The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
They'd been warned. Many times. But most recently as Jesus was ascending out of their sight. From the clouds above, he warned them: There will be a Spirit. It's coming. Upon them. To over come them. And, yes, to possess them. There will be a Spirit. It's coming.
That kind of warning would be enough to keep me up at night. Just sitting nervously in the upper room. Praying. Wondering when the Spirit will enter. What day? What hour? Holy Ghost. Speaking for myself: I'm not comfortable with the idea of being visited by a Spirit – like some Ebeneezer Scrooge, lying frightened in his bed clothes. I'm even less comfortable with the idea of possession – a Spirit moving me, directing me, living in my body. They make horror movies about stuff like this.
Maybe the issue is control: who is in control. If I invoke the Holy Spirit to make bread and wine be for us the Body and Blood of Christ, like I do, often, I want the Holy Spirit to show up. That feels like it's on our terms; It's not – but it feels like it. I'm saying words with my mouth and directing with my hands; we're praying together – in one accord. After the invocation, I expect that when I bring the chalice to my lips I will, we will, drink in the Blood of Christ. Holy Spirit, on demand.
But what if I had, we had, there was, no control. What if the Holy Spirit – that ghostliest person of the Triune Deity – showed up uninvited and unannounced and just wreaked havoc on the world we have so carefully constructed? What if that happened in an Episcopal Church? Long-time members might wonder why the parish secretary forgot to put it in the bulletin. You'd be looking over at your neighbor: What page are we on?
The group that experienced the first Pentecost was, like us, an orderly group of Church people. They were the disciples, members of Jesus' family, and other followers of Jesus – a total gathering of one-hundred and twenty people, according to the book of Acts. After Jesus' ascension, they gathered together for common prayer. Besides prayer, they also took care of business. Judas' departure from the group left them with eleven disciples. But that wouldn't do: they had always had twelve disciples. And so as good Church people they had the nominating committee offer two names and while they were waiting, between Ascension and Pentecost, they filled Judas' unexpired term.
They were gathered and they were waiting and they were being Church people – prayer and business. Everything was in proper order. Until things got weird.
It started with the sound – a violent sound. Like the sound of a sand storm ripping through a city. The sound of danger. And it was thick. It filled the entire house. On that Sunday morning – while they were praying together, remembering their Lord's resurrection – it happened. It happened during church.
After the wind, there was the fire. It lit them like candles. A flame on every head. The Spirit, that Holy Ghost, that Jesus promised them, showed up. And there was no missing it.
But it was more than just an atmosphere. The wind filled the room. The flames danced on their heads. Had that been the end of it, it would have been much safer – an interesting Sunday morning. But the Ghost got inside – inside of them. And that is the most terrifying thing of all. In the words of Emily Dickinson: “Far safer, of a midnight meeting external ghost, than an interior confronting that whiter host.”
The other scary thought is this: no one gets away. There is no opting out. The Holy Spirit does not politely approach each member of the church to ask permission. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit words coming out of one-hundred and twenty mouths. All possessed by the Spirit – every last one of them.
Not just Peter. Not just the Twelve. Not just Mother Mary. All of them. No one gets away. And no gets left out. Sons and daughters prophesy. Young ones and old ones dream new dreams. Slave and free are soaked by the Spirit. All of the distinctions that mattered in that society, and in our society, no longer matter. Not because the distinctions are not real. Not so that individuality is washed away – Paul's letter to the Corinthians makes that clear. But because the Holy Spirit doesn't care about our social norms. Because the Holy Spirit can and will use each and every one of us.
We are the possessed – the bodies through which the Spirit moves, the gifts the Spirit uses, the hearts the Spirit transforms. The moment you were sealed by the Spirit in baptism, you opened the door, to let the Holy Spirit in. You are possessed. Ready to be used. A mouth through which the Gospel of Jesus is meant to come. And all of the excuses that might come to mind – that you are not ordained, or holy enough, or old enough, or you're too old, or whatever else – might be true. But there is no opting out. The Spirit will use you anyway – despite, or maybe even because of, those things.
It's living in you. N.T. Wright says, “To invoke the Holy Spirit, then, is not simply to hope for a gentle nudge from time to time.... It is to take the risk of having all that wild, untameable energy sweep through us.” That stuff will change world. It will change us – our lives, this city, this parish.
And it is in us – in you and in me. All of us possessed by the same Spirit – the Holy Spirit of our Living Christ. That same Spirit that filled the room, that lit the fire, that caused the Gospel message to burst out of one-hundred and twenty unsuspecting mouths, is in you. It is the breath in your body, the blood in your veins. The Spirit will not be satisfied until it completely takes over, until you look and act and sound just like Jesus. You are the host. And the Spirit has work to do.
It's pretty wild stuff – this Holy Spirit. Consider yourself warned.