A story is told of preacher who got a little tired of constantly writing sermons so he decided that one week he was not going to do any of his usual researching and writing and re-writing ahead of time. Instead, when it came time to deliver the sermon, he was just going to step into the pulpit and let the Spirit speak, kind of like Peter at the first Pentecost. Whatever the Spirit said would become his sermon for the day. So the week went by and he enjoyed having some extra time, but he trusted that when the time came to deliver, the Spirit would give him something to say.
Sunday came. He stepped into the pulpit, opened his mouth, and, by golly, the Spirit spoke. The Spirit clearly said, “You should have written a sermon.”
That, in a nutshell, describes the nature of God’s Spirit. It is both very unpredictable but also completely reliable. It’s a paradox, of course—it doesn’t seem possible that these two qualities could go together, but when it comes to God’s Holy Spirit, they do. The Spirit is unpredictable, volatile, capricious. It defies our desire to pin it down, to structure it for our own purposes, to contain it or control it.
|An icon of Pentecost. Note the small flames|
over their heads.
We see this impulsive nature not just at that first Pentecost when the disciples are gathered together to celebrate the giving of the Ten Commandments and the law to Moses at Mt. Sinai, and suddenly they begin speaking in different languages and understanding each other. It is there, in fact, from the very beginning, doing things and bringing about things that don’t immediately make sense to us. The Spirit of God creates life out of nothing, it calls leaders for Israel who have questionable pedigrees, it leads the people of God on a meandering path through the wilderness for forty years. Those are just a few examples of how the movement of the Spirit is not always something you can forecast.
And yet, God’s Spirit is reliable. Its presence is something on which we can count. The Spirit may not ever act in ways we can completely foresee, but we know that Jesus has promised it will guide us, and we know we can rely on its power to move people into action and to create possibilities when it seems like none exist. We can rely on the fact that the Spirit of God—whatever it is that’s at the core of God—to speak to us, to call to us, to unite with our own spirit, but we’re not always able to know when that’s going to occur and what the specific message is going to be.
As a result, I think a lot of people are unsure of what to make of the Holy Spirit, especially Lutherans. Lutherans like predictability. We value reliability, too, but we really like predictability. And we’re pretty solid with the first two persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father and the Son, in part because of this. To some degree it’s easier to get a handle on those two, especially the Son. After all, his whole existence and the crowning point of his ministry was all about people getting a hand on him. When it comes to God the Father we have his voice and his words, and when it comes to Jesus we have a human figure, but in Scripture the Spirit is typically presented in abstract metaphors like fire and wind.
Fire and wind are both unpredictable. They are also technically invisible. One can see presence of wind, for example, in the rustling of leaves or in the spin of a windmill, but the moving air itself is not visible. And the same goes with fire. One cannot actually see the chemical reaction that causes the flame, but is clear that something dynamic and transformative is happening when you get near a fire. There is something a little mysterious about both wind and fire. They’ve got energy, but they really can’t be contained or stopped. They tend to come and go as they please. And so it is with God’s Holy Spirit.
As I reflect on this, I realize that over the last few weeks I’ve become acquainted with another metaphor for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is like a crying newborn. It, too, is not controllable. It has great energy…far out of proportion to its tiny size. And the source of the crying is often mystery—why the baby is crying you may never know! It’s unpredictable, but it’s very reliable, and all you really can do is pick it up and roll with it. Just see where the crying will take you, bouncing as you go, with constant motion! Out of the bedroom, down the hall a few times…around the kitchen…into the car seat…into the car…down the road at 12am…
Unpredictable but reliable. Ever since the beginning it has been apparent to those who’ve been called into this life of faith in the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus, that there was this third element, this third person of God that brought it all together. And at Pentecost, it became clear that this third person, this Spirit of God, this very interior force that brings things to life, has been poured out on God’s people. Our role is to let it rush through us, to let the fire touch us and transform us, to pick up the mysteriously crying newborn with lungs that never cease and bounce with it.
So, because the Spirit of God is both unpredictable but reliable, then we should not be surprised that the church, is going to live a life that is both unpredictable but reliable. It will be unpredictable because there will be no way to foresee or anticipate just where the community of those who follow Jesus will end up, or what specifically they will do. There will be no way for the church, for individual congregations, or even individual believers to know precisely how their faith will burn along the way. Peter and the disciples gathered at Pentecost have no idea that the Spirit of God is about to propel them through the Mediterranean world, taking a small, marginalized message of hope in Jesus to the very halls of power in Rome within just a few decades.
Our own congregation’s new mission statement begins with this realization. “Walk the journey” names the fact that faith in God is ongoing and meandering, often surprising and always unpredictable. The earliest members of Epiphany would have had no idea that sixty some odd years later there would be a Chapel built here, along with a columbarium, or that we’d have a community garden. I also bet they only imagined the possibility of one day having enough resources to have a full-time, called director of Christian faith formation, and that, again, one day that person would have to leave and pursue her call elsewhere. As the Council develops a long-range plan for us, we need to keep in mind this unpredictability factor. We really don’t know just how the Spirit will lead and transform us. It will be exciting, and probably a bit disorienting at times.
But just as our life of faith this side of the resurrection will always involve a measure of unpredictability, the church is also called to be reliable. The people of the God are the vessel for this life-giving presence of God that the world needs to know and hear, that the world will turn to for hope, for love, for justice.
One of my colleagues in Pittsburgh was this man who had been called to a downtown congregation in an old German neighborhood that had been slowly evolving as its original white European members either died off or moved out into the suburbs. Within just a few years its surrounding neighborhood had changed completely. Old stately buildings had become crack-houses and gang dens. My colleague tried to adjust his ministry to serve the people who were there, but he found it incredibly challenging. The church began to fall into disrepair, too, and there were fewer financial resources to sustain the ministry. He got a few grants to keep things running. He began an afterschool program to get kids off the streets. Eventually he started a summer program to give them a safe haven during the months they weren’t in school. He found people jobs and organized community projects. Slowly but surely he persevered, holding on for dear life most of the time, I’m sure. It went on like this for over twenty years.
By the time I had come to Pittsburgh it was a thriving ministry to the neighborhood. You could say that countless lives had been saved, and some of those children had even been sent on to seminary. He had become a fixture in that neighborhood, and when he announced his retirement, the local paper ran a story on him and the effect his congregation had had on the North Side community. They asked him why he was led there. And he told this story of one of those days early on when he was almost about to throw in the towel. You might say he had gotten weary of the unpredictability. One of the little kids in the afterschool program came into his office and hopped up on his lap and put his arms around the big man. Pastor John asked him how he was doing and the kid seemed sad, as if something in his home or at school had not gone well. The kid looked at him and said, “I’m scared right now. I don’t know how my life is going to turn out, but as long as you’re here, I know I’ll be OK.” That, Pastor John Cochran said, was the turning point. There were people relying on this message he had brought.
The church is called to be reliable in that way, for that is the way the Spirit leads us. We are a people entrusted with the message that God has saved the world through Jesus. We are a people who call on the name of the Lord, ourselves, in such a way that people come to see we are not perfect, but we have faith in a God who is, that we have reason for hope in the future, and that we know love conquers all. We are a great diverse conglomeration of people spanning all time and places, children of God called out from every nation who stand in workplaces, in neighborhoods, in schools, in cities and rural places as a reminder that God is present with humankind. We are called to be reliably united, even in the midst of conflict.
It’s an unpredictable journey, for sure. It’s not always easy to know how to put it into words, if it should be planned out ahead of time or done on the fly. But we trust God is present through the Spirit that has been given. Most of the time all we really can do is let the fire rage within us and see who it transforms. Of, if that metaphor doesn’t work for you, then just think about picking up the screaming baby and move and bounce. Walk that thing right down the aisle and into the narthex. And from the narthex out into the streets…and right out into the world.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.