And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of
a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested
on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began
to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:2-4)
I can only begin in the most basic way to imagine what all that was actually like. Did they really and truly speak out spontaneously in languages that were foreign to them? My hunch is that the Holy Spirit at least gave them power to speak in different dialects of the same Hebrew language to those who had come to the feast of Pentecost from Jewish communities all over the Mediterranean world. And I picture a violent windstorm, with thunder and lightening, and a profound sense of God’s presence; and an irresistible power to go out and proclaim to the world the good news of Jesus. And I believe those men and women were given such incredible gifts of love and expression that multitudes were brought to the Faith.
These were ordinary men and women, don’t forget, who had been in the company of Jesus and experienced themselves how he transformed people’s lives. If you read on in that same 2nd chapter of Acts, you see a vivid example in the apostle Peter. No one was more ordinary than Peter: incredibly inept; never shy about tooting his own horn; born, it seemed, with foot-in-mouth disease; quick to deny his loyalty to Jesus when the going got tough. And yet, here is Peter on the Day of Pentecost, out in the street, commanding the attention of an enormous crowd and preaching one of the most powerful sermons ever recorded. 3,000 were converted that day, says the text! Would that three people could be converted by a sermon of mine!
And Peter wasn’t alone. As the movement unfolds in the Book of Acts, you see all sorts of ordinary men and women, empowered by the Spirit, using their God-given talents to bring others into fellowship with Christ. And that, friends, is for me the surest evidence of the Resurrection! Think about it: Beginning with a tiny group of courageous believers in one little corner of a hugely secular and corrupt Roman Empire, Christianity spreads, through decade after decade of persecution and torture, to become, in a mere three hundred years, the official religion of the Empire! There’s the power of the Holy Spirit! There’s the reality of the risen and ascended Christ, dwelling in the lives of ordinary men and women! There’s the love of the living God dwelling at the very heart of the universe: nudging, luring, encouraging, “wooing” all of humankind to the throne of grace.
The God we know in Jesus Christ dwelling at the heart of the universe: What does that mean in everyday life? It means there is no escape from the Holy Spirit! It means all that is, the whole creation, is shot through and through with the creating, redeeming love of Christ. The scientist Loren Eiseley tells of being caught on the beach in a sudden rainstorm and finding shelter under a huge piece of driftwood. There he found a tiny fox kitten, maybe 10 weeks old, which had as yet no fear of humans. Within a few minutes it had engaged him in a playful tug-of-war, with Eiseley holding one end of a chicken bone in his mouth and the baby fox pulling at the other end. The lesson he learned, said Eiseley, “is that at the core of the universe, the face of God wears a smile.” (Philip Yancey: Soul Survivor, Doubleday, p.49)
To move from the young to the old, you may not be aware that May has been designated as “Older American’s Month.” (Who designated it, I don’t know, but it fits, because the fastest growing segment of the population is those 60 and older!) And, as I’m sure you can appreciate, I have more than a casual interest in that age group! A mailing I received recently from the Tri-Diocesan Council on Aging contains some great Bible passages to encourage us oldsters. One that I like says, “The glory of youth is their strength, but the beauty of the aged is their gray hair.” (Proverbs 20:29) (I’m trying to hold on to mine!) Another one is from Psalm 71: “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.”That’s one of my prayers as I serve St. James’s!
And that brings me to the main reason I mention the aging this morning. I am not very big on special months for things, but I am very big on what I’ve learned about the power of the Holy Spirit from aged people. One fall day in 2003, I sat across the luncheon table from a clergy friend of mine named Bolling Robertson. We had known each other casually, but I felt moved that day (I think by the Holy Spirit) to draw him out. Bolling was very shy, and his voice was very soft, but I shall never forget his story. He said most of his ministry, and that of his wife Marilyn, had been in Liberia, West Africa, living among the poor and teaching at the high school and college level.
The Robertsons retired in 1984 and moved back to the States, and took on numerous ministries in this Diocese, including work in the prisons and in spiritual direction at Richmond Hill. They also kept in touch with friends and colleagues in Liberia and retained a deep love for the Liberian people. Then came a moment of grace: With the few years they had left, they felt strongly moved to return to Liberia. “When something makes sense to the heart, it is usually an urging of the Holy Spirit,” said Marilyn. “We’re not going back to teach or do mission work. We’re going home….during the years I’ve been back in Virginia, I’ve been learning to listen. The process of listening can be a healing process when people are suffering. Maybe God will use us just for listening to suffering, wounded, hurting people.”
And that’s just what God did. In January 2004 they sold most all of their possessions, packed what was left in three suitcases and flew back to Liberia. It was a homecoming indeed, as they returned to the African way of life. “The Liberians taught us a lot about community,” Marilyn said. She quoted an African proverb that goes, “Because we are, I am.” “That,” she said, “epitomizes a difference between life (in the United States) which is so individual and life (in Africa) which is so communal.” Bolling Robertson had a deep sense of community and a passionate love for his people. He used to take his students up on a particular mountain where each boy and girl would carve their name on a special rock. And it was near that rock that this quiet, gentle priest was buried last year, as he had wished, after a lifetime of nurturing young and old in Liberia.
You can learn a lot about the Holy Spirit from the elderly. You can learn a lot about listening, and communicating, and caring, and nurturing. You can learn a lot about just being human, like Peter and the other disciples, and putting your trust in the living God who cares so passionately about every one of us. And you can learn a lot about humility, like my friend Bolling Robertson. Those three suitcases of Bolling’s and Marilyn’s have remained a symbol for me ever since they took off to go back to their Liberian friends. I pray that God will help me, like them, unload all the excess “baggage” of my life and make ever more room for the fresh breezes of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit of God, in our Savior Jesus Christ, yearns for every one of us to taste new freedom and power, new joy and peace, in living our lives to the fullest, to the glory of God and the healing of humankind.