"When God's Spirit Blows"
Scripture - Acts 2:1-21
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, June 8, 2014

Methodist Bishop, William Willimon remembers a day from his youth - the day the tide changed. The day that the United States slipped from being a religious culture to a secular society. It was a day in the sixties when the movie theatre in his hometown opened on a Sunday in defiance of the state's Blue Laws. Willimon and six friends from his youth group showed up at church that evening, but then slipped out the back door to go see the movie. Reflecting on that day, Willimon wrote: "I have come to see how that evening symbolizes a watershed in the history of Christianity in the United States. On that night, Greenville, South Carolina - the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western world - gave in and served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the church. If Christians were going to be made in Greenville, then the church must do it alone. There would be no more free passes for the church, no more free rides. The Fox Theater went head-to-head with the church to see who would provide ultimate values for the young. That night in 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish."1 During the past 50 years, the church has lost many similar tussles.

A few decades ago if you drove through a Wilmington neighborhood on a Sunday morning you would be greeted with the sounds of birds and the sight of empty driveways because most people were at church. Drive down those same streets on a Sunday morning today, and you will hear lawnmowers humming and spot people walking their dogs. Most of the empty driveways are because Leann has a soccer game, Mom is meeting friends for brunch and Dad is running a 5K.

Pining for the old days won't bring them back. There has been a dramatic shift in the religious landscape as churches and synagogues have watched their memberships decline, their pews empty and their influence dwindle. Opinion polls confirm the drop in members of religious institutions, and yet those same polls reveal an intriguing fact: widespread interest in spirituality. Many are searching for something more.

During the modern era, equating truth only with what could be verified by the senses pushed religion and spirituality to the sidelines. The supreme compliment you could give "to a modern person was that he or she was €˜rational,' or €˜scientific.' The worse criticism was that a person was €˜spiritual but of no earthly good.' And heaven forbid that people would allow their subjectivity to enter into so-called €˜objective reality."2

However, as the modern era surrenders to the postmodern period, in which physics teaches us that the world is more mysterious than once thought and people recognize that the material world is not all that exists - for example, there are non-material phenomena such as thoughts and feelings - many people hunger for personal spiritual experiences. Simply "think of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Vampire Diaries, and the number of people taking yoga, and you will get an idea of how deep runs the hunger for enchantment."3

We are also witnessing a rise in the number of people taking personal pilgrimages to thin places - those special sites where the veil between this world and the other world is slight; where people find the world of the spirit closer at hand; where the presence of God is more palpable and you recognize stirrings in your soul.

There is a major shift taking place in Christianity. The era that began about 500 years ago is winding down and a new era is beginning. Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox names the era that is ending the "Age of Belief" because it emphasized believing the right doctrines.

He names the emerging era the "Age of the Spirit," which will focus not on believing the correct dogma, but on living a life in harmony with God. If Cox is correct, then we may see the day of Pentecost morph from a minor celebration to a major one, taking its place next to Christmas and Easter.

Professor Tom Long asks:

Have you ever been in the embarrassing situation where someone gives you a gift, but when you open it, you don't have the slightest idea what it is? It's your birthday or retirement party and a friend hands you a brightly wrapped gift. As you rip off the paper and lift the lid off the box, all eyes are on you. You pull it out and there it is...Is it a pencil sharpener or a coffee grinder? Are these earrings or fishing lures?

The person who gave you the gift is watching your reaction to see if you genuinely like it. She says, "Well, what do you think?" Silence ensues. Finally, you say, "Thank you so much. I love it. I really need a tire pressure gauge." Only to have a wounded voice reply, "Tire gauge?! It's a meat thermometer!"

There is something of the same uncertainty and perplexity about Pentecost. The followers of Jesus together in one place when, with no warning, there was the sound of a violent wind like a tornado or derecho blasting through the house. Then, like a wildfire, God's Spirit swept through their ranks and they began to speak different languages. At Pentecost, in a sensational manner, something has been given to the church, a gift from God. But when we open it up, what exactly is this gift?4

Our clue rests in the lives of those first disciples of Jesus. It is 50 days after Passover - thus, the Jewish festival of Pentecost - and we have no idea what the followers of Jesus have been doing in the seven weeks since his crucifixion. Most likely, they have been trying to figure out what to do with their lives now that their master is no longer physically present. Should they stay together? Should they go back to what they were doing before Jesus called them?

They are gathered in a house at nine o'clock when God's Spirit sweeps over them. As Luke, the author of Acts, tells it, the first Pentecost was an extremely thin place. He struggles with language to describe an extraordinary event where the veil between this world and the other is breeched. He writes that it was like a powerful wind; it was like a wildfire; it was as if all of the people were drunk. I know, it sounds a little like a fraternity party.

It was a moment that defies description, other than to say it was a God moment - a moment when God's Spirit was palpable. It was a moment when those gathered felt a stirring in their soul that called them to the work God had been doing in Jesus - loving, forgiving, healing, struggling for justice and working for peace.

Everyone in that house could provide an indisputable reason for not engaging in this mission: you might just get yourself killed - but the urging of God's Spirit stiffened their resolve and empowered them to do what they knew they needed to do. The apostle Peter, who out of fear denied knowing Jesus when Jesus was arrested, became a courageous leader who spread the message and mission of Christ. Just two chapters after we read of God's Spirit empowering the disciples, Peter confronts the religious leaders of Jerusalem as Jesus had done, and is arrested.

That's what can happen when God's Spirit blows into people's lives. A force from beyond themselves bolsters them. It pumps up their conviction and gives them the courage to reach out in compassion, to take bold stands and to do what God is calling them to do.

During the Civil Rights movement, a number of non-violent strategies were employed to waken the conscience of the nation to deal with the prejudice and racism that was perpetuating injustice toward African Americans. In his book, The Last Segregated Hour, Stephen Haynes, a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, writes about the "kneel-ins" that were focused on breaking down segregation in churches throughout the south. Dr. Haynes focused his attention especially on the kneel-ins that took place in Memphis and the prominent role played by white students from Rhodes College and black students from Memphis State and LeMoyne College.

In 1964, these students launched a campaign of church "testings." White students, paired with black students, would visit both white and black congregations in Memphis to see what sort of reception they received; especially to test whether certain white congregations would bar blacks from entering for worship.

The greatest resistance was found at Second Presbyterian Church, a church with a reputation of being more evangelical than most Presbyterian congregations. In fact, the church eventually withdrew from our denomination.

The black and white pairs of students received different reactions at the various churches they visited, but it was at Second that they were met Sunday after Sunday by elders and deacons standing arm-in-arm blocking entrance to the church. The students, always dressed in their Sunday best, would kneel before them and pray.

As the pressure mounted with no end in sight, some started taking photographs of the white students and mailing the pictures along with a letter to their parents. The hope was that parents would come down hard on their children for getting involved in protests and tell them to focus on their studies and not get involved in something that could turn nasty.

"A mother of one of the white students received a letter and photo of her son standing in the rain alongside an unidentified young black woman. [After receiving the photograph and letter, she wrote back to the sender to thank him]. Her response was surely not what the person who sent her the letter anticipated. She wrote, €˜I am glad that you sent me the picture of Hayden and his friend attending a church service. This picture will very definitely be one of the most cherished ones in the photo album. And, I expect he will show it to his children, as they come along, with a degree of justifiable pride. Certainly his father and I are proud of him. Not every young man is so courageously loyal to Christ that he is willing to undergo ridicule, abuse, and insults because of his Christian convictions."5

Many of us put a lid on our faith and muffle God's Spirit. We want enough faith to help us with our struggles, enough faith to bring us a little joy, but not so much that it changes our path and transforms our life. We hear the story about the first Pentecost and think that is a quaint story about an earlier time and then we go about our lives as usual.

But, what would happen if you opened yourself to God's Spirit and allowed God to blow through your life? Something extraordinary.


  1. William Willimon, "Making Christians in a Secular World," The Christian Century, October 22, 1986.
  2. Cheryl Johns, "Preaching Pentecost to the €˜Nones,'" Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2013, p.5.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Thomas G. Long, "What's the Gift?" day1.org, May 27, 2012.
  5. Stephen R. Montgomery, "One New Book for the Preacher," Journal for Preachers, Lent 2014, p.66-67.

Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us this day. Give us ears to hear your call to us, and give us courage to follow wherever you lead, a willingness to confront the powers and principalities that oppress and degrade, and a vision of the world and the church you call into being.

Let your spirit of hope undergird and support those who encounter doors shut upon their dreams. Let that spirit surround those who are unemployed, those who are in severe economic distress, and those for whom there are not enough hours in the day to meet the demands.

Let your spirit of comfort envelop those who are hurting physically, emotionally, spiritually. Let it uphold those who are mourning the loss of parent or child or brother or sister or spouse or friend.

Let your spirit of wisdom rest upon all those who are commissioners to our denomination's General Assembly this week. Most especially we pray for those who are commissioners from this Presbytery: Jenny Warren, George Hall, Tim Rodden, John Allen, Jamie Welch, Jennine Money. Help them to discern your will as they serve on committees and participate in debates. As the assembly meets and deliberates, give the assembly the courage to take stands that may not be popular if that is your call and if that is the way to justice and life for all of your children. When the assembly concludes its work, may it be said that our actions there faithfully bore witness to your inclusive love, to your intention that all people will know justice, and to your ever-present and sometimes even unsettling grace.

In this season of weddings, we ask your blessings upon all who enter into this sacred covenant. Give all those who seek to marry in this season the spirit of fidelity, the ability to forgive and to accept forgiveness from their spouses, and the gift of compromise when desires and needs come into conflict.

As we ask for your spirit to blow through our lives and through the world, we remember the prayer Jesus taught saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen."