June 8, 2014
"We thank you, O God, for the gift of your fabulous Spirit."
A former moderator in John Knox Presbytery spoke those words during a prayer at a presbytery meeting many years ago. This was early on in our time in Iowa, and I was very new to the presbytery, so I never got to know this particular moderator. But I will never forget the fact that he referred to the Holy Spirit as fabulous. Whatever else may have happened at the meeting that day is lost to me, but I have hung onto that description of the Spirit ever since, thinking all this time, "maybe I'll use that in a sermon someday." It looks as though some day has arrived.
Fabulous is a word I use on a regular basis. For me it's my own personal aloha. You can use it to say "hello." "Oh it's so fabulous to see you!" You can use it to say "goodbye." "You'll call me? Fabulous." It is an all-encompassing adjective of admiration. "You look fabulous. You sound fabulous. Your hair, clothes, mind, fill-in-the-blank, is fabulous."
I find the word fabulous to be fabulous. But while I use it consistently, I've never explored the etymology of the word. So what does a word nerd do? She goes to the dictionary.
While fabulous is a synonym for marvelous and incredible, it is linked, language wise, to fabled. Something that is fabulous is fabled. It is legendary. Something that is fabulous is so extraordinary that it is found only in the stuff of myth or it is almost impossible to believe.
Let me be clear, by using the word fabulous to describe the Holy Spirit, I am not trying to say that the Spirit is not real. I am not implying that it is mythical or legend. But it is extraordinary. The Spirit brings about extraordinary events. The Spirit effects extraordinary change. But let’s be honest, if we were to hear the story of Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit, in any other context than scripture, without any reference to the holy or sacred or God, what would we think? We might be rather incredulous, because the story of Pentecost, as is the story of the Resurrection, is an extraordinary sounding story. Some sort of wild wind blows through a group of people gathered in prayer. This wind fills the house where these people are sitting, and if the wind weren't strange enough, divided tongues of flame appear above these peoples’ heads. But the strangeness doesn't end there. The next thing the people witnessing all of this see is each of these men speaking in the languages of every person represented in that large diverse crowd. If someone was from Medes, that person heard the Spirit in his or her own language. If someone was from Athens or Mesopotamia or Carthage or Cappadocia, each person heard and understood the words of the disciples in their own language. If fabulous stems from fabled, then this was a fabulous Spirit indeed.
But if the story of Pentecost was only a fable or a legend or a fairy tale, then we might walk away from it thinking, "That was cool. Hope they make a movie version." But we do believe it happened. We do believe it's true and real and genuine. Why? Because the story of Pentecost is not limited to this one event or this one day. The story of Pentecost goes on throughout the book of Acts. The disciples are transformed into apostles. They find courage and strength they had never exhibited before. The Peter who stands in our story and speaks to the crowds is not the Peter who tried to walk on water but was distracted and afraid by the waves and wind. The Peter who preaches this powerful, persuasive sermon that opens the hearts and minds of so many, is not the Peter who grasped Jesus' true nature one minute, yet misunderstood Jesus' purpose the next. This is a transformed Peter. All of the disciples are transformed. Their transformations take hold in the others folks they encounter so they are transformed as well. And the gospel spreads like wildfire. Those burning rings of fire above the heads of the gathered disciples, that wild wind that filled the upper room, were signs that the Holy Spirit, the wondrous, marvelous, astonishing, fabulous Spirit, was in their midst and in the world. Nothing would ever be the same.
But here's the rub. I think we tend to live our lives as though everything is the same. This is true for Pentecost. This is true for the Resurrection. We tend to live our lives as though everything is the same. I know I've asked questions like this before, but what would it mean for us to live each day as though the Spirit, the fabulous Spirit, is moving through the world? What would it mean for us to live each day confident that not only is the Spirit moving in the world and through the world, but that it is also moving in and through us?
Jesus breathed the Spirit into the disciples, and so it is breathed in us. The Spirit descended like wind and flame into the disciples' midst, and so it descends into ours. While we speak of the gift of the Holy Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit, we also speak of the Spirit's leading. One of the points that a commentator made about this passage is that the Spirit is always ahead of the Church. The Spirit is always leading us, although I think that we organize our churches and our lives as though the reverse were true. But the Holy Spirit leads us. And as Peter quoted the prophet Joel, with the power of the Spirit, old and young, male and female, regardless of class or birth, all will prophesy and receive visions and dream dreams.
It seems to me that if the Spirit is moving in and among and through us, and if the Spirit is leading the Church, then we are being led to dream. So what are our dreams?
A church that recognizes that the Spirit is leading also recognizes that there is no dream too big, no vision too fantastic. What are our dreams?
Are they dreams of a church that is revitalized and re-energized? Why not? Why shouldn't we be revitalized and re-energized?
Do we dream that our church will once again grow? Why not? Why shouldn't our church grow?
Do we dream that our neighbors and our neighborhood will see our church as a place to come for hope and renewal and life? Then let's dream that.
If we are to be Easter people and Pentecost people, then I think we are to see ourselves as Spirit led. I know that term makes some of us uncomfortable, because it brings to mind the image of people speaking in random, indecipherable tongues and being slain in some kind of spirit. Being Spirit led may look like that, but I also think that a Spirit led church is one where dreamers and their dreams are welcomed and encouraged. A Spirit led church is one that trusts that wherever the Spirit may be leading them, and whatever the Spirit may be leading them to do, they will be given the courage and the ability to follow. A Spirit led church believes that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. A Spirit led church knows that the changes effected by the Spirit are all part of the new thing that God is doing. A Spirit led church not only hopes for a more peaceful, just world, but acts to make that world a reality. A Spirit led church is one that knows that the incarnate love of God in Christ Jesus is the underpinning and the foundation of everything we do, everything we say, everything we are.
On this day of Pentecost, let us recommit ourselves to being a Spirit led church. Let us trust and hope and be led by the powerful, personal, wondrous, fabulous Spirit. Let all God's children say, "Alleluia! Amen."