“The Weapons of the Spirit”

                                                                   May 24, 2015


Ezekiel 37:1-14

Acts 2:1-21


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.

The 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.”

To 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 they were.

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 to it.”

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 from God.

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 own.

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 don’t know.” 

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 vision.

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 dream dreams.’”

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 this be?”

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 to us.

The Spirit of God is the Spirit of Life.

[i] See Jurgen Moltman, The Spirit of Life, esp. pgs. x and 278ff.

[ii] Soelle and Steffensky, Not Just Yes and Amen, pg. 12.

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