In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What a joy it is to be with you again. Saint Augustine’s, under Father Joseph’s pastoral leadership, is one of our most vibrant congregations in so many ways: number of confirmands, worship attendance, and impact in your community. Not to mention most colorful vestments!
And you were one of our most generous donors to the Bishop’s Appeal last December to benefit Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church in Tulsa. You are living out the faith as disciples of Jesus Christ here, and I am grateful for you.
When I was here last, for Father Lance’s ordination to the priesthood, I was so blessed to be with many of you, and to be in this holy place for the first time.
And today marks my first official Sunday visitation, with confirmations. And what a day this is in the Church year, as we celebrate Pentecost, the end of the 50 day Easter season, and the day on which we remember the giving of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the Church.
Pentecost is always a special day, a day of great energy and excitement. But this year has a particularly joyful feel, as it seems we are moving out of the COVID pandemic. We are seeing life returning to something closer to normal. In our congregations, COVID protocols are gradually being reduced, and our former practices restored.
I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to be visiting extended family this summer for the first time in two years. Megan’s and my three boys will see their grandparents and cousins. It feels like we are turning a corner, in our congregations and in our families, after more than a year of pandemic.
And so, I bring to you this Pentecost day a message both of encouragement, and of challenge. And this is it: the Holy Spirit is not a gentle breeze.
My friends in Christ, the Holy Spirit is not a gentle breeze.
We see this in the Acts story that forms the core of our Biblical theme today. On the day of Pentecost, a Jewish harvest festival fifty days after Passover, the apostles are all in one place. Then, suddenly, from heaven, there comes, not a gentle breeze, but something like the rush of a violent wind. And it doesn’t just stir the curtains, and kick up a little dust, it fills the entire house.
And then, tongues as of fire rest on each of them, and the Holy Spirit gives them the ability to speak in languages they do not know.
In typical scriptural economy, the event itself is but briefly described. Instead, the focus is on the reaction to the miracle. In the packed downtown of Jerusalem, buzzing with religious pilgrims, a crowd quickly gathers at the sound of these Galileans, these country hicks, speaking languages from near and far. Predictably, some are awed, and others skeptical.
“They are filled with new wine!”
In a sign of just how profound a change has occurred, it is Peter, the one who denied Christ three times, who, in his new voice, empowered by the Holy Spirit, boldly proclaims what has happened in the words of the prophet Joel for all to hear.
You know, as Episcopalians, we sometimes don’t know what to make of the Holy Spirit. This third person of the holy Trinity is harder to grasp than Jesus, the Savior, and God, the Father, the creator. Our Pentecostal brother and sisters embrace the Holy Spirit, but we genteel Episcopalians are sometimes a bit more reluctant.
But our readings and our prayers and our glorious music today give us an idea about who the Holy Spirit is and what the Spirit means for us, if we have ears to hear.
The Holy Spirit is not a gentle breeze.
The Holy Spirit is powerful, in at least four different ways. The Spirit creates. It brooded over the waters at the beginning of creation. It creates everything that been, everything that is, and that will be.
The Spirit communicates. It spoke through the prophets, anointed Jesus at his baptism, and led him into the wilderness. It speaks through the Holy Scriptures, and through prayer. The Holy Spirit is God’s communication to us, guiding and comforting us. And prayer is how we communicate our deepest feelings, sometimes too deep for words, to God.
The Spirit changes. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus fed the 5,000 and turned water into wine, healed the sick and cast out demons. And by that same spirit, God is present to us through the holy sacraments, transforming bread and wine into body and blood, and through water bringing us into God’s family.
And the Holy Spirit challenges us with the truth. As much as Jesus, the Christ, taught his followers then and now, he knew that there was so much more to be revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, the Advocate. “I still have many things to say to you, Jesus said, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
Truth can be hard to hear, but the Holy Spirit challenges us with the truth of God, as we are able to bear it.
Creation, communication, change, and challenge: these are four powerful aspects of the Holy Spirit.
But what does all this mean for us today?
To our confirmands: confirmation is not a genteel, stuffy tradition. We are asking you to reaffirm the promises you made (or that were made on your behalf) at your baptism. And then we are asking the Holy Spirit to come down, as on the day of Pentecost, to strengthen and empower you to bring the light of Christ into the world.
This confirmation ceremony should make us a little nervous, because the Holy Spirit is not a gentle breeze, but a rushing wind. The Holy Spirit is powerful, and unpredictable. Like the lion Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, the Holy Spirit isn’t safe, but it is good.
You have no idea how the Holy Spirit will work in your life after today. You may be led by God down paths you cannot now imagine.
A few weeks ago, my ten year old son, Thomas, got a birthday present he’d been asking for, for several years: a trip with a couple of friends to iFly, the indoor sky-diving simulator here in Oklahoma City. I saw on your church Facebook page that some of you went there recently as well. One of the things the instructors told the participants is that they need to relax in the powerful wind. If you’re too tense, you can go off course.
Our job, as those who are baptized and confirmed, is to be, as Saint Julian of Norwich said, like feathers on the breath of God. Not only praying but living the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “thy will be done,” is not easy.
Confirmands: don’t be frightened, but do realize that we are inviting the power of the Holy Spirit into our lives today, and that Spirit may have plans for us, beyond what we can even imagine.
And to all of us here today: let’s embrace the power of the Holy Spirit to create, communicate, change, and challenge. This end of the pandemic, God-willing, is not a chance to sit back and relax.
It is a call to get back to church, remake and reinvigorate our ministries, reach out in new ways to our neighbors, build on what we’ve learned, and get to the work of spreading the gospel of Jesus.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us. It is a sweet, sweet spirit, as the song goes, and also a spirit that is being poured out upon us. Poured out on us, so that we might spread the good news to every race and nation to the ends of the earth, beginning in Oklahoma City!
The Holy Spirit is not a gentle breeze, but a mighty and unpredictable force. It isn’t safe, but it is good.
Come, Holy Spirit, into our hearts today, and families, into this congregation, into this city, into our state, and country, and into our world. Rush in and surround us with your presence.
Come Holy Spirit, as agent of creation, communication, change, and challenge. Speak to us, inspire us, and set us on fire with your transforming love. Amen.
~Bishop Poulson Reed, Sermon Given at St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021
Various Clergy and members of St. Augustine contribute to authoring the blog on a variety of topics.