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Lectionary Sermons: Pentecost

Come Upon Us Mighty Wind

By David Bennett

Text(s)
Acts 2:1-11

In the name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

If in 1968 someone had asked which country would dominate watch making in the 1990s, most people would have certainly said Switzerland. This is because Switzerland had dominated the world of watch making for the previous sixty years. They led the way in discovering new ways to manufacture better and more durable watch parts. They developed the best waterproofing techniques. In fact, in 1968 the Swiss made 65% of all watches sold in the world, and laid claim to 90% of the profits. However by 1980, in Switzerland, watchmakers had been laid off by the thousands, and the Swiss controlled a paltry 10% of the watch market. Why? The Swiss ignored an important new development, Quartz Movement. Ironically a Swiss invented Quartz movement, but it was rejected because it had no mainspring or knob. It was too much of a paradigm shift for them to embrace. It was too new and too strange.

Today's text from Acts tells of a powerful paradigm shift in the people of God, of "God's deeds of power," the miraculous activities that accompanied the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. We read of unfamiliar and new experiences like "divided tongues of fire" resting upon those present, and speaking in a language that everyone from different regions could amazingly understand. The entire book of Acts speaks of the infant Church, growing by the paradigm-shifting miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

I can imagine Peter, James, John and the rest sitting there on Pentecost pondering Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension, but still happy and self-satisfied to be continuing in the old ways of Judaism, not wanting to move too fast. Then, in the midst of their comfort, comes a mighty Wind (NRSV="violent wind") the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit shakes them up in ways they never could have imagined. And the Holy Spirit does this immediately; there is no waiting, and no waffling.

I must admit that I am not very fond of mighty winds. Growing up I was always afraid of storms, fearing that one would destroy my house. This might be because a tornado touched down about a mile from my house when I was a toddler, and I remember seeing the remains of houses as my parents drove by the storm damage. To me, that the Holy Spirit is called a mighty Wind means that the experience of God's Spirit is not always going to be nice, orderly, or proper, as we tend to define these terms today in our church's culture, and could in fact be scary and paradigm shifting.

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Now, before I continue, I must offer the caveat that I believe, as does the Church, that Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of God. There will be no new dogmatic or moral paradigm shifts. However, the Holy Spirit is working to renew the Church, and we may not be listening. Let me explain. *

Growing up, texts like today's often presented problems to me. I read of miracles that accompanied the early Christians, followers of Jesus like me, yet I never witnessed events like these around me. In fact, many I knew growing up would cringe to think such things would ever happen in their church. Gradually as I settled more into a rational, orderly Christianity, I too found no place in my spirituality for the miracles and experiences of Acts. I had a variety of excuses: the miracles were for ancient times and not for today. Or the miracles were Luke's interpretation of purely ordinary events (I was not giving Luke's intelligence much credit here), or perhaps Luke or his sources had simply lied. When I became Anglican, my excuse was that the Holy Spirit works only in subtle ways, and in structures, which is true, but not the entire truth. However, until recently it had never really occurred to me that one possible option was that the Holy Spirit is capable of producing such amazing paradigm-shifting events in our individual lives and in the life of the Church. In other words, the Holy Spirit might actually be able to renew us individually and collectively! What a concept.

Many Christians in the world already know this, especially those Christians in movements that are growing at the fastest rate today. They have embraced the miraculous expectation that the Holy Spirit does indeed enable divine deeds of power, and has the power to renew us individually and collectively. All the while though we in the mainline churches tend to sit back, taking no notice, perhaps not even affirming the existence of the Holy Spirit, and often denying any power He might have.

We often scoff at people who claim God has healed them, whether spiritually, emotionally, or physically. We laugh at Charismatics, preferring to label them a fringe group, despite their phenomenal exponential growth in the world, including in both Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. We think bold Spirit-filled preachers need better manners. And contemporary worship or blended worship, that is new-fangled nonsense, appealing only to those poor individuals without musical taste. These are just many of the things I have scoffed at over the years; I am sure we all have our stories. I think had many of us been back in the time of Acts, the minute a flame rested on us, we would have blown it out! And I think many of us are more likely to relate to those watching the early Christians; we would have attributed their miracles and speech to drunkenness, or perhaps in modern terms, to psychological fantasy, or maybe even a ruptured gas line nearby. In short, I think many of us secretly fear the Holy Spirit, the mighty Wind. We would prefer the Spirit to be a gentle breeze that doesn't challenge us to move outside the prevailing paradigms of our current church or secular culture.

The lesson of the Swiss watchmakers is profound and relevant here. A past that was so secure, so dominant, so revered, was destroyed in a little over ten years because of an unwillingness to open up to renewal. Past successes had blinded them to the importance of seeing the implications of the changing world. In short, as they declined very rapidly, they were so confident in past accomplishments, they could not even see the decline happening right before their eyes. I fear that the mainline churches face this same dilemma. Declines over the last 30 years, as modernism has given way to postmodernism, have left our churches primarily gray, and if the number of younger persons in the pews is any indication of our future, it is quite bleak if we stick to business as usual.

However, despite all of this bad news, there is hope for all of us. At baptism we are sacramentally filled with the Holy Spirit, and not even Satan himself can snatch us out of God's hand once we have been washed in the water of regeneration. We do not lose the Holy Spirit once we have been born again in Christ. However, the Spirit can lie dormant inside us, if we make no effort to release Him. In short, because of God's grace, we can certainly make it through life as Christians who snuff out the flame of the Spirit, and be good Christians just the same, although our churches will die. The sure sacramental seal of baptism provides us with grace so that we can just about ignore every tugging of the Holy Spirit, whether individually or institutionally. However, is this the best way? Is this the way of the early Church?

I don't think so. I think the better and preferable path is that we release the Holy Spirit within us, and experience the mighty Wind. By opening ourselves to the miraculous expectation of divine deeds of power, we put ourselves on the line. What then comes will not always be pretty, much like the tornado aftermath I witnessed. Structures might be shaken, and old ways of doing things changed. The result will not always be harmonious with the rationalistic culture of our mainline churches, but it will be fully harmonious with the strange and new experiences of the earliest Christians, whom the Holy Spirit rushed upon almost 2000 years ago.

So I challenge us all this day to step out and open ourselves up to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, to renewal, to invigoration, to new life for our churches. Pray that the mighty shaking Wind will come upon us and renew us, and let us face this powerful and renewing wind that is the Holy Spirit together, to stir our Church afresh with divine deeds of power. So instead of scoffing at those being shaken by the violent wind, slanderously accusing them of being drunk with wine, let us too expect the miraculous filling of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

* This paragraph was added after the original homily was delivered. Note that this sermon was delivered when the author was an Anglican, and reflects this context. The author is now Catholic. This sermon was delivered to a Liturgics class at Bexley Hall Seminary, Columbus, OH, in 2003. Special thanks to Dr. William Peterson for suggestions for improvement, many integrated into this revision.

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