Today we celebrate Pentecost. Some people call it the birthday of the Church. As a life-long Presbyterian, I prefer to think of it as a day when Presbyterians can talk about the Holy Spirit without squirming too much in our seats. That’s a little harsh maybe, but not entirely wrong. Presbyterians are known for our devotion to study and to a faith that seeks understanding. And no matter how you cut it, the Holy Spirit defies understanding.
One of my favorite rituals in the cycle of church life comes each spring, as young people going through the confirmation process share their faith journeys. Last year, I listened to a class of confirmands nervously read their written statements. These young teenagers had been through a year of class and conversation, getting to the moment when they would decide whether or not to join the congregation. They had been given some questions to guide their writing, and the first one was, “what do you believe about the Trinity?” One 14-year-old started confidently with “I believe in the triune God.” And then she had a paragraph about each person of the Trinity. She spoke clearly and beautifully about who God is and what God has done and then, about how she knows Jesus Christ. And then she paused and sighed a little as she said, “and I believe in the Holy Spirit… which is the third thing in the Trinity.” End of paragraph. She had nothing more to say about the Holy Spirit. I appreciated her honesty in that moment.
Seekers of all ages and traditions are confounded when we try to put words to what the Spirit is and what it does. We can rattle off the actions of God: God created and ordered the world and delivered God’s people. And Jesus Christ: he came into the world as a human being, taught and did miracles, and saved us from our sins. But the Holy Spirit…? Did what exactly? Moved in and through all of that? Empowered it? Animated it? Rushed in as a violent wind? Well, yes! And yet, this divine power is still a mystery to us. This third “thing” in the Trinity – this third person of the Trinity – defies our logic and understanding.
This is why I love Pentecost. I need a reminder – more often than once a year, really – that a power I cannot see or define with a list is at work in the world. Each Pentecost, we hear this old story of the birth of the church and the role the Spirit had to play that day. And if we are listening, we hear what the Spirit is doing in us, too.
That day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit did two essential things: it gave people the ability to speak about God. And it gave people the openness to hear about God. Without the Holy Spirit, nothing would have happened that day. The disciples wouldn’t have said a word to the gathered crowd because they didn’t speak their language. And the crowd wouldn’t have heard God’s Good News or become part of a new community of faith.
When the disciples left the upper room, they found a crowd of people from all kinds of different places. But they could not preach to them or tell them about God. Except that inexplicably they could. Miraculously, they could. Luke tells us that the Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak in languages they didn’t understand. The disciples were talking about God’s work without even knowing what they themselves were saying! And the Spirit gave the listeners the ability to hear. Everyone who was gathered was so amazed that they asked, “How is it that we hear, each of us?” That is the work of the Holy Spirit, bridging the divides of language and culture so that all who were gathered could hear the Good News they needed that day.
I have never suddenly been able to speak a language I haven’t studied. The opposite, actually. I have often visited places where I have studied the language and I’ve still struggled to be understood. I took twelve years of French and Parisians still sneer at me when I am trying my best. But I have had the experience of the Spirit interceding with a message that needed to be spoken and a message that needed to be heard.
Now preachers can get really attached to our words. Sometimes to our detriment. We read and study and write sermons. And we can sometimes think that our words carry the Good News of the Gospel out into the world. But the first time I ever preached through a translator, I learned in a very real and humbling way that it is not my word that lets others hear God; it is the power of the Holy Spirit by which we hear.
About eight years ago, I started traveling to Cuba each year with a group from Atlanta to visit a congregation in the tiny, dirt-road town of Perico. Going to Cuba is a bit like going back in time and as you move from the city out into rural areas, you pass from paved roads and 1950s cars to dirt tracks and horses and buggies. The tiny Iglesia Presbiteriano in Perico is on one of the main dirt roads in that little town. And while its membership is maybe 80 people, many others come there all the time because the church houses the only water filtration system for the whole town. Tap water isn’t safe for drinking there, so an organization called Living Waters for the World helped get a system in place to provide clean water to the residents of Perico. The water system is in a squat cement building behind the little church. It has a couple of huge tanks, filters, and a wall of six spigots that look just like the ones you use to connect your garden hose. Twice each week, the whole town lines up to get water. People come from as far as they have to, on bikes and on foot, sometimes with a wheelbarrow. They have buckets and jugs and poles to balance their water and get it home without spilling it. It takes a long time for the crowd to fill their containers at those little faucets. So, while they’re gathered, people talk. The pastor of the little church checks in with them. She uses that time to encourage them and invite them back. She has a stash of other things they might need – reading glasses and ibuprofen and Tums that can’t be purchased in stores in Cuba. She has crayons and lined handwriting paper for the kids who run to the church after school. People come for the water, but the scene is a true picture of church.
When I saw this in action, I was moved. There isn’t an equivalent for those of us who don’t have to go somewhere and wait for something as necessary as water. So, the first time I was invited to preach at that church, I had to talk about the witness of this twice weekly gathering to get water. But my Spanish is meager, so I needed to preach with the help of a translator at that little church the following Sunday. I had prepared the way I would to preach at home in Atlanta – I wrote out a manuscript of my sermon. I wrote about Jesus and the women at the well. I wrote about Jesus seeing people who were outsiders and welcoming them. I wrote about the life-giving power of water. I think I threw in something about baptism to drive that point home, bless my heart. It was a great sermon – it had a well, renewing water, the sacrament of baptism, Jesus being Jesus, community springing forth as a result. I thought it was tight.
Now our bus had some trouble on the road, so we were late to church and the small sanctuary was packed when we arrived that Sunday morning. It was well over 100 degrees in the room and there was no air conditioning. The church does have electricity, though, and knowing that their American friends were delicate flowers, our Cuban neighbors had brought floor fans into the sanctuary, and they had run extension cords to the church from the house next door. I was not wearing a robe that morning, thanks be to God, but I was pouring sweat by the time we got to the sermon in that beautiful worship service.
My new friend the translator and I got up and at that moment, the power went out. The fans had blown a fuse and the air in the church got very not and very still. I read the scripture anyway. Then I read the first two sentences of my sermon and paused for the translation. The translator said four words. I was confused. I thought surely it took more than four words to say the carefully crafted thing I had just read, so I looked over at her and she nodded at me to keep going. So, I read another sentence or two. Same thing. All the way through that sermon I was so proud of, she managed to use about a third of the words I had. I was consciously thinking, “I don’t know what she’s saying.” Actually, it was more like the disciples at Pentecost – I didn’t know what I was saying through her. I was sure the nuanced theological message I intended could not have come through with so few words. And as I pushed on, I was thinking, “I hope this means something – anything.”
About halfway through the sermon, from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it filled the sanctuary. Actually, someone opened the front doors and a breeze rushed into the room. And at the same moment, someone else flipped a breaker and floor fans came back on. And suddenly, blessedly, air moved – a divine wind swept across everyone in the room. As I stood there anxiously hoping to convey even a little bit about God’s deeds of power, sweat running embarrassingly down my entire body, that could not have been more obviously the presence of the Holy Spirit. I relaxed then and the translator and I made it to the end of the sermon.
All afternoon that day, people came up to talk and to my amazement, they had each heard something different that morning. I truly do not know what I said, but I realized then and there that my words didn’t matter very much. The Holy Spirit had moved in that place and people had heard what they needed to hear about God’s Good News. An older lady thanked me for the sermon about God providing the water they need. A young mother talked about her daughter being loved by the community. A sun-worn older man came over to tell me that he doesn’t like church, but he does like water days, because he gets to see his friends. A teenager had heard a message about church giving her a place to play her guitar. A woman who was a teacher said, “I never thought of this as a well, but now I will think of this as a place where I could meet Jesus.” Did I say any of those things? I don’t know. Did those people hear them? Yes. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Giving us the ability to speak and to hear the Good News for each of us.
That day felt stressful and chaotic for me until the Spirit moved and I released my need to understand and control what was happening. It was something like that for those early disciples and the gathered crowd that first day of Pentecost – chaotic, perplexing, amazing. Some wanted to explain the mystery away – this cacophony of languages must mean that they were drunk and speaking gibberish. But what looked like chaos was the Holy Spirit moving. When the Spirit moves, it gives people a message they didn’t have before.
Take Peter, for example. We remember that Peter’s own faith journey was a bit of a rollercoaster. while Jesus was on earth, Peter was all in. He was the eager disciple who walked at the front of the line and volunteered for whatever needed doing. But in Jesus’ last hours on earth, Peter couldn’t bring himself to say that Jesus was his Lord. Peter denied him and followed only at a distance. But here at Pentecost, Peter is transformed. Through the Holy Spirit, Peter hears the call to speak up. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, he suddenly has the words he needs to say. It is Peter who stands up to the scoffers and sneerers in the crowd, who stands up to talk about God’s vision for God’s world.
The Spirit is doing that same work in us, helping us to hear what we need and giving us the words to share Good News. Sometimes the Spirit compels us to stand up as a community against forces bigger than any one of us. When we see the impacts of racism and generational poverty and abuse of God’s earth and endless gun violence and we get lumps in our throats so that it hurts to swallow, the Spirit is moving in us. And we hear God saying, this is not my vision for my world. The Holy Spirit helps us hear the call to speak out when others don’t. And when it’s unpopular. Even when people sneer and make fun. It is the Holy Spirit that lets us hear.
And it is this same Spirit that gives us the courage to speak. Just like Peter, who was transformed from a cautious disciple afraid he’d get something wrong into one who speaks boldly, trusting that God will give him the words. The Holy Spirit is calling us to cross those barriers, too. The Spirit compels us to look at the brokenness of the world and to speak up to say this is not God’s vision for God’s world.
This Pentecost, what message is the Spirit calling us to hear? And what is the Spirit calling us to say? Like those early disciples, may we receive the gift of this same Spirit so that we might hear and share God’s Good News.
Let us pray.
Spirit of the living God, move in us today. Give us words that touch the need of this hurting world. Stir us to stand up and speak. Fill us with longing for God’s future and help us walk toward it. Amen.