First United Methodist Church
May 28, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Every year for the past several years I have had the opportunity to witness the birth and nurturing of a nest of baby birds – robins, mostly, because they seem to build their nests where humans can see them. One of the things I have noticed is that unlike mammals, who raise their young for several months, providing for them and teaching them to hunt, fish, and do whatever it takes to survive, robins spend approximately two weeks in the nest, and then once they are ready to fledge, the chicks are cared for on the ground for about three more weeks. At that point, although they still bear a few markings that indicate their youth, they mostly resemble the adults of their species and are expected to survive on their own, relying on instincts that have been present since birth.
Today is Pentecost, which means we read a story from Acts which contains details that we are all pretty familiar with:
the disciples are gathered in the Upper Room waiting for the consummation of the Holy Spirit Jesus promised, when the earth shakes, the wind blows, tongues of fire descend, and they are emboldened to preach the Gospel first in Jerusalem and eventually to the ends of the earth. If this were a Hollywood movie, we would want to end here – think of Star Wars or the Marvel movies, where the main character dies at the end, but they are still present in some alternative universe that allows them to continue to influence those who remain. But Pentecost is not a Hollywood movie.
Have you ever noticed that the arrival of the Holy Spirit doesn’t remove the disciples from challenges and hardships, but rather equips them to persevere, even flourish, amid them? To me, this seems to be the unified witness across the New Testament about the Holy Spirit’s work.
In John, for instance, the disciples are hiding in the upper room out of fear that those who crucified Jesus may come after them. And what does Jesus do as he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them? He doesn’t take them away from Jerusalem or fortify the room in which they’re hiding, but instead he sends them out into that dangerous world: “As the Father sent me, so I now send you” (20:21), and then he gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit to create in them the courage they will need to follow Jesus’ command.
Similarly in Acts, the disciples are waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit and, once it comes, they go out to proclaim the good news to people they had good reason to believe would be at least skeptical if not outright hostile to their message.
And then again, throughout Paul’s letters, we hear story after story in which the Spirit is given to enable individual believers to look beyond their individual needs, hopes, or fears and equip them with distinct gifts, all in order to work together for the “common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).
Throughout these passages, we get the sense that the Spirit isn’t some kind of super hero sent to rescue us, but rather the one who equips, encourages, and stays with us, helping us perceive the needs of our neighbors and community and then rise to the occasion to meet those needs with equal measures of tenacity, competence, and courage.
What I find interesting is that we see these kinds of things happening in the natural world, instinctively, as baby birds and animals reach maturity in just a few weeks or days, as in the case of birds, and while the parents do care and nurture their children, the primary goal is to equip them for survival and independence.
Like Jesus did with the disciples, when he breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit.
In John’s Gospel, after all, the Spirit is described as parakletos, the one who “comes along side” of us, the one who advocates for us, remains with us, strengthens and helps us.
This, of course, stands in contrast to what we expect or, maybe deep down, hope, the Spirit will do. That is, I think we often hope that the Spirit will just plain save us, or at least to take us away from whatever challenge seems to threaten to overwhelm us in the moment. But the operative preposition with the Spirit seems to be with rather than from – as in being with us during challenges rather than taking those challenges away from us.
And so that leaves us with our opportunity in Pentecost: to recognize that while we may often hope that God will remove us from challenging or difficult situations, God often instead comes along side of us in the presence of the Holy Spirit in order to strengthen and equip us to endure, and even to flourish, amid the challenges and difficulties we face.
Why? Perhaps because God may actually be working through us for the common good, to care for the need of our neighbors, community, and world. We have a purpose: which is to care for those around us as God cares for us, to make wherever we may find ourselves a better place, to share God’s love in word and deed so that others may know they are not alone and, of course, loved. We are here not simply for ourselves but for those around us, and Christ calls us to be the vessel in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit flow out into the world.
Had the disciples not been commissioned and equipped to go and share the good news, they could have savored the truth of the resurrection for themselves, cherishing the pleasant memory of Jesus’ resurrected presence into their ripe old age. Instead, they are thrown out into the crowds – many of whom witnessed, if not participated in, the crucifixion of Jesus – to bear witness to a difficult truth. Yes, they do preach, and thousands respond, but never without cost.
Why should we expect anything different? Why should we expect the Holy Spirit to bring anything more than challenges and opportunities that, while significant and salutary, are nevertheless costly.
The Promise of Pentecost is not that we will suffer no more difficulty or hardships, nor that God will remove us from challenges, but rather that in the Holy Spirit, God comes to be with us and for us and to use all that we have and are for the sake of those around us. There is comfort, but oftentimes that comfort comes with a bigger challenge. It’s an incredible promise, when you think about it.
And so, the question for us to consider today is: If the Holy Spirit’s role is to make us aware of and equip us to face the struggles that are occurring in the world right now, where do you see the Holy Spirit at work in your life? Who or what is God calling us to care for?
May the Holy Spirit come along side you to offer words of courage that equip us to be, once again, Christ’s body at work for the common good. Amen.
Blessing and Peace
We are the Body of Christ, authorized and equipped to care for this world that God loves so much. And it is the Holy Spirit who reminds us of this role and enables us to fulfill it. This may not always be all that we want, but perhaps it is just what those around us need. Go with courage, and go with peace, knowing that the Holy Spirit goes with you.