But what, exactly is this “Holy Spirit”? That’s what Sally Hanson wants to know – so much so that she chose it as the topic for the sermon she won as a raffle prize at the Spring fashion show. It’s not an easy question, and not one that Jesus answers very well himself, telling the disciples only that, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.” So, does that mean that the Holy Spirit is Jesus’s holy ghost? Or another form of God? Or, as George Lucas would have it, the Force? No, yes, and maybe.
At the most basic level, what the promise of the Holy Spirit means is that the disciples – and all followers of Jesus – are permanently connected to him – and that that connection transcends life as we know it. It is unbreakable. Maybe that’s why we have so much trouble comprehending it – because there is no real analogy for it in this world, where, ultimately, everything – including the earth itself– is all too breakable. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is hard to describe because it is bigger, stronger, and more elemental than anything we can think of to equate it to. The Holy Spirit is simply more. Nonetheless, Jesus’s apostles still tried to explain it – doing their best to express it in terms that we can grasp by relating it to the most powerful – and essential – things in our limited understanding.
It is from these comparisons that the church developed its Pentecost traditions. For Luke, the Holy Spirit is fire – dangerous, powerful, and potentially deadly, but also critical to life- thus the color red. Paul describes the Holy Spirit as water, essential for health and well-being –and in washing our souls clean through the action of baptism. And in John’s gospel the Holy Spirit is represented by our very breath, without which we cannot survive. Fire, water and air – three common, everyday elements, without which we will die. Just as without the Holy Spirit we cannot truly live.
Which is why God has not only given us this Spirit, but provided us with an abundance of it. Listen to Luke: “there came a sound…and it filled the entire house;” and, quoting, Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit;” and John: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” The Holy Spirit is not a “light breeze.” It is not a trickle of refreshment. It is not a single flame. The Holy Spirit is a hurricane. It is a deluge. It is an inferno.
But only when we share it. Because God did not give the Holy Spirit to the disciples alone. It was not sent to one nation or one culture. It did not arrive in private. The Holy Spirit came to people from “every nation under heaven,” in a place where many people were gathered – for a Jewish festival of Thanksgiving. And it brought them together. Their sudden ability to “speak in tongues” did not separate the people; instead it “broke down [the] dividing wall [between them].” They all understood what they were saying – they just couldn’t figure out how they were doing it. These apostles –these future evangelists – were given a spirit not of confusion or exclusion but of comprehension and inclusion. They were given the power to speak like God – the power to speak for God. The “pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the church [was] both the sign and the instrument of the launch of the church’s mission.”
A mission that belongs to all God’s people. A mission that cannot be accomplished by any one person, sect, or denomination. A mission that requires the followers of the risen Christ to work together – to trust one another – and to love one another. “No man is an island,” John Donne wrote, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” We too must be “involved” with humankind, because each of our own gifts of the Spirit is worthless unless they are shared with the greater whole. By describing the many disparate gifts of the Spirit, St. Paul tells us that the differences between us are not only acceptable, but necessary – that each of us has within us an ember of the Holy fire – a breath of God’s tempestuous wind – a drop of the sacred water – but without one another to immerse, stir, and fan that Spirit, it remains a token of God’s love, rather than the consuming force it is meant to be., a force for inspiration, instigation and creation.
“What will we do without you,”? the disciples asked, and Jesus answered, “I will not leave you comfortless.” I will send you a Paraclete, one who walks alongside you. I will send you an indestructible spirit of love. You will see me no more, but you will see one another – and, if you look closely, you will see me in one an other. Light the spark of the Holy Spirit within you by sharing it with your neighbor; breathe on one another with the breath of God that the tempest of God’s grace will blow wherever you are; baptize each other in my names and together you will become a river of life. Victor Hugo said, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” May it be so. AMEN.
Stephen A. Cooper, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 17.
David P. Gushee, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 14.
John Donne (1624),”Meditation XVII,” in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.
Thomas G. Long, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 25.