Stutterings on the Holy Spirit

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Pentecost + May 24, 2015

Texts: Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

As we’ve heard many times already this morning, today is Pentecost. On this day about 2,000 years ago, the disciples of Jesus were waiting. They had suffered through the betrayal of their brother Judas, they had wept hopelessly at the arrest and execution of their teacher and friend, and then they had been shocked by the disappearance of his body. But now, by the time of the festival of Pentecost, they had seen their dead leader alive again, spoken with him, eaten with him, and once again they had hope and faith in the power of God. And so they waited for God, expectantly, excitedly, with Christ’s last promise in their ears: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

When the day of Pentecost came. Mark A Hewitt, 2012.

Now, as some of you may have caught from today’s reading of this story – or as some may have already known – Pentecost was a day of celebration long before the Holy Spirit rushed on to the disciples like a whirlwind of fire. Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish festival known in Hebrew as Shavuot, or the Festival of Weeks. It’s called that because it is set to take place seven weeks after the beginning of the grain harvest; it’s a holiday given by God through Moses to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest season (see, for example, Deut. 16:9-12).

When Jews today celebrate the Festival of Weeks, they celebrate not only God’s gift of the first fruits of the harvest, but also God’s gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai. But since that connection wasn’t made until a few hundred years after the first Christian Pentecost*, I want to focus in on the harvest celebration for a moment, just for fun. Jesus, after all, talked about farming and harvests and fruit all the time. Telling stories of planting and waiting and then harvesting was one of the main ways Jesus talked about the spreading of the gospel (ex. Matt. 9:37-38; Jn. 4:35-38). So it seems really fitting – and just really awesome – that the moment when the Holy Spirit comes to empower the disciples to spread the word, when the Holy Spirit comes to harvest the first fruits of the church, is Pentecost, the ancient celebration of first fruits.

Of course most Christians today don’t associate Pentecost and the harvest at all. Instead, on Pentecost we celebrate the day the Holy Spirit first sent Christ’s followers out into the world to preach and grow the movement — the movement that would eventually spread even to Franklin, TN. We celebrate the presence of the Holy Spirit here among us, keeping the gospel movement going and going — like our invisible Energizer Bunny.

So today seems like a good day to ask a question that doesn’t often come up for Lutherans: when was the last time you spoke about the Holy Spirit? Not just in worship when we say the names of the Trinity and cross ourselves, or shout, “Come, Holy Spirit,” during the Communion rites; but when is the last time you spoke about the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life?

Some of us may come from more Pentecostal backgrounds, so that talking about the Holy Spirit comes easily to us. But I’m going to guess that for most of us, we’re much more comfortable talking about what God the Creator has done or what Christ the Savior has done than what the mysterious Holy Spirit is up to.

Even our creeds kind of brush past her. The Apostle’s Creed gives one section to some of the things the church believes about “God, the Father almighty,” then a longer section to what we believe about “Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,” but then doesn’t even give the Holy Spirit a full section. It just slips the Holy Spirit in to a list of other things we also believe in: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, Amen.” It doesn’t really say anything about what the Holy Spirit is or does.

The Nicene Creed, which we’ll say together today, gives us a little bit more to go on: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.” But even this seems kind of short and unremarkable for the Holy Spirit, the person of the Trinity who moves in the Old Testament stories in the form of wind and breath and fire**; the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promises over and over again; the Holy Spirit, the driving force of every action in the book of Acts, and the power behind the preaching of Paul and Peter and John and James.

Our tradition — at least in the U.S. today — is oddly quiet about the Holy Spirit. So it was a challenge for me to figure out how to preach about the Holy Spirit in a way that we as a group could relate to easily. So I thought, “Okay, where do I see or experience the Holy Spirit? What does the Holy Spirit do in my world?” And one of the things that first came to mind was this alternative way of talking about the Trinity: instead of saying “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” it’s becoming sort-of common (at least among academics) to call them by what they do: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer (or Sanctifier).

But the words “sustainer” and “sanctifier” sound like far-away words to me: words I would read in a book but not say in my day-to-day life. And they sound much too dull and dusty for a story about a sudden rush of stormy wind that shook the whole house and tongues of fire that burned on the heads of the apostles. And that fire burned so hot, it made the disciples burst into preaching. They must have been shouting about God, because the people passing by stopped what they were doing and gathered around, and the original Greek version tells us better than our own translation that the crowds were wild, beside themselves with wonder, in an uproar about what they were seeing and hearing.

The Holy Spirit is radical. She burst in to a perfectly normal Pentecost and transformed everything beyond imagination. And so I’ve started to think about the Holy Spirit as our Transformer.

I’m going pause for a moment, so that those of you who need to can let the images of Optimus Prime soar in and out of your imaginations. Okay.

The Pentecost story goes on to tell us more about how the Holy Spirit transforms us and our world. As the crowds gathered, Peter stood up and quoted the prophet Joel, where God says that God’s spirit will transform our way of seeing who speaks the word of God, so that it’s not just the priests of old, but the people no one expects: the young men and women, and the oldest people in the community, and even slaves who will be set on fire with God’s word (Acts 2:14-21).

Later in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit transformed the disciples’ vision of the church. It had been a totally Jewish movement, but then Peter was stunned to see the Holy Spirit poured out on Gentiles, even a Roman centurion who would have seemed like the enemy. When these non-Jews started speaking in tongues and praising God, Peter went against his tradition and said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10). The church was transformed, opened wider to welcome even more people into God’s kingdom.

But let’s talk now about how the Holy Spirit transforms us today. One very biblical way to think about it is in terms of the “fruits of the Spirit.”  You can probably name some of that familiar list yourself: goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23)…and we might add repentance, the impulse to help others like the Good Samaritan, the strength to resist violence and disrespect by going the extra mile or turning the other cheek. In short, the Holy Spirit transforms us to live like followers of Jesus’s way.

This fits well with the way Martin Luther preached the gospel: he said the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of the faith that saves us — not because of anything we are or do, but as a free gift — and through this gift the Holy Spirit transforms us to do good for our neighbors.

So, back to my original question: where do we see or experience the Holy Spirit today? For me, the answer is in another question: Where do we see the need for miraculous transformation?

One of the places I believe most strongly and physically even in the Holy Spirit is inside of jails and prisons. I get to attend worship services in the Davidson County jail every once in a while, and I am always moved to tears — and to greater faith — during the time to share joys and concerns. Without fail, the men begin by sharing their joy: “I thank God I am alive.” “I thank God that I am in jail, because it is changing me for the better.” “I thank God for grace and another chance.” And often their request is simply to pray for strength to turn away from sinful habits and keep walking on the path of God. That is a place where people long for transformation, and where the Holy Spirit is transforming people, right in front of our eyes.

So, despite how shy I am about using the unfamiliar language of the Holy Spirit, I’m going to be bold and make a few claims this Pentecost — and I hope you will add your own, too. I claim that the Holy Spirit is in our jails and prisons. That the Holy Spirit is in our hospitals. That the Holy Spirit is in your “hello” to a Contributor vendor on the street and in Lutheran Service’s art program with kids in the projects. I claim that the Holy Spirit is in the Room in the Inn ministry, and at breakfast at St. Paul’s, and rides along when we share Christmas baskets through Graceworks. And I claim that the Holy Spirit is here at St. Andrew, transforming this group of people into the Body of Christ here on earth. And I claim that the Holy Spirit is with each of us, strengthening us in our struggles, picking us up when we fall, and transforming our strengths — and our weaknesses too — into signs of God’s love for us and for our world.

Amen. Come, Holy Spirit.


*Kolatch, Alfred J., The Jewish Book of Why, (Middle Village: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 2000), pp. 211-212.

**Moltmann, Jürgen, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001). See Part I, Chapter II: “Historical Experience of the Spirit.”

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