“Gentle Breeze, Fierce Wind”

June 8, 2014


Acts 2:1-11

John 20:19-23


It was probably at least 15 years ago now, and I still remember times in those days when I would see someone walking down the street alone, one hand on her head as if it was hurting, talking to herself. Or I’d see a guy standing still, talking animatedly even though no one was nearby. And I’d think, “What’s going on?” In those early days when cells phones weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, it was a puzzling sight until I realized: “Oh. Things have changed. It’s a phone call.”

In recent weeks I’ve seen people walking around, waving their arms wildly—as if they were out of control. The junior high boys at the school bus stop at the corner of my street stand shaking their heads and slapping themselves. “Kids.” I think. But I also see people walking to church on Sunday mornings exhibiting similar erratic behavior.

What’s going on? Then I remember: Oh. It’s gnat season in Iowa—and one of the worst in decades.

Unseen but very real forces move people to action.

Years in the wilderness shaped the Hebrew people. When speaking of God they often used the image of the strong desert wind. In the desert the wind would rise up suddenly, prove incapable of being bound, possess enormous power, and then leave—always unseen, though its effects were quite visible.

The wind was called the ruach, the Hebrew word that we also translate as “spirit” and as “breath.” The Hebrew people understood the ruach, the unseen but powerful wind, as like the very breath of God. This breath, this spirit, is the life that fills each human being. The psalmist even tells us it is the life that fills all living things, noting: “When you, O God, take away their breath, they die.”

When Jesus spoke of the Spirit of God, he spoke out of his own Jewish understanding: “The Spirit—the wind—the breath of God—blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” The Spirit of God works within our lives, works among us and through us, but we can neither control it nor see it any more than we can control or see the wind.

The wind is the gentle breeze that provides some welcome, cooling relief on a warm spring day. The wind is also the tornado that rips through Joplin, Missouri or Washington, Illinois. The Spirit that calls us to rest and to worship on this beautiful morning is the same Spirit that sends members of our congregation to Joplin and Washington to work as signs of God’s restoring power. “When God sends forth the Spirit,” the psalmist says, “We are renewed.”

Unseen but very real forces move people to action.

The Spirit of God is called the Holy Spirit because it makes us alive, not because it is separated from life. The Spirit sets this life of ours in the presence of the living God and in the great river of eternal love. And so we begin to glimpse the connection between our experience of God and our experience of life.

Our experience of God in all of God’s mystery, our experience of life in all of life’s wonder has led to people in the church telling many different stories about the coming of the Spirit of God. Scripture gives us at least two accounts of Spirit coming upon the followers of the risen Christ.

Acts gives us the story of Pentecost.

John’s Gospel tells of the risen Christ coming to the disciples on the evening of Easter.

As with most cases in which the biblical writers tell of the same event with different stories, each account has some particular grain of truth and each needs to be heard in its own voice. In general, I’m a strong advocate for keeping those stories separate. You know I don’t like to read Matthew’s story of the visit of the magi in the same Christmastime service in which we hear Luke’s account of the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks.

Various accounts might jar us or startle us with their differences. And yet,  if we hear them together—as we did this morning—we get a new picture that might help us understand our own lives in new ways.

The story in chapter two of the Acts of the Apostles that we heard first this morning is a wonderful and lively account of the coming of the Holy Spirit. When the early Christians—raised and nurtured as Jewish people—told of their experience during the Jewish feast of Pentecost, they turned to the desert experiences, to the wilderness memories and images: “Suddenly there came from the sky what sounded like a strong driving wind, a noise which filled the whole house where they were sitting….They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.”

The followers of Jesus speak in various languages. They tell of “God’s deeds of power”—of the crucified Jesus being raised from death and the beginning of a new creation. They are not “speaking in tongues”—using some kind of ecstatic spiritual words that no one knows. Those who hear understand the words perfectly. Tongues of fire, the rush of wind, a cacophony of languages given so that everyone present might with comprehension hear of the mighty deeds of God. It is as story that we love. We read it every year. It inspires us. We dress in red to remember the flames. Maybe we should turn the ceiling fans up to “11” to experience the power of the wind. This story stirs up the emotions even among God’s frozen chosen. We often sing on this day of how we respond “Every time we feel the Spirit moving in our hearts…” It is just the story that those who need a little shaking up need to hear.

Unseen but very real forces move people to action.

The story of Pentecost tells us that the Spirit of God is the power behind the quality of surprise in the Christian life. Again and again we find ourselves doing things that astonish us. The Spirit leads us in directions we wouldn’t dare take on our own. We pack up for a week in Washington, Illinois. We head down to the free lunch program. We discover the unexpected abundance that surrounds us. We give more than we expected to give. We love more than we expected to love.

The Spirit comes to us in our uncertainty as the Spirit came to those asking “What is this?” and “How can this be?”

Such questions are Pentecost responses. When there is confusion and bewilderment, the Spirit is present. Or maybe we could say when the Spirit is present there is confusion and bewilderment.

John Calvin said that faith is the principle work of the Spirit. But faith should not be confused with certainty. It even has been said that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. And so, in doing the work of bringing faith on Pentecost the Spirit also brings confusion, doubt, and uncertainty.

This reality led the late Krister Stendahl to suggest that we should invoke the Spirit when we are uncertain, when we do not know, when we are facing new situations.[i] In such times—especially in such times—we might say that we have the Spirit with us.

The presence of the Spirit is perplexing as much as it is comforting. The Spirit comes—as Jesus promised—when we don’t know what to say, when we are at a loss for the right words. When the forces around us are silencing and accusing us, the Spirit comes to give voice and to advocate for God’s new creation.

In a time like our own, when new situations seem to present themselves every day, when old answers have stopped making sense, it is important to cultivate an awareness that just at this time God's Spirit is at work in us and among us.

In uncertain times, unseen but very real forces move people to action.

Then there is that other story, the one we hear at the end of John’s Gospel. The risen Jesus comes to his disciples and speaks a word of peace. To those who are weary he speaks of shalom—we translate that word as “peace,” but it is a word that speaks of wholeness and healing. So that there is no doubt about this peace or the One who offers it, he shows his hands and his side which still, even in this resurrected body, bear the signs of suffering. Even in the face of suffering, Christ’s peace—Christ’s wholeness and healing—will be a central experience of those who chose to follow.

And then Jesus does the strangest thing.

He breathes on the disciples.

“Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says. Catch your breath. Catch this breath.
Receive this spirit, what you really need to be alive.
And so on Pentecost we can also gently sing, “Breathe on me breath of God, fill me with life anew.”

This is a story that those too familiar with the consuming fire or the destructive wind, those out of breath—exhausted by life, long to hear. It is a story that echoes the words of the Psalmist that we read and the choir sang this morning: “You, O God, send forth your Spirit and…so renew the face of the earth.”

The good news of resurrection points toward just this renewal of creation. In raising Jesus from the dead, God has started a new creation. Just as God breathed the breath of life into the first human being, so the risen Christ breathes new life, the Spirit of life into the disciples.

Just as God’s word at the end of the first creation was, “It’s good—very good!” so the word at the end of this new creation is once again: “It’s good.” New creation speaks of reconciliation—of relationships being set right.

On the day of the new creation, on the day of resurrection, the risen Christ sends the disciples into the world with a mission and with the energy of the Holy Spirit. And a part of that mission involves the sins of others.

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” These words of Jesus are hard to hear and understand. They require some work if we are to make sense of them.

Taken on face value, if this is the work of those who follow Christ, many of us would just as soon stop right here. Who wants to be responsible for the sins of other people? Are there any among us who would let the forgiveness or the retention of sins rest on their shoulders, their actions?

As is often the case with the Gospel of John, we need to think theologically here. In John’s gospel, sin is not a moral lapse; it is not some behavioral transgression.  To sin is to be blind to the revelation of God in Jesus. Several times in John’s gospel, when confronted with the reality of God in Jesus, people turn away.[ii]

That is sin.

We are not called to forgive the moral lapses of others—or to hold onto them. Gail O’Day, one of the premier living scholars of the Gospel of John, puts it this way: “[The church’s] mission is not to be an arbiter of right and wrong but to bear unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus.”

We receive the Spirit so that we can make the love God in Jesus known to the world. We are to live into the new creation that has begun and is still in the process of coming into being. By our actions, then, we bring the forgiveness of God to the world.

Unseen but very real forces move us to action.

It is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of life.

In uncertain times as God’s new creation unfolds

The Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Life—gentle and fierce, blows across our lives, through our congregation and around our world,

calling us still,

moving us, still, into action.

[i] Krister Stendahl, Energy for Life, pg. 43, 44.

[ii] Gail O’Day, “John 20:19-23” in New Interpreter’s Bible, v. IX, pg. 847.