The Rev. Canon Frank Logue preached this sermon at
Christ Church Savannah on The Feast of Pentecost—June 8, 2014
Nothing Less than the Power and Presence of God
Nothing less than the presence and power of God breaks into the room where the disciples are waiting and praying on that 50th day after Jesus resurrection. Here the Evangelist Luke lets us know language breaks down as he resorts to simile saying it was a sound like a violent wind and then something happened he could only describe as if it were divided tongues of fire. The experience was beyond words and Luke reaches into metaphor and analogy to convey the ineffable.
When the Gospel moves to the tangible—what they did see and hear that morning—a miracle is occurring. The Holy Spirit came to Jesus’ first followers on Pentecost, empowering the frightened pack of disciples to become a brazen bunch of evangelists. The curse of the Tower of Babel was reversed in one amazing outburst. At Babel, people were divided. Now, the former fishermen and other followers of Jesus became interpreters par excellence. In this Babel scene played backward, the devout Jews from Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Pamphylia and other far flung parts of the Roman Empire hear the Good News of what God has done through Jesus each in their own native language.
The gospel is spoken not in confusing babble but with a crystal clarity that leaves the hearers cut to the quick. Before this amazing day is over, 3,000 devout Jews will be baptized as followers of Jesus, the Christ. Yet not everyone understood what was happening in their midst. The account of that day in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us that some onlookers took the excitement for a drunken mob. The first Christian sermon begins as Peter explaining to the crowd that the disciples are not drunk, “for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” Clearly Peter never showed up early for the Georgia-Florida game, which is the world’s largest cocktail party. There the saying, “It’s five o’clock somewhere” could become “It’s 9 a.m. somewhere.”
But what Peter is assuring the crowd is that the miracle they are witnessing cannot be dismissed so easily. For these unschooled Galileans are speaking clearly in languages they have never before understood, if they had even heard them spoken. Certainly, it feels safe to reduce the disciples’ behavior as coming from heavy drinking. It might also be comforting to relegate Pentecost to an outbreak of religious hysteria. But the Pentecost experience was not due to alcohol and is not so easily reduce to nothing more than hysteria.
This is an ongoing tendency about lots of phenomenon for which we have no ready understanding. We seek safe, tidy answers. The physicist turned Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, said in his book Quarks, Chaos and Christianity, some people are “nothing butters” when it comes to the world we live in. Reductionists see a thing is “nothing but” its physical explanation. They need only look at the most elemental form of a phenomenon to explain everything.
For someone with a “nothing butter” way of making sense of the world, the compositions of Bach are nothing but vibrations that ineract with our eardrums to create the effect we call music. The Mona Lisa is nothing but flecks of paint that we experience as differing colors. Baptism is nothing but water poured over someone’s head as a part of a ritual observance. The Eucharist is nothing but bread and wine and the Pentecost experience was nothing but religious hysteria.
Yes, Bach’s music does reach our ears as nothing but vibrations against our eardrums, for that is how the beauty of the composers’ work is transmitted. But you can’t reduce their music to mere vibrations hitting your eardrum as what one hears is nothing short of miraculous.
Of course, the Mona Lisa is just flecks of matter we call “paint” put on matter we call “canvas” in ways that we experience as an interplay of colors. But her enigmatic smile cannot be reduced to the physical matter that forms the art. In these works of art, the notes of music and the paint on the canvas convey so much more. Reducing them to the essential physical phenomena misses the point.
The Pentecost event defied any “it was nothing but” explanation. We can’t reduce Pentecost to “It was nothing but emotionalism,” or “It was nothing but mass hysteria,” or even “It was nothing but a long-ago event we can no longer explain.” The closest we can get is “Pentecost was nothing less than the presence and power of God.”
That day, the Jesus Movement was transformed not by human will, but by an act of the Holy Spirit. For while the apostles first gathered out of fear, this same rag tag band of disciples will bust out of the room, go into the streets and tell the world about Jesus. Within generations the Good News of their resurrected Lord will be known throughout the Roman Empire and in time it will go out to the ends of the earth all through the work of the Holy Spirit. On receiving the Holy Spirit, the disciples preach the Good News of Jesus and miracles follow.
That same Holy Spirit is right here, right now in you as I preach. Every preacher depends on this every time she or he preaches, knowing that even if the preacher, despite all effort, gets the sermon not quite right, the Holy Spirit can still work with those imperfect words to speak to the hearer’s heart.
There is a story which illustrates what I mean about the work of the Holy Spirit. Its told of the ancient Celtic saint, Comgan, that takes place as he arrived in a village soon after the death of the priest. A man of some substance, the priest had 17 horses, but he left no will. The people were arguing among themselves as to who should get the horses when Saint Comgan comes riding onto the scene.
Comgan told them he could both solve the horse dilemma and find the village a new priest. He said that the horses should be divided so that the sexton should have half the horses for digging the graves and caring for all the property; the beadle should get a third of the horses for his care of the church’s things, especially those items used in worship; and the choirmaster should receive a ninth of the horses for leading the church music. And the person who could resolve how to divide the horses should be the new priest.
The village was mystified, but agreed to the plan. The sexton, beadle and choirmaster set out to find someone who could solve the new mathematical problem of how to divide 17 into half, a third and a ninth without sawing up any horses or dividing days of the week. They ran into lots of people interested in the dilemma, but none who could solve it.
Then a young man offered his own horse to the priest’s herd. Now enlarged to 18, the herd was divided in half, with the sexton receiving his nine horses. The beadle got his third by taking home six horses, and the choirmaster got a ninth of the herd with two horses. The original 17 thus divided, the young man took his own horse back.
The villagers promptly asked the man to be their priest, citing Saint Comgan’s advice. The man agreed and he was sent to the bishop for first training and then ordination before returning to the village for three decades of faithful service to the congregation who miraculously found him.
One has to assume the role of The Holy Spirit in this story. The story doesn’t work without the Holy Spirit touching the hearts of those involved, speaking with that still small voice. The Holy Spirit is the one who inspires Comgan to set up the task and also inspires the young man to ride into the village and offer a solution. The same Holy Spirit then gets the Bishop to back the whole plan leads the young man to return to be a faithful priest after going away to study.
The Holy Spirit is that 18th horse. Just as the inheritance issue could not have been solved without first adding the 18th horse, so there are things in your life that you will not be able to get through or able to bear without the Holy Spirit. For God’s presence working in and through you can get you through problems which seem insurmountable.
Rather than reducing how God is working in your life to safe or tidy explanations, look for the unexpected ways in which you are being opened up to something more. For the God that broke into the midst of the disciples that Pentecost morning is here now within you if you are open to God’s presence.
Brother Roger, the monk who founded the Christian community at Taizé put it well in writing,
“Let yourself be plumbed to the depths, and you will realize that everyone was created for a presence. There, in your heart of hearts, in that place where no two people are alike, Christ is waiting for you. And there the unexpected happens.”
Pentecost is a time to remember that God’s spirit is still present in a mighty way. That’s why our worship can’t be reduced to “nothing but” music, readings and a sermon. The Eucharist can never be described as “nothing but” bread and wine, any more than baptism is “nothing but” water and words. That is far too limiting. We don’t want nothing but a religious experience. We long for nothing less than the power and presence of God, a presence for which you were created and for which your soul longs.
There will be times when you really need the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life. Not sure when that might be? Well, there are two times in life: 1) the times when you pretty much have everything under control and you are facing no challenges, and 2) the times when everything seems to be spinning out of control and you are left reeling.
The truth is that having everything under control is an illusion. The reality is that you can’t control everything, even the things that matter to you most. The good news is that you don’t have to. Instead, each of us can count on the presence and power of God not just in our worship each week, but in our daily lives. That is what we need anyway. If I were to depend on my own abilities, I would fall short of the mark. When I solve things they work out like this (interlock hands with only one finger crossing over). But when I work to discern God’s will and really listen and wait for the working of the Holy Spirit, I find that God is very economical and several problems are solved at once, for God’s solutions work more like this (interlock all the fingers of both hands).
To do this, follow the path of the disciples who remained in prayer and came together all in one place. So keep a pattern of daily prayer and weekly gathering for worship. Pray for God to show you God’s will. One way to pray for this when making a decision, such as whether to move or take another job, or whatever big decision you face, ask God to close the wrong doors and open the right ones. Then prayerfully walk forward and watch the sure thing fall apart while the long shot falls into place.
Also, make time to share what you face with other folks who are prayed up, asking someone to listen with you to how God might be speaking. For God does not always call us to an easy path, just the right one. In these ways, you can open yourself up to something more than the echo chamber of your own desires. For as Brother Roger said, when you really hear God, the unexpected happens. But it starts with refusing to settle for nothing but your own will and remain open to how God might be trying to get your attention. For the Holy Spirit remains so wild and unruly that sometimes only metaphor can describe what is taking place. And God can still break into fearful and broken heart like mine and so I know the Holy Spirit can do this for you as well. I don’t know what you face this day or will face this week, but I do know that if you will faithfully seek God’s will and listen, that God is faithful and you will be led by nothing less than the presence and power of God.
 This is my own retelling of the story, which I found in Robert Van DeWeyer’s book Celtic Parables: a book of Celtic courage, hospitality, humor, and holiness.