Shoved Out of an Airplane

Pentecost Sunday 
June 4, 2017

Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon here:

1When the day of Pentecost had come, [the apostles] were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
 that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
  and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
 and your young men shall see visions,
  and your old men shall dream dreams.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
  in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
   and they shall prophesy.
19And I will show portents in the heaven above
  and signs on the earth below,
   blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20The sun shall be turned to darkness
  and the moon to blood,
   before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ ” – Acts 2:1-21

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” – John 20:19-23

The coming of the Holy Spirit is a lot like skydiving. Now, I speak from limited experience here – one time jumping out of a plane several years was really enough for me. And you may be thinking that the comparison I’m about to make has something to do with the opening of the parachute and the safety and comfort of knowing things are going to be ok. And, well, there’s that aspect, too, I suppose. But the part that makes me think about the Holy Spirit is the part where they push you out of the plane.

I had always wanted to try skydiving, and it seemed like such a grand idea until I was strapped to someone who was strapped to a parachute and the plane took off. Then I was literally shaking with fear, filled with nausea, and clamping my jaw down tight. When they opened the door I watched several others head out first. Then the instructor I was tied to scooted us toward the door. I was sitting on the edge, feet dangling thousands of feet above the earth, and I actually saw the plane quickly fading away into the distance before I realized I had been pushed out. Then before I had time to think about it, the instructor flipped us over and I was hurtling face down into a cold, low-oxygen, wind, gasping for breath.

That’s how the Pentecost story starts in Acts, with a wind, or at least the sound of a rushing wind. Not so much a refreshing breeze that makes you take a nice, deep, stop-and-smell-the-flowers kind of breath, but the kind of wind that leaves you literally gasping for air. Even in John’s version when Jesus breathes the Spirit into the disciples, I wonder that it isn’t so much a soft, minty-fresh breath that wafts through the room so much as it is the kind of forceful breath that someone performing CPR gives, trying to force life back into dying lungs.

As much as we often think of the Holy Spirit as disembodied, she has a way of making herself known in rather physical kinds of ways. For me the communication of the Holy Spirit comes in the form of an excited wave of nausea, not unlike the feeling of those first few seconds of hurtling toward the earth filled simultaneously with the thoughts “This is so incredibly amazing!” and “Oh dear God, I’m going to die.” I’ve felt that Sprit-filled nausea before. I felt it when I decided to go to seminary, when I first starting coming out to family and friends, on seminary first-call assignment day when against all previous plans I suddenly was overcome with the sense that I was being called to go to New England, and more recently when we sat in the social worker’s office to set in motion the process that would lead to our adopting a child and in a matter of a few minutes I had thrown out my months of weighing pros and cons of various routes to adoption and with that overwhelming feeling of excited nausea, knew that the foster-to-adopt route, filled as it can be with uncertainty, was the one we were being called to. It was never that the Spirit pushed me into something I didn’t want to do per se, so much as threw me into something I was too afraid to try, like that skydiving instructor who pushed me out of a plane.

Churches face that same kind of shove of the Spirit, too. There’s more than one story of a congregation with declining membership and dwindling finances who, rather than drifting into non-existence, sold off their building and with it so many things that held memories, and they either launched some new building-less ministry or boldly shared what they had left to grant other new ministries, often ones not anything like their own, often ones they didn’t really understand at first. Sometimes here in this congregation, in the midst of ongoing thriving ministry with one another, I sense the pushing of the Spirit launching us into things that we may not feel ready for, things that may stretch us and ask us to risk what is comfortable and known for the sake of the gospel. And we go, hurtling forward, uncertain, excited, and a little afraid, trusting the one pushing us out of the plane.

And more and more we find ourselves in situations that ask us to stand up and speak up for the sake of others. I can’t help but think about times that I’ve had that same nauseous feeling, knowing that something needed to be said to stand up against all manner of bullying. We didn’t need the news story of the men who were killed in Portland when they stood up against Islamophobic hate speech to tell us that standing up for what is right is risky business. This week more peril for the environment, more terrorism in London too quickly blamed on an entire religion, more calls, more opportunities to stand up and speak up for justice. We all, I suspect, have moments we’ve had that push from Spirit but managed to stifle it even though we knew better as well as moments when the Spirit pushed hard enough that we stood up to say what needed to be said. Sometimes the Spirit sends us hurtling into arguments, or worse. That discomfort the Spirit stirs up in us leaves us never comfortable with the ongoing existence of unjust systems.

This is the state of the church on Pentecost. In either John’s version or the more familiar version from Acts, the disciples of Jesus are waiting, locked away, closed off. They are in prayer, they aren’t doing anything wrong, they aren’t headed down some terrible path. They are, at least for the time being, safe and comfortable, if a little troubled by all they had seen and heard in the previous weeks. And the Spirit comes not to surround them with warmth and comfort but to toss them out into the world.

If this Pentecost is the birth of the church it’s not a neat and tidy affair that starts with denominational structures or even a single, clear leader. It’s much more like a real birth: messy, painful, and resulting in a mostly helpless young being trying to catch its first breath in what must seem like a mighty rush of air all around. It throws the disciples stumbling out of the house into a crowd of people from every nation on earth, who all surely have different opinions about what is going on, some of whom are angry and sneering. The Spirit seems to land on them, too, creating the kind of chaos that the Spirit loves – joyful, noisy, full of diversity of every kind. The Spirit pushes them out to hurtle toward a life of being unsettled, of being challenged, of being uncertain about how they will land.

Yet it’s the same rush of wind that takes your breath away that then fills the parachute, carrying us down for a landing. We, filled with the wild wind of the Spirit at baptism, live in that often terrifying and wonderful freefall, filled with excitement, fear, and a little nausea, engaging all that the Spirit calls us to, to proclaim Christ through word and deed, and striving for justice and peace in all the earth. So we are bold pray, come, Holy Spirit. Come and launch us out of our comfortable places. Launch us into bold new endeavors, Come, blow us beyond our complacency. Come, lift us up and carry us home again.

-Pastor Steven Wilco