I write this on the week before Pentecost Sunday. I’ve been working on my upcoming sermon which is, obviously, about Pentecost – the birthday of The Church when the book of Acts says the Holy Spirit came upon the believers “like the rush of a mighty wind.” It came not only to enliven and inspire those first century Christians, but also to fill them so that God’s Spirit could speak through them.
So I’ve been wondering about that, about the Movement that began when brave women and men, filled with that Spirit, went out from Jerusalem and blew through the world like the rush of a mighty wind. I’ve been wondering how to keep that Movement and energy and enthusiasm fresh and alive. I’ve been wondering: How can we remain like the rush of a mighty wind, never becoming merely a bag of hot air?
That’s the phrase we use for people who are all talk and no action, people with more bluster than performance. We say of someone like that: “He’s a bag of hot air.” We preachers are not infrequently the targets of that statement and too often, I fear, deservedly so.
I think the Pentecost Spirit is about two things primarily: Faith and Authenticity.
People listen to us when they can sense that we are motivated by faith. When people pay attention to one of my sermons (whether Sunday morning, Wednesday evening, on line in Worship Without Walls, or through one of these blogs), they do so in a search for faith. Specifically when they listen to me (or any Christian preacher or theologian), they want to know what the Christian Faith has to say to the issues of this world and their lives. People don’t listen to my sermons or read my blogs to determine what Michael Brown thinks about anything. We clergy give ourselves way too much credit when we think that folks hang on our every word or personal priority. Instead, people hear us in an attempt to hear faith articulated and explained. “Tell me about the Torah... about the New Testament... about the story of Christianity... about the history of Church... and about how any of that speaks to my daily living.” And that doesn’t just apply to clergy. When people know you and how you are a person of faith, they listen and they watch. They want to see in you if faith makes a difference, if you are stronger or braver or happier or more compassionate or more forgiving or more at peace. If they can find those qualities in you, those things that they desire for themselves, then they will give faith a chance because they’ve seen how it works for somebody else.
But, there’s that other word: Authenticity. If people merely hear me talk about faith or hear us discuss our involvement in a church but see no real impact of that in how we live, then they are not won to Christianity (and may in fact, be distanced from it). Jesus said that: “A tree is known by its fruit.” Call yourself a pear tree all you wish, but if you do not produce pears no one pays attention. One of the great biblical scholars and authors of the last century was respected throughout the Church and academic worlds by everyone who had not met him. But, those who did meet him were quick to report that he was rude and acerbic, unkind and dismissive, and was even demeaning to his own wife and children. Sadly, all his talk about God’s love seemed, in Paul’s words, to be merely “noisy gongs and clanging cymbals,” or in our vernacular, “a bag of hot air.”
How do we keep the Holy Spirit moving through us and continuing its work of changing the world? We do so when we are motivated by faith and when we are authentic (i.e., when others can see that The Faith has transformed us into people who love). Those two qualities enabled believers long ago to start a Movement that would transform life on this planet. Those two qualities have the power of God’s Spirit to keep that Movement alive.