Does God still speak? Does God still speak, or not? And if so, how?
Today we are celebrating Pentecost – the birthday of the church – the day the Holy Spirit showed. up. for. real. We didn’t read the account from Acts this year, but you remember the story: a sound like a violent wind, flames of fire appearing on Jesus’ followers, their sudden and inexplicable ability to speak multiple languages. Peter preaches his first sermon and 3,000 people line up to be baptized. Like many other birth stories, it is chaotic and spectacular – a day to remember and celebrate. But is that all? Is Pentecost a day to look back on the Spirit’s chaos and beauty with nostalgia? Or is there something about the Spirit’s arrival that is true and relevant for us here? Now?
The text we read from the Gospel of John is much more subdued than the scene in Acts. No fire, no violent winds, no foreign languages (unless you count the fact that we read it in English). Just Jesus talking to his disciples, in what we call his “Farewell Address.” This is how John remembers Jesus saying goodbye. Before his betrayal and arrest, before his crucifixion and death, before his resurrection and ascension, before the holy ruckus created on Pentecost day, before any of that, Jesus sat talking to his friends about a time when the Spirit of God would come. He didn’t mention any one special day for her arrival. Instead, Jesus talked about the Spirit’s continued day to day presence in the lives of believers, in the life of the church.
As much as I love the wild and flashy scene in Acts, I think I love this quiet conversation, this promise of the Spirit, even more. Because the Spirit. shows. up. Not just on our birthday, not just in loud and flashy ways with mass conversions and miraculous works. I praise God for those pictures of the Spirit’s work, but I’ve never had flames of fire light on me (and I can do without that, thanks), and though it would be super-helpful if I could suddenly speak perfect German and knock out a bunch of dissertation research this afternoon, I haven’t experienced that either. The good news from Jesus for today is that the Spirit still shows up in quiet ways, too – in the middle of our everyday lives.
The Spirit shows up in the midst of our grief. Jesus is telling his disciples goodbye in this passage. He’s preparing them for his death and his return to the Father. They are heartbroken and confused and in denial. Jesus says, “I’m leaving soon, but you will not be abandoned. I am sending the very Spirit of God, the Spirit of Truth, the one who will walk alongside you just as I have.” The coming days will be painful, but you will not be alone. The Spirit brings hope in the middle of our grief. This is good news, because there is plenty for us to grieve these days.
Just this week, we are grieving the seemingly unending gun-violence unleashed once again, this time on God’s children in Santa Fe, Texas; we grieve the continued violence in Israel and Palestine and our own country’s role in perpetuating and excusing that violence; we grieve the ever growing list of black men and women, created in God’s image, who are unjustly feared, targeted, imprisoned and killed because of the color of their skin; we, like the disciples are heartbroken, confused, in denial; and the Spirit nevertheless shows up right where we are.
The Spirit showed up this weekend as 13 million people unwittingly encountered the gospel of God’s relentless and redemptive love at the royal wedding. Michael Curry, a black American bishop raised his arms and voice and everyone in the room’s eyebrows. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr., he used slave songs from the antebellum south to teach the Queen about love. If the Spirit can break through in the oldest, whitest, most exclusive, most patriarchal, stuffy, institution on the planet – the Spirit can break through anywhere. I wasn’t expecting it at the royal wedding, but that is one place the Spirit showed up in the midst of the world’s grief.
The Spirit shows up in times of change. Jesus tells his disciples that he will not be with them much longer, and that if they think their relationship to religion has changed by following him, that change is about to get real. “They will kick you out of the synagogues. You will be hated. You will be killed by people who think their violence is an act of worship,” Jesus says. We may be tempted to look back on the early church as an idyllic, systematized group with a purpose and plan, but the truth is, they were totally winging it. They didn’t know what would happen, or if they’d survive, after Jesus’ departure. They didn’t know what their relationship with God would look like going forward.
Have you ever been there? At a place where you just aren’t sure how to relate to God anymore, when your relationship to church is painful, your experience with religion toxic. Where you don’t know how you’ll go on, but you know things are changing, for better or worse? Maybe some of you are there right now. Hear this good news, that even in times of instability and change – when you don’t know where you are going or how you’ll get there, Jesus promises that the Spirit will guide you. The Spirit shows up when we don’t know where we’re going. Not with a roadmap, but with a smirk and a dare to follow her trail.
You don’t have to know the end result, the destination or goal, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The Spirit shows up in the day to day, one foot in front of the other changes and uncertainty of life.
The Spirit shows up in our ordinary life together as the church. We don’t gather together to maintain an ancient institution. We don’t gather to find correct answers in a dead book. We don’t gather to worship a God who is stuck back there in history or way up there in the cosmos. We are brought together and enlivened by the God who is with us, whose Spirit guides us, who gives us hope, who walks beside us NOW. God’s Spirit is here, now. As close as our next breath, as intimate as our own heartbeat. And God’s Spirit is at work among us doing something new. “I still have many things to say to you,” Jesus tells his disciples, “but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
The Spirit continues to expose what is true about sin and righteousness and judgment – that Jesus, the one who was judged as sinful and unrighteous, who was punished for heresy and dead on the side of the road, that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The Jesus who knocked down the boundaries of culture and religion, eating with sinners, entrusting his message to women, disregarding religious rules every time they stood in the way of spreading God’s grace and healing, that Jesus is one with God the Father. The Jesus who stood with and for the poor and oppressed and downtrodden in his life on earth, that Jesus sends the Spirit of God to show up with and for those who are poor and downtrodden and rejected even now.
And lest there be any confusion, on the subject of religion that does harm to God’s children, of those who oppress others, kick them out of fellowship, presume themselves to be the judge and jury, Jesus says, “They have not known the Father or me.” Those who use faith to justify violence do not know God, they are not following the Holy Spirit. Full stop. And killing people isn’t the only way we do violence to God’s children. When we as a church, when we as THE Church, do violence to God’s beloved children, by perpetuating systems of racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalistic pride, and exclusion, the Spirit calls us to repentance and reconciliation. To humility and grace.
The Spirit is not done with us. The Spirit shows up in a living partnership with us to continue and expand the good news of Jesus Christ, through helping provide education to children in the Congo, through offering our space to a family in danger of deportation and separation, through creating and sharing beauty and grace through your artwork and poetry and protest and prayers, through making this place a sanctuary where all God’s children are welcomed, respected, loved, and seen for the image of God that they are. How is the Spirit showing up, guiding us, inviting us to follow her trail now?
Does God still speak? Can the Spirit breathe hope into our lives when we are stuck in cycles of grief and pain? Can the Spirit breathe new life into ordinary congregations like ours? Can the Spirit breathe new creation into our relationship with God and with others? Jesus says yes. And it doesn’t take dramatic visions or heavenly voices, you don’t have to speak in tongues or even wave your hands and shout amen (though you certainly can!). The Divine Spirit shows up in the parts of our life that are oh so human – the sorrow and joy, the blood and dirt and grime of everyday life. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, the God of the universe became incarnate in as a real life human man, Jesus of Nazareth – blood and sweat and tears and all. As his followers, God’s Spirit arrives and makes herself incarnate in us – blood and sweat and tears and all.
Covenant, today on Pentecost, may we remember what the Spirit did. But even more than that, may we celebrate what the Spirit does here and now. May we be open to notice and trust the work of the Holy Spirit today. Amen.