Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Promise of the Holy Spirit

When I was a teenager I went on a mission trip to Owsley County, Kentucky, one of the 10 poorest counties in America. Our church had a relationship with a little congregation there and each summer that year’s confirmation class put on a Vacation Bible School for local children. In the evenings we did different things in the area to get a feel for Appalachian life and culture. One night we attended a small, Pentecostal Church. It was an experience I will never forget. The tiny, white, clapboard structure was hot inside and packed. The choir was loud and in constant motion. The preacher was even louder and more energetic than the choir. And then it happened: members of the congregation ‘got slain in the Spirit.’ They were shaking. They were screaming. They were jumping. They were seeing ecstatic visions. They were talking gibberish. They were being anything but Rite 1 Episcopalians. I remember my friends and I being wide-eyed at the sight and a little afraid.

Throughout the Easter season, the assigned readings from Scripture point us in anticipation toward Pentecost – next Sunday – when we celebrate the gift of God’s Holy Spirit and the birth of the God’s church. Most Episcopalians are not big “Holy Spirit” type people. We don’t speak in tongues, lay hands on the sick expecting miracles, or get carried away shaking and dancing during the service. When we think about the Holy Spirit, we tend to think of the extreme manifestations of the Holy Spirit and thus assume that the Holy Spirit is not for us. Our Easter season readings challenge us to think otherwise; to name the fundamental works of the Holy Spirit, to claim them for ourselves, and to manifest them in our lives.

On Resurrection Sunday evening, Jesus appears to the Disciples as they are gathered together in a locked room. “Peace be with you,’ He says to them. And then the text says He “breathed” on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” And so here we see the first work of the Holy Spirit, that of bringing peace: peace where there is panic or grief or fear or worry and peace where there is brokenness or hostility between people.

There was a juried art show where participants were invited to submit works that centered on the theme of “Finding Peace.” Many different pieces were submitted and these of varying quality with vastly divergent interpretations. In the end, the contest came down to two paintings. The first depicted a placid, rural scene in the center of which stood a country farm house. It was surrounded by fertile fields of wheat which seemed so lifelike you could almost hear them rustle in the wind. A bright sun shone down from a blue sky with wispy clouds as cows stood under the shade of a tree, drinking from a cool, clear stream. All of this was nestled in a valley whose soft, distant hills made the world of the city – our world – seem light years away. The painting’s quality and composition were so well done, that you felt more at peace simply by gazing at it for a moment or two.

That was one painting. The other was very different. Its artist depicted a raging tempest, with trees swaying to and fro on a storm-lashed mountainside. The ominous sky was marked by zigzag flashes of lightning. Its turbulent content and use of color were deeply unsettling. At first glance, nothing about the painting projected the theme of finding peace. But a closer look revealed a small nest perched under a rock outcrop. In the nest was a bird, which, even though it had scant protection, appeared content in the face of all that swirled around it.

God’s Spirit leads us to green pastures and still waters; those times and places conveyed by the first painting. But the circumstances in which the Disciples found themselves when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit’s peace upon them more closely resembled the second painting, didn’t it.

Years ago I got one of those calls that pastors get: a woman in the parish was dashing to a trauma center because her husband had been in a horrific accident. I met her in the ICU and the situation was everyone’s worst nightmare. She and I talked about many different things, but the most important was what to say to her middle-school aged children. We discussed different options and (with my gentle leading) decided that they needed to face this together as a family. And once she made that decision, a peace came over her at that moment I will never forget. The months ahead were filled with many, many challenges and it was not an easy road for any of them, but the peace of God which passes all understanding – the peace which is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence – never left her.

The Holy Spirit’s presence: last Sunday we heard Jesus say to His followers, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.”

There was a priest who was upset because some parishioners were leaving church after receiving communion and not staying for the final prayer and hymn. So rather than doing the obvious (like cutting down his sermons so everyone could get out on time!), he posted this message in the bulletin:

“It is a great dishonor to our blessed Lord if you leave the church before the end of the service. The Church tells us Jesus remains in our bodies fifteen minutes after we have received communion. [By the way, I have never heard that before] This means that our communion should last fifteen minutes long and we should not leave the church until our Lord is no longer with us.”

Well, if we followed this counsel we would never leave church at all. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, abides with us at all times and in all places. Sometimes we know this presence as a guide, other times as a comfort; sometimes as a source of great courage, other times as a fount of deep quiet. One of the reasons why the 23rd Psalm is so beloved is that its affirmation rings true with our experience: “You are with me.” That powerful sense of God’s abiding presence is a work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Peace and a sense of God’s presence. Today’s reading adds to these one more part of the Spirit’s work in us. Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Next Sunday we will hear again the Pentecost story where the Spirit gives power to the Disciples to reach across customs and cultures to proclaim the Gospel. In word and in deed we are given power by the Holy Spirit to live the Christian life.

At each baptism we make crazy professions and promises far beyond are ability to fulfill:

I renounce Satan, the world, and myself.

I will continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers.

I will persevere in resisting evil, and whenever I sin repent and return to the Lord.

I will proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.

I will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself.

I will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

And the only way these professions and promises make any sense at all is that as we make them we say, “I will [comma] with God’s help.” That help which we count on and claim is the sure and certain work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

I think back to that evening service at the Pentecostal Church so many years ago and can make no more sense of it today than I could then. Its witness to the Spirit is not one I have ever sought or experienced. My own experience of the Holy Spirit is one I proclaim to you: that the Holy Spirit is with you as a source of power and peace, conveying God’s abiding presence in your life.