This Friday, a new Star Wars movie will hit the movie theaters. It’s kind of a side story that will focus on the character Han Solo, the dare-devil pilot whose line from the first movie about making the jump to hyperspace always comes back to me when I’m riding with Marc and he hits the accelerator. These days, Marc and I usually watch our movies on DVD at home. But after “The Last Jedi” came out at the end of last year, we actually went to see it on the big screen. I learned that there’s a surefire way to tell if there are Methodists in the audience. Every time a character said, “May the Force be with you,” all the Methodists responded, “And also with you.”
The Star Wars franchise has become a cultural institution. Did you know there is even a Star Wars Day? It is, appropriately, on May the 4th. It’s an unofficial observance which began as a grassroots phenomenon among Star Wars fans in 1979. Now, every May the Fourth, they throw parties with blue milk, Wookie Cookies, and light saber pretzels, and they greet everyone they meet by saying, “May the Fourth be with you.”
Pentecost is also a celebration of a force—the force we know as the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the day when we pay special attention to the Spirit—who the Spirit is, how the Spirit came to us, what role the Spirit has played in the past, and how the Spirit is present in our lives today.
Over the years, many people have tried to explain the mysterious Star Wars force, including the movies’ characters. Obi-Wan Kenobi said it’s “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” In the most recent movie, the young woman Rey is under the impression that “it’s a power that Jedi have that lets them control people and make things float.” Luke corrects her, explaining that “it’s the energy between all things, a tension, a balance that binds the universe together.” Award-winning science journalist JV Chamary describes the Force in contemporary science terms as “the energy that flows through the cosmic ecosystem.”
There are actually some similarities between the force of Star Wars and the power of the Holy Spirit. But there are important differences, too. First, the Force is a thing. The Spirit is a person—the third person of the Trinity. Sometimes you might hear the Spirit referred to as “it.” The word “it” is appropriate for the Star Wars force, but not for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is a “who,” not a “what,” a “he” or “she,” not an “it.”
Typically we see the Spirit referred to with masculine words—“he,” “him,” and “his.” Our human language just isn’t big enough to describe someone who transcends gender, and so we fall back into the conventions of our own vocabulary and culture. But, the Spirit has no gender, because God transcends our human notion of male and female. Actually, if we have to choose a gender, it’s just as appropriate to refer to the Spirit as “she,” because the Old Testament Hebrew word for Spirit is feminine, and the New Testament word is neuter; it doesn’t specify a gender. But, whatever pronoun you choose, unlike the Force, the Spirit is a living being.
The Star Wars force is created by those who have it. We don’t create the Spirit; the Spirit is given to us by God. Alone in all of creation, human beings are given the presence of the Holy Spirit by virtue of the fact that we are created in God’s image, with the God-breathed Spirit within us from our very beginning. While it is true that all of nature and art and science can reveal new understandings of God for us, and reflect God’s power and creativity, God is not in those things as the Holy Spirit is in us.
The Star Wars force, says Obi-Wan, penetrates every being. I guess, in a way, you could also say that the Holy Spirit penetrates us. But I think a better way to describe the Spirit’s presence is to say that the Spirit lives in us—abides in us. The Spirit rests on us and envelops us.
What does the Spirit do? The Holy Spirit prays for us, speaks to us and, sometimes, for us. The Spirit guides us to what is good, teaches us what is right, and convicts us when we’re wrong. The Spirit enables us to reject the power of the sinfulness that remains in us, as we are being perfected in love.
It is the Spirit who confirms for us that we are God’s beloved children. This is what Paul described in his letter to the Romans when he said: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. . . When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
John Wesley, the founder of what would become the United Methodist Church, had an encounter with the Holy Spirit while listening to a discussion about those very words. Wesley wrote in his journal about what happened at a meeting on Aldersgate Street on May 24, 280 years ago: “About a quarter before nine, while the speaker was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
The Spirit who lives in us and assures us is the one Jesus promised to send. As he prepared his disciples for his own death, he told them, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. . . the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
Then, after his resurrection and just before his ascension, Jesus instructed the disciples to stay in Jerusalem as they waited for the promise to be fulfilled. Pentecost is the day when that fulfillment happened. And it was as difficult to describe the arrival of the Holy Spirit then as it is for Star Wars fans to describe the force today. There were no words to adequately report what actually happened, so Luke, who wrote down the story, had to resort to similes. “From heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. Divided tongues, as of fire rested on each one.”
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that happening in this place, to each of us. Imagine the sound filling this room—this entire building. And then imagine looking around and seeing each of your friends with something like flames resting on them, and knowing from their expressions that those fiery-looking tongues are resting on you, too. Would you be afraid? Would you be awed?
And how would you feel when you found yourself speaking in a language not your own, so that you were able to speak of God’s deeds of power, revealed in Jesus Christ, so that every person could learn the good news. That’s what happened on that Pentecost to those who were gathered together, faithfully waiting because they believed that Jesus would do what he had promised to do and send whom he promised to send. On that day, the Holy Spirit created the Church by binding together all Christians and empowering us to carry out the mission that Jesus gave us: to make disciples of all people.
On that Pentecost, the Spirit filled the followers of Jesus and gave them the ability to speak in other languages. Their new-found ability was even more astonishing to the crowds around them than it is to us. Galileans had a reputation for having very poor speech. They could barely speak their own language, and all of a sudden, they were speaking clearly in other languages. This was so extraordinary that some less-than-charitable bystanders could come up with only one explanation: the disciples must be drunk.
But they weren’t drunk. As Peter slyly pointed out, it was, after all, only 9:00 in the morning. And before someone could yell out, “It’s 5:00 somewhere,” Peter went on to explain what had happened: the prophecy spoken by Joel had been fulfilled, Jesus’ promise had been kept, and God had poured out God’s own Spirit upon all flesh, young and old, male and female, slave and free.
Why would the poured-out Spirit give the ability to speak in other languages, rather than some other sign, like Star Wars force that made things float? Because one reason for the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is to empower disciples to tell others the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. There were people from all over the known world gathered in Jerusalem that day, all speaking their own languages. They needed people who could speak to them about Jesus in a way they could understand. As Paul would ask later, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”
That day in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit gave Jesus’ followers the means by which they could communicate the good news to everyone who would listen, and the Spirit continues to give us that power today. We may not be able to literally speak Arabic or Mandarin Chinese or Spanish or Swahili, or use Braille or Sign Language, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have been given other languages we can use to spread the gospel—languages that can be understood by all.
We can speak the language of compassion. I recently got a letter asking the church for help for migrant workers in our area. When we see those who seem to be strangers in our community, we can offer a smile and a helping hand. We can speak a word that may not be understood, but we can speak it in a tone that conveys care and respect. So many of us know the challenges of communicating with someone with dementia. We can listen and respond patiently, even if we’ve heard their stories dozens of times and endlessly repeated our names. Even when the words they speak are incomprehensible, we can offer a warm word that says, “I see you. I hear you. I love you.” We can speak the language of compassion as we look through the eyes of the one who came to save us all.
We can speak the language of justice. There is so much injustice in our country and in our world today. We can make the phone calls and write the letters to our legislators, whether they are on the Village Council or in the highest office in the land. This is especially necessary if our lawmakers claim the name of Christ. We must insist that, if they so claim, they have a holy responsibility to lead as Jesus would have them lead—in ways that protect the powerless, give a voice to the voiceless, and help us become a more just nation—one that reflects the justice of God’s kingdom.
We can speak the language of humble service and generosity, not just to those of whom we approve, but to all who require our help. We speak this language when we do what God spoke of through Isaiah: sharing our bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into our houses, covering the naked when we see them, and not hiding from our own family—the family of all human beings. Jesus echoed these words when he said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The language of humble service can communicate the love and grace revealed in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
When we speak these languages of compassion, justice, and service in the name of Jesus, as the power of the Holy Spirit has enabled us to do, we both live out and spread the gospel. We may not feel or hear something like the rush of a mighty wind. Instead, we may hear a still, small voice speaking into our hearts. We may not see divided tongues as of fire resting on us, but we can feel our hearts strangely warmed. We may not wield light sabers and make objects float in mid-air, but we do have a power that is greater than any other force, real or imagined. We have been given the power of the Holy Spirit, and the power of that force is always with us. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young