Each of the lessons today points to a question that we should ask ourselves about what we do, how we live, and the direction our lives take. It’s a different question in each lesson, but each passage from the Bible this morning does give us one thing to think about as we live our lives. We’ll get to those three questions in a bit.
But I would like to begin today with that rather strange and complicated lesson from the 11th chapter of the book of Acts. To make sense of it requires some careful reading. Yet one thing is clear: in the book of Acts there are two Pentecosts, two times when the spirit comes and blows out the minds of the apostles, and changes the course of the church. Over the centuries, we have made a big deal about the first Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts with the rush of wind, the tongues of fire resting on the heads of the apostles and the speaking in various languages as the spirit gives them utterance. We know that story of Pentecost pretty well and will recall it in a few weeks as we celebrate it in our church year.
But this is the second coming of the Spirit in the book of Acts. The passage reads, “The Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.” This Pentecost II also invades the minds of the apostles, changing their perspective and altering the course of things. Pentecost I is really a Jewish event. Pentecost II is a Gentile event.
So let’s focus a bit on the details of this Pentecostal transformation of Peter in Pentecost II. How does the spirit work on Peter and those to whom he speaks? How does the spirit of God work in the book of Acts and in our lives as we ask those important questions?
The New Testament Greek word for spirit is pneuma, meaning breath or wind. We use the word in English when we talk about a pneumatic hammer or drill, a tool powered by strong air, or when we say someone has pneumonia, or a loss of air. For us, it is important to think about how we might have a pneumatic life, a life filled with God’s spirit or presence.
To reflect on the pneumatic life, I’d like to look at the details of story of Pentecost II in Acts and also to look at the life of a friend of mine named Jack, who has supported Off the Square Club and other causes for those in need for some time now, has been in recovery for a long time now, and who has felt the presence of the spirit in his life. I’ll refer to both the book of Acts and Jack’s life as we consider a pneumatic life.
A pneumatic life is a step by step process. In the story of Pentecost II Peter explains himself step by step. It takes awhile for the heart to change, for the spirit to work. And although we may suddenly change, those around us will need our step by step story in order to get engaged, to see the pattern in the seeds. There is a progression or progress of the spirit. The spirit may suddenly change our lives, but there is the step by step, one day at a time movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people. As Jack looks at the power of the spirit in his life, he sees a series of events, large and small, good and bad, mysterious and powerful, over the course of his life that together, step by step, reveal the spirit at work.
Prayer. The vision for Peter is connected to prayer. Prayer is not just a onetime thing. It’s a lot like exercise, or taking time to sit quietly to listen for the spirit’s blowing. As we exercise more, we become stronger. As we pray with persistence and consistency, as we practice meditation and openness to the spirit, we become stronger in faith and more open to the Holy Spirit. My friend Jack had a Christian friend who prayed for him daily.
Visions and trances. We Lutherans are a rational lot. We fill our heads and sermons with ideas. That is a good thing. But sometimes we need to dream, to have visions, to entrust ourselves to the mysterious ways that God is present in our non-conscience and sub-conscience. God works on both sides of the brain. And often we sense the purpose of God, the presence of God, not in ideas but in art, or beauty, or in the sudden way that something strikes us, or in the dreams and pneumatic experiences we have and remember.
Sometimes the vision involves healing. Jack went to a healing seminar at Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee with his friend Tim. Jack assumed that it was for him to help others heal, when actually it was all about his own healing. At the seminar Jack had a moment in the spirit which he described as ripping the veneer off and seeing what’s inside the person. And he still speaks of a vision in which he put the liquor in a box and found the strength to stop drinking.
A harmony or unity. There is a harmony or unity that undergirds the presence of the Holy Spirit. When the spirit is present we become aware not of distinctions, but of the way in which things come together. All animals are included in the blanket of heaven. Clean and unclean is a human distinction. The vision of the spirit reconnects us with the harmony or unity of the universe.
Distinctions which we think are important fade into the background. Jack onetime wanted to talk with a pastor at a church about a pain. The pastor said, “No, you’re not a member.” And that was the last time he attended that church. The spirit moves us into unity and harmony.
The third draft. The fullness of the vision may not take root on the first attempt. The first draft usually needs more work. If at first we don’t succeed, we need a second or third attempt. By the third time around, as there is more give and take, the idea will start to take hold and take the shape it needs. Peter gets to the third draft in his dream.
When Jack reflects on the role of the spirit in his life, he says that one thing he has learned is that you can pray for something several times, and may end up with an answer you did not expect or see coming. Never give up, he says. Look for that third or fourth or fifth draft of God working in your life.
Accompaniment. When the spirit works, there is usually someone along for the ride. We are accompanied. Accompaniment is an important part of caring for people as they go through a spiritual process whether that process involves grief, profound change, or adjustments that need to be made in light of changing conditions or a fresh approach. Peter is accompanied by six people as he makes his case about Pentecost II.
Jack speaks of many people who have accompanied him in his life. His wife has been with him through the good and the bad. His friend, Hank, has been with him in the spirit. He speaks of the powerful witness of his aunt. And he remembers his time with his friend Tim. We are all called to accompany others in their journeys and to experience the company of others.
Cooperating with God at work. Peter feels that all this is not something he does, but rather he wants to get out of the way of God. When the spirit is present we feel that we are not the actors, but the witness to a drama in which God is the principle player. We stop blaming ourselves and we stop taking the credit.
Jack sees his life not as a biographical list of accomplishments and successes in the face of challenge. He sees his life as a witness to what can happen for a person if he as Peter does, cooperates with the work of God, not standing in God’s way, as God accomplishes a greater and mysterious good.
How do we lead a pneumatic life? It involves prayer, a vision or trance, harmony and unity, a third draft, accompaniment, and cooperating with God at work.
And it involves something else. The pneumatic life drives us to ask those basic and important questions about life. It doesn’t give us all the answers. In fact, the pneumatic life is filled with more mystery than certainty. But the pneumatic life in the spirit leads us to ask important questions of ourselves and others.
Three such questions come from the Bible lessons today. The first lesson speaks of the spiritual wisdom of the church that Jesus was for everybody, even the Gentiles. As we think about our lives in the spirit, the first question is, “How can we heal the divisions that divide us?” We are all different, but we are all children of God together. In Pentecost II God is for Jew and Gentile, for all. What divisions need to be healed? How can we move more deeply into unity and harmony with God and others?
A second question comes from the second lesson. This is the last chapter of the Bible, the 21st chapter of the book of Revelation. It is a description of how the ending of all things is in the heavenly graceful arms of a waiting creating God. This chapter of the Bible asks all spiritual people to ask that second question, “Where are you headed?” Are you off-course? Do you need to change directions? Or maybe you need to remember how it will all end?
What divisions need to be healed? Where are you headed? And a third spiritual question comes from the final story from the 13th chapter of John. It is the question, “Who needs your love?” The gospel and letters of John involve the spiritual and mystical intertwining of Jesus, God, and those who follow Jesus, connected like a spiritual vine. In all that intertwining in John, the most important question is “who needs our love.” It is by our love that people will know how we are connected to the God of love. No greater love has one than this, than to lay down his life for a friend. Love one another, as I have loved you.
What divisions need to be healed? Where are you headed? Who needs your love? These are the spiritual questions that lead Jack and all of us as we continue to be renewed in the spirit, as we pray, have visions, find harmony and unity, get to a third draft, accompany one another and get out of God’s way.