John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Let’s talk about fire—that’s one of the images we get to describe the Holy Spirit. What is fire good for? Why is it important? It creates warmth. It cooks food. It gives light. It is used to signal. What makes fire dangerous? It burns down houses and forests and fields. It can kill plants, animal, humans. It can be used for good, but when it’s let loose, it’s nearly impossible to control.
So, sometimes, we try to find more tame versions of fire. We use electrical appliances for cooking and heating and lighting instead of open flames. At Christmas, we pass out these battery-operated candles to kids while the adults get the real ones. We want to stay safe. Because fire isn’t safe—it’s useful and necessary, but not safe.
Today, we heard this amazing story about the Holy Spirit coming over and into the disciples. It was like a violent wind whipping through the room. It landed on them like fire. It gave them the gift of languages—to tell the world about Jesus in the language of the people listening. Honestly, it sounds like a pretty frightening experience. I mean, the writer couldn’t even really describe the Spirit beyond images of destruction—violent wind and fire.
Just like fire, the Spirit isn’t safe. She comes into us when we hear the Scripture, when we hear the sermon, when we sing the hymns, when we are baptized, when we receive holy communion, and in many other ways and other times. And she moves us to do some pretty amazing things—like confronting bullies even when they scare us, like helping someone even if we don’t like them. Can you think of other things the Spirit might help us do to live God’s love in the world?
Let’s pray. Gracious God, thank you for sending the Spirit to us. Help us follow where she leads and not be afraid. Amen.
We Lutherans aren’t really very good at talking about the Holy Spirit. We get that the Spirit is one of the three persons of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we have prayers about receiving the Spirit in baptism and when we affirm our faith: “Sustain us with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.”
It’s a lovely prayer—one of my favorites. But it seems a bit…mild—especially compared to what the disciples would later endure for the sake of the gospel: martyrdom, persecution, being arrested. What about praying for the Spirit of courage and disruption, the spirit of resistance and boldness, the spirit of persistence and downright spunk? To be honest, that kind of spirit is a little…forbidding. I’m not sure I want that Spirit. I mean, what is it we’re going to get into that we need a spirit of courage, persistence, and spunk? Doesn’t Jesus tell the disciples that he’s sending a comforter, an advocate when he’s gone? One expects more of a fuzzy blanket than a suit of armor—perhaps a quilt like the ones we’re sending with our graduates today.
In fact, that’s a good comparison in a way. At the end of the service, we’ll have our graduates and their parents come up, and they will each bless and pray over each other. The parents will wrap their children in a quilt they helped make. I will remind them that the parents once wrapped their tiny babies and held them close. Now they are sending them out, and the quilt is a reminder of the parents’ love.
It’s not all that different than the instructions Jesus gives the disciples before he leaves them. Though they will be separated, he promises God’s presence with them in the Spirit. In fact, this he says will be better than having Jesus with them, though they can’t imagine how. You can have a relationship with a person—but a spirit? A quilt? It seems only a poor symbol, but not the real thing. That’s just it, though. The Spirit IS the real thing. The Spirit IS God—as fully present to us now as Jesus was to the disciples. The Spirit isn’t a nice idea but God’s very presence running wild in this world.
This is the same Spirit whom God breathed into Adam—giving life to clay. It’s the Spirit who descended onto Jesus at his baptism as God proclaimed Jesus’ identity—the Spirit who gave him the strength and courage for ministry.
It’s also, of course, the same Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. Because the reality of the Spirit is that she’s going to move us toward ministry and mission that isn’t necessarily safe—where there are no guarantees—where things may not turn out quite the way we imagined or hoped for—but where God’s presence and faithfulness are absolutely and unashamedly present.
Some of you may have heard Sara Miles speak or read her book, “Take This Bread.” She tells her story of growing up as an atheist and happily living an ‘enthusiastically secular life’ as a restaurant cook and journalist. She says, “I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian…Or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut.”
But as she entered the doors of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco on a whim, she ate a piece of bread and took a sip of wine and found herself radically transformed…. At the age of 46 this was her first communion and it changed everything.
In a holy moment, this enthusiastic atheist experienced the Holy Spirit, and there was no going back. She started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where she first received communion. She then organized new pantries all over the city to provide hundreds of hungry families with free groceries each week. Without committees or meetings or even an official telephone number, she recruited scores of volunteers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But Sara Miles also discovered that her newly transformed life wasn’t necessarily going to be easy. She found herself trudging in the rain through housing projects, sitting on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man, taking the firing pin out of a battered woman’s .357 Magnum and putting the gun in a cookie tin in the trunk of her car, and struggling with her atheist family and doubting friends. She also had to face what she called the great American scandal of the politics of food, the economy of hunger, and the rules of money.
The Spirit of courage and resistance changed the course of Sara’s life. It changes the course of our lives and our ministries. Who would have anticipated that, 14 years ago, we would embrace a prison ministry that would take on a life of its own—that men and women would wait for weeks for the opportunity to worship here—that they would serve our community at least as much as they have been served? And now, we are embarking on a food ministry and kitchen renovation that leaves a great deal of the future up in the air. Who will use it? Who will pay for it? Who will teach and learn? Who will benefit? How much will it cost and will it be worth it?
There are no guarantees. That’s the beauty and the wonder, the dread and the excitement of the Spirit’s movement. Like a fire, she moves within and around us, sending us into ministries we don’t feel ready for; ones we not only would not imagine; ones we probably would have otherwise not chosen. She comforts us in our despair, challenges us in our reluctance, inspires us in our indifference, and moves us out—out into the world with the language of love.
The Spirit is uncontrollable and unsafe—and undeniably necessary in order for us to truly be the Church and follow Jesus. We need the Holy Spirit to move us beyond ourselves, to open our minds and our mouths to the gospel, and to help us see where God is acting so that we might catch up and catch on. So, let us pray:
Sustain us with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of courage and disruption, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of resistance and boldness, the spirit of persistence and spunk, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.”
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church