If you take your pew hymnal and glance through the hymns appearing on pages 78 through 91, you’ll find that they are all listed in the index under the topic “Holy Spirit.” And as you look over the lyrics and maybe hum the tunes of those hymns, you’ll find that most of them share a particular sense of what the Holy Spirit is like. You’ll meet a Spirit who is gentle, sweet, and dove-like—the breath of God bathing, filling, and falling on us, bringing light, love, and peace. When we sing these hymns, both the words and the tunes evoke the presence of the Holy Spirit as a quiet and gentle Comforter.
The funny thing is, those descriptions bear little resemblance to the Spirit we meet at Pentecost. This Spirit is not a meek presence who wafts over the house where the disciples are gathered together. This Spirit is nothing like the Spirit in the novel The Shack—a beautiful Asian woman with clothes of flowing, iridescent fabric and smooth, graceful, dance-like movements.
No, the Spirit of Pentecost is all power and action. This Spirit’s presence is announced with loud noise and dramatic pyrotechnics in a take-no-prisoners style. This Spirit’s arrival creates such a disturbance, that the crowds milling about in the streets outside heard it and were bewildered, amazed, and astonished. They could come up with only one explanation for the uproar: the disciples must have been raging drunk. This is hardly the hazy, gauzy, demure Spirit of our hymns.
So, which is it? Is the Spirit the gentle comforter we sing about? Or is the Holy Spirit one of overwhelming power? The happy truth is, the Holy Spirit is both of these, and everything in between. And, as we live our lives filled and guided by the Spirit, we need all the Spirit’s gifts, individually and as the Church which was born on that day of Pentecost. We need both the Spirit’s gentleness and boldness as we live “Spirited” lives.
You’ve heard the Pentecost story many times, of course: how the apostles along with other disciples of Jesus were gathered together in a house in Jerusalem. They were following the instructions Jesus had given them before his ascension: to wait in Jerusalem for the promised baptism by the Spirit, which would confer on them the power they would need to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth. They spent their time praying, studying Scripture, and attending to the needs of the community by selecting Mathias as Judas’ replacement.
Then, on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection, their wait comes to an end. Luke struggles to describe the Spirit’s dramatic arrival: there was a sound like the rush of a violent wind. There were divided tongues like fire among them and on each of them. The arrival of the Holy Spirit was such a loud and noisy event that it could be heard outside the walls of the house, but (true to Jesus’ words) the world outside couldn’t figure out what was going on inside.
We get our first glimpse of the Spirit’s transformative power when the disciples are heard speaking in the many languages of the multi-national crowd outside. We get our second glimpse when Peter steps up to speak. Rash, impulsive Peter, who more often than not managed to stick his foot in his mouth, becomes a powerful orator. He starts with a bit of a poke at those who had chalked the event up as an alcohol-fueled brawl. “These people aren’t drunk,” Peter says. “After all, it’s just 9:00 in the morning!”
But then he goes on demonstrate that what has just happened is exactly what the prophet Joel said would happen: that with the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh, men, women, young, old, slave and free—all flesh—would see the truth of God’s word through prophecy, dreams, and visions. And then there is the Good News: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Peter continues to speak powerfully, eloquently, about Jesus, crucified, dead, buried, raised, ascended, and exalted at the right hand of God, both Lord and Messiah. By the end of Peter’s speech, his listeners, who had sneered at the disciples as a bunch of drunken party animals, were pleading to know how they could be saved. That day, Luke tells us, three thousand people were baptized into the fellowship of believers.
Peter’s life became one of dynamic speaking and leadership of the new-born church, and from that time on, others were moved to act and speak boldly in the name of Jesus through the power of the Spirit. From the stories of the early church, we learn about the ways in which the Spirit acted—powerful, dramatic, transformative ways.
Jesus had promised this would happen. He told his disciples that they would be hauled into court, and when they were, the Spirit would speak through them. And that’s exactly what happened when Peter and John were arrested. After their release, they and their companions prayed to God for more of that same boldness. The house shook, they were filled with the Spirit, and their prayer was granted. In the power of the Spirit, Stephen indicted the religious authorities in Jerusalem for their faithlessness, and was stoned to death for his ringing words.
The Spirit led Philip to an Ethiopian eunuch who was struggling to understand the Scriptures and ended up asking Philip to baptize him. After the baptism the Spirit “snatched” Philip away to Azotus, where he continued to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. It was through a fearful Ananias, on the street called Straight, where the Spirit filled Saul—a blind, once blood-thirsty persecutor of Christians—and restored his sight, both physical and spiritual.
Throughout the rest of the New Testament, we read about the action-oriented Spirit, who guides and leads; bids and forbids; searches and reveals; justifies and sanctifies; bears witness and testifies; falls over, fills up, pours out, confirms and sends out. It’s no wonder that Paul writes to Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather a spirit of power and love and self-discipline.” Cowardice has no place in a Spirited life.
The author Mark Batterson wrote a book a few years back called Wild Goose Chase. In it, he recalls a tradition about the Holy Spirit which is rooted in Celtic spirituality. Although it’s not certain that this tradition was adopted by the ancient Celtic church, since the 1940s it’s been very much a part of the ecumenical Christian community of Iona in Scotland. Batterson writes: “The Celtic Christians had a name for the Holy Spirit. . . An Geadhe-Glas, or “the Wild Goose.” The name hints at the mysterious nature of the Holy Spirit. Much like a wild goose, the Spirit of God can’t be tracked or tamed. An element of danger and an air of unpredictability surround him.”
Batterson continues, “I understand that ‘wild goose chase’ typically refers to a purposeless endeavor without a defined destination. . . [but] If you chase the Wild Goose, he will take you to places you never could have imagined, going by paths you never knew existed… Nothing is more unnerving or disorienting than passionately pursuing God. And the sooner we come to terms with that spiritual reality, the more we will enjoy the journey.”
The “Wild Goose” is the Spirit we meet at Pentecost: untamed and untamable, unpredictable, always a step ahead of us. We may wish to capture the Wild Goose, or at least have the Wild Goose follow us where we want to go. But that’s not the way the Holy Spirit of Pentecost works. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit of Pentecost will lead us in unplanned directions, to unfamiliar places, in unexpected ways, if we are willing to join in the chase.
So, what kind of dramatic appearance can you imagine the Holy Spirit making in this church today, or tomorrow, or in the coming months and years? What would happen if we made so much noise—if we had so much activity in this place, that the people outside would gather around out of sheer curiosity, giving us an opportunity to boldly proclaim that this church is alive in Christ, and that they are invited into the same Spirit-filled life? How will we respond when the Spirit places us in the path of a present-day Ethiopian eunuch—a stranger who is struggling to understand the story of God and their place in it? How will we react when the Spirit bids us to be in relationship with someone we are afraid of, as Ananias was of Saul?
It takes some imagination to picture those possibilities. Our noise may be figurative noise, more along the lines of finding new ways to be noticed—taking some step or undertaking some project that makes people wonder, “What could possibly motivate them to do such a thing?” Our Ethiopian eunuchs and our Saul’s may be the newly-arrived immigrant, the teenager who dresses all in black, the woman in a head scarf, the gay couple down the street, the child with autism, or the man shuffling down the street with a cigarette in his twitching hand at the end of his trembling arm.
Where and to whom might the Holy Spirit of Pentecost be leading us, as a community and in our individual lives? What shape might our Spirited life take on next? And, will we be willing to pursue this Wild Goose on a journey that might seem risky and little dangerous?
It’s interesting how Luke describes the arrival of the Spirit, likening the sights and sounds to mighty wind and fire. These are words we often associate with destruction. They bring to mind the ravages of the wild fires out west and certainly the devastation of the tornadoes right here in Ohio.
But those are appropriate images, I think. Because, if we are going to fully commit ourselves to chasing the Wild Goose, there are things in us that need to be destroyed: apathy, discouragement, weakness, fear of all sorts—fear of the other; fear that we don’t have enough, enough money or time or space or energy or talent; fear that we’re not enough—not big enough, not smart enough, not strong enough, not young enough, not faithful enough. Those things in us have to die—we have to die to ourselves—if we are to live Spirited lives. And, it’s the wind and flames of the Holy Spirit that enable us to lay those things to rest and to follow the Wild Goose wherever the chase leads us.
Of course, a steady diet of this kind of excitement can lead to burn-out. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit of Pentecost is also the Holy Spirit of Jesus’ promise: one who will comfort us, teach us, and abide in us. This is the Spirit who, Paul assures us, helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words when we don’t know how to pray as we ought. This is the Spirit whose presence produces fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is the Spirit who strengthens us and binds us together in Christian unity. The Spirit who can lead us on a Wild Goose chase is also the Spirit who holds our hands when we feel weak, or afraid, or ill-equipped.
Life lived in the Holy Spirit of Pentecost is anything but quiet and predictable. But the Spirit is both empowering and sustaining—leading us into the unknown and giving us the resources we need to face the unknown. Like those who heard and saw the dramatic evidence of the Spirit’s presence on that long-ago Pentecost, we just need to take a deep breath, grab hold of the Wild Goose’s tail feathers, and boldly live a “Spirited” life. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young