Easter 6, Year B
It was my first Christmas as a priest and I was pretty stressed out. It was a liturgically complicated calendar year because Christmas Eve was on a Sunday. That meant that we had our regular Sunday morning service (which was the 4th Sunday of Advent), then our Christmas Eve services. Since I was the assistant I was assigned to preach that Sunday morning and then on Christmas Day, which would be the next morning. I woke up Sunday morning to find that I could not move my neck as my muscles were in spasm. I knew there was no way that I could preach. I picked up the phone to call the rector and it rang. It was my rector’s wife telling me that he had food poisoning and could not come in and might not be able to make it for Christmas Eve services. I had to be there. Not being one to suffer in silence, I announced pretty early on in the service that I was in significant pain and could make no promises about the service. Afterwards someone commented that I should be prepared to preach that evening. I said, well I guess people will get to hear my Christmas Day sermon. This helpful person responded that I could just wing it, let the Holy Spirit lead me. I told him that he was crazy and that the Holy Spirit did not work like that. Of course to be honest, I am not sure how the Holy Spirit works, but there was no way I was preaching an extemporaneous sermon Christmas Eve.
The Holy Spirit is one of the great mysteries of our faith. For such a mystery, we seem to talk about it a lot. We talk about the Holy Spirit almost like a directional force. I see this especially evident in the larger church. At councils and conventions we are asked to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. When we tackle a difficult issue we are asked to try to discern how the Spirit might be moving us.
The symbols that are most commonly associated with the Holy Spirit are fire, wind, a dove and breath. I prefer the image of fire because it evokes more of the senses. You can see it, feel it, smell it and sometimes even hear it. Wind seems a little more intangible. You can see the evidence of the wind, but you cannot see the wind itself. You can feel the wind, but only when it is strong.
Despite my preference for the symbol of fire, wind is probably the better analogy, at least for us today. In Biblical times, it seemed as the Holy Spirit moved in more obvious ways. On Pentecost (which is only 2 weeks away), it came in fire….real fire that bounced off people’s heads. In our reading from Acts today, the Holy Spirit interrupted Peter. It was so obvious that he stopped talking and the crowd started speaking in tongues. Tongues was the language of the Holy Spirit. It was a way that the Holy Spirit could be heard.
Yet when was the last time you heard anyone stop midsentence and say, “Did you hear that? I think the Holy Spirit is speaking.” Or when was the last time you saw a whole room respond to the movement of the Spirit and start speaking in a foreign language? There are probably some churches where you will see and hear this, but it is very doubtful that you will find that in the Episcopal Church. We have liturgies, books with written prayers that can only be changed a couple times a century, prescribed readings and written sermons. Generally the only time you hear an extemporaneous sermon is because the preacher didn’t have time to prepare.
At General Convention, which is the democratic governing body of the Episcopal Church, we talk about the Holy Spirit moving in the democratic process of voting and legislating. While I can see that perspective (especially since this year will be my third time being part of that legislative process), I wonder how the Holy Spirit can possibly move through church canon law and Roberts Rules of Order. At General Convention if you want to speak, you have to wait for the appointed time, then go to the correct podium, wait your turn and if you ever get to the podium you have three minutes to speak.
I am not saying we are doing things the wrong way in the Episcopal Church. Clearly I am not advocating chaos. If we were to let everyone talk as long as they wanted, nothing would ever get done. Most of you are part of the Episcopal Church because you appreciate the familiarity that comes with things that we do every Sunday. But perhaps, because we are Episcopalians, we need to try extra hard to provide space for the movement of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, we have to be prepared to be surprised. (Because as Episcopalians, we can’t just be surprised, we have to prepare to be surprised.)
Today’s reading from Acts brings us in right in the middle of one of Peter’s sermons. Peter liked to preach and I doubt that he liked to be interrupted…even when it was the Holy Spirit who was doing the interrupting. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit was moving against conventional wisdom, tradition and to some extent scripture. In the early days of the church, you had to be Jewish in order to become a follower of Jesus Christ. It was the first step in that conversion experience. That meant that you had to be circumcised, which was a lot to ask of adult men in a time when there was no anesthesia. As you can imagine, some people balked at the idea of having to go through that procedure to become Christian. But that was the way it had always had been. If you think we have long standing traditions as Episcopalians, that is nothing compared to the traditions of the Jewish people. The disciples of Jesus were all Jewish. They had all been taught that the Jews were the chosen people of God. Therefore, to follow Jesus, you first had to be among the chosen.
However, this Holy Spirit was a renegade. This Holy Spirit refused to abide by the traditions and the rules. The Holy Spirit descended on whomever it chose, circumcised or not. That’s exactly what happened in this story in Acts. Right in the middle of Peter’s magnificent sermon which started with, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” He was already moving in that direction. He was telling the crowd that non-Jews were chosen as well. The Holy Spirit was impatient. The Holy Spirt wanted to be with these people now, before the legislation passed and everyone was in agreement. And so that was what the Holy Spirit did. The Holy Spirit interrupted in a big way.
Now Peter could have said, “Hold on now. Before we baptize, you all still need to memorize the creed that has not yet been written, learn all the Jewish rules and in a couple of years we will baptize you. But he didn’t, because he had also been moved by the Spirit. His heart had been opened. He responded by asking, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So this brand new community of believers affirmed what the Spirit had already done. That means that they could not take credit for it. Whatever magnificent thing had happened that day, was not because of a sermon or well-crafted liturgy. It was because God wanted it to happen.
I am not a spontaneous person. My reoccurring nightmare is that I get up to the pulpit and have no sermon. In fact, the first thing I do when I get to my seat during the procession is glance at the pulpit and make sure that my sermon is still there. So I would not be cool with wind because that would scatter those pages and probably my thoughts. I truly believe the Holy Spirit moves me when I am writing my text…but it would probably be good for me to be interrupted every now and again. I believe that all Episcopalian, and all Christians for that matter, should pray for a holy interruption, an interruption that forces us to look at our traditions and our opinions. We can’t prepare for a surprise or an interruption, but we can prepare our hearts so that they will be open when it happens. We will be tempted to talk through the interruption, but we can’t. If Peter had kept talking, the Gospel message might not have spread as it did. Let’s stop talking over the Holy Spirit. Instead, let’s pray for a holy interruption.