May 24, 2015
American audiences are obsessed with super powers and fire and the cosmic battle between good and evil. And we bring that very human obsession into church with us. It’s easy for us to get confused because the Christian story has some of those same elements. Jesus worked signs and miracles as he preached and taught, he was tortured and executed on a cross, but three days later his tomb was empty and he appeared to his disciples. Those same disciples, amid great confusion, experienced “a sound like the rush of a violent wind. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Fire and power and a hero that can’t be defeated and the cosmic battle rages on with holy wars and inquisitions until the earth is scorched in the name of righteousness. Look at what’s left at the end of the summer blockbuster. Everything is torched, but at least the heroes have won. But there is nothing holy about it. Is that how we tolerate the images of war and terrorism that we see daily? Is that why we believe destructive violence somehow wins?
When I wrote the title for this sermon, which I do on Monday or Tuesday so that Gaye can put it on the reader board at her convenience, I was caught by the wind and fire images as God’s movement in the world. But the more I worked with those images, the less sense they made. Here in the northwest, fire and wind are a deadly combination. They are powerful, but they are terribly destructive. If you hear me say nothing else today, hear this: The Spirit of God is holy, beautiful, and true. And if God is love and light, then the Holy Spirit is also love and light. There is no cosmic battle—all battle language is deceptive. It implies that God is threatened in some way—that God could lose. It implies that God is not the sole Creator of all that is and the Sustainer of creation. It implies that God’s love is not adequate to win every human heart. It implies that the God who created such rich diversity is limited to one right way.
There are plenty of people who use fear as a weapon, even in church. I remember a teenager in youth group who had seen one of those Armageddon films at his cousin’s church. He came to youth group clearly frightened. He knew that God could send him to hell in a heartbeat if he did something really wrong. But he wasn’t sure what that might be. Imagine being a teenager and believing that a wrong move could doom you to a lake of fire and not knowing which move that might be. It’s like living in a mine field. There is not a parent in this room, as imperfect as we are, that would threaten our children with death—we remove children from those kinds of homes. The Holy Spirit tells the truth about God’s love and God’s perfect love casts out fear.
I think we may be ambivalent about the Holy Spirit because it has been the cause of division in so many churches. Even in the early Church, Paul had to admonish the members of the church in Corinth not to squabble over the gifts of the Holy Spirit—who had gifts, which gifts were more important, who was spiritually mature and who was not—these questions threatened to divide the church. What was Paul’s answer? “Let me show you a better way,” Paul wrote, and then he wrote about love, faith, and hope, but, Paul said, “The greatest of these is love.” God’s Holy Spirit is the essence of love. If it truly is God’s Spirit, it does not divide, destroy, of kill. The Holy Spirit unites, creates, and heals.
I’m intrigued by a couple of verses in the gospel reading. Jesus says that when the Spirit comes he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. I’m wondering who Jesus means by the world. I’m guessing it’s everyone. This is the same gospel that says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” So everyone is wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. I have this image of this clear bright flame the size of a candle flame illuminating my sin and my sense of righteousness and judgment of others. What happens when we turn down the lights and the sound and focus on that small flame? What do you see? Do you see yourself differently? Can you sense your own frailty and see the frailty of others? What do you hear? Can you hear your own longings and sense the longings of others? What rises within us that is holy, that is of the divine? What is that generative spark, that holy warmth that creates new possibilities for us and for our relationships? One of the most powerful verses of scripture for me whenever I become angry and self-righteous, when there is a fire storm raging within me, and those times are more frequent than I would like to admit, comes from the Psalms: “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me (Ps 51:11).”
It reminds me that the firestorm is not some outside force, but within me. Others may be dealing with their own firestorms, but mine is the only one I can control. So I pray with the psalmist:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Not fire and wind, but spirit. The word in Greek for spirit is the same as for breath (ruah). God’s breathing warmth and love in the depths of our being. Turn down the lights and the sound and listen for that breath. Feel it moving within you. Let God’s breath set things right within you and restore your joy.