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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

2007-05-27 Jn 14 08-17, 25-27 "Getting to Know: The Holy Spirit"
May 27, 2007 - Pentecost
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church USA
James McTyre

The sermons for May are themed around, "Getting to Know." This week, because it's Pentecost, we're talking about getting to know the Holy Spirit.

First of all, "Pentecost," is one of those words the church throws around as if everyone just automatically understands.

If you're from East Tennessee, or West Virginia (like I am), or anywhere else in Appalachia, you've probably heard about Pentcostal Churches all your life. You may have even belonged to one, or worshiped in one. At the Pentecostal church, you may have been overtaken by the gifts of the Holy Spirit and shouted, whooped, hiccuped, danced or rolled down the aisle. But probably not, which is why you're here - and not there. Pentacostals are particularly able to tune in to the Holy Spirit's frequency, which people then see in these ecstatic spiritual experiences. When we Presbyterians, on the other hand, are overtaken with ecstatic spiritual experiences it looks like this. Want to see it again? We Presbyterians celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit, for sure. But our celebrations are, shall we say, more muted. But we who do things so decently and in order need the Pentecostals. God needs the Pentecostals to remind us - to remind all the world - that God doesn't necessarily do things with our decently and our order.

Pentecost literally means, "The fiftieth day." In the Christian church, Pentecost is a holiday to remember that 50 days after Easter - and you can count them on the calendar when you go home - 50 days after Easter, God gave the church the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In Acts, chapter 2, Luke tells how the first Christian Pentecost happened. If you have your Bibles with you, or there's one near, grab it and read with me. Acts, chapter 2, starts like this:

When the day of Pentecost came (50 days after Easter), they (the disciples) were all together in one place. (Does that mean physical place, or were they all of the same mind, all on the same page, all of the same spirit? The Bible doesn't clarify, it just says they were all "in one place.") Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues (or languages) as the Spirit enabled them.

Traditionally, the church has recognized Pentecost as the day when Jesus' promise to his disciples back in John 14 came to pass. John chapter 14, which we read earlier, recounts Jesus - right before his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion - recounts Jesus telling his disciples:

But the Counselor (or the Helper, or the Comforter, or Friend, or the Advocate - otherwise known as) the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

Pentecost, then, is the day the Holy Spirit is given to the church, and it's widely recognized as the birthday of the church. So, happy birthday, everybody. After church let's all go to one of those Mexican restaurants where they put the sombrero on you and sing. That's sort of Pentecostal.

(The most frightened I've ever been in a restaurant was a couple of years ago on my birthday, when Kristen took me out for Mexican food and just before dessert I could hear the entire staff coming around the corner, singing "Happy Birthday" to La Cucaracha. Completely by chance, they were going to the booth just past us. Kristen said the look on my face was priceless.)

Anyway, Pentecost - 50 days after Easter - is when the church celebrates its feliz cumpleanos. Pentecost is one of those churchy words, a churchy holiday that - at least we Presbyterians - sort of celebrate, but we're not quite certain if this gift really fits, or if it's really the right color for us. That's because, unlike our Pentacostal brethren and "sistren" we don't really know what to do with the gift of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit.

Can you really get to know something that only exists on a spiritual plane? Going back to the theme of the sermon, can you "get to know" the Holy Spirit in the first place? Or is the Spirit something that's just beyond us?

The Holy Spirit, in its churchy definition, is the third person of the Trinity. But often the church treats the Spirit like a fifth wheel. At least the Presbyterian Church does. We've got plenty of space for, and plenty of talk about the Father and the Son, but we're not even sure what to CALL the Spirit. Sometimes it's the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it's the Holy Ghost. Even in the Bible, when they translate what Jesus calls the Spirit, they can't decide if Jesus meant
Counselor, Helper, Comforter, Friend, or Advocate. There are almost as many renderings of that one word as there are translations. What IS the Holy Spirit?

To use an analogy, if God is the mind of Christ, and the church is the body of Christ, then the Holy Spirit is like the breath of Christ. The Spirit is like the breath that fills the lifeblood that courses through the veins of Christ's earthly body. In other words, the Spirit is the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. In still other words, the Spirit is the gifts of faith we share with each other. The Spirit makes us one. The Spirit inspires (which, you English teachers would tell me is a circular reference). The Spirit is what turns us from just another bunch of caring people into a church, into THE church, the arms and legs of Jesus Christ for the world.

But see where all those definitions go? They're all analogies. Breath, ties, body, gifts - the Holy Spirit is blastedly hard to pin down - with words or with anything else. We might say what the Holy Spirit is like, but it's hard to say precisely what it is. And that - I think - is a very good thing.

People who have their faith completely figured out scare me. Maybe deep down I'm jealous, because they do and I don't. We can pretty much get a picture - a blurry picture maybe, but still a mental picture - of God and of Jesus. We can pretty much identify what we think they said or didn't say in the Bible. But this Holy Spirit. This co-equal Third Person of the Trinity. This Holy Spirit is a mystery. And good for us that it is. Because however neatly we pin down God the Father and God the Son, there's always going to be this pesky Third Person, this other part of God that's always going to vex us. The Holy Spirit, however we define it, will always be there to remind us that no matter how confident we are about our faith, there's no possible way we'll ever completely figure God out. God's always going to be at least one-third mystery, that one-third out of reach, that one-third beyond our words, our minds, our understanding. And, depending on how you do the Trinitarian mathematics, one-third is a conservative estimate.

When you take Communion today, you're participating in a mystery. You're participating in a mystery. Note that I didn't say you're solving a mystery. This isn't that kind of mystery. This is the kind of mystery that just is - and always will be. In the sacrament, in some mysterious way, the Spirit of Christ becomes real for us. Real in a way that transcends words. Real in a way you can only experience. Pause on that because that's really important: Your experiences can be holy. The things that happen to you, the events you take part in, can be not just good, but godly, holy. You can experience God today, starting with Communion. We set the table, we invite you to share -- and it just works. We don't know how. We just know it does. It's a mystery.

There's a saying: "The more you know, the more you know you don't know." The more you learn about any subject, the more you find out there's almost infinitely more knowledge to be gained. Whether your subject is stamp collecting, or making a car run really well, or cooking, or brain surgery. The more you know, the more you know you don't know. And that's when things get exciting. The mystery of what you don't know pulls you in, and keeps you investigating, learning, experimenting.

The mysterious Holy Spirit isn't there to put us off, isn't there as some invisible force field around God, to keep you away, to make you give up because you'll never understand God. The mysterious Holy Spirit is there to grab our imaginations, to pull us in to totally unique experiences of God. The Holy Spirit is there to make us say, "Wow. Look how much I DON'T know. Imagine how what I don't know is affecting me." The Holy Spirit is there to help us. It's our helper when we start to understand how little we understand. It says so in the Bible.

When you're confronted with a mystery, what do you do? Some people hate mysteries. Remember the school cafeteria? Remember at the end of the term what they'd slap on the trays? That brown, gravy-covered slab that broke knives and bent forks. Remember what you called it? Mystery Meat. Probably a cattle product, but you could never be too sure. It's a universal reaction: you put an unidentifiable food in front of a kid (or a person of any age for that matter), and what's their response? "Ew. What's THAT?
I'm not gonna eat that stuff. Let's get Mikey." Of course, adults say it more refined ways. Nobody ever says, "Oh boy, black goo from outer space. Let's eat it!" Whether the mystery is food, or the TV cable box, or the neighbors - if we can't identify it quickly, we push it away.

I would hate to think that we do the same thing to the Holy Spirit. I'd hate to think that the mystery of God turns us off from God. People start speaking in tongues and we think, "That's weird." Or someone starts giving away his money and possessions, or spending her time supporting some hopeless cause. We think, "Did they miss their medication?" Maybe. Or maybe the Holy Spirit's got hold of them. Maybe the mystery of God's pulling them some new, strange direction.

Back once more to the theme of today's message. Maybe we can't really get to know the Holy Spirit. Maybe we can only experience it. If someone wants to help you, to be your comforter, counselor, or advocate, do you really have to know them in order to accept and benefit from their help? Or can you just say, "Thank you," without ever understanding why they cared about you? Maybe the point isn't to get to know the Holy Spirit. Maybe it's just to accept the Holy Spirit. Accept it and see where the mystery of God takes you.