The Spirit is Speaking
A Pentecost Sermon from Grace Memorial Episcopal Church
This is a sermon preached this past Sunday, the feast day of Pentecost, at my church, Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon. To learn more about what we’re doing at Grace, visit grace-memorial.org.
Some people assert that the most important Holy Day of the Christian Calendar is Christmas, because on Christmas we acknowledge that God, emptying of Godself, took the form of a baby and became human. God bridged the gap, and from that moment on we could be assured, through the miracle of the Incarnation that, as we say during Christmas, God is with us.
Other people suggest that the most important Holy Day of the Christian Calendar is Easter, because on Easter Christ became victorious over death, and the assurance that the God who liberated the Chosen People from bondage in Egypt continues to have a stake in the liberation of all creation is given to us once and for all. Our sins are washed away because, as we say during Easter, Christ is risen.
But I’d like to suggest that the most important Holy Day of the Christian Calendar is today, because on Pentecost we are reminded of who we are in the story: the unsuspecting onlookers who, to our surprise and no thanks to any good deeds of our own, have been adopted into a wild and holy family of misfits, healers, and sincere servants of the most high God.
On this feast of Pentecost, adorned in fiery colors and full of song, we affirm that, to those who are given ears to hear, The Spirit is speaking.
God is with us.
Christ is risen.
The Spirit is speaking.
Pentecost is a convergent site for creative possibility.
Pentecost is not a Christocentric miracle, like those seen in the gospel stories, or even a theocentric miracle, like we see in the burning bush.
Pentecost is a pneumatocentric miracle.
And forgive me, but I’m using all of my big words today.
Pneumatology is the study of the Holy Spirit, and it is also a 12-letter word in Scrabble that starts out at 20 points before Double or Triple Word Score, so… you should add this one to your vocabulary.
The story of Pentecost is a pneumatological story.
And it is a story that has functioned as a repository for all kinds of possibility.
Not only is it the birthday of the Church (ecclesiology), but it is also a day for recognizing what makes us special as human beings. And I propose that what makes us special as human beings is that we, just as our spiritual ancestors before us, are created to be conduits for the Holy Spirit.
We were made to be occupied by the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Truth. The Advocate for the poor and the hopeless. The Comforter of the prisoner and the outcast.
We are created to be vessels for the Spirit.
I recognize that this language may seem more suited for a more Pentecostal tradition than our own, but it’s Pentecost today and I get a pass. Today I get to say things about the Holy Spirit that may make some Episcopalians cringe.
But I worry that our church, and perhaps the Church more broadly has a pneumatological deficit. Or to say enough way, We need more of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost has huge implications for creativity and imagination. This is true of pneumatology and less so in theology, the study of God, where inflexible assumptions about who God is and what God wants from us obstruct creative endeavors.
Theology begets doctrine. Pneumatology begets revolution.
Because that is the nature of the Spirit.
Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, a Finnish theologian and Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote,
"The Spirit has his incredible tendency, propensity, nature, characteristic to blend with the particular; to blend with the here and now. And that annoys the heck sometimes out of people in positions of doctrinal authority. Because the Spirit seems to want to do things to people and to communities that blur boundaries, and cross boundaries, and transgress definitions, and humble hierarchy."
“God is always announcing the Not Yet of the Future through the Holy Spirit,” my seminary professor, Dr. Albert Hernandez used to say, and this announcement is made through the voices of ordinary people. “What were the Apostles and the gospel writers getting at?” Dr. Hernandez challenged us. “Why does God manifest in the way that God manifests in the miracle of Pentecost? What is God trying to do to bring the human family together through the implications of that miracle, that moment?”
We hear of the words of a single tongue becoming the multitude of languages in the story of Babel. This story is sometimes read as a tale about a curse, the curse of God confusing people with multiple languages and cultures. But I wonder if we might hear it instead as a blessing. God saves humans from the trap that is believing that you only need one language, one path, one tradition, one way of being.
The primary goal of this monoculture mindset, this echochamber of Babel is to “make a name for ourselves.” But God privileges diversity and humility instead.
And that is affirmed in the story of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit does not come and “restore” humanity to its pre-Babel state. The Spirit does not erase the particularity of the people present on Pentecost. The Spirit speaks through the apostles in multiple languages, and “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”
Acts is a story of the Spirit acting through the apostles, and in that action we see the Spirit moving us toward reconciliation and wholeness while preserving the uniqueness of identity, culture, and language.
The Spirit brings understanding, and The Spirit does not need us all to be same in order for us all to understand the Spirit of Truth.
Throughout history, during this week of the Christian calendar, in the days leading up to, and the days immediately following the Feast of Pentecost, faithful followers of The Way have had encounters with the Holy Spirit that have proven to be transformational.
The Anglican minister, John Wesley, had a transformational experience only days after Pentecost of his heart being “strangely warmed,” which set off a series of events that would eventually lead him to found the tradition we know today as Methodism.
New expressions of faith, new visions of what the church could be, have emerged at different moments in our collective history all orbiting around this day, Pentecost.
You could almost think of Pentecost as an ever-existent moment. The Feast Day is a reminder that Pentecost is a state of being that we were made to experience.
It is within the liminal space between the heart and the mind where the awareness of the Spirit takes root. This means that within you is the place where the Not Yet of the Future can be proclaimed to the world.
Within you is the location of the ever-existent moment of Pentecost.
Somewhere in between your heart and your mind is a convergent site of creative possibility.
"'The Spirit of Life',” Kärkkäinen wrote, “is always present as the spirit of this or that particular life."
And the spirit is always moving us to reconciliation and wholeness.
“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in the name of Christ, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that Jesus taught.
So do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
God is with us.
Christ is risen.
The Spirit is speaking.