Welcome to Pentecost Sunday! It’s time to celebrate the birth of the church and our mission of proclamation and service in the world. Before Jesus ascended from this plane of existence, he promised to send the Spirit to empower the church’s witness to the good news that God’s kingdom is at hand. Just a few days later, Jesus’ followers were hanging out in an upper room in Jerusalem, when a mighty wind of the Spirit blew through the room, inspiring the people to break forth in praise. This small group of disciples began to preach the gospel in languages they had never learned. The crowd that gathered in the square below was amazed. They wanted to know more about Jesus, and so Peter got up and preached. By the end of the sermon, some three thousand people asked to be baptized. This is the story of Pentecost in a nutshell!
Yesterday morning many of you may have watched the royal wedding. If you did, you got to hear the gospel of Jesus preached. I only caught the end of the sermon, but I heard Bishop Michael Curry preach about the power of love that comes through Jesus. That sermon went out to millions, if not a billion people. That sermon was a bit like Pentecost!
We are the fruit of that first Pentecost sermon that began the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit, who would inspire his followers to take the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). That message gets delivered in a variety of ways, including a sermon preached at a royal wedding.
The word we hear this morning from Paul is an extension of the promise of Pentecost. Peter told the people that if they turned away from their old life and were baptized, they would receive forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38). We gather today as people of the Spirit. Paul tells us that this Spirit, who indwells us, intercedes with God on our behalf. This is especially true when life so overwhelms us that we can’t find words to speak to God.
This is a word about prayer. When it comes to prayer, it seems as if some people have more agility than others. I’ve read about people who get up early in the morning and spend several hours on their knees in prayer. I’m not one of those people. In fact, when it comes to prayer, I can get distracted and struggle to find words to speak. At the same time, I know that prayer is one of the foundations of the Christian life. Even if we struggle in our prayers, we can pray to God, because, as Julian of Norwich puts it, “his goodness is full and complete, and in it there is nothing lacking” [Devotional Classics, p. 71].
We may not always know what to say to God, but the promise here is that God knows our hearts. Even if we struggle with our words or our attention span, the Spirit is there to assist us in this important conversation with God. Since each of us is different, we’ll each find our own ways of entering this relationship. Brother Lawrence wrote a famous book on prayer titled The Practice of the Presence of God, in which he shared how to pray in all circumstances. He writes this word of encouragement:
If sometimes my thoughts wander from God because of necessity, I am recalled back to God soon after by inward sensations so charming and delicious that I am afraid to speak of them. [Devotional Classics, p. 84].
In other words, the Spirit is there to call us into conversation, even when we are engaged in the most menial of tasks.
We know that prayer is an essential part of the Christian life, but what happens when we find ourselves so overwhelmed by life that we simply don’t have words to speak. We might not even have clear thoughts. So, what do we do?
We have all experienced those moments. It might be the unexpected death of a loved one. It might have been the loss of a job and the fear that goes with that. What do you say to God when life seems so unfair?
It’s not only our personal lives that cause us grief. It might be the world that seems in such disarray that we can’t see a way forward. As I wrote the sermon earlier this week, I had in mind the violence in Gaza, and the inability to find a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has raged for longer than I’ve been alive. But then on Friday, a student walked into his high school in Santa Fe, Texas, and began shooting, leaving eight students and two teachers dead, with others wounded. These shootings have become so commonplace that we don’t know what to do or say or even pray. We feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of the violence. So, how do we pray when words fail?
Here is the word that Paul delivers in Romans 8: “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.” Yes, God can interpret our sighs and groans, which frees us to enter into God’s peace and find healing of heart and mind.
Before Paul makes a declaration about the Spirit interceding “with sighs too deep for words,” he speaks of creation itself “groaning in labor pains until now,” even as we “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption.” In other words, we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are part of something that is cosmic in dimension, and the Spirit knows how to interpret both the groans of creation and our sighs when life becomes overwhelming. Amos Yong puts it this way: “the Spirit is present to inspire creaturely prayer amidst the suffering, decay and bondage of this age that is passing away.” [Spirit of Love, p. 122]. This is the kind of prayer that has a future orientation. It’s the kind of prayer that inspires actions. When the Spirit begins to intercede, we are empowered so we can collaborate in God’s work of reconciliation. Prayer is about hope, and hope is something we don’t see, at least not immediately. Creation groans in anticipation of our redemption, so that creation might be redeemed. That is because, what we do as human beings affect what happens to creation.
In this reading from Romans 8, Paul speaks of the prayers that emerge when we can’t see the full picture. This kind of prayer requires a different vantage point. We live most of our lives at ground level. This limits what we can see. Our vision is influenced by buildings and trees and canyon walls. But if we climb a mountain or even a hill, we can get a broader view of things.
When we were living in Santa Barbara, we did a lot of hiking in the canyons and in the hills that surrounded the city. As you might expect, the view from the canyons is very different from what you can see from the mountain top. So, on occasion we would climb up to Inspiration Point, which sat above the city. That promontory offers a great view of the city and the entire coastline. We could look down on the city below us and see our house and the church. We could see the spire of the Arlington Theater, as well as Santa Barbara High School, the Mission, and Stearns Wharf. We could look out across the Santa Barbara Channel and see the boats sail its waters and spy the islands sticking up out of the fog. When the Spirit intercedes on our behalf, it’s a bit like standing on the mountaintop and seeing that broader picture. The Spirit can see things that we cannot and can bring those deep concerns, the ones we can’t even see, but we feel, to God, who knows our hearts and wants to partner with us in the ministry of the kingdom.
So, whatever form our groans and sighs take, it is good to know that God hears and understands, even when we aren’t sure what to say or how to say it. It doesn’t matter whether we even understand what the Spirit hears and shares on our behalf. The Good News is that God hears, and God empowers us to share in the ministry of reconciliation, so that creation itself might experience redemption. It is, as Amos Yong puts it: “The Spirit who binds human creatures with the life of the resurrected one is the same Spirit who redeems the world and overcomes the powers of sin, hate, and death.” [Spirit of Love, p. 124]. To this prayer of the Spirit we can add our AMEN!
Therefore, in the power and the presence of God’s spirit, let us celebrate the coming of the Spirit upon us in power and in love!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
May 20, 2018