Besides celebrating Pentecost, we also celebrated the confirmation of three of our young people on this day.
Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
I love the show “The Big Bang Theory”. This sitcom follows the adventures of four very geeky scientists, three of whom are physicists, as they try to make their way in the world in which the rest of us non-scientists live. One of the neat things about this show is that the writers try to make the science that they use as accurate as possible, with the benefit that the non-scientists who watch it can learn some scientific concepts. One of those scientific concepts that I think actually applies to today’s readings about the Holy Spirit is that of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In quantum mechanics, this principle states that the more precisely you know the position of a certain particle, the less precisely you can know its speed, and vice versa. And I think that’s the way it is with the Holy Spirit: when you focus in on one aspect of the Spirit, you can see clearly how it is operating in one particular instance, but you may not be able to see clearly how it is operating in a different situation. And so that is why our readings today give us many different pictures of how the Holy Spirit can work in any given situation. This helps us to not get tunnel vision and to think the Spirit can only work in one way all of the time. The three pictures that we have of the Holy Spirit today are these: first, as a force that empowers and emboldens the disciples to go forth and spread the good news of Jesus Christ; second, as the person of the Triune God who intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray; and third, as the Advocate who testifies to the truth about Jesus and who guides us into that truth.
First, let’s look at the Holy Spirit as the one who empowers us to boldly go and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Luke gives us this picture in today’s reading from Acts. Here is a group of disciples who, after Jesus’ ascension, go back to a house, appoint another disciple to take the place of Judas, and are huddled in prayer, waiting for the promise of the Father that Jesus had told them about right before he ascended to heaven. They’re not certain what this promise is, but they are faithfully waiting and praying, wondering what they are supposed to do next. Then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes swooshing in, all wind and fire, something new that the disciples have never before experienced. And suddenly, they’re speaking in a foreign language as easily as if they’d grown up with it. I enjoy learning new languages, but even so, there were times that I wished the Holy Spirit would come swooping in and give me the instant ability to speak whatever language it was I happened to be learning at the time! The miracle on Pentecost, though, was not the wind, the fire, or the ability to speak in new languages. No, the miracle was that these disciples were now able to go out and boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all who were in Jerusalem that day. The wind, fire, and foreign languages were all just special effects—sometimes, the Holy Spirit likes a bit of drama!
Sometimes in our faith journeys, this is how we will experience the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will suddenly come upon us as we hear a certain word of Scripture, a certain devotion, a well-delivered sermon, or even when we are in private prayer, and we will be inspired and be given power to go out and spread the good news of Jesus Christ in a bold way. Perhaps the Holy Spirit would inspire one person to be a missionary in a materially poor country, where she would proclaim the mighty deeds of God both through word and through action. Perhaps the Spirit would nudge another to be a leader of a movement here in this country to walk with people who don’t have a voice, to help bring God’s justice to them. Or perhaps the Holy Spirit would simply have you boldly proclaim God’s love in Jesus Christ to a friend who is hurting and who may need that push to come back to a worshiping community. The boldness of the Holy Spirit takes shape in us as individuals in many different ways. The important thing is to be open to the movement of the Spirit; to trust in that fiery wind and to not be afraid.
Now, let us zoom out from this image of the Holy Spirit and zoom in to the image that the Apostle Paul gives us in his letter to the Romans. Here, Paul is speaking about how, through the original sin of Adam and Eve, all of creation is estranged from God, but still longs to be one with God. We, too, as part of God’s creation, are estranged from God, and we do not know how to talk to God in the right way. We do our best when we pray, but we still fall short of how we should be praying. It’s like we’re using a Microsoft program and God is using an Apple program, and the two programs don’t talk to one another very well, if at all. And so, the Holy Spirit takes over, using sighs that are too deep for words, in order to bridge the communication gap and help us to understand God and God to understand us.
In August of 2004, my paternal grandfather was diagnosed with AML leukemia. This is a particularly bad form of cancer, and my grandfather was 80 years old. The doctors told him that chemotherapy was just as likely to kill him as it was to cure him. And so, he opted for palliative care: that is, to let nature take its course and to only use medicine to ease his pain. When I first got the news from my family, I remember that I did not know how I should pray for my grandfather. I did not want him to die, but on the other hand, I did not want him to suffer, either. I then remembered this particular passage from Romans, which brought me great comfort: God knew that I didn’t know what the right thing to pray for in this situation was, and so the Holy Spirit would take over, bringing my thoughts, my sadness, and my love for my grandfather to God, and putting them into the right words for God to hear. These verses from Romans give us a picture of the Holy Spirit working for us in times when we do not know how to pray.
Besides the picture in Acts of the Holy Spirit as someone who empowers us to tell others about Jesus, and the picture in Romans of the Holy Spirit as someone who serves as an intercessor for us before God, we also have the picture that the Gospel of John gives us: the Holy Spirit as an Advocate. The Greek word that gets translated as “Advocate” means “someone who walks alongside”. Since we don’t have an exact equivalent of this in English, this Greek word gets translated in different versions of the Bible as Advocate, Comforter, Counselor, and Helper. All of these words are okay to use, and this is how John wants us to think of the Holy Spirit. In John, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as one who will come and bring comfort to the disciples after he is gone, and one who will guide the disciples into the truth.
In the times in which we live, many in our culture will ask the same question that Pontius Pilate asked of Jesus, “What is truth?” Perhaps even we who want to be disciples of Jesus have asked that same question as things we thought were true have been called into doubt by our shifting and restless culture. But the truth that the gospel of John speaks of is the truth that in Jesus, the Word was made flesh, and that in Jesus, we have seen God. Because Jesus was set apart to bring this truth to the world, we as his disciples have also been set apart to testify to the world that, as John says in chapter 20 of his gospel, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing the people of the world may have life in his name. The Holy Spirit is the gift from God that walks alongside of us in our faith journey, who reminds us of this truth, who counsels us in how to witness to others about this truth, and who comforts us through the difficult times we have here on earth.
In just a few moments, after we have sung our next hymn, we will confirm three of our young people in the Christian faith into which they were baptized. At baptism, they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has always been with them throughout their lives, doing what the Holy Spirit does: making them bold, interceding with God for them, and walking alongside of them. These three young women will today affirm and acknowledge that gift that they received when they were baptized. But I want to emphasize that confirmation is not a form of “graduation” from the church. This is a milestone on their faith journey, but it is not the end of their journey. They will have times, as we all do, where God comes to them, everything is clear, and they will believe everything they have been taught. But there will also be times, again as we all experience, where there will be doubt as they continue wrestling with questions with which we all wrestle. They may stay away from worship for a while, as some of us do. But they do not stop being part of this community. As a community, it is our duty and our delight to continue to pray for these three young women, to support them, and to encourage them. This is part of what the Holy Spirit does within us as well: it forms a family with us even where there are no ties of blood, and sometimes the family that the Holy Spirit forms is stronger than the ties of our blood family. We give thanks for the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of these three young women, and we give thanks for the work of the Holy Spirit in and among all of us. Amen.