Steve Lindsley
Acts 2: 1-20 (Selected Verses)

Methodist minister Dave Faulker tells the story of a pastor visiting a children’s Sunday school class one morning. They’d been learning about the Trinity that month. Tell me what you’ve learned so far, he asks. Who’s the first part of the trinity? All the kids shout out, God! That’s right, the pastor says, that’s right. And who’s the second part of the trinity? With one voice the kids exclaim, Jesus! They’re batting 1000 so far.

So then the pastor asks, And what about the third part? What do we call the third part of the trinity?

The room is quiet for a moment. Until one kid in the back raises his hand and says somewhat reservedly, It’s the Holy Spirit.

Yes, that’s right! says the pastor. The Holy Spirit is right. And tell me – what do you know about the Holy Spirit?

Silence. The children wear blank faces. And after an uncomfortably long pause, one child blurts out, Sorry, pastor, but the kid who understands the Holy Spirit isn’t here today. Sounds about right!

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been preaching on awkward moments in the Bible – instances in scripture that in some way leave us scratching our heads. Two weeks ago we talked about Elijah ascending in a chariot of fire and leaving his mantle behind for Elisha. That was awkward. Last week we dove into an instance when Jesus was not at his usual best. Also awkward.

Certainly the Holy Spirit falls into the awkward category as well. Oh, we can dress up the Holy Spirit with its own Sunday and communion celebration. But when you remove all the window dressing, all the pomp and circumstance, the Holy Spirit is one big mystery to us. We can wrap our heads around God; we get Jesus. But the Holy Spirit is a tough one to explain, and it’s just the kids who struggle with it.

And while it might seem a bit odd to dive into the Holy Spirit on a Sunday that is not Pentecost, perhaps this is as good a time as any to unpack the second chapter of Acts. There the disciples are, along with others, we are told; all waiting for …… for something. They don’t know exactly what it is they’re waiting for. Jesus wasn’t big on specifics.

You know what this sort of feels like? It feels like that guy standing at the airport holding a sign with someone’s name on it. They’re waiting for this someone, not having a clue what they look like. All they have is this sign, which is great for the person who eventually sees their name on it, but not very helpful for the one holding it. And all they can do until it is seen by the right person is wait. Wait for someone. Which is awkward.

That’s more or less what the disciples are doing here – waiting on this “thing” that Jesus had talked about loosely, calling in another gospel “The Advocate.” What in the world does an “Advocate” look like? Who exactly are they all there waiting for?

No doubt that’s what they’re asking themselves. Until a big wind blows in. Until tongues of fire take residence on their heads. Until each of them suddenly gains the ability to speak languages they didn’t previously know, and in some cases had never even heard before.

I mean, how awkward is that?

You know, over the years, I’ve kind of given up on trying to understand the arrival of the Holy Spirit – dissect it and analyze it as if it were some kind of science project. Because I don’t think that’s why the writer of Acts chose to share this story in the first place. I’m reminded of what a wise mentor once told me: that some things in scripture are meant to be experienced rather than understood.

And so when I think about the experience of the Holy Spirit making her debut that day, there are two things in this experience that jump out at me:

The first is the way that everything begins. Scripture tells us: they were all together in one place. Which, if you think about it, is a little redundant, right? All together in one place. Normally that’d be the kind of thing your English teacher would circle in red and take points off your paper for.

But here, it means something. As if there’s more going on than just people occupying the same physical space. All together in one place. This togetherness takes place on a more intimate level; a yearning that drove all these people to this place on this day, for this incredibly awkward, waiting, hopeful moment. Whatever the arrival of the Holy Spirit means, it begins with togetherness.

At least initially. Until what comes next. Until all heaven breaks loose! Suddenly, “divided” tongues of fire, we are told, rest on their heads. We imagine different hues of red and orange, no one like the other. And suddenly,, all kinds of different languages spoken – not incoherent babbling, as the Pentecostals claim, but actual dialects used in the ancient world, dozens of them, languages they did not previously know.

Does it not strike you, the contrast here? This mishmash of seemingly polar opposites, all in the span of two verses? Togetherness – and difference. All in one place – and yet separate. Unity – and diversity. Let it not be lost on us that this is how the Holy Spirit – and, by virtue, the church itself – makes its grand debut.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find this contrast incredibly compelling and, at the same time, a little frustrating. Because some 2000 years later, the church of today is still trying to make sense of itself. The beautiful and often chaotic clash, this odd cosmic pairing and the question it forever perpetuates: how exactly does the church be both alike and different at the same time? How does the church do “unity in diversity?”

It’s not easy, is it? Especially when we in the church confuse unity with uniformity – which we do a lot. The two are not the same. Unity is the common bond we share as the people of God. It’s being “all together in one place.” It’s not about agreeing on everything. It’s not about believing exactly the same thing. It’s about being church to all people in all ways that unite us in the embrace of the Holy Spirit.

Uniformity, though, is when people see everything in like mind. When the end goal is to have everyone be identical, everything be the same. When differences are seen as obstacles to get rid of; when uniqueness is discouraged and, at worst, feared.

You don’t need me to tell you that there’s an awful lot of divisiveness undergirding our society right now. You don’t need me to tell you that the push from our culture at large, from our leaders and politicians, and even sometimes from the church is to uniformity over unity. Everything becomes a lightning rod for something. No place is safe from an act of terror or violence. No issue is free from becoming a source of division and discord.

All of which is captured tow truck guy. I don’t know if you remember tow truck guy. Some time ago, outside Asheville, a twenty-something motorist got stranded on I-26 and called for a tow truck. When tow truck guy arrived, he went to hook the car up to his truck. And that’s when he noticed on the rear bumper a bumper sticker promoting a cultural issue he did not agree with. So he stopped what he was doing, walked to the front of car, and nonchalantly told the motorist that he would not tow her car, told her why, and then just drove off, leaving her stranded on the side of the interstate.

There’s more to the story. When news of this eventually got to the press and they tracked down the guy, this is what he told them: he said, Something came over me, I think the Lord came to me, and he just said, get in the truck and leave. And when I got in my truck, I was so proud of myself for doing that.

Now when these sorts of things happen, and they seem to be happening more frequently, we have to ask ourselves, what is going on? And then we have to ask the really hard question: where does the church fit into all of this? What is our role? When vitriol is razor-sharp, when the lines are drawn in permanent ink, when both figurative and sometimes literal walls are being built, what role does the church play?

And I keep coming back to that Holy Spirit scene – that contrast of togetherness and difference, and the chaos that ensued. And you know what strikes me? That out of that crazy scene came the church. Think about that. It did not come out of the calm and serene; its origins weren’t from the world of “neat and in decent order.” The church was literally born out of chaos.

It reminds me of a beautiful image that our Celtic siblings often use to better understand the Holy Spirit – or, should I say, better experience it. The metaphor is a wild goose. And why a wild goose? Because a wild goose, like the Holy Spirit, is loud and noisy, honking annoyingly. Because it flails about with frenetic flapping wings, and falls all over itself, void of any sense of rhythm or cadence.

And then there’s the story noted author and speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber likes to tell about the time her small church in Denver was going through some paraments handed down to them from a larger congregation. When they came to the red Pentecost set, they were struck by one with an image of a descending dove with completely crazed eyes and claws that looked like sharp talons. One of them exclaimed, it looks like a raptor! Nadia loved the image, but others weren’t as enthused, saying it made the Holy Spirit look dangerous.

Maybe it is! Maybe a flailing wild goose, a taloned raptor is exactly what it needs to be. I talk to people about the church, both in and out of the church, and if we’re able to get to that honest moment when all pretenses are set aside and we go headfirst into the awkwardness, what I often hear from them is that they have no need for a church intent on playing it safe. None. This world, rife with partisanship and divisiveness, seemingly teetering on the edge, has no need for a church content with the way things are. This world, paralyzed and held captive by uniformity, has no need for a church seeking sameness. This world, sick with the fever of fear, has no need for a church void of vision and hope, unwilling to take risks and be bold in what it says and in what it does.

That is why I love those times when the church – our church – looks more like a wild goose or a raptor. A church that welcomes all kinds of people “together in one place,” including people who’ve spent the better part of their lives not being welcomed into spaces like this. A church that leans into a bold vision and a way forward, embracing those tongues of fire that rest on their heads even if it means getting singed a little bit. A church that welcomes its children in worship, in all of worship. A church that dares to dive head-first into the sometimes taboo but much-needed world of mental health. A church whose driving question is not “how do we get by” or “how do we maintain what we have” but in the words of Jan Edmiston, “what makes God’s heart ache in our community, and how can we help it ache a little less?”

All of them were there, together in one place. And then, divided tongues! And then, all those languages! Friends, it takes a wild goose to engage in an awkward world. It takes a taloned raptor to claw through the fear. It takes a wildly unpredictable, and dangerous Holy Spirit to birth something as powerful and as hopeful as the church. And it takes people like you and me to be crazy enough to let the Spirit in and let her do her thing. We don’t need to understand it. We just need to experience it.

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!


* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.