A well-known preacher, been working for years in downtown Washington D.C. named Jim Wallis, gave a speech at a pastor’s conference entitled “The Renewal of the Inner City Church.” He told story after story of churches that were once declining but through their mission and ministry had, by the grace of God, recovered and were thriving with soup kitchens and homeless shelters, thrift stores and coffee shops.
In the Question and Answer afterward, one pastor after another rose and criticized Wallis’ speech. Pastors accused him of looking at the world in a naïve way or that he wasn’t telling the whole truth. One questioner even implied that Wallis had made up the stories that he had told.
One of the pastors spoke to Rev. Wallis on the way out, embarrassedly apologized, “I was appalled by the pastors’ reactions.”
“I wasn’t,” Wallis replied. “That’s always the reaction I get from pastors. They just cannot believe that God wins. They are scared to death that all this stuff about the Holy Spirit renewing the face of the earth, just might be true.”
#1—First time I heard this story, I clicked my tongue at those unbelieving pastors. Felt superior. “I would never act like that.”
But upon reflection, isn’t it really much easier to describe failure, death, doubt and decline, than it is to describe the working of the Holy Spirit?
Even for us Christians, who live by this book, the Bible, stammer and stumble over descriptions of the Holy Spirit. If you doubt me, try thinking real quick of one sentence that describes the Holy Spirit—got it? Even Luke in the book of Acts strains to describe the Holy Spirit in words.
Look at the way Luke describes the event of Pentecost in Acts 2, the actual event itself is very short only three verses (!). 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. Luke is straining to write down in words something that is a miracle, impossible to write down.
Miracles are hard. Yet, failure, death, doubt, that’s easy. We can handle that more easily than the Holy Spirit. The newspaper is full of stories about failures, about the most recent political scandals, about deaths and disappointments. And personally, too, we’ve all experienced doubt, anger, frustration, hurt—we’ve not all experienced the power, the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit.
#2 Pentecost, the birthday of the church, forms a bookend with the Genesis story of the tower of Babel. The tower of Babel is a story of pride, of human ambition, of failure, of people being scattered.
The Pentecost story is a large and cosmic miracle of God drawing people together, a story of frightened people being healed. We are promised nothing less that unity, harmony, than God bringing us all together again.
God, who this May morning seems so far off, so distant from our concerns and cries, our tears and torments, comes to us in an event that sounds like a violent wind, looks like an amazing fire. The Spirit, the Almighty, promises to make a home with you. No matter your politics or racial background or balance in your checking account. God the Holy Spirit sweeps all that away in the winds of Pentecost.
#3 The Holy Spirit comes into our lives miraculously.Wherever there is boredom and business as usual, a faith that has shriveled from lack of use—God is there. A bible that once had well-worn pages but now collects dust on a corner shelf, unopened and silently unexplored.
Or maybe you weren’t looking forward to the July 4th family reunion
Your family’s not perfect (which family is?) but there are some deep, deep hurts between you and some of your family. You tried to be positive. ‘This time it will be different,’ you told yourself.You had trouble sleeping the night before. The reunion happened—the old hurts were still there, there were the awkward moments. But that evening, on the back porch in the cool of the evening, after the kids were tucked into bed and the traffic noise died down, you felt that presence, that peace that passes all understanding. Doubt? And disunity? No. You felt the flame, the presence of a God who is trustworthy and true, your best friend. And you knew you were not alone. God was there. God was at home with you.
And when folks marry, that person really becomes part of you. Jesus says in the gospel that in marriage two become one flesh. When Jake died, Mary thought she too was as good as dead. Alone after 40 years of marriage, Mary throught the grief would break her. The most desolate days were the lonely ones after the funeral when the phone stopped ringing and the cards slowed to a trickle. But Mary didn’t die. Somehow, into the cold empty space where death took Jake, the fire of God’s Holy Spirit warmed her heart. And courage she didn’t know she had welled up within Mary. That’s the power, the miracle of the Holy Spirit.
#4 Do you see what I mean about miracle? Do you see how majestic and awe inspiring and so unlikely the miracle of the Holy Spirit is in a world so marred and scarred by the ways of life?
Yet the miracle happens every day. People are being saved. Youth are devoting themselves to Christ. Women are being baptized. Bibles are being read.
And this morning, of course, is another type of miracle. Bread and cup. We don’t usually think of communion as a miracle but it is nonetheless. Simple elements—bread and wine that you can buy at the store; equals the presence of God; the Holy Spirit.
When we take the cover off the communion elements, we’re opening up that same hope, that same promise that the Holy Spirit will descend upon our hearts. Miracle of reaching heaven—not by plying brick upon brick in the tower of Babel, bur reaching heaving through the rushing of the wind and the tongues of fire.
So, I want you to think of this gathering today, not as routine, not as the ordinary bur rather as a miracle. Communion is not so much eating and drinking but it is all about us being brought to the throne of God from the four corners of the earth. From Judea and Mesopotamia, from Pittsburgh or Murrysville, from Canton or Philadelphia.
Yes this is a miracle. May we experience this miracle together. This day and always. Amen.