“The Weapons of the Spirit”
Rushing wind, tongues of fire, vivid
reds—Pentecost engages our senses and our imagination. There is something
strange and unfamiliar here. But beneath, behind, and beyond the unusual events
that we speak of on this day are the common ways in which God’s Spirit empowers
us for work both great and small, both extraordinary and ordinary.
The story of Pentecost is extraordinary,
so I want to start with a story about common people in uncommon times because
it helps us understand the Spirit of God in common, day to day life. I want to
start with ordinary people doing something great because it speaks to how the
Spirit of God is present in small things as well.
Huguenots are French Protestants. Their
roots are in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Reformation
in France was less extensive and less successful than in, say, Germany or
Switzerland. Huguenots were persecuted without mercy and often executed. In
time, most of them left France.
With the French Revolution, the small
groups that remained achieved the freedom to worship according to their
conscience. Le Chambon is a small farming village in the south of France
inhabited mostly by these French Protestants. They remembered their own history
of persecution. They also read their Bible and tried to live out the words of
Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
When France fell to Hitler's invading
army in 1940, they didn’t ask, “Who is my neighbor?” They decided to shelter
Jews from the Nazis, providing a safe haven throughout the war to anyone who came
to their village. The people of this small village saved the lives of some five
thousand Jewish people.
day after France surrendered to Nazi Germany, the people of Le Chambon were
reminded by their pastor, André Trocmé: “The responsibility of Christians is to
resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their consciences through
the weapons of the Spirit.”
resist violence, the people resorted to:
Love in the face of hate
Welcome in the face of hostility
Courage in the face of fear
Thoughtfulness in the face of frenzy
Life in the midst of death
We would call those who engaged such “weapons of the spirit” heroes—and
But they seem to have understood their extraordinary actions as in a
sense “everyday”—common, a matter of course.
Decades after the end of World War II,
an elderly man in Le Chambon told an interviewer: “When people came, if we
could be of help, we helped.”
“But you were taking risks in sheltering
Jews,” the interviewer said. “At first, not that much,” came the reply. “But
towards the end it did start becoming dangerous,” he added almost casually.
“But you helped them anyway. Why?”
An elderly woman said with a slight,
humble smile, “I don’t know.” Shrugging her shoulders she added, “We were used
We are invited again on this day, in our time, to consider the ways of
God who, as the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada puts it:
“works in us and in others by the Spirit.”
So let me ask: When did you last feel
the activity of the Holy Spirit?
The simple question makes a lot people
feel awkward, especially people in the United Church of Christ. Talk of the
“Holy” Spirit makes us think that the Spirit is something apart from our
everyday lives. We become ill at ease as we start to sense our own remoteness
We are helped by a theologian who
suggests that it is a different matter to ask: “When were you last conscious of
the ‘spirit of life?’”[i] We
can answer that question out of our own everyday experiences. We will talk of
being consoled in grief, occasions when we have been encouraged as we went
through difficult circumstances, moments when we have felt a deep and abiding
joy. We, too, might even speak of times when we have been able to speak or act
for what is right, even in the face of fear.
When we think of the Spirit of Life, we
recall the love of life which delights us. And the weapons of the Spirit are
the living power which this love of life awakens in us, the faith that set our
sets beyond what is on what might be.
The Spirit of God is not primarily a source of comfort for those who
are already comfortable. The Spirit does not belong primarily to the realm of
warm religious feeling.
The Spirit is
often known by those who have what one person called a “feeling of rage in the
pit of their stomach”—those who have seen wrong and encountered fear. The
Spirit of God strengthens us to speak when our
words alone will make all the difference. The Spirit of God strengthens us
to act when our actions alone will
create constructive change. As one person put it: “God surfaces in people who
do not say: that’s the way it is, has been, and always will be.[ii]
The Spirit of God is called the Holy Spirit not because is it separated from life, but because it makes us alive. The Spirit sets this life of ours in the presence
of the living God and in the great river of eternal love. You see, there is a
connection between our experience of life and our experience of God.
The Spirit of Life—the Spirit poured out
at Pentecost—is the Spirit we know still today.
Years in the wilderness shaped the life
of the Hebrew people. They thought of God using the analogy of the fierce
desert wind. In the desert the wind would arise suddenly, prove incapable of
being bound, possess enormous power, and then disappear.
This wind was called the ruach,
the word we translate both as “spirit” and as “breath.” The Hebrew people
understood the ruach as nothing less
than the breath of God. The divine is the living compared with the dead, and
what is moving compared with the things that are petrified and rigid: dry
bones, hardened hearts.
When Jesus spoke of the Spirit of God,
he spoke out of his Jewish understandings: “The spirit—the wind—blows where it
chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from
or where it goes.” We sense the Spirit of God, but we can neither control it
nor predict its movements.
When the early Christians—raised and
nurtured as Jewish people—told of their experience during the Jewish feast of
Pentecost, they turned to those wilderness images, those desert memories:
“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.”
Can you sense the feeling of being
seized and possessed by something overwhelmingly powerful? Dry bones come to
life, hardened hearts are softened.
We find in the weapons of the Spirit of
Life a power that moves us.
This power is 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
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.
Sometime we’d like to think otherwise, but we live in
challenging times in a changing world. These are times that call for the best
in each one of us. They call us to abide in the love that is God, to nurture
the deep community that we have with each other and to welcome others into this
community, to live with compassion, to think before we act, in short, to use
the “weapons of the spirit” to bring life out of the death of our age.
The saying is true: the only thing
necessary for evil to triumph is for people of good will to do nothing. The
harsh reality is that too often in history, too often in contemporary life
Christians have done nothing.
If there is good news in all of this, it
is that when there is confusion and bewilderment, the Spirit is present.
In Jerusalem, on Pentecost, the crowd
hears the followers of Jesus speaking in many different languages by the power
of the Holy Spirit. They are “amazed and perplexed, saying to one another,
‘What does this mean?’”
The Spirit of Life is at work when there
is confusion, doubt, and uncertainty.
After all, faith is not certainty. It
even has been said that the opposite
of faith is not doubt but certainty. So it is that the late
Krister Stendahl suggested that we should invoke the Spirit when we are
uncertain, when we do not know, when we are facing new situations.[iii]
Remember the elderly woman of LeChambon?
When asked why she welcomed and hid all those Jewish people, she replied, “I
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.
The Spirit brings not certainty but
Peter stands up and tells the crowd:
“These people aren't drunk. What's happening here is the fulfillment of God's
promise: ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your
daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall
Dreams and visions are not always
certain, but they are filled with power. When a vision is given expression,
when it is shared with others wonderful things can happen.
We are certain of our continuing
commitment to this place, this corner. We know that the problems are many—an
aging building that often hides the good things happening inside with no
parking in surrounded by a growing university in a city with its own growing
pains, its own growing challenges and opportunities. We are certain of our
commitment to minister to this campus and the city.
And we are uncertain as well—uncertain as to just what should we be doing.
It’s OK to be at the point where we say:
“I don’t know,” because, as I said, the Spirit is at work when we are
uncertain, when we are perplexed, when the new is coming into being.
This is a time, I think, when we are
called to conversation. Called to talk with each other about what we see, what
we hope for, what we know, and what we don’t know. We are called to talk with
each other in our own strange languages and to listen to the strange word and
visions of others so that the Pentecost miracle of understanding might happen
among even us.
God's Spirit blows in what might be
called an “Easterly” direction, away from death and decay, away from the
confines of regrets over the past, missed opportunities in the present. The
Spirit of God moves toward resurrection.
The Spirit of Life comes upon us in our
chaos as the Spirit hovered over the waters of chaos at creation.
The Spirit comes to us in our
uncertainty as the Spirit came to those asking “What is this?” and “How can
We can’t control God’s Spirit, but
occasionally, as with the wind, we can feel the presence of the Spirit in our
lives, in this congregation. And if we are open to that presence, we will find
faith—not certainty, but faith—as we face the new situations that life brings
The Spirit of God is the Spirit of Life.
Moltman, The Spirit of Life, esp. pgs. x and 278ff.
[iii] Krister Stendahl, Energy for
Life, pg. 43, 44.