Before I say another word, let me say that last night’s “Simple Gifts” concert at Richmond’s First Baptist Church was a musical love feast. I sat there in my pew glowing like a light bulb, so joyful, so grateful, so proud of every person who participated. As I wrote in my prayer journal this morning, “I think I fell in love with my congregation last night.” Every man, woman, and child who sang or played became precious to me in a whole new way.
I remember hearing one of my seminary professors say that you don’t become a pastor on the day you are installed at a new church. You become the preacher, but not the pastor. That can take months or years, and it doesn’t always happen. But it happened for me last night. I thought about those traditions where the minister is referred to as “Father.” That’s how I felt: like a proud papa.
But now the concert is over, and all that’s left is those delicious memories and the sound of music still ringing in my ears. Sunday’s coming, and this Sunday is the Day of Pentecost. I was looking through some of my old files for inspiration and found these thoughts in a sermon preached in 2005 called, “For God so Loved the Church.”
On the Day of Pentecost, God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit. And here’s the wonderful thing about a spirit: you can’t abuse it. You can’t steal it, you can’t break it, you can’t nail it to a tree. For God so loved the church he gave us something we couldn’t damage or destroy. He had learned that if you give people the Ten Commandments, they will break them; if you give them the Promised Land, they will fight and kill each other over it; if you give them your one and only son, they will crucify him. So on the Day of Pentecost God gave us a spirit—an unbreakable, un-ownable, un-killable Holy Spirit—and for two thousand years now that gift has survived unscathed. Not that we don’t try to scathe it. As I was working on this sermon I had a vision of people chasing after the Holy Spirit with brooms, baseball bats, butterfly nets, wooden boxes, running up and down the aisles of the church, jumping over pews in the balconies, trying to catch it, kill it, shut it up. But it’s a spirit, not a thing. You can’t contain it. It got loose in the church on the Day of Pentecost and it’s still loose.
Sometimes it gets into the preacher and he says things that make the church gasp. Sometimes it gets into parishioners and they do things that are shockingly new. No wonder people thought those first disciples were drunk when they saw the way they behaved, but Peter said, “No, this is just what the prophet Joel was talking about, that time when God’s spirit will be poured out on all people and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy.” Do you hear what Peter is saying? You can’t control this spirit. You can’t shut it up in the Ark of the Covenant. You can’t contain it behind a curtain in the Holy of Holies. You can’t confine it to the rigid lines of the Apostle’s Creed. You can’t limit it to the conclusions of the Council of Nicaea. You can’t bind it between the leather covers of the Bible. You can’t chain it to the pulpit of the medieval church. You can’t sell it to get a single soul out of Purgatory. You can’t nail it to the door of the Wittenberg Church. You can’t close it up in the Westminster Confession. You can’t shut it up in the Constitution and Bylaws. This spirit is loose in the church. It’s loose in the world! It can get hold of almost anybody and cause them to do unusual things.
It got hold of Stephen in a way that eventually cost him his life. It got hold of Philip in a way that led him to baptize an Ethiopian eunuch. It got hold of Paul on the road to Damascus in a way that turned his life around. It got hold of Peter on that rooftop in Joppa in a way that changed his mind about the Gentiles. Read the whole of the Book of Acts and you will see the Holy Spirit smashing through one barrier after another—race, religion, nationality, geography—as the kingdom comes, God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. It begins with the rush of a mighty wind and builds from there, until it begins twisting across the religious landscape like a tornado, smashing against the coastline of convention like a holy hurricane. For God so loved the church he gave us something we couldn’t contain, and can’t contain still. Who knows where this spirit will lead us in the days ahead? Who knows where that mighty wind will blow? I only know that on this day, the Day of Pentecost, as I draw a breath to blow out the candle on the birthday cake of the church, I make a wish that the wind of God will blow where it will, and that you and I will find the courage to follow.