A sermon on Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-17, 25-27…
A sermon on Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-17, 25-27…
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“Paradoxically, we trust God not because God, as the good, guarantees our own experiential process, that is, preserves the good we have already attained, but rather precisely because, quite in contrast to all other processes, God in fact breaks up everything that has already been attained, doing so for the sake of moving toward ever greater good.”
– Roland Faber, from God as Poet of the Worl
“What can we do about God, who makes and then breaks every god-forsaken beautiful day?”
– Mary Oliver
Blogger and Christian Minister Nita Gilger describes her experience climbing the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa as a Rotary International Exchange Student. Early at sunrise, while camping on top of a 10,000-foot mountain, she watched eagles fly in large, swooping circles and then return to their homes in the cliffs. She noticed one mother eagle push her baby out of the nest. The eaglet flapped its wings, trying to fly but with little success. When the eaglet ultimately dropped precipitously, the mother eagle swooped in, catching the baby on her wings and taking it back to the nest. After allowing the baby bird to rest a while, the mother eagle pushed him out of the nest again, repeating the whole process several times until the eaglet began to learn to fly on his own, until he became more like his mother.
As I read about the process by which the mother eagle taught her baby to fly – the way in which she both pushed the baby from the nest (for his own good, of course) and caught the eaglet when his flight faltered – I couldn’t help but think of the Holy Spirit.
In today’s reading from Acts, the Holy Spirit – like the mama eagle – sends the disciples, with one unexpected push out into the world. The sound like the rush of a violent wind fills the house where they are sitting – their nest, if you will. The disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in different languages. An astonished crowd begins to gather. With a cacophony of languages on every side and boldness coursing through their veins, they begin to proclaim the good news. The experience is both chaotic and exhilarating – like careening through air. This is one picture of Pentecost in scripture, but there’s also another one.
In our reading from the gospel of John, Jesus is with the disciples on the night before he is crucified. He’s preparing them for his departure, although they don’t yet know exactly what that will look like. Jesus says to them, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” The Greek term that is translated here as Advocate is Parakletos, which literally means “the one called alongside.” Jesus tells the disciples that the Father will send “another” to go alongside them – another to go with them as Jesus has gone with them. One who will remind them of all that Jesus has said, one who will continue to teach them. One who will help them keep the commandments Jesus has given them.
But this Advocate to come is different from Jesus in two ways – this Advocate will be with them forever, and this Advocate will not just be with them but also in them. Not localized on earth to one space and one time as was God in the flesh, but as Spirit able to be in all space and time.
If we know the Spirit in the book of Acts by the boldness of the disciples, then how will we know the Spirit according to the gospel of John? By the peace it brings. In today’s passage, Jesus tells the disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Later in the gospel of John, when Jesus appears to the disciples right after his resurrection, he greets them with “Peace be with you.” And he breathes the Holy Spirit on them. No violent rush of wind or tongues of fire, but a friend among them breathing peace into them. Sustaining them in their fear of those who had persecuted Jesus, sustaining them in their loneliness and forgetfulness, sustaining them in their uncertainty like a mama eagle swooping down to carry them.
Throughout time, the Church has known the Holy Spirit not just by the boldness it produces or the peace it brings, but also by the way she sanctifies her people, by the way she transforms them more and more into the likeness of Jesus. That’s how we know it is the Holy Spirit working in us and not some other spirit (like that of materialism, envy, or power) exerting its influence over us – if it is the Holy Spirit at work in us, we will be made more and more into the likeness of Jesus.
Let’s be honest, this transformation (like all transformations) always involves a push, always is a bit risky, always sends us careening through the air. But if we give ourselves over to the process, to the work of the Holy Spirit, we can trust God to meet us on the other side with new possibilities. to sustain us and bring us a peace unlike any the world has to offer, to carry us on eagle’s wings. We can count on the Holy Spirit both to push us and to catch us. As theologian Roland Faber writes, “God breaks up everything that has already been attained, doing so for the sake of moving toward ever greater good.” In this process of our being broken, gathered up, and remade, the Holy Spirit saves us bit by bit.
As much as I love the image of the mother eagle for the Holy Spirit, I think it risks overlooking (or misleading us on) two important facts: 1) the breaking open that leads to transformation isn’t always instigated by the Holy Spirit, and 2) sometimes we don’t experience the sustaining action of the Holy Spirit as a dramatic rescue, but as more of a presence with us in the most painful of times. The loss of a job, the dissolution of a marriage, an illness that upends our lives, the death of someone we love – God doesn’t cause any of these things to happen. But it is the grace of the Holy Spirit with us and in us – instructing us, guiding us, praying for us, and loving us – that gives us the strength to remake our lives one tiny step at a time, even in the midst of such grief and pain. This constant presence with us, giving us the courage to put one foot in front of the other, is no less a miracle – no less a rescue – than the mother eagle’s swooping catch.
Today we will baptize Athena. Although
she will be baptized only once, what we celebrate here today – the work of the
Holy Spirit in and through her and with her – is not a one-time event. Over and over again Athena’s life will be
disrupted – sometimes by the push of the Holy Spirit, a powerful prompting deep
inside that she can’t ignore, and sometimes by events not set in motion by God
at all. Either way, the Holy Spirit will be with her always – reminding her to
whom she belongs, by whom she is loved, and in whom she will find the strength
to be made new again. Just like all of
us, through this process of being broken, gathered, and remade time and time
again, Athena will come to know her salvation.
 Nita Gilger, “Does God really Protect Us? Trying to Understand the Practice of Trusting,” Open Horizons, https://www.openhorizons.org/trying-to-understand-the-practice-of-trusting-nita-gilger-8203.html?fbclid=IwAR01Eb1WxdPU3hGAHKna5fPJUtXrpq81Oe5_0XObMJ3WFfJHpYiI6AWjg0A.
 Roland Faber, God as Poet of the World (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004) 27.