It’s easy for me to get distracted and caught up in what I would call the “special effects”—the wind and the fire—in our story from the Books of Acts for Pentecost. As I listen to the story, trying my best to stay with what I know is supposed to be the importance of event, what’s really going on is that my mind is taking its leave of Holy Scripture and instead is traveling to some place like Hogwarts School for Wizards. There I watch as a group of students, including, of course, Harry, Hermione and Ron, sit around a table in the Great Hall during one of those perplexing in-between times: right after something important has happened and right before the next thing has materialized. They are all sitting around when suddenly a wind begins to howl and a flame of fire appears above each of their heads…. and we know that something big is about to occur. .
Yes, I love special effects and the kinds of stories that make use of them. But as much as my mind is drawn to such things and to the magical places they typically take us, my belief is that the story of Pentecost is not at all about the special effects of rushing wind and descending flames. Rather, this story is about a down-to-earth human ability: voice, speech, utterance—voice, speech or utterance that in this situation and among these peoples has a special focus and function: the telling and interpretation of their story in the light of a crucified, risen and ascended Lord. This is the ability that the Spirit pours out on all people at Pentecost, a gift that, as Peter says, will inspire some to dream new dreams, others and to have new visions and still others to prophesy, that is, to speak a new, sacred world into being.
But first a little background on our reading: What we just heard read this morning were the first twenty-one verses of the 2nd Chapter of Acts. Prior to this, in Luke’s Gospel, we met a Jesus who called together a group of disciples who were not looking to sign on with a new rabbi but who did just that once he invited them to follow him. We watched as, perplexed and wrong-headed at every turn, these same disciples continued to follow him as he ate with outcasts and sinners and proclaimed through word and action a God who would not desert humanity. We then watched as the disciples did, in fact, desert him as he was arrested, convicted and crucified. And we watched as these same disciples discovered that even after his death he would not desert them but after his resurrection appeared to them a new way: igniting their hearts, opening the Scriptures to them and being present with them in the breaking of the bread.
As the first chapter of Acts opens, we keep watching as Jesus leaves them once and for all. And as the disciples see him go, we watch one final time as Jesus tells them to stay in Jerusalem and to wait for the coming of something or someone that will accompany them anew in their life and work. This, of course, is exactly what they get in our Pentecost reading for today—a Holy Spirit that empowers them to speak about “God’s deeds of power” in a way that others will understand, even those who do not know their native language.
“God’s deeds of power…..” As I think back on my last week or so, it seems that all I’ve been doing all week long is going from one place to another and hearing from someone about God’s deeds of power. Now you might think that what I’ve been hearing about are people telling me about miraculous healings, impossible prayer requests suddenly being fulfilled or life events in which, against all odds and all at once, good triumphs over evil. In other words, you might think that the stories I’ve been listening to this week have had their own kind of spiritual “special effects.”
But these are not at all the God-inspired deeds of power that I’ve been listening to. In fact, sudden miraculous spiritual turnabouts are conspicuously absent from the stories I’ve been hearing all week. Rather, as I sat across from each person I’ve met with this week (and there have been many) what I’ve heard is this: a careful, considered re-describing of something that has happened in someone’s life, something that began in the dark or in some experience of suffering and confusion but that, after conversation with others and personal reflection, has begun turning into something else: darkness turning into an invitation to walk in the light, suffering and confusion turning into an invitation to renewal and integration.
And strangely, as each person spoke and as I listened to their witness to God’s deeds of power in their lives, it was as if a light breeze blew between and around us, the kind of cool breeze you feel in Seattle on a sunny day, a breeze that lifts your heart and renews your spirit. Or was it this? Not a breeze, but instead the igniting of a little fire within me and in the other person as we listened to each other and drew near to yet one more story of death and resurrection given to both of us by the Spirit sent by the Holy One of God whose life was these very things.
Today (later this morning) one Toby James Hill Thomson will be given over to the waters of baptism in our font where this community will baptize him in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s death and resurrection. Prior to the baptism I will once again on our behalf chant the Thanksgiving over the Water recounting the mighty and powerful deeds of our God. You will hear, for instance, about the Holy Spirit brooding over the water in God’s mighty and powerful act in the creation of the world. You will also hear about God’s mighty and powerful act in leading the children of Israel through the water out of their bondage in Egypt. While both of these mighty and powerful acts are replete with what I would call “special effects,” what we are really doing in this baptism and in our own reaffirmation of our own baptismal covenant is quickening our connection to the story of all stories that is the story of Jesus: a story of the dignity of every human being, of death that leads to resurrection, of darkness that can be a pathway to new light, of suffering and confusion that can lead to the renewal and integration of our lives. It is a story that, by the gift of something we call the Holy Spirit, can become our own stories as each of us and all of us together find the voice we need both to describe and re-describe our lives.
A year or so back, as I was going through old photographs of life in this parish, I came upon a photo of a Pentecost celebration many years back. The place was filled with red balloons and most everyone was wearing some kind of red. The tone was one of obvious jubilation as the parish, using its own version of special effects, celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit in wind and flame.
Today I have to confess that I am still in love with special effects. But today I am even more in love with those in this community who, through their own immersion in the death and resurrection of Jesus, have been given the gift of both telling and shaping the story of their lives. And so, come Holy Spirit, come. Come, if you wish, in wind and fire. But always come, Holy Spirit, in the eyes you give us to see the new thing you bring out of what was old old, the thing raised up you bring out of what was cast down, the life you bring out of what we had thought was dead. Come, always come, in the eyes you give us to see these things and the voice you give us to whisper them, to share them, to shout them.