The Preaching of the Word

 First Presbyterian Church

116 South Loudoun Street, Winchester, Virginia 22601
Charles Marshall Webster, Transitional Pastor

The Day Of Pentecost
May 15, 2016

“Strong Winds and Gentles Breezes”


First Reading:  Acts 2:1-21
Epistle Reading: Romans 8:22-27
Gospel Reading:  John 20: 19-23

We hardly know what to do with Pentecost. It barely seems Presbyterian! It is so emotional and out of control. Luke tells us of the violent wind blowing, the tongues of fire, the languages spoken, the people “bewildered,” “amazed,” “astonished,” and “perplexed.” Some “sneered” and accused the disciples of being drunk, except it was “only nine o’clock in the morning.” It calls for the suspension of the rational, and requires us to be attentive to the mysterious within us and beyond us, especially beyond us, as the focus of Pentecost moves us away from the life of Jesus to the work of the Spirit in the community of believers.

It is the most threatening of Christian festivals for socially conservative types, because if you stand too close to it, it musses up your hair. It seems disruptive and out of place. Peter said it was the fulfillment of the expectation of the prophet Joel. And for some that was scary because Joel was speaking of the end of time. For Peter it was hopeful because it meant God was doing a new and mighty thing: bringing hope that would cut across ages, sexes, even social classes as the good news of Jesus was proclaimed. 

The point of Pentecost is that God is doing something new, all the time. And God comes and overturns the plans we have laid and upsets the routines that we have so carefully preserved, demanding that we rethink what we have taken for granted. Like the coming of a thunderstorm that moves in so quickly after we have set the picnic table with the checkered cloth and the paper plates. God blows it all away with a mighty gust of wind and a streak of fire cutting the sky. Suddenly we have to pack and run for cover.

So goes the most familiar version of Pentecost found in the book of Acts that we sang in our opening hymn today. The disciples were gathered in one place, when suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a mighty wind filling the house. Divided tongues as of fire appeared and danced above their heads, and they spoke in foreign languages, as people from all over the Mediterranean, past and present, heard and understood what the disciples were saying. It was the miracle of speaking and of understanding what was said.

But there is also another reading of the work of the Spirit that is different from this boisterous, and heated display of pyrotechnics, which is an important story to hear, another story of the way God’s Spirit comes to us. This is a quieter, gentler work of the Spirit described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. “The Spirit,” Paul says, “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Here is a way in which God’s Spirit moves among us, like a sigh, like a gentle breeze. Prompting us, inspiring us. Our better angel I suppose, helping us to be, by the Spirit, better than we had imagined we could be, greater than we have yet seen that we are.

And we know both sides of this Spirit of God moving among us, its rough and cleansing wind, and its gentle breeze and sighing breath. It is a matter of waiting and watching. For the Spirit, like the wind, blows where it wills, and we hear the sound of it, but we do not know from where it comes or where it goes.

Sometimes the Spirit that we need is not so much the disruptive, strong and cleansing wind of change, but the calming breeze of the Spirit that comes in the evening to cool the day and settle the soul. The same Spirit that at times is disruptive in our lives confronting us, calling us to change – that same Spirit can sometimes come to us with healing in its wings and peace in its embrace. God seems to know what we need and when we need it. Sometimes we need a swift kick in the pants. Sometimes we need flowers instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning.

I think about the way in which sometimes the gentle breeze of friendship comes into my life, maybe even into my study, when I least expect. Someone who opens up to me, and I to that other person, with all the vulnerability that it takes to risk being who you are, and to encounter who that other person is. It is such a surprise sometimes the way in which our lives become the means by which God’s presence is mediated, with all its healing balm, and its encouraging peace.

I think about the way in which our children teach us by the Spirit’s prompting. The simple things that we who are older pass by become the fascination of their eyes’ delight: the twig on the sidewalk, the leaf in the grass, the caterpillar on the window screen, and the moon’s half phase. They stop and look and wonder, and ask the questions that we have long ago stopped asking, and in so marveling show us the way to recovering a sense of the beauty and wonder of the world, a world less cluttered by all the stresses and worries that heavily weigh on us. There is something of the Spirit in that view, when you stop standing so tall that you overlook what is about you, but stand instead, only high enough to see.

I wonder if it is not the Spirit of God who is present most assuredly when in the evening, and the dishes are done and the still of the night closes in. And you are rocking in the chair with your child or grandchild cradled in your arms sleeping. The gentle breeze of the night passes, and the branches and leaves of the trees move with an unseen presence. Is there anyone here who will say that it cannot be the Spirit of God herself who is there in such a treasured moment interceding for us with sighs too deep for words?

And then there is this table where the Spirit draws us together. I think about those who gather around this table. The varied experiences of our lives and how some of us limp to this place and others of us are blown by the strong winds that are pushing us where we do not want to go. I think about those who are struggling with the pain that life is laying on them – physical and emotional and spiritual pain that is like a crucible, grinding and refining, and bringing them here for some peace, for strength to go on. I think about some of our youth, looking to the future with limitless possibilities. And I think about the retired individuals and couples who are thoughtful about the number of years that lie ahead of them. They are, we are all gathered here by the Spirit of God, to receive what our hearts most need and our lives most crave: the grace of God, which is what this table is all about. Bread for the journey and wine for our travels. The gifts of God for the people of God.

In today’s gospel reading from John the disciples are gathered in a room locked away for fear of the officers of the Temple, not to mention the Romans. Jesus has been crucified and Mary has told them a report that they can barely believe, that she has been to the tomb and that the Lord is risen. Suddenly, Jesus appears to them, though the doors of the room are locked. He says to them, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and his feet, the wounds he has suffered for them. And they rejoice because they know it is Jesus who greets them. At then the risen Jesus breathes on the disciples, and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This he does as he sends them into the world, having given them what they most need.

Sometimes God comes to us with winds so strong that it would knock your socks off. And other times God comes to us like the very breath we breathe, gently, easily, quietly, like a sigh. Both are the signs of the Spirit of the Living God. Jesus invites us to this table today with the same invitation and even the same blessing that he gave his disciples so long ago when he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” God’s Spirit comes to us at baptism and then at the table that is set for all who are baptized and all who hear Christ’s invitation. Come in faith and receive the Holy Spirit! Come to the table of grace!