Awe and Dread
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC June 8, 2014, Pentecost Sunday.
Texts: Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12 3b-13, John 7:37-39
Last week I had the privilege not only of helping to plan and facilitate the service of Ordination at the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, but also of serving as a sponsor for two of those who were ordained into full membership—one as a Deacon and one as an Elder. All of this means that I had an up-close-and-personal view of the proceedings and, when those who’d asked me to stand with them were ordained, mine were among the hands placed upon them for that high and holy moment. The words prayed when someone is ordained are these: “Almighty God, pour upon Sam the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a deacon in Christ’s holy church. Amen.” “Almighty God, pour upon Bonnie the Holy Spirit for the office and work of an elder in Christ’s holy church.” Pretty much without fail, when those stepping forward and kneeling before the Bishops, conference Lay Leader, and sponsors get to that moment, their hands are trembling and their faces shine with joy (and sometimes with tears). It was certainly true for me. And it should come as no surprise. When the Holy Spirit is invoked, when the Holy Spirit is called upon to be poured out on someone, when the Holy Spirit is on the loose, it is both wonderful and scary.
Recently, a friend on Face Book took an informal survey of words that folks think are overused these days. “Awesome” was one that was mentioned. I think I am probably guilty of this myself—because the word is, well, awesome. But I do lament that the use of the word in common, casual parlance has drained it of some of its weightiness. “Awe” is the stuff of big, fat wonder—it’s what we feel when something so powerful or beautiful or surprising stops us in our tracks and leaves us speechless. Rudolf Otto, in his study on mysticism (“The Idea of the Holy”), describes encounters with God as calling forth awe; but Otto notes that it is not only awe that is engendered…but also dread.
While we may pretty easily “get” that a real encounter with God is really and truly “awesome,” the sense of dread at such an encounter may seem odd at first—why should we feel dread when encountering the Holy One? Why should persons being ordained as clergy in Christ’s holy church come to their knees trembling? Too bad we can’t ask Abraham and Sarah or Moses or Isaiah or Esther or David that question. What do you suppose Mary, Jesus’ mother, would give as an answer? The lives of these saints certainly show that when the Holy Spirit comes upon them awesome things happen: new life comes and a nation is formed out of lives “as good as dead”; freedom is achieved for a powerless and enslaved tribe, cause for hope is prophesied, justice is done, a nation has cause to rejoice, a woman gets pregnant. Awesome.
However, by my very unscientific guesstimate, I’d say nine out of ten persons in the Bible who run into the Holy Spirit have an immediate reaction to flee or to try to convince God (or God’s envoy) that there must have been a mistake. “We’re too old.” “I stutter.” “I’m too young.” “I’m a man of unclean lips.” And in the rare case that someone doesn’t openly protest (hello, Mary!), we still hear God’s messenger say “don’t be afraid” which suggests there was a cause for such a statement. And, of course, we learn as we read on in the stories of all these saints that there was plenty to fear in the events to come.
All of this is to say that when the Holy Spirit is poured out upon someone, it is both awesome and dreadful—it is both a great gift and promise and a huge and fearful challenge and responsibility. To go where the Spirit sends you is often fraught with danger and with obstacles that are beyond one’s own ability to overcome. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit into a person draws that person into the center of God’s activity in the world. No longer can you live only for yourself. No longer can the cries of the needy go unheard or unheeded. No longer can you sit idly by and allow injustice to flourish. No longer can excuses be made that you are not enough. You are called to put your life on the line, to surrender your control, and to risk ridicule and relationships for the sake of the Gospel. Dreadful… When the Holy Spirit is poured out upon a person, that person is always called to DO something or to BE something—and it is both awesome and dreadful.
When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon him. He was called to BE the beloved Son with whom the Father is well-pleased. When he preached his first sermon, he named what he was called to DO, reading from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. God has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord!” Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, showed and shared the Good News of God’s Reign—a reign of love, a reign of peace, a reign of liberation, a reign of justice. And Jesus knew that living thus would have dreadful consequences which he suffered in beauty, love, trust, and compassion. At the cross, Jesus gave the Spirit back to God: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” And when he appeared to his disciples after the resurrection, he said to them, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Lk. 44.49)
And that, my friends, brings us to this day when we are told that the disciples of Jesus were together in one place and “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:4) The Holy Spirit that is poured out upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost is the same Spirit who moved across the face of the waters at the moment of creation to bring life out of chaos, and to separate the light from the darkness. This Holy Spirit had filled prophets and sages and holy people from the beginning of creation, empowering them with gifts and courage beyond their own. This Holy Spirit is the one who from the dawn of time had been convicting and cajoling and creating and comforting God’s people in order to keep the dream of God’s Reign alive. And this Holy Spirit had been dwelling in a very concentrated way in and around Jesus while Jesus was on this earth. And now this Spirit, this self-same Spirit, newly soaked in humanity as a result of indwelling Jesus, is poured out upon the followers of Jesus and the power of God is unleashed in a very new way. From that first day of Pentecost right down to this very moment, the Holy Spirit is at work in and through those who seek even in frail and faltering ways to follow Jesus. And that means that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon you and upon me.
If we are paying attention, we might find ourselves a bit in awe of this; we might experience a sense of dread. What, after all, might that Spirit want you to DO or to BE? I submit to you on this so-called “birthday of the church” that what God wants you to be is the CHURCH, which means to be the Body of Christ in the world, and to be the church to the very best of your ability, trusting in God, relying on God, loving God and loving your neighbor. What God wants you to DO is to become more and more fully alive, more fully yourself and to offer that self in love and trust and service to God and to others. “There is a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord…To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor. 12:7) Each and every one of us is given gifts to develop and to share for the common good. Your unique gifts, together with others’, are what allow the Body of Christ—the Church—to be strong, to be vital, to be whole, to make a difference in the world. This is, perhaps, one of the most consistent messages I have sought to convey these past four years. The message isn’t about a program—those come and go—but is instead about a way of being and of serving together that is grounded in scripture: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:12-13) Being “filled with the Spirit” makes us “one in the Spirit.” And that means that, as one body, we are faced with all the challenges and messiness that are part of life together (dread). But it also means that we are given the extraordinary opportunity to live right at the source and center of the very power of life and of love, to be challenged in ways that help us grow, to learn what sacrificial love really looks like, to practice courage and humility, to be blessed time and again by the gifts of others (awe).
When I think back to the moment I knelt down, had hands laid upon me, and heard the words spoken by the Bishop, “Almighty God, pour upon Ginger your Holy Spirit for the work and office of an Elder in Christ’s holy Church,” I realize how clueless I really was. I had no conscious idea how awesome and how dreadful the journey would be—though I trembled so much I found myself gripping the kneeler to stay still. Over the past week, as I’ve continued to organize and pack for my upcoming departure, I discovered a drawer in which I found photos, cards, and various paraphernalia from the past fourteen years of pastoral ministry. Each and every scrap and image speaks to the awesome privilege of being called to be the church and to become and share more of myself in relationship; because every scrap and image points to the extraordinary generosity, creativity, courage, wisdom, good humor, and love that is found in the Body of Christ. Living like Jesus in the world is never easy. But it’s the best and most awesome thing in the universe. And that’s the gift we’re given today. Thanks be to God.