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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 06/08/2014

The Holy Spirit has always been hard to talk about; I guess to be fair you could say that trying to explain God in any fashion has always presented problems, but for Christians who talk about one God in three persons, the person of the Holy Spirit is particularly problematic. We can kind of get a handle on God as Father, especially as creator, especially when we look at the beauty of the world around us. We can also kind of get a handle on God as the Son, Jesus who becomes human like us. The fully God/fully human thing is difficult but still, Jesus as a human being and the stories about him, especially the forgiveness he offers, make God the Son easier to relate to and think about.

But then there’s the Holy Spirit. What do you say? In a few minutes we will confess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed but if we actually used the words formulated at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in the year 325 all we would say about the Holy Spirit is “And we believe in the Holy Spirit.” That’s it; that’s all they could agree on or maybe they were just ready to go home. It wasn’t until the Second Ecumenical Council held 56 years later at Constantinople in the year 381 that they decided that more needed to be said about the Holy Spirit and that gathering of bishops came up with the words we use today. So now you know that what we actually say is not the Nicene Creed but the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed but I’m glad that when we use it I don’t have to say all that.

The Holy Spirit has always been a little hard to get a handle on even though we often proceed as if it was easy, as if we knew what we were talking about; spirit talk in general is pretty standard fare for any religious group because if you’re talking about God, you’re talking about spiritual things. Regarding the Holy Spirit though, some Christian groups do make it more of an emphasis than others. Actually I think that’s part of the reason other groups, like Lutherans, struggle with the Holy Spirit; we’re scared off by those who do make a big deal of outward expressions of the Spirit such as speaking in tongues and things like that. For many reserved northern European types, all that make us nervous so in talking about God we tend to keep the focus on Jesus, the Son and on God the Father; they’re easier to talk about.

Every year though, fifty days after Easter, we celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s a major festival, a day of celebration and it provides us with a great story, the Spirit being made known in wind and tongues of fire over everybody’s head, people speaking all kinds of languages yet still understanding each other. It’s a great story, a memorable story even if it is challenging for whoever has to read the names of all those nationalities. But great story or not, when it comes to the Holy Spirit it still tends to be one of those things where it’s easier to nod our heads and pretend we understand instead of struggling with it, struggling with questions like what does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit or what does it mean when someone is described as being very spiritual?

What happens, even in the Bible, is that it’s easier to talk about gifts of the spirit than it is to talk about the spirit itself. That’s what you get in the Corinthians passage today with one of Paul’s lists that includes gifts like the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, gifts of healing, prophecy, tongues and so forth. The Pentecost story from Acts also gets at gifts of the spirit but it does so differently. The primary gift given to those described in that story, especially Peter, was the ability to see things differently, especially the ability to make connections concerning Jesus that they weren’t able to make before.

Throughout the gospels the disciples are mostly portrayed as being pretty clueless, unable to figure Jesus out, always trying to fit him into categories they understood, trying to make him be who they wanted him to be. What’s most striking in this Pentecost story though, after the wind and fire, is Peter’s ability to correctly articulate who Jesus was and is and what his life, death and resurrection mean. We just get the beginning of it in this passage, but the way Luke tells it, quite suddenly and dramatically Peter’s perspective was different, his understanding was different. The gift of the spirit enabled him to finally get it, the tumblers on the lock of his imagination clicked into place and what hadn’t made sense suddenly made sense.

In telling this story what Luke also witnesses to is the gift of the spirit he had been given, he along with the other gospel writers and other biblical writers. I believe that by the power of the Holy Spirit, Luke and others, as they observed things or as they heard things, were able to recognize truth and meaning that others couldn’t recognize. They were given a new ability to perceive and experience the presence and activity of God. By the power of the Holy Spirit they were then able to convey that truth and meaning and activity not just in a dry recounting of facts but in imaginative stories that people would remember and think about and wrestle with, stories that would engage the imagination of faith.

When you think about it, the Holy Spirit could have inspired a book of dry facts and information, but while there’s some of that in the Bible mostly what we get are stories and images and poetry that invite Holy Spirit inspired imagination because as the author Flannery O’Connor said, a story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way.

I think that the church and those of us who preach have done a great disservice in preaching Bible stories as literal and/or historical accounts. What that does is it discourages the work of the Spirit. We try to make religious claims more reasonable and rational thinking we’re going to make them more believable but it winds up robbing the stories of meaning. Important truth gets lost in trying to make stories literally true or in trying to fit stories and experiences that reveal God into categories that are easier to understand. Throughout the gospels that’s pretty much what the disciples did with Jesus, they tried to fit him into their categories, but the gift of the Holy Spirit changed that; it opened them to reality beyond the reality they had seen before. The Spirit does the same thing for us.

When it comes to gifts of the spirit, there are varieties as it says in Corinthians, varieties of gifts, varieties of services, varieties of activities. It is important for each of us to discern for ourselves and with others what our gifts are but then it’s important to open those gifts and to use them for the common good as Paul also says in Corinthians.

Everyone’s gifts are different and that does call for discernment, but I believe that the Pentecost gift of imagination is common to all of us, it was poured out on all people to one degree or another. There are those who have received the gift in a greater measure like those inspired to write the gospels and Acts and other biblical accounts. But all of us have been given the imagination to enter into the minds of those prophets and poets who have seen visions and dreamed dreams, those who have perceived truth and reality beyond that which most of us can perceive. The poet Wallace Stevens calls imagination one of the great human powers, the liberty of the mind. Imagination is a gift, but again, gifts have to be opened and used. Using this gift of the spirit, which is a gift that makes us human, also brings us closer to the divine and yet it’s a gift that has too often been discouraged by those who insist on a literal reading and interpretation.

The Pentecost event clearly marked a change in those who were gathered. It was a Holy Spirit inspired, imagination sparked empowerment, an empowerment that enabled the early church to form, that enabled that unlikely group of followers to amaze and astonish the world. It’s a gift and an empowerment that is still available if we open it and use it as they did. Jesus has breathed on us; we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Like Peter and the others, we too have the power to amaze and astonish.

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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