It is fascinating to me to notice how the biblical texts jump off the page these days when I sit down to wonder what will preach. Something about the news of my diagnosis has changed not only my life but the life of our congregation. Some of the changes are predictable in the face of the news of incurable cancer. There is shock, sadness, anger, fear and grief. But some of the changes are ones that I would not have predicted. There is an energy, a moving towards one another, an almost tangible sense of the living hope and sure faith that we often speak of and even long for. After preaching about this for three decades I am not sure why I shouldn't have predicted this. Being rooted in trust in God's faithfulness is what one would hope to have happen in a Christian community when the pastor is diagnosed with cancer. Still, it is wonderful to discover that this is what is happening now that this kind of trouble is no longer a hypothetical situation.
Which brings me back to the texts and preaching since the news of my diagnosis hit us all hard. On Pentecost (June 12) we read, as we always do, the story of the outbreak of the Holy Spirit giving birth to a church in which every person - young or old, woman or man, labourer or intellectual - is given a voice and a language to tell of the mighty works of God. This was my thirty-first sermon on this text. I thought that I had pretty much worked it dry. But, of course, I had not. Now I noticed something I had not seen before. The story begins with the community gathered on a Jewish harvest feast day - Pentecost. It is a holiday on their calendar. Pentecost is now one of those festal days on our Christian year calendar. It has become the date to mark the birth of the church. It is organized and structured and controlled by the liturgy and custom. We know what to expect.
But, says the text, then came something like a violent wind. It doesn't name it as the Holy Spirit. It doesn't say that it was an inspiring breeze or even that it was a pleasant, heartwarming experience. The text says that they experienced something like a hurricane. We know something of that experience. It feels like a carefully organized, well structured life together has been overwhelmed by a violent wind that has turned everything upside down and blown open the future. We would not have thought to name this an incursion of the Holy Spirit. We would have been more likely to call it something like chaos or cancer than we would have gift or calling. But then I noticed that this is how it always seems to happen in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Something terrible or mysterious or odd happens. There is trouble of some sort - an arrest, a public scene, a disturbance. The trouble causes questions to be asked. In response to the questions someone from the people of the Way steps forward to explain by preaching gospel.
I notice that this is what is happening with us. A violent wind has irrupted into our life together. The wind has shaken us up pretty badly. But it has also brought with it an energy that can only be described as pentecostal in nature. The congregation has energy to respond to the trouble. There is an unmistakeable strengthening of purpose, resolve and commitment. The trouble is revealing a passion for our life together as a people of the Word. And the preacher is still preaching the gospel. In fact, he seems to be preaching it all the more (more on this in another post).
As in Acts, so with us, people beyond the congregation are wondering what is going on at University Hill Congregation. We have been contacted by friends and colleagues both near and far who want to know how we are and if they can help. It has been quite an extraordinary experience to be on the receiving end of such concern and compassion and of so much prayer. When they ask us how we are doing we find ourselves, with Peter and the other messengers in Acts, pointing to the mighty acts of God who carries us through this whirlwind called Good Friday and Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday. This incursion of the Holy Spirit has, it seems, broken us open to proclaim the message that has been forming us for all of these years together. Far from wondering how to respond to this trouble in our life together we have a surprising gospel word that sustains and nourishes us. I know, this is how it supposed to be in the church. I shouldn't be surprised, should I? I'm not sure if I am surprised so much as I am gratified to discover that what we have been saying, singing and living all of these years is so profoundly true when we need it most.