On this day of Pentecost, both of our readings today (Acts and John) start by mentioning a location, and the situation the disciples found themselves in when the Holy Spirit was given to them: Luke mentions in Acts that “They were all together in the same place” and the Gospel of John adds that, more precisely, it was “Evening on that day”, “the first day of the week” and the “door of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews”.
And so those two versions of what happened on the Day of Pentecost we’ve heard today differ quite a bit, but Luke and John agree on that: The Holy Spirit finds the disciples locked behind closed doors, afraid and wrapped up on themselves / keeping safe in their little group. And it’s only when they receive the Spirit that they can open up and start their work of evangelization through meeting people and giving their testimonies, living up to their full potential.
Actually, I thought it was a bit ironic to have those two readings on the Eve of the reopening of our county. I was afraid it would make us feel like we “all need to go out now”, you know because staying home would mean we are afraid and not empowered by the Holy Spirit, and certainly many churches today, and many church leaders, have made some members of their congregation feel guilty about staying home saying something like: “If you’d really have faith, you wouldn’t be afraid”. Well, we know that things didn’t turn out that well for those who felt overly confident in this pandemic. It’s quite clear for all of us with common sense that it is safer now to stay home, not only for ourselves, but it is also the loving and wise thing to do for our vulnerable neighbors, to do our best efforts not to spread the disease.
This said, I have good news for you because the thing is that, of course, the readings are not so much about the dilemma “leaving home or staying home”. Even if it’s an important question today, now spiritually, that would be a bit shallow, right? Luke and John both refers to the situation of the disciples from a closed space to an open space to describe an inner tension: how often our hearts and minds get closed and our lives get stuck when God’s work is to always take us beyond our routines, habits and what we take for granted.
And so mainly that’s what I want to talk to you about today. As I mentioned in a previous sermon, I wouldn’t say about myself that I have many earthshaking spiritual experiences, but I remember the day of my confirmation a friend asked me if it “changed anything” to receive the Holy Spirit, and I remember telling them, to my own surprise, that it “changed everything”. We say so much about the Holy Spirit: If you open (as I did to prepare this sermon) a book of Biblical doctrine, you would find that in Paul’s writings there are at least 22 gifts of the Holy Spirit: Apostle, prophet, teacher, healing, encouraging, tongues, wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, leadership etc. and it can becomes quite overwhelming (I remember having to learn about those gifts to prepare for my confirmation, and I was quite confused!). We have to acknowledge that the HS can do so many things, and that in the end it’s very difficult to identify the HS if we describe all the things the HS can do. So to me, I would stick to the definition I gave to my friend on that day when I was 16 years old:
The Holy Spirit is the one who makes a difference, and who makes all the difference.
You see, to me what the readings are about today is that it’s not enough to believe in God unless it changes our lives and more deeply, until it changes us. We can be assured that after Easter, on that day they were gathered together, the disciples believed in God, and in Jesus’s teachings and in Jesus’ s Resurrection – yet it still didn’t make a difference in their lives. Until they received the Holy Spirit, they were closed behind visible and invisible locked doors and walls. Then they received the Spirit and they opened up and got out of themselves to meet people and change the world. So the Holy Spirit, if you will, and that would be the main idea I would like to share with you today, the Holy Spirit is the one who gets us unstuck. You can name many things the HS does, Paul found 22 gifts (and it was just the beginning of Christianity) but, to me, the role of the Spirit, whatever the Spirit does, in the end is to get us UNSTUCK, and I’d like to explore that a little bit with you because for us, it is still the same story than it was for the disciples. We need to move from “belief in God” to “life in God” and even more to “live out God”, which means: not just to live conforming to a doctrine but to let God live inside of us, through us. A Liturgical time ends here: We turn from the life of Jesus (Advent through Pentecost) to the life of discipleship (“Ordinary times”) and what we learn is that God’s story isn’t just written for us, we have to write God’s story. And we know it’s not easy. It’s not easy because we get stuck.
So how do we move from that?
– First of all, I think that we have to recognize that it is a natural tendency to get stuck, as individuals of course, but also as people, societies, races, civilizations. We get stuck in our patterns / ways of thinking and behaving. We are animals of habits (Aristotle) for the best (survival, natural life) but also for the worst (when it comes to divine/ supernatural life). Jesus came on earth at a time when Israel was stuck in a way that it has never been before (Roman Occupation / no prophets for centuries / Religious legalism).
Getting stuck can happen even if you’re a devout believer. Don’t blame yourself if you get stuck, first because as I’ve just said, it’s a natural tendency but also because it does not mean that you should believe “more”! At different times in our lives, we just need to get unstuck. Maybe because we have old habits (It is sometimes with God like in an old couple), sometimes we get stuck because of grief, or trauma (We discover that the world is a dangerous place, or that we ourselves can become dangerous, and so it may be better to “shelter in place” in our own ways).
The disciples believed in Jesus (probably more than us!) but they still were stuck, and what they needed was to receive the Holy Spirit (Readings last week: “Stay in Jerusalem until you have received the HS”). If you think about that Jesus’s life and teaching was all about: not enough to believe in God / to live religiously or even to have moral standards (as did the Pharisees) – especially in John’s: You have to keep moving and to receive the divine life and to live out a godly life.
– How does the HS get us unstuck?
These days, we see so many books on shelves about how to get unstuck. All authors have their own theories but what comes back again and again is that when we are stuck in our lives, it’s not so much because of our circumstances. We have the power to change circumstances, at least some circumstances. Most of the time we are stuck in our heads. Because of habit, grief, trauma we have set patterns of fear and anxiety (like the disciples) that kill life inside of us: It can be something as simple as low self esteem that paralyzes us, or we got our heart broken and we don’t believe there is anything good left in this world. Sometimes also, we get defensive after being hurt. We believe that “some people are evil”, “money is the answer to our problems”, “or just don’t mention it and it’ll go away”. And so to me what we see is that it’s not even so much in our heads that we get stuck, it’s mostly in our hearts. And this is where the Gospel hits home today and this is second idea I want to share with you:
The most helpful advice to get unstuck is the one Jesus gives us: receive the HS by making peace and do the work of reconciliation and forgiveness. Comes to terms with the ways you’ve been hurt and the way you’ve hurt others (and yourself!).
I love it that Jesus does not just say “Forgive” to his disciples. First of all, HE forgives them, granting them “peace”. He does not come back to condemn them for letting him down at his worst hour. And then he asks them to “do the work”: “Retain the sins”: Yes, the disciples have to grant forgiveness but also they have to ask those who do wrong to repent, to change, ask for justice. Forgiveness in the Gospel is never, never a forget and let go right away. It’s always hard work, with oneself, others and God and there is always a reciprocity (Lord’s prayer: Forgive us as we forgive others). Forgiveness is meant to expose the sins, bring justice and healing, it’s not a “covering up” of wrongdoings. It’s hard and painful work, but it’s done in the hope of a possible renewal.
If we don’t do the work of forgiveness we get stuck: as individuals, as couples and families (a lot!!), as societies and we repeat history: Conflicts, wars, injustices, abuse and so on. I read a great article this week about how racism in America is a never ending problem because white people never actually acknowledged the original sin of slavery. We have to go to the root of the pain and the hurt and deal with it. A theologian I like says that: “Sin is when life freezes”. When we sin against each other, we freeze the movement of life because shame and guilt haunt us and prevent us from being renewed and we get trapped in our patterns. We get frozen in sadness, angry, indifference, terror, hate, resentfulness or self-righteousness, and in the process we punish others or we punish ourselves, we may even end up trying to punish God! We are stuck in sin like a clogged drain with all sort of impurities inside of us. Life cannot circulate in a clogged heart as surely as water cannot circulate in a clogged drain.
– To receive the HS: Examine your heart and do the work of forgiveness. Ask God if you cannot ask the ones who hurt you or the ones you hurt. Sometimes we’ll find out that not only do we have to forgive others and be forgiven by them but we also have to forgive ourselves (for not being as “good” as we would like to believe, for having let others hurt us), we also have to forgive God (Not that God “sins” against us of course, but a lot of us hold well hidden grudges against God for “letting that happen”).
Yet, the promise is that in the end, life will come back rushing trough our veins when our hearts are unclogged. HS will unleash our potential. So it can be anything, really. There are much more than 22 gifts. There are as many gifts as there are people in this world, each our own language, but it’s always a potential to love, a work we do with one another aiming towards the reconciliation of all people, as impossible as it may seems. We don’t receive the HS for ourselves. Pentecost is a communal event.