+ It’s become a Pentecost Day tradition. I have always re-tell this story—the same we retell “A Visit from St. Nick” every Christmas. So, the story goes this way:
When I was still serving at another congregation, one of the priests I served with—a very smart, very Evangelical, astute priest—was leading a Bible study that I was sitting in on. We were actually discussing this very scripture from Acts one day. At some point, someone actually asked: “So, what is the Holy Spirit?” Now, to be fair, this is one of those questions we priests get asked and, if you’re not prepared, it can be a catch-22. No matter what answer you give, it can be bad. But, in this case, I think I could’ve thought of at least 20 better answers than what this priest said.
This priest, obviously caught off guard by the question, but not wanting anyone to know that, sat back and smiled.
“The Holy Spirit,” she said. “Well, think…Casper the friendly Ghost.”
Casper the Friendly Ghost. Sigh.
I actually was sharing this story with the Bishop a few weeks ago and he said, in his typical Oklahoma accent: “I think that's heresy!”
Today, of course, we commemorate the feast of Pentecost—that descent of the Holy Spirit among the disciples. This is the perfect day to be pondering our relationship with this Spirit, who is NOTHING AT ALL LIKE CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST! I don’t think I can stress that enough!
The feast of Pentecost was celebrated long before Christians came on the scene. Originally it was a harvest feast celebrated 50 days after the Passover. The word “Pentecost” refers to the Greek word for 50. It was the feast on which the early Jews offered to God the first fruits of their harvests.
Now that is meaningful to us Christians and what we celebrate on this day. It is meaningful that the Holy Spirit came among us on this feast in which the first fruits were offered to God. After all, those first Christians who gathered in that upper room in our reading this morning from Acts, were truly the first fruits of the Church. But the real question we might find ourselves asking is: who is the Holy Spirit?
After all, we in the Church—especially in the Episcopal Church—simply don’t talk much about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is one of those seemingly forgotten aspects of God. We don’t think of the Spirit as we should. Whenever we talk of spirits or anything spiritual, we instantly think of heady, other-worldly issues. Or…yes, Casper…
Most of us are pretty well-grounded. We can relate better to God as Incarnate God—a God who takes on flesh like our flesh, who suffered like we suffer and died like we will die.
But when it comes to God as Spirit, our first reaction, no doubt, is one of distance. The Spirit seems to some of us like a wispy mirage in our thoughts rather than something solid that we can cling to when we need to. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, we all find ourselves grasping and struggling to define who and what the Spirit is in our lives. The Spirit can be elusive and strange and sometimes we might have a hard time wrapping our minds around the Spirit. But it is clear from the words of Jesus before he ascends back into heaven what the role of the Spirit is: Although Jesus might no longer be with us physically as he was when he walked with the disciples, he does remains with us in his spirit. He will leave—we will not be able to touch him and feel him and listen to his human voice again. But he is leaving something amazing in his place.
In a sense what happens with the Descent of Jesus’ Spirit upon us is the fact that we now have the potential to be prophets. The same Spirit which spoke to Ezekiel, which spoke to Isaiah, which spoke to Jeremiah, which spoke to Moses, also can now speak to us and be revealed to us just as it spoke and was revealed to those prophets from the Hebrew Bible. That is who the Spirit is in our midst.
The Spirit we celebrate today—and hopefully every day—and in our lives is truly the spirit of the God that came to us and continues to come to us—first to those prophets in our Hebrew past, then in the person of Jesus and finally in that rushing wind and in that rain of burning flames. It is through this Spirit that we come to know God in ways we might never have before. God’s Spirit comes to us wherever we may be in our lives—in any situation or frustration. God’s Spirit is with us, as Jesus promised, always. Always.
For those of us who want to grasp these experiences—who want to have proof of them—the Spirit doesn’t fit well into the plan. We can’t grasp the Spirit. We can’t make the Spirit do what we want it to do. In that way, the Spirit truly is like the Wind that came rushing upon those first disciples.
So, how do we know how the Spirit is working in our lives? Well, as Jesus said, we know the tree by its fruit. In our case, we know the Spirit best through the fruits God’s Spirit gives us. Remember what the feast of Pentecost originally was. It was the feast on which the first fruit were offered to God.
In a sense, what happens on our Pentecost, is God returning those fruits to us. On the feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the fruits the Spirit of God gives to us and we can be thankful for them. The Spirit comes to us and manifests itself to us in the fruits given to us by the Spirit.
We often hear about Pentecostals—those Christians who have been born (or baptized) in the Spirit. They are the ones who speak in tongues and prophesy and have words of knowledge or raise their hands in joyful praise—all those things we good Episcopalians find a bit disconcerting. These Pentecostals—as strange as we might find them—really do have a lot to teach the rest of us Christians about the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I remember the first time I ever attended a Pentecostal church. Rather than being attracted to that way of worship, I was actually turned off.
Partly my reason for doing so, is that by that time in my life I had, in fact experienced the Spirit very profoundly in my life. For me, the Spirit of God came to me not in a noisy, raucous way, but rather in a quiet, though just as intense, way. The Sprit of God as I have experienced it has never been a “raining down” so to speak, but rather a “welling up form within.”
The fruits of the Spirit for me have been things such as an overwhelming joy in my life. I have known the Spirit to draw close when I feel a true humbleness come to me. When the Spirit is near, I feel clear-headed and, to put it simply, happy. And more than anything, when the Spirit draws close, I am filled with a true sense of hope. When the future seems bleak and ugly, the Spirit can come in and make everything worth living again.
No doubt everyone here this morning has felt God’s Spirit in some way, although we might not have readily recognized that experience as God’s Spirit. Maybe it was the joy you felt when a child or grandchild was born. Maybe it was a sense of calm coming to you in the midst of a difficult time in your life. Maybe it was a comforting hand on your shoulder when you were sorrowing or a bit of advice you needed for some problem you had been carrying with you for some time.
This is how God’s Spirit comes to us. The Spirit does not tear open the ceiling and force its way into our lives. The Spirit rather comes to us just when we need the Spirit to come to us. Though, often the Spirit comes to us as fire—an all-consuming fire that burns way all anger and fear and all the other negative, dead chaff we carry within us.
So, this week of Pentecost, let us look for the gifts of the Spirit in our lives and in those around us. Let us open ourselves to God’s Spirit and let it flow through us like a caressing wind and burn through us like a purifying fire. And let us remember the true message of the Spirit to all of us—whenever it seems like God is distant or nonexistent, that is when God might possibly be closest of all, dwelling within us, being breathed unto us as with those first disciples. On this feast of Pentecost—this feast of the fruits of God—this feast of the fire of God—let us give thanks for this God who never leaves us, but who comes to us again and again.