Pentecost B

May 21, 2018

The Spark of Life

Romans 8:18-27


22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;  23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.


Today is Pentecost Sunday. It’s the day we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit in to the lives of the followers of Jesus after his ascention in to heaven following his resurrection. These events are chronicled in the first two chapters of the book of Acts. We didn’t read the story of the arrival of the Holy Spirit, but I’m sure you have some familiarity with the story. It’s the story of the way in which the Holy Spirit whooshed in to the house where the followers of Jesus had gathered and it enabled them to speak in all these foreign tongues. It was an amazing circumstance.


Many of the people who had gathered and began speaking in tongues Galileans, which is code for country bumpkins, and the sophisticated elders of the community couldn’t figure out what was going on. They were hearing people speak in a manner that wasn’t normal for Galileans. Someone suggested they were drunk, but this prompted Peter to take charge of the situation and explain that they clearly weren’t drunk because it was only 9 in the morning, but that it was the Holy Spirit that had caused such a commotion.


It’s a colorful story.  I guess it’s good that God sent the spirit in the morning. Peter might have had a harder time convincing the elders that the Galileans weren’t drunk if it had happened later in the day. The story of that first Pentecost is in Acts 2:1-12 if you want to refresh your memory of the story. But there’s some history behind this event we call Pentecost that’s interesting to me. This word, Pentecost, actually has nothing to do with wind, or fire, or spirit. It comes from a Latin word that means fifty, and it refers to a Jewish festival that took place 50 days after Passover.


But the really odd thing about this word that has come to define a very definitive form of Christian worship is that it’s rooted in some kind of harvest festival that predated the formation of the Jewish community in Israel. In other words, what was once a pagan harvest festival became known as the Festival of Pentecost in the Jewish community, and while it still had some harvest festival connotations it was also given a religious identity, and it actually became one of the three major Jewish religious festivals. The Festival of Pentecost was one of the events that all good Jews were expected to show up for at the Temple in Jerusalem.


As I said, the Festival of Pentecost takes place 50 days after Passover, which is 7 weeks after Passover, and the date of Passover always coincided with the beginning of the barley harvest. The Festival of Pentecost is sometimes called the Festival of Weeks because it took seven weeks to harvest their different grains, so it still functioned as a harvest celebration, but it also had religious significance. The Feast of Pentecost commemorated the giving of the law to Moses at Sinai.


You won’t be tested on all of this at the end of today’s service, but I think it is sort of interesting to think of the ways in which an ancient harvest festival evolved into a Jewish religious festival that marks the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. And while all of these devout Jews were in Jerusalem for the Festival of Pentecost this remarkable thing happened that gave birth to the church and a whole new connotation to this word Pentecost.


So this event that began as a harvest festival took on a name that made reference to fifty and now that name is given to a day that we think of as being full of rushing wind and firey tongues. We United Methodists along with many other denominations associate the Day of Pentecost with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and it happens 50 days after Easter, so there is still some connection with fifty, but it’s sort of an amazing progression. It would have been hard to predict that this word that means fifty and was originally connected to the seven weeks of harvest would end up playing such a large role in the church. It’s sort of amazing that this word that means 50 in Latin is how many churches are labeled all over the world where people speak in unusual tongues, but that’s where we are today.


As you well know, I’m not very Pentecostal in my style of worship. You might say I’m a lot more comfortable with the way the Quakers worship than I am with the way Pentecostals do it. I would probably get nervous around Quakers if they actually started quaking in some way, but from what I can tell they sit together very quietly until someone feels moved to say something spiritually nurturing. It’s not that I don’t think God moves people in dramatic ways, nor am I uncomfortable around people who get wacky, but I don’t need for that to happen in worship in order to feel close to God.


That’s probably something I should have explored with a therapist at some point, but it’s too late for that now. I’m a United Methodist with a high level of comfort with a moderate level of religious zeal. And it’s not that I don’t think our faith in God should be the foremost factor in our lives, but I don’t think that has to play out in dramatic expressions. I believe the Holy Spirit can come to us in a very subtle manner and affects us in profound ways.


I don’t think I’ve ever told you about one of the most dramatic moments in my spiritual life, but here it is:


It took place during a really difficult period of time in my life. It was when I was a young adult with a high degree of anxiety about what I was going to do with my life. I was a sophomore in college, and I wasn’t sure of anything. I had this sense that I could go in many different directions, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t see that there was any great urgency to do anything. Things felt a little meaningless to me. And that was new territory to me. I had generally had a pretty clear sense of direction, but I felt perfectly lost. I guess you might say that I had gained enough education to be dangerous, and it was my soul that was in peril. I was in despair.


Once again, some therapy might have been useful, but I didn’t know anything about that. I did talk to a number of good people, and I didn’t really engage in stupid behavior to try to make myself feel better. But I was heavy hearted and I really didn’t know how to shake it.


So I was walking by the Student Union in Fayetteville one afternoon and I saw a flyer advertising an event that was about to happen. A guy who had been on a bicycle trip across Kansas was presenting slide show in the theater. This wasn’t something that caught the eye of many students – there wasn’t a long line to get in to that show, but being a bit of bicycle enthusiast I decided to go in and see what it was about. I don’t know what I expected, but it was largely underwhelming. There aren’t a lot of amazing landscape scenes in Kansas, but there are a lot of different plants growing along the sides of the road, and the bulk of the slides were of various wildflowers.


I wasn’t very moved by the show until he flashed a slide of a plant with a big bug hanging on to the bottom of a leaf. And there was something that touched me about that bug. I don’t know what kind of bug it was or what it was doing, but what I saw was a living creature clinging to life. And I was inspired by that bug. That bug struck me as being a creature that was hanging on as if he had a purpose, and it occurred to me that I had at least as much potential as that bug. I wasn’t feeling as motivated as that bug at the moment, but I wanted to be. I didn’t know why that bug was hanging on the way he was, but it made me want to hang on.


I love the imagery Paul utilizes in this letter to the Romans. I appreciate the way he talks about the groaning of all creation, and of the way in which the Spirit of God comes to us in the midst of our troubles. I particularly appreciate the way he talks about how the spirit prays for us when we don’t even know what to pray for.


And this is such good news. We aren’t just on our own as we seek to navigate the various trials that this world can generate. God’s presence and God’s guidance aren’t always obvious to us, but I believe God’s Holy Spirit is always seeking to find a way to break in to our lives. I think this is what Paul is talking about when he writes of the way the spirit is praying for us. We often don’t know what we need, and the spirit speaks to us in ways we would never expect.


But the Holy Spirit can get our attention in some interesting ways, and once that happens I believe we can learn to become more sensitive to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. In fact that may be the most important thing we can learn to do. One of the things John Wesley sought to help people do was to learn not to resist the promptings of the Holy Spirit.


John Wesley believed we can practice living in ways that open us up to the presence of the Holy Spirit. He believed that when we make an effort to care for one another, to learn more about the ways God has been active in the lives of others, and to reduce the amount of harm we are doing to ourselves and others we become more sensitive to the ways God is present in our lives. And this makes a lot of sense. If you want to become better at anything you’ve got to spend time working on it.


Of course there’s always some mystery involved in the work of the Holy Spirit. There will always be a gap between what we know and what God is doing, but we don’t have to remain clueless, and we can grow in our relationship with the source of true life.


Pentecostalism has taken on a pretty specific form in our society, but the Holy Spirit will never be contained. The Holy Spirit comes to us in many different ways and it moves us in different directions. This is the beautiful thing about the way that God works. We don’t always know how the Holy Spirit is going to appear or where it will take us, but we can always trust that God is wanting us to find the source of true peace and joy. This is what the Holy Spirit is praying that we will find and share.


You never really know where that Holy spark of life will come from, but it comes, and for that we can be eternally grateful.


Thanks be to God.




2 Responses to “Pentecost B”

  1. Earl Says:

    That bug lit a spark in your life at time you needed it, I don’t mean to get to theological but God did create that bug.

  2. Jack Williams Says:

    Good sermon !

    Sent from my iPhone


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