a sermon on Acts 2:1-21
preached on Pentecost, June 8, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
As I mentioned last Sunday, I spent three days last month with about 500 Lutherans from all across downstate New York, serving as the parliamentarian for their Synod Assembly. The theme for the three-day gathering was “Come Holy Spirit,” which seemed quite appropriate at so many levels. It was only a week before Pentecost, after all, and some of the business was also the sort of thing when you might want the Holy Spirit to be present. At the assembly, they were continuing to live into their Strategic Plan that was adopted last year, and this year they were electing a bishop for a six-year term.
In many ways, the Spirit cooperated perfectly, as the basic business of ministry and operations went off without a hitch, and the strategic plan presentation was great, but when it got to the election of a bishop, the Holy Spirit’s work started to get a little weird. Thankfully they had invested in an electronic voting system to make votes go more quickly, but the first ballot had to be done on paper, and the counters reported that there were 425 ballots cast—when the report from registration showed only 420 voting members! In the end, after an evening of rethinking voting processes and recounting registration sheets, the repeat of the ballot the next morning went off without a hitch, but it was very clear that their prayers of “Come Holy Spirit” were being answered in ways that they didn’t quite expect, and they learned one of the most important lessons about the Holy Spirit: be careful what you pray for!
The first Pentecost as told in our reading this morning from Acts had its own surprising and unexpected turns, too. The disciples had been spending time together in Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, waiting and watching for whatever would come next, praying for the Holy Spirit to come as Jesus had promised them. However, I doubt that they expected the Spirit to show up quite like it did, with a rush of wind blowing through the room, divided tongues of fire settling on each of them, and the strange gift of speaking and being understood in the languages of the world coming up the disciples just in time to speak to faithful Jews from around the world who had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival now known as Shavuot.
Once again, the Spirit had shown up, and things got weird. Everyone in the city was astonished, for they could tell that the people who were speaking in these languages were ordinary folks from Galilee—a region that everyone considered to be the backwater of the backwaters of the Roman empire. But it wasn’t just that—the message was strange and surprising too, describing the good news of God’s deeds of power and mercy in this man named Jesus.
Everyone was trying to figure out what was going on. Some were genuinely curious, others a touch perplexed, and still others completely dismissive, fully convinced that the only thing special going on here was an abundant serving of wine with breakfast! But the Spirit had shown up in ways beyond their expectations, offering an amazing and surprising appearance of power on that first day of Pentecost and inspiring the first disciples to expand their community as they welcomed the first group of newcomers to join their circle after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. But the Spirit’s surprising power made it clear that they had to be careful what they prayed for.
The Holy Spirit whose coming we celebrate today is a strange and unexpected presence in our lives and our world, and as these stories show, we too have to be careful what we pray for when we pray “Come Holy Spirit.” This Spirit comes in unexpected times and places, challenging our assumptions about what God is up to in our world, insisting that we think again about the plans we have laid out for ourselves, demanding that we open our hearts to something other than the status quo or the easiest and most comfortable and familiar option. This Spirit comes and challenges our assumptions, popping into our lives with surprising displays of power and presence that often raise as many questions as answers, suggesting that we might need to look for God at work in new and different ways, and defeating all our attempts at controlling its power in our world. And this Spirit comes with a presence that sometimes looks nothing less than weird, upsetting our our attempts at good process, surprising us with unexpected outcomes, and guiding us into a new and different way. Yet through it all, the Holy Spirit is among us, coming into our lives in amazing and wonderful ways to show us the presence of God each and every day.
My friends, there are two places where I think we need to be on the lookout for this strange and amazing Spirit in the coming days, especially praying “Come Holy Spirit” in our lives and our world. First, I hope that you will join me in praying for the Spirit’s presence at our Presbyterian General Assembly that begins next Saturday in Detroit. There, about 700 ruling and teaching elders from across the country will gather to discern the call of the Holy Spirit in the life of our national church. I’ll be going myself in my role as Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of New York City, though I’m there to support and advise our four commissioners and won’t be able to speak or vote. This 221st gathering of our national church will be working to discern the Spirit’s call among us on issues ranging from procedural changes in our Book of Order to divestment from companies that profit from the use of fossil fuels or non-peaceful pursuits in Israeli-occupied territories to same-gender marriage in our church and everything in between.
While I suspect a lot of the voting commissioners will go to Detroit with ideas and thoughts about the issues before the assembly, our common understanding as Presbyterians is that they gather with that prayer of “Come Holy Spirit,” not representing the view of the people in the pews or the pulpits but coming together by the power of the Spirit for this one week to discern God’s call to the church in these days. While this simple prayer of “Come Holy Spirit” may not embody our clear expectations and wishes for particular outcomes in these deliberations, I believe that this simple prayer is the best thing we can offer this important gathering as we trust that God’s presence will inspire these faithful women and men as they find and seek the will of God together, even if it makes us wish we had been more careful about what we prayed for!
The second place where today we will pray “Come Holy Spirit” is a little closer to home. Today as we welcome our confirmation class into membership of this congregation and two of them receive the sacrament of baptism, this my prayer for each of them, that the Holy Spirit might be present with Nicholas, Avayana, Chris, and Christine as they continue to grow in their faith in this place and beyond. Again, we don’t know exactly what that prayer will bring them, but we offer it anyway, trusting that the gift of the Holy Spirit—even if it ends up being a bit weird!—will be enough to sustain them as they walk the road ahead and join us in the journey of following Jesus each and every day.
So while we may wish that we had been more careful about what we prayed for when we pray “Come Holy Spirit,” may we always trust that the Spirit will come and surprise us and astonish us and challenge us whether we want it or not, inspiring us to pray with all the more confidence and hope, “Come Holy Spirit,” so that we all might be filled with the power and wonder of this amazing gift on this day of Pentecost and every day of this journey of faith together. Thanks be to God! Amen.