Sermon Preached by Anne R. Ledbetter
Pentecost Sunday - May 27, 2012
Scripture - Acts 2: 1-21

In the early 70's, when I was in high school in North Louisiana, it was not uncommon to be asked, "Have you been baptized in the Holy Spirit?"  What the person really wanted to know was, "Do you speak in tongues?" This phenomenon, also known as glossolalia, was sure-fire evidence of being Spirit-filled according to those in the Charismatic movement.  Looking back on that experience, I cannot imagine a more narrow interpretation of being filled with the Holy Spirit.

After Christmas and Easter, Pentecost stands as the most important celebration of the Christian calendar.  The word Pentecost comes from the Greek, meaning "fifthieth" and falls on the fiftieth day after Christ's resurrection.  The Jewish festival of Pentecost is also called "Shavu'ot, or weeks, because it follows Passover by seven weeks.  For Jews Pentecost was a harvest festival, and because of what happened in Jerusalem 50 days after Jesus' resurrection, Christians celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the church, the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Our story from Acts describes the dramatic expression of the Spirit amidst early believers.  That first Pentecost was marked by an ecstatic communal experience in which 120 of the faithful were gathered together and suddenly a mighty wind rushed through and they began to speak in other languages.  While it sounded like pandemonium, some wondered if they might be drunk. (Luke, who wrote Acts, intends humor here since people would more likely be hung over than intoxicated at the 9 a.m. hour!) This crazy scene actually produced amazing proclamation, and evidenced unity in the midst of diversity as the early believers testified to God's power in different languages other than their own. Our Pentecost story from Acts delivers an extraordinary snapshot of a Spirit-filled congregation.

What does it mean for us to be Spirit-filled disciples today?  Scripture gives us clues:

The apostle Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.[i] God abides, lives, dwells in us. Paul explained to the church in Rome that the Spirit - forever laboring to give birth to a new creation - groans within us[ii], and prays in us.[iii] He encouraged the Galatian churches not only to live by the Spirit, but to walk with the Spirit, to journey with the presence of God empowering and directing them.[iv] Paul promised that when we live out of the Spirit, when we are truly inspired by this Holy Breath, then our lives will bear such incredible fruit as  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness/generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.[v]

In John's gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that God is sending the Spirit - the Comforter, the Advocate, the Counselor, and explains that the Spirit (this Spirit of Truth) will dwell in them, teaching them, guiding them, and reminding them of his words.[vi]

All of this should remind us that God is not a person, monarch, or monument, but God is first and foremost Spirit, that is, energy.  Pastor and professor Bruce Epperly describes God as "an active personal, intimate, vision-oriented presence moving always and everywhere in the direction of Shalom."[vii] My daughter Mary, who is studying speech pathology, recently texted me this snippet she had just learned in a lecture by her linguistics professor.  The Native American term for the Divine:  Great Spirit conveys action in the original tribal language. Likewise futurist and inventor Buckminster Fuller said, "God is a verb, not a noun. God is not legislative code...and not proclamation law...and not ecclesiastic dogma and canon. God is a verb."  Christians might add, "And that verb is Love."  Yet this Divine Energy, or Holy Spirit as we call it, breathes continually and creatively into all living things.

The Biblical words for Spirit are ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek.  Both are translated as wind, breath, spirit.  Both describe an active, powerful, life-giving, life-directing Force.  Thumbing through the Bible, one sees that scripture overflows with stories of Spirit-filled people:

Ø  We read of Abraham and Sarah who heard the Spirit calling them to leave their hometown and take not a leap, but a journey of faith.[viii]

Ø  Riding high on the Spirit when the Hebrews escaped through the Red Sea, Miriam grabbed her tambourine and danced for joy.[ix] Likewise Hannah learned that God had answered her prayer for a child, and was swept up by the Spirit, singing praises to the Holy One who raises up the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.[x]

Ø  King David was obviously either drunk, or infused with the Spirit when he stripped to his Calvin Klein briefs and began leaping in a frenzy of praise before the Ark of the Covenant.[xi]

Ø  The Spirit will occasionally get hold of someone's tongue - as evidenced when Moses told Pharaoh to let God's people go,[xii] or when Nathan confronted King David regarding his sins of adultery and murder.[xiii]

Ø  Solomon experienced God's Spirit as wisdom and insight.  Jeremiah and other prophets found the Spirit to be a nagging word of truth which would not let them rest until they proclaimed it.

Ø  And what about Mary, the mother of Jesus?  In his painting "The Annunciation," American artist Henry O. Tanner shows the Spirit captivating young Mary as a riveting illumination.

Ø  According to the gospels Jesus experienced the Spirit as a loving affirmation which descended upon him at his baptism like a dove.

Ø  In a vision later in Acts, Peter had his mind blown open and his heart enlarged (not unlike the Grinch) by the Spirit's vision of God's expansive love.[xiv]

Ø  And in today's story the Spirit saturates the gathered believers with power to proclaim God's love in word and deed.


The Spirit lives in every person, and urges each person to join the dance of life.  On any given day we may be beckoned to glide forward in a flowing waltz, or cajoled into a playful polka, or sent to take our place in a line dance for justice.   There is never a dull moment when we give ourselves over to the Spirit of God.

But hear this word of caution, friends: while we can count on Holy Spirit to continually call forth life and wholeness, expanding love and surging toward shalom, the Spirit may also disrupt our own plans, prodding us to forgive, challenging us to face a harmful addiction, ushering us into a role we did not intend to play - as caregiver, committee chair, volunteer, mentor, servant.  This unsettling and upsetting role of the Spirit caused the Celts to identify the Spirit with a wild goose - that honking, disturbing, bothersome, yet beautiful creature.

Do we still believe the Spirit blows through closed doors and sets heads on fire?  Do we still believe in the Spirit's power to transform us, individually and as a people?  If you have ever offered forgiveness you did not intend to offer, or spoken with an eloquence you know is not yours, or found the courage to risk extending compassion to a stranger, or found yourself reaching out to someone you had intended to ignore - then you have experienced the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit still blows through large rooms of people - assemblies in churches, schools, businesses, and even the halls of government - where individuals enter a room with their own agenda.  Some come fiercely footed in their opinions, ready to defend their position at all costs.  Then a prayer is offered, silence if observed, or someone reads a devotional, and people being to listen to each other and take one another seriously.  Before long, they bandy around some new ideas and together create an innovative, indeed inspired proposal.  It's as if a fresh wind blows through the room and clears everyone's minds.  You may call it luck, or good fortune, but some would attribute such wonders to the Holy Spirit.[xv]

Let's take a breath, all together.  Now let it out.  You have just participated in a conspiracy - a conspiracy called worship!  That's what conspiracy means - to breathe together.  Alfred North Whitehead proposed that worship is an adventure of the Spirit.  What happens between us and among us when we come together to worship God is that the Holy Spirit moves freely, like a fierce wind or a continuous breath, knitting us together through the hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, the breaths we breathe.[xvi] The Spirit certainly speaks to us and engages us outside these walls, but here in this sanctuary, gathered as God's people, we create a fertile field for the Spirit to take root and grow.  At times the Spirit will comfort us, at other times it will confound us.  Sometimes we will feel confused, at other times we will find clarity.  But remember, Annie Dillard warned us, as we enter worship we should strap on crash helmets and lash ourselves to the pews in preparation and anticipation of our encounter with God and the intermingling of the Spirit in our midst.

What does it look like to be Spirit-filled?  It means being inspired, cajoled, led, guided, empowered by the Spirit of God, that Sanctus Spiritus, every minute of everyday.  It means following the Spirit's lead, joining in the dance of the Divine, moving to the rhythm of God in our lives.   It means making this bold Pentecostal prayer everyday: Come Holy Spirit, co

[i] I Corinthians 6:19

[ii] Romans 8:23

[iii] Romans 8:26

[iv] Galatians 5:25

[v] Galatians 5:22

[vi] John 14:15-26

[vii] Bruce Epperly, www.patheos.com, "The Adventurous Lectionary"

[viii] Genesis 12:1-5

[ix] Exodus 15:21-22

[x] I Samuel 2:8

[xi] II Samuel 6:16-19

[xii] Exodus 11:4-8

[xiii] II Samuel 12:1-15

[xiv] Acts 10:34-36

[xv] Barbara Brown Taylor, "The Gospel of the Holy Spirit" Home By Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999.) p. 147.

[xvi] Barbara Brown Taylor, "The Gospel of the Holy Spirit" Home by Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999.) p. 142.