Sunday, June 12, 2011


Experiencing Pentecost

John 20:19-23

We still have a few hours of Easter left. The alleluias still ring. The Paschal Candle still burns. Pentecost is a part of Easter. Indeed, John’s gospel folds the heart of Pentecost—the giving of the Holy Spirit—into the story of the Day of Resurrection itself. Luke and later tradition break them apart, and there is a good deal of value in that. But John and much of the Early Church saw Easter as encompassing all the mighty acts of the Risen Lord, including the coming of the Holy Spirit.

A part of the Resurrection story is that the Jesus empowers his disciples to carry on his work in the world. To take that out of the Easter story is to leave Jesus risen, but high and dry. The whole point of the Jesus story from conception to ascension is that it is as much about us as it is about him. We are united to him. We are infused with his spirit, Holy Spirit. We are alive with him, sharing his Divine Life.

But wait a minute. You have heard all that before, certainly if you have been hanging around St. Stephen’s for very long. What difference is it making? What does it mean in your life and in the life of this community?

I think you have had the experience of Pentecost, and I don’t mean coming to church on Pentecost Day. I believe that, perhaps more than you realize, you have experienced the infusion of power. On some occasion you have been faced with something quite beyond your known capacity. You might have been fearful, overwhelmed at the thought of doing something so strange and daunting. You have had a speech to make, an athletic feat to perform, a role to play, a song to sing, a particularly challenging interview, or possibly the problem of coping with an illness—yours or someone else’s—that totally knocks the props from under you. Somewhere there comes to you an uncanny power, perhaps an unexpected calm, a surge of confidence, or perhaps a kind of “zoning out” that curiously positions you to drive the ball or sway the crowd or do the task you simply would never have imagined you could.

What does it feel like? Does it feel as if something came and settled on you, some power from an external source? Or does it seem that you have been able to reach deep inside yourself and grasp a hidden strength you may never have known you had? I want to suggest that it hardly matters whether the sensation is that help comes from outside or inside. Either is an experience of “Holy Spirit.” And that is to say that both are experiences of God. God is not external to us, nor internal to us. God cannot be nailed down to such categories, but transcends them.

A few years ago Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published his popular study called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It is a fascinating attempt to articulate what happens when we get “in the zone” or “in the groove.” Going with the flow, in that sense, is more than likely what Tiger Woods feels when he hits the sweetest of shots, or what Joshua Bell must feel like when he makes the violin practically weep for his audience. I think a good argument can be made that “flow,” while an optimal experience, is indeed a relatively common one. On the one hand, we cannot be coached into getting into the flow—it is a gift. But we can be taught how to do things, how to perform or play golf or preach or write, so that eventually something extraordinary begins to happen. Skill and temperament, passion and delight align in such a way that an enormous joy abounds. The human being is peculiarly alive and able to do quite astonishing things.

That is a good percentage of what the event of Pentecost is about. It is about stepping outside one’s fears and giving oneself over to the flow of the Spirit. When that happens, power is unleashed and we are able to do astonishing things. That is in fact what Jesus promises in John’s gospel when he repeatedly teaches the disciples that he lives in them and they in him. They will do, he says, the works he does—and in fact greater works than he does—because he goes to the Father. The Father will send the Advocate who will teach them all things, bringing to mind all that he has taught them. Jesus gives his life for us; we give our hearts and minds to Jesus. Jesus comes from Abba and goes to Abba. Abba sends the Spirit to us enabling us to be the community of love that lives out the commandment that Jesus gives us to love one another and so prove to be his disciples. You can see that all of this is about our being connected—to Jesus, to Abba, to the ever-present Spirit, to each other.

But this is not quite all of Pentecost. Jesus comes into the midst of the scared disciples and greets them with Peace. Then he breathes on them, imparting his breath, his pneuma, his Spirit to them. They are overjoyed on seeing him, and they are empowered by him. Being in the flow of the Spirit means authentic peace, incredible joy and amazing power. And that is what I think is a well kept secret. It is about time we blew the lid off and let each other and the world know that this thing of living in community with Christ is not essentially about onerous chores associated with organizational life. It is rather a wild ride of sheer gladness. Sometimes it is being deeply centered in a way we can only speak of as being peaceful. At other times it is hilarity and great fun. At still other times it is incredibly stunning, this life, in its capacity to speak Truth to worldly power, to fight for justice instead of giving up, to insist on equity instead of capitulating to prestige, to resist making pacts with oppression. Being in the flow of the Spirit is not just about an optimal experience for the sake of the experience (though there is nothing wrong with that!). It is being centered, charged, and empowered to do the right thing. It is about being in the forces aligned with the Truth of the Universe, which is nothing less than God.

Yes, there is scut work to do. No, it is not all attractive. Yes, if we don’t watch it we can get burned out and become relatively useless. No, we don’t have a guarantee that we won’t become self-righteous and have to be taken down a peg or two. Yes, there are days when we tire of stomping grapes in the vineyard of the Lord. But every time one of you speaks up for justice, the Spirit of the Lord has found a voice. Each time you opt for kindness instead of arrogance in public spaces, the Spirit of Jesus walks again on the earth. Every occasion when St. Stephen’s opens its doors to the homeless and musicians and artists and truth-seekers and the hungry and the jobless literally welcoming the world to come find a home in this place, the Spirit has inched closer to changing the face of the world into the face of Christ. Every time we proclaim the gospel in words that may be strange to some but which communicate with a new population, including those who have not yet met Jesus, a new outbreak of Pentecost occurs. When we look for ways to put it all together, so that Peace and Joy and Power all find a nesting place here, then Wind of the Spirit blows through anew, shaking the foundations, drawing us tighter into its mighty flow, sweeping us forward to the future of the One who still stands among his disciples, nail-scarred but dazzling, saying, “Peace.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

1 comment:

triciadm said...

Found the blog. Love it. Thank you! When I was listening to you today, I was thinking not only about the "Flow" I have experienced that is like what you discussed (when I was a serious dancer, or when writing poetry, or when training for a marathon) but also the "Flow" of motherhood, especially of being a working mother of three kids...something that absolutely requires some reliance on the Holy Spirit. Thank you again for a wonderful and timely sermon!