Preached on 20 May 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle Washington
Day of Pentecost, Year B
We do love candles in church, don’t we? They’re pretty and they remind us of the light of Christ shining in the darkness of the world. We particularly love lighting the fire at the Great Vigil of Easter. But we do like to keep the flames contained, of course. We wouldn’t want to burn the place down. And who hasn’t been burnt by hot wax? That hurts! And so we turn on the electric lights and keep the flames small.
We keep the wicks trimmed so they won’t splutter and gutter. Sometimes we even try to shield them from any little air currents. I’m sure that every altar guild blesses the person who invented dripless candles. It makes it so much easier to keep those flames under control and keep the melted wax off of the fine linens.
Well, God doesn’t use dripless candles. When God lights a fire, it’s a flame that can’t be extinguished,
not even by a violent wind. And you know what? Sometimes God blows through as that wind.
You may remember that on Easter, my theme was Christ is on the loose. Well, here we are, 50 days later. It’s Pentecost. You thought the resurrection was big, just you wait; see what’s next. Now the Holy Spirit is on the loose.
What signs of the Holy Spirit do you see in your life? And especially what signs of the Holy Spirit do you see here at Ascension?
How do you respond?
We see how Peter responds. When he realizes that everyone can understand them, that language is not a barrier, he seizes the opportunity to tell the whole crowd all about Jesus; all that they had been witness to. And because faithful Jews from all over the world are gathered in Jerusalem for the festival and everyone can hear and understand him, you can be sure that when they return home, this is a story they will tell.
Think about it, here we are, still telling the story.
I wonder though, if with the passage of time we have domesticated the story. Have we turned the flames of Pentecost into dripless candles?
What do you think I might mean by that?
Do we ask too little of the Holy Spirit? Do we think (or should I say hope) that the Holy Spirit expects little of us? Do we try to tame the Holy Spirit?
When the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism, the Spirit immediately drove him into the desert where he was tempted by Satan, yes, but also where he fasted and prayed and was challenged by God, I’m sure. I imagine it is where he discerned what he was to do next.
When the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples on Pentecost, they were then sent out into the world to continue the work of Jesus, to be the church in the world. They didn’t go back to that upper room and wait.
It’s natural to want to make this a “fun” story. At times, the church almost makes it seem like a children’s birthday party; the birthday of the church. And then we focus on “church” as what happens inside this building.
Even at his ascension, the disciples were still asking Jesus, “Is this the day when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Perhaps it’s simply human to long for the “happily ever after” moment. When we celebrate Pentecost, we so want it to be the happily ever after turning point for the church; for the world.
We look at all the cool stuff that happened: the people heard the disciples speaking in their own languages. Peter preached and thousands believed and were baptized. And as we continue reading, we see miraculous healings, raising the dead, inspired preaching, and even more thousands added to the number of believers. But we sometimes overlook the hardships and challenges: the arguments between the disciples, the trials, beatings, jails, persecutions, and most of them ended up dead, executed.
The trouble with ignoring the challenges is that when we run into our own challenges as we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, we can think that we must have done something wrong; that we failed. Here’s the thing though, faithfulness does not necessarily lead to success. Following where the Holy Spirit leads will almost certainly lead to struggle and hardship; to challenges and then more challenges.
We so want to be able to just overcome the obstacles and get back to “normal.” We think that smooth sailing is what we should be able to expect. But that’s not how life is; it’s not how God works.
The Holy Spirit does, indeed, ask a great deal of us.
It sounds scary and exhausting, doesn’t it? But here’s the rest of the story: we can expect a great deal from the Holy Spirit as well. We don’t face the challenges alone. The Holy Spirit doesn’t solve our problems but helps us see new possibilities where others might see only problems. The Holy Spirit offers us not safety, but presence.
So, I ask you again.
What signs of the Holy Spirit do you see in your life? And especially what signs of the Holy Spirit do you see here at Ascension? Where is the Spirit leading you; calling you? How do you respond?
In a little bit, you’ll have a chance to talk to each other about your ministries: the activities, the people, the places where you are led by the Spirit; how you have responded; where you have seen signs of the Spirit. We’re having a ministry fair during coffee hour. Go and see what’s happening here; see how we are being church in the world. See if you are called to start something new.
Remember, God doesn’t use dripless candles.
Will the Holy Spirit set your heart aflame?