Over the next several months I am preaching on words from scripture and Christian faith that every disciple should know. As today is Pentecost, naturally our word is Spirit.
In telling the story of Christ, Luke, author of the gospel and the Book of Acts, expends great detail on Jesus’ birth. In his writing, birth stories become a kind of vignette of the rest of the story. “In my beginning is my end,” the poet T.S. Eliot wrote. The start of a person’s life indicates the direction that life will take. Much that has significance later, can be seen in the origins. So it is that Luke tells the story of the church’s beginnings.
With the rush of a violent wind the Spirit descends upon a timid group of disciples. It is the same wind that on the very first morning swept across dark waters, the wind of creation. The wind is once again bringing something to life.
The Psalmist declares, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1) The community of disciples, such as it was on the morning of Pentecost, is still uncertain. Rather than organizing and marching forth from Easter with banners unfurled, they have remained waiting, withdrawn, praying. The next move is up to God. It is up to the risen Christ to make good on his promise to bestow the Spirit. That is the prayer of the gathered followers. They pray to hold God to God’s promise.
In praying “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” we offer the same prayer. It is a bold prayer born out of confidence in the faithfulness of God. And it is a prayer of deep humility, for it is the church’s realization that only God can give what the church, and each disciple, most desperately needs. So they have not gone forth, but rather they have waited, waited for the creating Spirit that blows the wind of God’s power across the face of the earth, the face of the church.
There’s a scene in the movie Forrest Gump that comes to my mind when I think about what happened when the disciples gathered that first Pentecost. One of the characters is a profane man who lost his legs in the Vietnam War. He thought it was his destiny to die in the war and was angry at God and the title character – Forrest Gump – who saved his life in a firefight. Years after the war, the two are working on a struggling shrimp boat. The legless Lieutenant Dan is up on the very top of the mast. Down below, Forrest Gump is sorting through another empty shrimp net.
Lieutenant Dan yells at Gump in a mocking tone, “Where is this God of yours?”
In one of the great lines of the movie, Tom Hanks, who plays Gump says in a voice over, “It’s funny Lieutenant Dan said that, ’cause right then, God showed up.”
The shrimp boat is caught in the brutal wind and storm of a Hurricane. The sea boils. The winds lash at the ship and roar. Lightning burns across the sky.
When the Spirit shows up, it creates quite a ruckus.
This is what the Book of Acts reports. When the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples, there is fire and roaring wind. The disciples are shaken, but they are also seized by power. A power that will, with God’s Spirit, build the church. And build each disciple.
When the crowds take note of the ruckus, they are “amazed and perplexed.” Like Lt. Dan, they mock and they claim “they are filled with new wine.” The power which the church proclaims as the gift of God, the world explains as drunkenness. The inbreaking of the Spirit is unsettling and threatening to the crowd. To the disciples it is something else entirely.
In response a disciple offers an explanation. Here is the true meaning of the Spirit in our lives. The disciple who speaks is Peter. We still remember how he proved capable of betrayal. We recall how quick he was to call for a replacement for Judas, despite his own disloyalty. Yet now he becomes the first to stand and proclaim, what only a few weeks prior he could not speak.
In Genesis the Spirit of God breathed life into dust and created a human being. In Acts 2 the Spirit has breathed life into a once cowardly disciple and created a new man who now has the gift of bold speech. That’s the Spirit, creating, enabling, empowering, sustaining
How does the “ruckus” of the Spirit’s inbreaking into your life create newness in you, in each of us modern day disciples?
Not long after John Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash, amateur pilot Stephen Hedges wrote about the difficulty of flying a plane by instruments alone. It is a skill a pilot must master to fly at night or in a fog. Without it it is easy for a pilot to fall into an uncontrolled bank and crash.
During one instrument lesson, Hedges noted, “I flew the headings and turns as instructed, but even with ten hours of instrument flying in my logbook, I was amazed at how quickly the plane slid into a banking turn if I diverted my attention for just a few moments. The first time it happened, a pang of panic shot through me, a momentary fear that made it even more difficult to comprehend what the plane was doing.”
But then he heard his instructor next to him calmly say, “Watch your bank.” Hedges quickly leveled the plane.
That is the essence of the Spirit for us today. There are countless times when we are forced to fly in a fog or at night. Times when it is hard to get our bearings. Times when we can’t see the horizon. Times when it takes more than we have by ourselves to keep perspective and stay level.
At such times as this, we are to keep our eyes fixed on the guidance the Spirit offers our lives. In a take on the war time British poster, in such times, Keep Calm and Keep the Spirit.