I Corinthians 12:3b-13
Today’s lessons present us with two very different accounts of how Jesus’ disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first account, recorded in the Gospel of John, takes place in the evening of the first day of the week; that is, on Easter day. The disciples are gathered in a house with its doors locked shut. The gospel writer tells us they are afraid and explains why: they are imagining that the same people who put Jesus to death might now come after them. Without warning, and apparently without knocking or using the door, Jesus appears in the room, standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he says. He then shows them his hands and his side, proving that he is the same Jesus they knew, still bearing the marks of his crucifixion. The disciples receive him gladly, and he responds by ordering them into the world, just as the Father had sent him into the world. Then, he breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Finally, along with the commission to go into the world and the gift of the Holy Spirit, he grants them power to forgive people’s sins, or to refuse them forgiveness.
It’s a gentle episode – emotional perhaps, but not terrifying; surprising, but not overwhelming. We can imagine Jesus greeting them in a calm, quiet voice to soothe their shock at his sudden appearance: “Peace be with you.” The Spirit comes to them in such a gentle way: Jesus simply breathes on them. The Hebrew word for “spirit” means “breath” or “wind.” Here it comes as a gentle breath.
Contrast that with the second narrative, Luke’s story of the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts, which takes place much later, several days after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. There is nothing gentle or soothing about this story. Jesus’ friends and disciples are gathered in a room, praying and waiting for the gift of “power” that Jesus has promised them (Acts 1:8). Suddenly they are overwhelmed by “a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” Those of us who have survived hurricanes or tornadoes or blizzards know how terrifying such a sound can be. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, they see “divided tongues, as of fire” appearing on each others heads and they begin speaking in other languages, testifying about God’s mighty deeds of power in languages they have never learned! I mean, that’s crazy, right?
Imagine the chaos and confusion that suddenly erupts in this scene. At one moment they are seated together, waiting and praying. They have just elected Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot as one of “the twelve,” and everything is tidy and in good order. They are genuine believers, devoutly and prayerfully carrying on the proper business of the Church. They’re having a quiet prayer meeting when, without any warning, they are assaulted by this sound of a rushing wind, growing stronger and more terrifying by the minute. They see “tongues of fire” dancing on each other’s heads – what on earth is happening?! They hear the babbling of other languages and find their own tongues loosed in a way that they’ve never experienced. What am I saying? How is this happening?
Not surprisingly they begin to draw a crowd. The people who come are amazed and probably a little frightened by the spectacle. They gradually recognize that it is not Hebrew or Greek that is being spoken, but their own native languages – and their message makes sense to them! How is that possible? The Spirit-infused disciples spill out of the room into the streets. They head for the temple, where their enemies are no doubt gathered, but now they are absolutely fearless! All around them people are being converted, caught up in the powerful signs and moved by their eloquent testimony to the power and goodness of God. By the day’s end, over three thousand of them had joined the Church.
And that Church begins to flourish. The believers live what they preach. They sell their possessions in order to provide for the needy among them. They gather day by day, sharing everything they have, making sure everyone is cared for, regularly meeting to praise God and to strengthen the love they have for one another. Even the nonbelievers speak well of them.
There are two miracles here, and I’m not referring to the sound of the rushing wind, or the tongues of fire, or the speaking in different languages. The first is that the Church has begun to testify out in the world, and the second is that the world responds with repentance and faith. God is at work!
First miracle: the Church testifies out in the world. It’s almost as if the believers can’t help themselves: they’re driven out of the house, so aflame with the Spirit that they cannot keep still. They simply must tell others the news of how God’s power has raised Jesus from the dead. They are no longer afraid. They cannot be hushed. There is a fiery urgency in their proclamation.
And then the second miracle: their message has a powerful, life-changing effect on those who hear it. “What shall we do?” the crowd implores. How can we experience what you’ve experienced? How can we know what you know? What can we do to be similarly transformed, to be made fearless and strong and to be filled with a passionate love for the Most High?
It’s not that everyone is convinced. Some are speculating that these disciples have had too much to drink at nine o’clock in the morning! But thousands accept the message and believe: a miracle indeed!
It’s possible that both of these two stories may have happened as they are described: namely, that the Risen Christ gave his disciples a taste of the Holy Spirit by breathing on them in the upper room on the night of his resurrection AND that at some later point, a larger band of disciples was swept up in the chaos and confusion of a powerful (even frightening) display of God’s power as the Holy Spirit filled and took control of them at Pentecost.
Which of the two experiences would you have preferred? My guess is that most of us would opt for the gentler outpouring. We’re not that adventurous most of the time; we don’t like not being in control; and we appreciate a quiet, calm and orderly atmosphere. There’s something scary about violent, rushing winds and dancing flames and a cacophony of different languages being spoken at the same time. It feels risky, scary. We might hesitate to ask the Holy Spirit to come upon us if this were what we knew would happen. It’s nice to be a part of an orderly, well-run Church, we think; better than risking pandemonium. We are Episcopalians, after all.
And yet, which experience do we need as a Church? With organized religion steadily declining in our country, with nearly a quarter of the people in the U.S. identifying as “none” – that is, having no religious preference – perhaps we need a good windstorm to shake things up. It seems that a good many of our fellow humans feel indifferent towards the Church, or worse, that they harbor resentment and bitterness from their experience of Christianity and of Christians, and scorn the Church’s hypocrisy and divisions. We could use some stirring up, if we hope to influence our own generation.
So here’s the question for today: Are we brave enough to pray for a windstorm? Do we dare ask God to pour out the Holy Spirit on each of us and on the Church with power and might, as God did for these early believers? Do we have the courage to pray God to unleash the Spirit on us, even if it leads to chaos and disorder? Would we be willing for God to set us aflame with passion for the Gospel?
This ancient story from the desert fathers seems especially appropriate today:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said: “Abba, as much as I am able I practice a small rule, a little fasting, some prayer and meditation, and remain quiet, and as much as possible I keep my thoughts clean. What else should I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten torches of flame. And he said: “Why not be turned into fire?”
If we are dissatisfied with our current state, or if we’re troubled by what we see in the world around us, we may be ready to pray this prayer and mean it. We may be able to kneel before Christ and plead for the power of the Holy Spirit to fall on each one of us, on this monastic community, on the Church and on the world. We may be ready to open the windows of our souls to let the mighty wind rush in and throw everything into chaos by turning our lives inside out. Is it risky? You bet! Do we dare?
“The Spirit blows where it will.” There’s really no telling what will happen if we dare to ask.
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