Anglican Church of Canada
Pentecost May 20, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14 Acts 2:1-21 John 15:26-27;16:4b-15
Once more today we remember the mighty power of the Holy Spirit. We hear of the great wind, the tongues of fire; we hang out the red streamers, we swing the fiery dove as a reminder of its presence among us. It is a celebration that is both joyous and strange; of a presence that can seem both familiar but also distant.
One theme evident of all three accounts of the Spirit we heard this morning: that is, the people the Spirit came to. These are people at the end of their rope, people without hope or energy or any clear idea of the way forward.
In the Ezekiel reading, it is the people of Israel in exile, defeated, traumatized, and without any hope of future. This is how a nation dies: scattered among its enemies, serving a foreign culture, slowly assimilated and then forgotten. Ezekiel’s nightmare vision of the valley of dry bones is an exact expression of the state of his people; the anguished question he hears, “Can these bones live?”, is the voice of a nation’s despair. Perhaps there are days when the same question might push its way in about our church. We are shrinking, we are tired, and sometimes we don’t have much hope. “Can these bones live?”
For the disciples in our gospel reading, it must have been the words of Jesus, combined with the dark sense of danger surrounding them, that called forth despair. As he speaks to them about having to leave them, to return to the father, their vague foreboding must have grown into a panicked fear of what was to come. And all his talk of the comforter who would come, so that they would not remain orphaned, would not have meant much to them.
And those same disciples, 50 days later, having gone through both the horror of the crucifixion, and the joy and wonder of his risen presence among them. They have been changed by what they have gone through, no doubt about that. But now they find themselves once more alone, without that dear and encouraging presence of Jesus. And they find themselves at loose ends, without any clear idea of how to move forward; no clue at all about how to tackle the task ahead of them, or even exactly what that task is. Perhaps we can feel that way as a church somedays too.
So in every case, the spirit comes to those who don’t see a way forward, to those who have lost hope, lost direction, lost a sense of the possibilities of God. That it comes with such a bang – the great wind, the tongues of fire, the miraculous gifts – is perhaps because of where the people find themselves. For people so out of touch with the possibilities of God, who have lost their way and their hope to that extent, they need to be whacked upside the head with a two by four to get a sense of God’s power and God’s future moving through their lives.
But that does not mean that the Spirit only comes with such spectacular special effects. That struck me as I was hanging up these streamers the other day, these rather pathetic imitations of those mighty tongues of flame that descended, when the furning energy of God touched those disciples on the first Pentecost. But the point is, these decorations are not just a poor reminder of that far away day; they are an attempt to make visible what is already there. The Spirit of God is not some exotic and showy event that only happens to other people; God’s Spirit is very much present with us and moving among us here, week after week.
Many of you will have heard and seen the sermon preached yesterday morning at the Royal Wedding by Michael Currie, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church – in other words, the leader of all American Anglicans. It’s a hard act to follow, I tell you. Speaking with great energy and intensity, channelling that great tradition of Black preaching, he shook up stuffy St. George’s Chapel with a fiery dose of the gospel of the power of love.
He quoted Martin Luther King: “We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this whole world a new world. But love, love is the only way.” And then he went on to say that we must learn to harness the wild and fiery power of love, as early humans harnessed the power of fire – and when we do that, then this tired old world will be healed.
That power of love is the essence of the gospel – it is the self-sacrificing love of Jesus that we celebrate here together. And that power of love is the very presence of the Spirit, the real presence of God in our hearts, loving one another with the very same love that is God’s very inmost being.
So, yes, these poor red streamers, this silly dove we swing around, point to a presence of the Spirit really and already moving among us. When we gather together to hear the stories of Jesus’s love, and to respond ourselves with love and praise, then that fire of the Spirit is among us. When we care for one another, with a kind thought, a friendly and comforting word, a generous deed, then the Spirit is moving here. When we reach out to the world around us, holding the suffering and downtrodden and victimized in our hearts and in our prayers, until the very force of our caring leads us to practical ways of reaching out and helping – then we have already begun to harness the power of love that can redeem the world.
The Spirit is not some far-off and exotic presence that comes to other people, with spectacular special effects. The Spirit is moving among us already, steadily, faithfully, as we go about the business of being church: hearing the gospel, responding in our hearts, and putting it into practice. That is all we need. We already have all we need. We simply have to take what we have already been given in this place, to name it and celebrate it and cultivate it more intentionally, and to offer it with generous hearts to those around us.
The power of love, the power of the gospel, is already at work among us. That’s all there is, really, to the Holy Spirit. That’s all we need. It is enough to transform us, and this old world.