A sermon given on Pentecost, May 23, 2021, by the Rev. Teri Daily…
Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost; it’s the fiftieth and last day of the Easter season. Beginning tomorrow we will enter what is known in the church calendar as “the season after Pentecost.”
In today’s reading from the book of Acts, we hear the story of the first Christian Pentecost. It is ten days after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and Jesus’ followers are waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem just as Jesus instructed them to do. They are all gathered in one place when the Holy Spirit comes upon them with “the rush of a violent wind.” Divided tongues, that the evangelist Luke described as being like fire, rests on each one of them. As each is filled with the Holy Spirit, he or she begins to speak in other languages.
This occurs at the time of the Jewish Pentecost, or Shavuot, a festival that takes place fifty days after Passover and commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Shavuot is one of the three yearly pilgrimage festivals in ancient Israel for which Jews from all over would come to the city of Jerusalem. So this outpouring of the Spirit in different tongues, or languages, means that all those gathered in the city of Jerusalem are able to hear the message of God’s saving love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This outpouring is the beginning of the mission of the Church – one that Jesus gave them in the first chapter of Acts, that his followers would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (1:8). The Holy Spirit will not be contained but will spill over in ever-enlarging concentric circles until the whole world is filled.
In truth, the Holy Spirit has always been at work in the world; God has always been Triune. The wind or spirit of God swept over the waters in creation, stirred prophets into impassioned witnesses, and as our reading from Ezekiel tells us restored the bones of the exiled nation of Israel to life. And now the Holy Spirit would also be known throughout the world by the witness of the Church. This is why images of the Holy Spirit are so often things that flow and spread into every crack and crevice – like oil, water, fire, and wind. But it especially makes sense that the image for the Holy Spirit would be wind, because in Greek and Hebrew the word for spirit also means wind or breath. And like the Holy Spirit, the wind is invisible. We know that it is present by the effects its produces.
When we hear about the dramatic coming of the Holy Spirit with violent wind and the tongues as of fire, it’s easy to think that the work of the Holy Spirit takes place without us, sometimes even coercively as if we had no choice in the matter. But grace requires our cooperation. Grace never forces itself on us; instead, it empowers us and invites us to participate in it. The Holy Spirit emboldened the followers of Jesus, gave them the courage to speak, and perhaps gave them certain skills they had lacked. But it did not and does not act unilaterally.
One way to think about how we cooperate with the Holy Spirit is to think about the way birds fly. Andean condors are the largest flying birds in the world. They can weigh up to 35 pounds and can have wingspans of more than ten feet. They are so large that they could flap their wings as fast as they can and still not stay in the air. They depend upon the wind to fly. They catch wind currents called thermals – currents of rising, warm air lifts the bird higher and higher. As the air in the thermal begins to cool, it moves downward downward, and with it the bird – that is until the bird finds another thermal and the cycle begins again. The Andean condor is so efficient in cooperating with the wind that it pretty much flaps its wings just at take off and landing. It recognizes its dependence on the wind and so has learned to participate in its currents.
Jesus told Nicodemus, “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” (John 3:8). Birds don’t control the wind; they do learn to perceive the different kinds of winds and work with them.
What if we could learn to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in just that way? Clearly I’m not talking about having access to almost endless, effortless energy (although that might be nice). But what if we could detect the way the Spirit is blowing, could work with it and not against it? Would our life in the church look different? What if we trusted that that Holy Spirit is sustaining us and keeping us aloft and moving forward even at this very moment?
As I learned about the Andean condor this week, I couldn’t help but think that the different ways the wind currents interact with birds seems similar to the different ways the Holy Spirit acts in scripture. We actually have two Pentecost stories in scripture. In the gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus breathes on his followers and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The connection between Jesus and the Holy Spirit is clear, direct, and personal in John’s gospel. The Holy Spirit is an advocate, teacher, and comforter. It seems gentle and brings peace, and we may barely recognize it, like a bird who is gliding on the wind.
In Acts, the Holy Spirit comes ten days after Jesus ascends into heaven, and its coming is marked by freedom and unpredictability. This sudden outpouring of the Holy Spirit takes place multiple times in the book of Acts, in different times and situations, upending lives and expectations. Like the rushing wind of an upward current by which a bird is suddenly and dramatically hoisted high up in the air.
The nineteenth-century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon writes of these two ways that the Holy Spirit comes into our lives:
…might I mention hundreds of biographies in which the Spirit of God came like a tornado sweeping everything before it, and [people] could not but feel that God was in the whirlwind. To others he comes so gently, they cannot tell when first the Spirit of God came. They recollect that night when the mother prayer so with brothers and sisters, and when they could not sleep for hours, because the big tears stood in their eyes because of sin. They recollect the Sunday school and the teacher there. They remember that earnest minister. They cannot say exactly when they gave their hearts to God, and they cannot tell about any violent convictions. They are often comforted by that text, “One thing I know, whereas I was blind, now I see.”
The Holy Spirit will always come as it pleases; for as Spurgeon goes on to say, no two winds are exactly the same. But “it saves just as surely in its gentleness as in its [ferocity].” The outcome of both is new life.
However the Holy Spirit comes to us, as a gentle breath or as a violent wind, if we recognize it and give ourselves over to it, the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (and I would add courage) – will fill our lives and this place. This doesn’t mean that things will always go smoothly. But it does mean that we will know the kingdom of heaven more fully than ever before. In her book Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich writes: “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”
 Maria Paulo Rubiano A., “These Masters of the Sky Can Fly for Hours (or Days) While Barely Flapping,” https://www.audubon.org/news/these-masters-sky-can-fly-hours-or-days-while-barely-flapping.
 Charles Spurgeon, “The Holy Spirit as Wind,” Sermon No. 630, https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-holy-spirit-compared-to-the-wind/#flipbook/.