Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
I hope you were able to hear our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding yesterday. It was truly an amazing moment to witness: one article in the New York Times online yesterday began with, “Keep your fascinators, tiaras, regalia and romance. What if the surprise biggest star — the Pippa Middleton, if you will — of this royal wedding was a sermon about love?”[i] Another article said, “It was as if Bishop Curry had opened the windows and let a breath of air into a room that had felt a little stifling. People in Britain do not usually speak of love in the way he did in church.”[ii]
In fact, love was the theme of his sermon. “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love,” Bishop Curry said, quoting Dr. King. “And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.”[iii]
I was most struck by the end of the sermon, when he talked about fire—very appropriate for the eve of Pentecost. He reminded us that the French Jesuit priest Pierre de Chardain said that the harnessing of fire was without a doubt the greatest scientific and technological discovery in all of human history. Almost every great invention of humanity owes its existence to fire. Then de Chardin went on to say that if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it will be the second time we have discovered fire.[iv]
Well, it was a glorious day in England yesterday—and we Americans, and especially we Episcopalians, can be very proud of our part in the day.
I imagine it is no surprise to you that I am a major Anglophile – I do love all things British. And that certainly includes British television. I devour the shows on PBS on Sunday nights, most of which originate with the BBC.
In particular I love “Call the Midwife.” This British series, on television since 2012, chronicles an order of Anglican nuns who are a nursing order—as the name states, they are midwives, serving mostly the poor people in the East End of London beginning in the late 1950s. The show tackles not only medical storylines from that time over 50 years ago now, but also explores many other social, cultural, and economic issues.
Part of what draws me to the show is that the stories are told mostly from the perspective of the nuns, women who have dedicated their lives to serving those in need in the name of Christ. Thanks to this point of view, we often explore the moral and religious implications to these life events. We see the presence of the church in the story, and not only that—the show unapologetically points to the ways that God is at work in the lives of these neighbors. We can feel the presence of God in all of the very best moments of these characters’ lives, and also in all their worst moments.
Of course, we also learn a lot about birth, at least as it occurred in England in the middle of the last century. Naturally, the show is populated with many pregnant women, and with all the possible ways that babies can be born. We witness a lot of birthing, and a lot of labor!
So as I read today’s passage from Romans, I couldn’t help but think about all those scenes of labor and birth. Look back at it for a moment. It begins, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves…” What a vivid image Paul paints! Even if, like me, you have never been present to a woman in labor, or haven’t been in labor yourself, you get the image. Paul beautifully calls to our minds that extraordinary moment when something is about to happen, but has not yet occurred.
This is like what is often termed a pregnant pause—a moment of anticipation and tension, as we wait for something important to take place Another theologian, Jeremy Begbie, has illustrated that moment in musical terms, reminding us that, at least in tonal music in the Western world, we employ a pattern he calls, “Home—Away—Home.” “Songs begin somewhere, take us on a journey through a variety of ensuing notes and melodies, and then finally bring us back to where we started.”[v] As we take this musical journey, wandering farther and farther from the beginning, our longing grows to return home.
In Christian theology this place of tension and longing is often referred to as the already/not yet. We know and understand the grace of God and the promise of the resurrection, and we believe in the gift of eternal life assured to us by Christ, but we are not there yet. The promise is not yet fulfilled for us—at least not the capital P promise of being one with God in an endless sea of love. It feels like we are in a holding pattern in this life.
And this tension of already/not yet is a major focus of Holy Scriptures. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament we find examples of God’s faithful people in a sort of limbo on earth, trying to understand what is coming, and how to cope with the woes of the world in the meantime.
Today’s readings speak to how we make it through. God is manifest as the Holy Spirit to be our companion through all of life. This Day of Pentecost is, of course, the day we have specifically set aside in our church calendar to remember and celebrate the Holy Spirit. While in the past I have usually chosen on this day to focus on the story of the story of the coming of the Spirit in the second chapter of Acts, today I am especially intrigued by this reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans, and how Paul presents and explain the Holy Spirit.
No doubt you are familiar with Christian images of the Holy Spirit—the many ways the Spirit is embodied in the gospels and the Book of Acts: as a great wind; as tongues of fires; as a descending dove; as the third person of the Holy Trinity. We hear how the Holy Spirit plays the role of comforter, counselor, teacher, giver of wisdom, and reminder of grace, just to name a few. But notice especially how today’s readings identify the Spirit: as a helper in weakness; as an intercessor; as an Advocate; as a correction to the wrong ideas of the world about the realm of God; as truth, guiding us into truth; as glorifier of God.
It almost seems like the Holy Spirit is a catchall – a way to be sure that God has all the bases covered. But I don’t think that’s exactly it. Rather, the Holy Spirit is the very presence of God in our everyday lives—truly, the Spirit of God for humanity. As that presence of God, the Spirit is to us all that God is. The Spirit is God presence for us here on earth in these days—until Christ “comes again in glory” as we say each week in the Nicene Creed.
As a preacher and as a pastor, I find particular comfort in knowing that the Holy Spirit is present in all these ways—and especially at those moments when we need God most. Look again at the reading from Romans: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” we read, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Incidentally, these sighs echo the groaning of the creation and us at the beginning of the passage—a more literal translation of the word translated sighing is “unspeakable groanings” – that is, “that very spirit intercedes with unspeakable groanings too deep for words.”)
This may be in my list of all-time favorite scriptures. I find this assurance that the Spirit will intervene when we need it most so evocative, and so comforting. The promise of the aid of the Holy Spirit in our weakest moments is everything to me.
In fact, we are assured that God the Holy Spirit will be present with us even when we don’t have the words to pray; even when all we can do is groan and sigh. The Spirit sighs with us, reminding us of God’s presence with us through all of life’s ups and downs. The Spirit is with us always—and perhaps we feel the Spirit most keenly in those moments when we most need to lean into this support from God.
This image of the Holy Spirit as our help and stay reminds me of a story I have told you before. Peter Storey, the Methodist Bishop of South Africa during the time of apartheid, calls this this the “great nevertheless of God.” “Even while surrounded by the strong armed agents of oppression, Storey knew that the Holy Spirit was active in his nation. The government had all the power; nevertheless, God was with the poor in South Africa.
The South African regime did not hesitate to use force in order to stop rebellion; nevertheless, Storey, along with Desmond Tutu and others, led the black South Africans in a peaceful revolution.
The odds were heavily against that peaceful revolution; nevertheless, with God on their side, they were victorious.
In the end, there was a strong temptation to retaliate; nevertheless, God gave them a means of forgiving enemies and forming a reconciled nation. No matter what the odds, if God is in something, no obstacle can block the great nevertheless of God.”[vi]
The great blessing of the Holy Spirit is that through her actions we are able to experience God is with us now, in a very real way—in our very best moments, when we laugh and smile and are filled with joy, and in our very worst moments, when we can only groan and sigh. The Hope of God comes to us through the working of the Holy Spirit—who, by the way, is often made incarnate through you and me.
Thanks be to God for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thanks for the fire of love, revealed on that amazing day of Pentecost long ago in Jerusalem. May we open our hearts to the Spirit, so that we can be part of the discovery of the energy of love to heal our world. May we be open to seeing the Spirit at work in our lives, and may we be open to her love and to her intercession on our behalf at all times, but especially at those moments when all we can do is sigh. Amen.
[i] “Bishop Michael Curry’s Full Sermon from the Royal Wedding,” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/19/style/bishop-michael-curry-royal-wedding.html, accessed 05/19/2018.
[ii] “Meghan Markle Introduces the British Monarchy to the African American Experience,” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/19/world/europe/uk-royal-black-priest-choir.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news, accessed 05/19/2018.
[iv] “Bishop Michael Curry’s Full Sermon…” op cit.
[v] Hoezee, Scott. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/pentecost-b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle, accessed 05/17/2018.
[vi] Schmit, Clayton L. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 19