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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 06/12/2011

Things were out of control in the house where the disciples and others had gathered.  They had been told by Jesus to wait in Jerusalem where they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and that’s what they were doing along with a crowd totaling about 120 people (either it was a very large house or it was very crowded).  There was some business to take care of, notably the replacement of Judas to get the apostolic quota back up to 12, but apart from that, they waited…until things began to spin out of control.

First there was a sound from heaven carried by a violent wind that filled the whole house.  That in itself introduces chaos to the order that they thought they had achieved by the replacement of Judas, but there was more.  Divided tongues, as of fire appeared among them and rested on each of them.  Then, as the house had been filled by sound and wind, now Jesus’ followers were filled, filled with the Holy Spirit. 

In Luke’s telling of this story he piles up one uncontrollable element upon another to create the scene; noise, wind, fire, spirit filling.  All of those things resist control and contribute to a picture of chaos, of things moving beyond the control of those who were there.  When those who were there began to speak the level of chaos increased as this gathering of Jews from many nations each spoke in the language of their native land.  Imagine if all of us suddenly started speaking in Swedish or Finnish or German or Italian, Norwegian, Gaelic, Latvian, Spanish, French whatever it might be.  It would be quite a scene, imagine the confusion.  

Following that burst of languages, the crowd got even bigger as this cacophony of sound attracted the attention of others living in Jerusalem, others who concluded that they had discovered a wild, out of control, drunken party.  Things were out of control as witnessed by the fact that as the story continues and Peter tries to speak, he has to shout to be heard.  Things were out of control, but not for the reason the people of Jerusalem thought; it had nothing to do with new wine.

In telling the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, Luke describes this rather chaotic scene and it’s a scene that contrasts quite dramatically with much of the rest of Acts that leans more toward order, specifically order in the early church with authority and leadership given to the apostles of the Jerusalem church.  In part that was to ensure a clear and unwavering and orderly proclamation of the gospel, a proclamation that sometimes converted thousands at a time, and there was also a code of conduct based on pooling and sharing resources, again intended to promote order within the community.  Much of what Luke describes is about order, yet he also includes this less tidy aspect of things, this aspect defined by noise and wind and fire. 

It’s also worth noting that this noisy, windy, fiery frenzy is not typically how the Holy Spirit is described in the Bible or at least it’s not the only way.  There are encounters with God that involve fire and thunder and lightning, things like that, but being filled with the spirit is more frequently associated with guiding and enabling, particularly enabling one to offer words of divine inspiration; that’s what you get throughout the Old Testament, the prophets especially.  There are tumultuous revelations of God, but on the whole the work of the spirit is seen as more gently empowering and enabling. 

Within the Christian tradition there are groups who lean more toward the ecstatic, out of control revelations of the spirit, speaking in tongues and such, but gentler images and manifestations are more the norm (for those in denominations like ours anyway); hence the choir anthem today which was kind of a reverent chant, “Gracious spirit dwell with me,” and the hymns which are more about the spirit as comforter and advocate…the spirit more of a gentle breeze than a violent, rushing wind. 

Perhaps leaving us to wonder, which is it regarding the Holy Spirit?  Chaotic or gentle?  And of course it’s both, with the stories and images and hymns representing efforts to put into words the various ways God’s power is at work in the world.  In a further effort to define that power, there are lists of what are called spiritual gifts in the Bible, especially in Paul’s letters, with today’s passage from First Corinthians being one example.  To one is given the utterance of wisdom, to another knowledge, you’ve got faith, gifts of healing, prophecy, the working of miracles, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues; other lists include some other gifts.

I understand Paul’s desire to offer concrete examples of how the Holy Spirit is at work in individuals.  The caution is not to see the lists as an all inclusive time and talents check list and then concluding, “I don’t think I’ve got any of those, so I guess the Spirit isn’t at work in my life.”   As we progress in our journey of faith however, it is useful to think about what our gifts and talents are and to see them as gifts of the spirit, not just the result of dumb luck or our own hard work, but gifts of the Spirit that we are to use in service to God’s kingdom.  It does change how we think about things and I think that’s the intent of Paul’s lists.

There are many gifts, but there’s one that Paul never mentions that I think may be among the most important, more important than wisdom and knowledge, more important that many of the ones that Paul does include.  That gift is the gift of imagination.  I keep coming back to this as I think about the current religious landscape out there, especially regarding those who are indifferent or cynical or even hostile to religion.  Some of them are really smart people.  They’ve got the gift of wisdom and knowledge, at least wisdom and knowledge of a certain kind.  But they lack imagination.  By that I mean they are so wrapped up in a world that deals with logic and proof that you can see or touch or explain, that they won’t allow themselves to entertain other possibilities.

Even within the faith community, imagination is a word that we have shied away from because we’re afraid it implies “made up” or “not true” thus throwing all we believe into question.  But imagine in this sense doesn’t mean to make up.  It means to receive and to entertain and to host images of reality that are outside the realm of logic and proof.  To imagine means to entertain the possibility of truth and meaning in that which is beyond the limits of our finite human capacity to explain and understand.  How else, except through imagination, are we going to encounter God unless we just reduce God to being a larger more powerful version of ourselves?  Imagination then, is the work of the Spirit, it’s a gift of the Spirit. 

The Bible is a work of inspired imagination.  Inspired by the Holy Spirit, those who wrote the Bible were the poets of their time who took their experiences and were able to imagine God at the center of a different reality as they wrote the stories and history of the people of Israel and then the story of Jesus.  They saw visions and they dreamed dreams.  Jesus himself imagined for his followers a reality that he called the Kingdom of God and he invited them to be part of it.  This is not the stuff of logic and proof, it’s the work of imagination, a gift of the Spirit.

The early fathers of the church continued the process as they interpreted the Bible and developed the creeds and other statements of faith; theologians throughout the history of the church have kept the process going with their interpretive work.  It’s all the Spirit inspired work of imagination, work that is hindered when one attempts to enforce literal meanings and understandings on that which was never intended to be literal. 

Imagination is a gift of the Spirit, and it’s one that I think is given to everyone, just watch little kids playing alone or with other kids and you see it and it doesn’t require any electronic devices either.  They’re able to imagine different realities until they’re told to grow up, they become self-conscious and the gift withers.  It’s still there though, imagination including religious imagination is still there and I tend to think that there are times that even the most cynical of people are able to reclaim religious imagination, briefly anyway, at times like Christmas when the story of angels and shepherds and the birth of a baby pushes aside proof and logic and reveals a different truth, a different reality, one that defies explanation, one revealed only in imagination. 

The story of Pentecost pushes aside proof and logic too.  It reveals the truth of the Spirit turned loose in the world with images of noise and wind and fire.  It’s the truth of a reality where God is at the center of things, giving gifts, providing comfort and guidance but sometimes creating chaos in our lives too.  The Spirit does all of those things, and imaginative people have always known that. 

On Pentecost Sunday we give thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  May the Spirit help us to continue to imagine the truth that is beyond proof and logic, truth that is beyond our control, because it is the truth that gives us life and gives us God.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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