Like the Rush of the Wind 

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15Romans 8:22-27, and Acts 2:1-21 Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon. 

“Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind … And all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Back when I was doing my PhD studies at Vanderbilt University, I had a theology professor who was a great enthusiast of sailing. He owned a small sailboat – an 8- or 12-footer, I think it was – which he regularly took out on Percy Priest Lake, the large pool behind a dam on the Stones River just east of Nashville. In fact, it was something of a rite of passage for graduate students of Professor Hodgson to be invited out on a sailing excursion on Percy Priest Lake. It was on one of those student sails that I discovered I have absolutely no talent for sailing. Theology, yes; sailing, not so much.

Professor Hodgson’s enthusiasm for sailing even became part of his theological imagination. He used his knowledge of the physics of sailing to make a point in his theology of the Holy Spirit. It was an idea he worked out with us in class, and then put in his book – the major book of his career, I think – Winds of the Spirit. It’s an idea that has stuck with me ever since.

What Professor Hodgson explained to us is that the wind works on sailboats differently from the way most of us think it works. We tend to think that the wind blows in and fills up the sail, and that pushes the sail (and the sailboat attached to it) ahead through the water. But in reality the physics of sailing are quite different. The wind fills the sail, and the sail creates a bowed, rounded shape – kind of like the wing of an airplane – and as the wind spills around this wing-like shape, it creates a little vacuum, a little open space, just ahead of the sail. When we were out on his sailboat that time, he had me put my hand just at the edge of the sail so I could feel the air spilling around it and making the vacuum. That vacuum, that open space, pulls the sail into it – so the wind actually ends up drawing the sailboat forward, not pushing the sailboat from behind, but pulling the sailboat from ahead.

And that, said Professor Hodgson, is how the Holy Spirit works with us: the Spirit fills us, and surrounds us, and creates an open space ahead of us, a space for visions and dreams and possibilities, a space which opens into the mission of God for justice and peace and love and communion, a space which draws us toward God’s preferred future for us.

I think that notion of the Spirit drawing us onward into God is a marvelous way to talk about what Pentecost means. I think we see it in all our scripture readings this morning.

We can see it in our Gospel reading, when Jesus promises his disciples that the Holy Spirit will come to them once he himself has gone away. Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” The Spirit declares to us what is to come; the Spirit opens up before us the future God wants for us; the Spirit draws us into the possibilities and potentialities God gives us to become more like Jesus. Jesus says the Spirit “will take what is mine and declare it to you” – and that means it is the Spirit that draws us into living more Christlike lives, it is the Spirit that fill us and empowers us to love in the way that Jesus loves, and to work in the way that Jesus works, and to live in the way that Jesus lives. According to the Gospel, it is the work of the Spirit to draw us into being the Christlike people God wants us to be.

And according to the Epistle reading today, that drawing of the Spirit is meant not just for us, but for the entire Creation. Paul says “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” – the entire Creation, the whole Universe, is like one big process of giving birth, one shared growth toward the reign of God’s justice and peace and love and communion in all things. And the Spirit is what draws the Creation forward toward that fulfillment. We ourselves, we followers of Jesus, have the first-fruits of the Spirit, we have been gifted by God to know that we are part of that drawing-forward to justice and peace and love and communion. But, Paul says, we also know we still have a long way to go, we look around us and see that the world is still far from the fullness of justice and peace and love and communion that is God’s real desire for us. And precisely because we see we have a long way to go, Paul says the Spirit gives us another gift: the Spirit gives us hope, the Spirit gives us trust in the newness of life we have glimpsed in Jesus but do not yet see fully; and the Spirit works in us, helping us in our weakness, assisting us in our prayers, interceding in us with sighs too deep for words, drawing us in prayer into the very heart and love and mission of God. According to the Epistle, it is the work of the Spirit to open up before us the entire future of the universe, and to draw us into being God’s missioners to make that future real.

And I think it is just a bit of that missioner-toward-the-future role that we see in the reading from Acts today. The Holy Spirit draws the apostles into the potentiality to speak other languages, so that they may share the praise of God and the Good News about Jesus with people far beyond their own circle, far beyond their own comfort zone. The bystanders at first think it’s just drunken gibberish; but Peter correctly identifies it as a gift of prophecy, as an enactment of God’s promise to pour out the Spirit on everyone, absolutely everyone – sons and daughters will prophesy, Peter quotes, young people will see visions and old people will dream dreams, even slaves will receive the Spirit – and in a society as highly class-conscious as Peter’s society, that promise of the Spirit even for slaves was radical Good News indeed. The Spirit empowers the apostles to speak, and the Spirit empowers the listeners to hear, really hear, not just with their ears but with their hearts; and all of it is a miracle of communication, all of it the Spirit’s work to create communion between all sorts and conditions of people, and that communion creates the space in which justice and peace and love can grow and flourish. According to Acts, the gift of languages on the first Christian Pentecost was the Spirit’s work to open up new possibilities for communion, so as to draw all people into God’s mission to grow the New Creation.

And the Spirit is doing the same thing among us today. The Spirit still opens up open spaces before us, going ahead of us to declare truth, praying within us with sighs too deep for words, creating spaces where new kinds of expression and new modes of reception can communicate good news in more and more open ways.

And in the midst of all of that, where is the Spirit drawing you? Is there some part of your life right now where the energy seems to be up, where your passions seem to be engaged, where it feels to you like there is something new drawing you into being active and involved and enthusiastic and excited? Is there something you feel needs to be done, and is there a corresponding energy in you to do it? Can you discern that as the Holy Spirit, not just the Holy Spirit in church but the Holy Spirit moving out there in the mystery of the world, filling you, and surrounding you, and opening up the space to draw you deeper into God? And here’s the kicker question: How can Trinity Church help you to respond to the Spirit’s draw? Not just how can you help the church, but how can the church help you be drawn into the Spirit?

“Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” May the Holy Spirit fill us today, and draw us together into the glory and the mission of God. Amen.