On Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the wonderful event that took place on the first Pentecost following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. The disciples were all together in one place, and the Spirit of God was poured out on them in power. It filled the room where they were meeting, and sent them rushing out into the streets to tell the good news about Jesus to visiting pilgrims from all over the world. Though the listeners came from many places and spoke many different languages, they heard the disciples proclaiming the mighty acts of God in their own native tongues.
Often Pentecost is referred to as the birthday of the church. Although the followers of Jesus always had a mission, and John’s Gospel tells about Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit onto his disciples even before he died, for the author of Luke and Acts, this is the moment when the Christians first received the gift of the Holy Spirit empowering them to go out and tell the good news to all the world.
As we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, many of us may wonder what the Spirit is doing today. It’s one thing to read about what the Spirit of God did in the first century. But is that Spirit alive today? And in what ways is the Spirit manifest among us? We may talk about the Holy Spirit quite a lot in church, but do we see or feel the Spirit at work in our lives or in our mission?
Earlier this week, when I began to think about what I might preach this Sunday, it was the Spirit’s activity in prayer that came to mind. I had just read a reflection on prayer submitted by our Pastoral Care Nurse, Laura Van Loon. And the Pastoral Care Committee met on Tuesday evening with one of the updates at the meeting being about the re-invigoration of St. Andrew’s Prayer Chain.
I remembered a funny little assignment that we had back in my first year in seminary. We had to make an appointment to visit our professor, Stephen Farris, in his office. And when we got there, he would tell us about a pastoral context in which a prayer was needed. We would imagine ourselves in that situation, and then offer a prayer. Just like in real life, there was no time to prepare, to look up a nice prayer in a book, or to jot down some helpful words or phrases.
I still remember the pastoral situation that I had to pray about. It was some couple’s 50th anniversary, and I was asked to say grace before a celebratory meal. No big deal. Thank God for the blessing of their life together and for the opportunity to gather and celebrate with good friends and family. Pray for the couple, and for all married couples that their love and faithfulness may grow, and that they may be a blessing to the world. Give thanks for the food, for the people who prepared it, and ask God to bless it.
I remember the sense of relief when I left the office with my prayer complete. Thank God he didn’t give me something complicated to pray about… some situation of crisis or grief or tragedy… Thank God he didn’t describe one of those pastoral situations in which it’s hard to know what to say to the people, let alone what to pray to God for them and with them.
Of course, I’ve been in many of those more difficult situations in the years since that nerve-wracking little prayer assignment. And what I have discovered over and over again, in hospital rooms and waiting rooms, in crisis and in grief and in anxiety, is that my ability to string a bunch of prayer-type words together is not really what it’s all about. But it’s about being present, and being surrounded by the Spirit, and asking for God’s help, and letting the Spirit guide the words and the silences, the tears and the touch.
This morning’s reading from the eighth chapter of Romans assures us of the activity of the Spirit in the lives of believers. It offers concrete hope to those who are 2000 years removed from the vibrant activities of the second chapter of Acts. The Holy Spirit of God is still present and still active in our lives, and very specifically in our prayers.
Paul writes: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” When words escape us, or our prayers become a repetitive rambling, when we do not know what to pray for, or when our weeping leaves no space for words or even coherent thought, it is the Spirit that helps us in our weakness. It is the Spirit who intercedes, who prays for us with sighs too deep for words.
The characters in Raymond Carver’s “A Small Good Thing” live “with sighs too deep for words.” This short story by one of America’s greatest writers is about Scotty, who is hit by a car while walking to school the week of his eighth birthday. His mother, Ann Weiss, has already gone to the local bakery and ordered a special cake for the birthday boy.
Everything had seemed right in the world of Ann and Howard Weiss. But everything changes in their world as Scotty is taken to the hospital and slips deeper and deeper into a coma. Raymond Carver takes the reader into the pain and bondage of the Weisses’ agony, an agony that Paul knew as he wrote to the church in Rome. In Romans 8, the apostle foretells a future glory, but he is mindful of the “groaning” and “sighs” that belong to the “children of God” in the present age.
You see, we live in the “in between” time – the time between the announcement by Jesus of the coming Kingdom of God and its final completion. We have received “the first fruits of the Spirit” and yet we “groan” because we still await the “redemption of our bodies.” Paul’s explanation in this passage navigates the choppy waters of now and not yet, of the present time and the time when all that plagues the “children of God” will be conquered “through him who loved us.” The apostle acknowledges that “in hope we were saved.” We hope for that which is not seen, and “we wait for it with patience.”
In Raymond Carver’s poignant story, patience is not evident. The baker is anxious for Scotty’s birthday cake to be picked up and paid for; the Weisses are full of anxiety as they hope for what they do not see in their coma-bound young son; and the medical staff impatiently searches for answers. All of Carver’s characters are hopeful, but none is patient.
Anyone who has lived through such a crisis knows that it is no comfort to deny the present suffering by focusing on the hoped-for future glory. In an ironic way, reflections on the future must be postponed, even as it is the hoped-for future that pulls the Christian through this present time with all its groaning, pain, weakness, and sighs too deep for words.
As Christians, we walk together through the darkest valleys, and we boldly claim in faith, hope, and love that the “Spirit helps us in our weakness.” And this strong assurance comes to us even when “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” When we cannot find words, the Spirit, according to Paul, is one with us in our “sighs.”
The presence of the Spirit in the time of suffering is an ever-present reminder that God is present with us always. Paul anticipates fully the work of the Trinity: God searches the heart, loves us in Jesus Christ, and knows the mind of the Spirit. Finally, in our weakness, God is present with us in the one “who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.”
Raymond Carver’s short story ends with Scotty’s death and a vision of the redemption and wholeness that will characterize God’s future. And Scotty’s grieving, anger-filled parents find redemption and wholeness, at least for a moment, at the bakery in a late afternoon visit with the baker who had been phoning over and over again, requesting that they pick up and pay for Scotty’s birthday cake.
The baker apologizes for the incessant calls and breaks open a rich dark loaf of bread. Ann and Howard partake of the rich dark bread, and the baker tells them that eating is a “small good thing” in a time of groaning, in a time of “sighs too deep for words.” The baker listened to Scotty’s parents, and they to him.
In a reflection on Romans 8, Clayton Schmit notices that the text is full of angst: groaning and travail, unfulfilled longing, unseen hope, and concerns too deep for words. And so Clayton goes looking for the location of the text’s promise. The good news that he discovers, he explains in terms of what Peter Storey has called the great nevertheless of God.
Storey developed this idea while serving as bishop of the Methodist Church in South Africa during the struggle against apartheid. Even while surrounded by the strong-armed agents of repression, Storey knew that the Holy Spirit was active in his country.
The government had all the power; nevertheless, God was with the poor in South Africa. The South African regime did not hesitate to use force in order to stop rebellion; nevertheless, Storey, along with Desmond Tutu and others, led the black South Africans in a peaceful revolution. The odds were heavily against the peaceful revolution; nevertheless, with God on their side, they were victorious. In the end, there was strong temptation to retaliate; nevertheless, God gave them a means of forgiving enemies and forming a reconciled nation. No matter what the odds, if God is in something, no obstacle can block the great nevertheless of God.
Paul’s words to the church in Rome can give us the same kind of hope. We may live in difficult times; nevertheless, God is guiding creation through the pains to a future fulfillment of promise. We do not see the hope that we hold to; nevertheless, it is this hope that saves us and for which we are given patience to endure. The Spirit is not always as visibly active in the church as we might desire; nevertheless, the Spirit is unceasingly attentive to our pleading, even to the point of bringing our prayers home to God when we are unable to articulate them for ourselves. We may not know what God has in store for us; nevertheless, the Spirit knows the mind of God and leads us towards the will of the One who made us for God’s own purposes.
On this day of Pentecost, when we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples, we remember and celebrate the Spirit’s presence and help in our lives and in the church today. As we continue to pray together, may the Spirit intercede for us with sighs too deep for words. And as we gather at the Table of the Lord, may the Spirit fill our words and our prayers and our actions, that we might experience Christ’s presence with us in the feast. Amen.