There is a story about a guy who was stranded on a deserted island. After years of living there all by himself he was discovered by the Navy. As he showed his rescuers around, they noticed three buildings. They asked him why he constructed them.
“This is my house,” explained the man, pointing to the first building. With all the wind and waves I needed shelter to survive. “The second structure is my church,” he said. I was alone on this island for 25 years and without my faith I would not have made it. “What the third structure?” asked one of the sailors. The man replied, “Oh that’s the church I used to go to.”
Well, there are a lot of changes within American Christianity. I can speak to it as I served two other congregations in our area before having the opportunity to come to Bradley Hills.
It’s good to have structures which keep out harmful winds, and we are working on upgrading our structure here. It’s also good to have churches which encourage the spiritual winds to come in. Let us pray. Come Holy Spirit come. Open to us the meaning of your word and the presence of your Pentecost wind for each of us. Through Christ we pray. Amen.
At their best, churches are places that let the spiritual winds in. Pentecost was the day in which the Holy Spirit blew into the house where the disciples were gathering, giving a special sense of the presence of God, and forming what became the church.
Pentecost was, historically, one of three significant festivals of the Jewish year. It occurred 50 days after Passover, hence the name Pente-cost. The weather had improved from Passover to Pentecost so that travel for Pilgrims from as far as Rome was possible to celebrate this festival.
On Pentecost, Jews celebrated how God gave the law, the 10 commandments, to Moses, on Mt. Sinai. In return, Israelites gave their first fruits, the first plants harvested in early summer, as an offering to God. Pentecost celebrated how the law came down, and thanksgiving went up.
For Christians, the Pentecost experience of Acts 2 directly followed Jesus’ ascension into heaven in Acts 1 and Jesus’ prediction that the Holy Spirit would come in return. So Pentecost celebrated the giving of the law to Israel and how the Spirit, predicted by Jesus, the fulfillment of the law, came down.
We often mistake Pentecost as the birth time of the Spirit. As if the Spirit originated on Pentecost. However, the Holy Spirit has been present since the beginning of time. It had moved over the waters of creation, into the dry bones in Ezekiel, and we proclaim in the Apostles Creed that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost.
In the Hebrew Bible the Spirit typically came to special people, often to specific prophets. Not all the people. And when the Spirit came, it stayed only a short time.
In 2 Kings, the story is told of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Elijah went up to Heaven but promised the Spirit’s return. The spirit descended upon his follower, Elisha, and helped him do great things. As such, Jesus seemed to be like the new Elijah, going up to heaven and in the Holy Spirit coming down to his disciples.
But in the Hebrew Bible, there is evidence that would change. Moses stated in Numbers 11, “Would that all the Lords’ people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”
Moses’ wish for a more inclusive and long lasting presence of the spirit was realized on Pentecost. At Pentecost, the first four verses of Acts 2 show a spirit coming into lives of the Apostles. Then the spirit came to the masses and remained. In his sermon Peter saw what was happening to the people and quoted the prophet Joel, “that the time will come when God will pour out God’s spirit on all flesh.” “All flesh.” And the sons and daughters would have prophetic abilities. They were to receive the Holy Spirit and be enlivened like the prophets of old.
On Pentecost they “all were filled with the Holy Spirit.” This spirit rested on “each one of them” and they “all were filled” with the spirit. Not only the disciples in the house but the people from all over the region who were, by the Spirit, able to speak and understand each other despite their diversity of languages.
One of my friends reminded me that “In 1983, Australia and the U.S. were tied in the America’s Cup sailing competition with one race to go. The day came for the final race. Lots of people came to watch the race. TV cameras from all over the world were there. The boats were ready. The crews were ready. The boats pulled into place at the starting line. All was ready, but there was no race! Why? There was no wind. In yachting, no wind means no race.”
The Hebrew word for wind, ruach, is the same word as for spirit. Without wind, without spirit, we here cannot do much either. A church with no spirit moving through it is in trouble. No wind. No church.
The early disciples struggled to describe the Holy Spirit. Through Luke they described the Holy Spirit as being like the sound of a mighty wind or the sight of tongues on fire.
The great preacher Fred Craddock once said, “I cannot describe the Holy Spirit. Jesus said it is like a mystery, like the wind. You don’t see the wind, and yet you know when it comes and when it goes.”
We can’t see the spirit either. The Spirit is uncontrollable, mysterious and powerful. Yet we know when it comes and goes because it is seen by its effects. We saw its impact by how Jesus’ disciples acted. And by how we act. In what we do and how we treat one another we see the active presence of God, the energy of God, the spirit of God.
That is what Peter was trying to communicate at the end of his sermon. That the Spirit of God was present in how people broke bread and prayed together. In how they shared what they had, supported the poor, cared for each other and joined together with glad and generous hearts. This is the church being the body of Christ.
The Spirit wasn’t just present one Pentecost two thousand years ago. It continues to move through history. During the apathy and corruption of the middle ages, the church was failing. Leaders like St. Francis, Martin Luther, and John Calvin gave up privilege, power and a blind following of authority to reform the church. They followed the Holy Spirit into Pentecost moments.
A century ago women didn’t play much of a role in the leadership of the Presbyterian Church. Then in 1893, Edith Peake was appointed an Evangelist by the Presbytery of San Francisco. Over the next few decades, more women gained ministry roles. And a reformation began to happen. The PCUSA began ordaining women as ruling elders in 1930, and as ministers of Word and Sacrament in 1956. By 2001, the numbers of men and women holding office were about equal. The next year our Susan Andrews served as moderator of the entire denomination. And as we have heard, this month our Bonnie Holcomb will represent us at General Assembly. They followed the Holy Spirit into Pentecost moments.
We continue to follow the Spirit into Pentecost moments.
This is a morning in which the Spirit is moving through Bradley Hills. Going with George and Leslye Johnson as they travel and as their inspiration to serve abroad stays with us. In the inspiration of our Chancel Players. Flowing through our new members. In the inspiration of Marian, Ariel, Kay, Betty and all our foundation and longtime members. In those who helped found Bradley Hills long ago but are here in spirit. In all those who are here today.
If our new members were to ask our longtime members what is the church like, I bet the longtime members would, like those at the original Pentecost, find it hard to describe. Because, like the Spirit that calls it into being, one can’t fully describe the church. The experience of a group trying to live out the love of Jesus Christ is really indescribable. You have to experiences the church yourself. This, by the way, is why when people join our church, as they will in a few moments, when we ask them if they will be a faithful members of the church, we begin by saying “Relying on the Holy Spirit…do you promise to be faithful members.” Because the Holy Spirit called the church into being at Pentecost. And so when you join a church, you are joining with the fruit of the spirit.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote that Pentecost is not just a remembered event but an ongoing process of the spirit. A church with the spirit, the wind of God moving through it, is healthy. For it brings new ideas and creativity, energy, vision and gifts.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “There are a variety of gifts, but the same spirit which gives them.” There are many members of the body but one body in Christ. There are many different gifts in a church, but one Spirit which brings them all together.
Sometimes the Spirit comforts. Sometimes the spirit pushes the church out into the world. As with this weekend as Pope Francis prays with Middle East leaders for peace.
For us, the Spirit becomes the common thread of our church, the energy for education, the might for music and mission, the witness for worship and the living inspiration for the life of the church together.
On Pentecost, the Spirit of God, present since the beginning, came into the life of the people, forming the church. And the Spirit has never left. So Pentecost may not be the birthday of the Holy Spirit. But it is the birthday of the church.
The Spirit is still blowing into our church. It may be a gentle Washington summer breeze that consoles us. It may be a cool Arctic blast that pushes us out of our comfort zone. It may move us physically, emotionally or spiritually. The beauty of being part of a church is that the Spirit goes with us on our adventure. It is still blowing.
The Spirit’s presence shows that God has not given up, but rather has promised God’s presence in the world. That God’s Spirit will continue to hold us and bring creativity, vision, gifts and love.
What makes me confident Bradley Hills will be here 50 years from now? The Holy Spirit! The Pentecost celebration is that the Spirit, the divine, mighty wind of God, is here. For you, for me and for always. Amen.