Have you ever been swept up by a sudden force of great power? A force so overwhelming it was like a roaring fire or the rush of a mighty wind? Back when I was at university, I used to work in the summer as a camp counsellor, at Camp Iawah near Westport, just south of here. Some of you may know it. One of the things I used to do at camp was teach canoeing, and because I was one of the older counsellors, I used to get the youngest campers in my canoe. Well, one day I had three small children in my canoe for canoeing lessons, a four year old, a six year old and a seven year old. There we were in the canoe, on the lake, and the children were trying to paddle. As you can imagine, we weren’t going very fast, in fact I don’t think that we were really moving in any particular direction at all. In fact, it was kind of relaxing, just floating there on the lake.
But all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a huge gust of wind came up behind us, and it took our canoe and hurled us forward across the water until we were going so fast it seemed like we were flying! The kids started screaming, my heart started pumping, and it was all I could do to try to brace the canoe with my paddle to keep us from tipping over.
Now it seemed like that gust of wind lasted a long time, although probably it was only a few seconds. Our boat travelled farther in those few seconds than it had by the power of our own paddling during the previous ten minutes! And during those few exhilarating seconds, I had a taste of what it’s like to be swept up by a sudden force of great power. In those few seconds I was transformed from a relaxed child care provider to someone who was given the urgent task of preventing those children from drowning.
Exhilarating as it was, that gust of wind created a big problem in my life. When it stopped, I heaved a big sigh of relief, and I all I wanted to do was just go back to shore, and have everything return to normal.
In our first reading in Acts, the disciples who are gathered in the upper room are probably wondering when their lives will return to normal. Many of them, people like Peter and James and John, were fishermen. They’d spent their whole lives on boats, getting up early to cast their nets, doing their work and then returning home to their families before starting all over again the next morning.
Then one day they’d encountered Jesus, and he’d called them, and for some reason they probably didn’t even understand themselves they’d followed him. And it had been an exhilarating and challenging time for them. He’d taught them, and they’d witnessed his deeds of healing and power. He’d taken them to Jerusalem and they’d been there for his confrontation with the authorities, the confrontation that led to Jesus’ death. They’d wept and mourned and then been totally surprised by his resurrection and his appearances in their midst. But now a few weeks later, those appearances had ended. And emotionally exhausted by all that had happened, these Galilean fisherfolk are probably ready for life to return to normal. They’re ready to return home to their families, to get in their boats and go fishing.
Then, suddenly from heaven there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it fills the entire house where they are sitting. Divided tongues, like fire, appear among them and they are filled with the Holy Spirit and they’re swept out of the house and begin to speak in languages they don’t understand, proclaiming God’s deeds of power. And all who heard them were amazed and perplexed.
Sometimes, returning to normal is not an option.
There are times in my life that I wish that the Spirit of God would come upon me as a gentle breeze, comforting me, helping me to return to normal, solving my problems.
Maybe that happens sometimes. But the story of Pentecost tells me that the Spirit of God is more likely to come upon us as the rush of a violent wind, propelling us forward at breakneck speed, calling and sending us into a new and perhaps unsettling reality. The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to solve problems in our lives. She creates problems. She sends us out into a new reality. And when that happens the return to normal just isn’t an option.
Just ask Peter. That’s what Peter experienced on that first Pentecost. He just wanted to go home to Galilee, but instead he found himself running out into the streets of Jerusalem and facing off against a perplexed and hostile crowd, defending himself against charges of drunkenness and proclaiming the same message of the kingdom of God that got Jesus nailed to a cross. The coming of the Holy Spirit created a lot of problems in Peter’s life. He found himself swept up by a sudden force of great power, and there was no going back. He was no longer Peter, the fisherman from Galilee. He was Peter, the apostle, the one sent by Jesus and empowered by the Spirit to proclaim God’s kingdom.
That does seem, at least on the surface, to be a bit of a foolish gamble on God’s part. God gives the job of proclaiming and building up his kingdom to the disciples, to people like us. We heard that in our reading from Acts last week. “You will be my witnesses, not just to Israel, but to the ends of the earth,” Jesus told the disciples. It seemed like an impossible, overwhelming challenge. You can imagine Peter’s objections. “To the ends of the earth? I wouldn’t know where to go or how to get there. And besides, I don’t even speak the language.” But the Spirit has a way of sweeping aside our objections and obstacles. On the day of Pentecost, Peter found himself doing just what he had thought impossible, proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom to people from the ends of the earth, to each in their own language.
This is Peter’s story, and the story of the first apostles. But it is also our story, a story that is unfolding in each one of our lives, because the coming of the Holy Spirit has been promised to each one of us. Just as he asked the disciples, Jesus is asking each of us to pray for the Holy Spirit to come into our lives. And when that happens we too may be swept up by a sudden force of overwhelming power. It will be a turning point in our life journeys which will be just as profound, just as shocking as it was for the earliest followers of Jesus. It may look different for each one of us. It may be sudden or it may be gradual. It may be obvious or it may be subtle. It may be a rushing wind or a word of peace. The Spirit moves in mysterious ways, in many different ways. Not all of us are called to be apostles as Peter was. The gifts of the Spirit are given in wonderful variety. But the promise of the Spirit has been made to all.
Are you ready to be swept up by a sudden force of overwhelming power? May you have the courage to pray for the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit in your life.
Homily: Yr A Pentecost, June 4 2017, St Albans
Readings: Numbers 11.24-30; Acts 2:1-21; Ps 104:25-35,37; Jn 20:19-23
Image by AbstractArtAngel77, Creative Commons