Pentecost 2016: Dancing with the Spirit

Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, 25-27

I struggled all week with these words: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” and “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

And I admit that I came no closer to understanding the advanced calculus of the Trinity than I was before. I cannot explain the Holy Spirit, so I wrestled in my uncertainty, and I came here this morning with a very simple message. I came here this morning to say, in the words of Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

The fire, the Holy Spirit, has indeed always burning since the world’s been turning. It moved over the waters at creation, it stirred the heart of Abraham, he pushed back the waters of the Red Sea, and she showed up big on Pentecost day after Jesus had ascended. The Holy Spirit has always been mysterious and undefinable, but on that day in Jerusalem it really put on a show. As Jesus’ disciples drew a crowd who came to gawk at these local people who spoke and spoke in various languages about all of those other deeds of God’s power, and each heard it in their own language.

Luke tells us as the crowd gathered around that house in Jerusalem, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’
“… others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”

It occurred to me this week that there are two things in the Pentecost story told in the Acts text today that dance — flames and people who are assumed to be drunk but are actually filled with the crazy, unpredictable, ever-present Holy Spirit, declaring with great joy what God has done. So, in essence, flames and presumably drunk persons are known to dance.

Both of those, as it were, also remind me of springtime. And so, instead of trying to explain to you what I cannot explain — namely, the Holy Spirit that’s always burning since the world’s been turning — I figured I would just tell you of a couple of times when I have felt the Spirit’s presence and explain to you something about what it felt like.


Each year during Easter Vigil at the church in Atlanta that I call home, they begin just like we begin — just like every Easter Vigil begins. They light the new fire of Easter that is then used to light the paschal candle, which burns until today — the day of Pentecost, the last day of Eastertide. This Vigil service, as many of you know, is special to me for many reasons, but most notably perhaps is that it was the first ELCA service that I ever attended. That first Vigil night, I watched the flames of the new fire dance high into that late Saturday night as we stood silent, watching, and I wondered what, exactly, I had gotten myself into.

At the beginning of the service, the flames dance, but by the end, the people take over. We were given brief instructions as we all gathered in two circles around the round altar. Step in front, step behind, step, kick, step, kick. Step in front, step behind, step, kick, step, kick.

Some of the diverse crowd gathered looked a little skeptically at the music director as she gave the instructions. I was one of them. Dance? All of us? She didn’t care. Step in front, step behind, step, kick, step, kick. “Ready?”

She began to lead us in an alleluia – [sing] “Alleluia, alleluia! Alleluia, alleluia!”

All of my skepticism melted into the rhythm as we sang and danced with joy around the altar as the flames of the paschal candle danced in time with us. Step in front, step behind, step, kick, step, kick. What joy!

Only years later did I discover the poem by W.H. Auden about his experience of Pentecost that so perfectly captured my emotions in that moment. I could not explain the Spirit’s movement in that moment, but I could echo Auden’s words: “…what do I know, except what everyone knows – if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”

And so I did.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 3.10.31 PM The Easter Vigil crowd dances at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Atlanta, GA

Presumably Drunk People

The month of May also inevitably reminds me of the glorious Atlanta spring five years ago when I graduated from seminary.

Just the other night, reading the Acts text for Pentecost here with the prayer group along with the warm air hanging over the parking lot here at the church reminded me of one night when I had been out in the warm May air in Atlanta with my friends to celebrate our graduation. We were walking out of one of our favorite little establishments after having a few beers together, laughing and enjoying our last full days together. Suddenly, a man sitting on the sidewalk lifted his arm into our lines of sight and flagged us down. In the very good spirits we were in and being the pastoral types that we were, we struck up a conversation with the man.

It turns out that his name was Melvin and he was homeless. He had his guitar and he explained to us how he’d learned to play it and that he liked to play the blues. He asked us what we did for a living. We explained that we were graduating from seminary in a few days and going on to be pastors. We didn’t have cash (hearing that we were both students and preachers, he wasn’t surprised), but we gave him the two carryout containers we had, figuring that he needed the food more than we did. He thanked us profusely and told us that he felt the Lord telling him to play for us preachers. As we joyfully clapped along, Melvin played and sang a joyful tune called “God’s been good to me.”

We clapped along as some people sneered a little as they passed us by, perhaps thinking that this man had captured these tipsy people who were only willing to listen because they’d had too much beer. And we had had some beer, but we’d also, I believe, followed the Holy Spirit in listening to Melvin and offering him company.  When he was finished, we high fived him and thanked him and wished him the best, all of us leaving in even better spirits than before, and Melvin leaving the encounter having been seen and heard and now, for a moment, no longer hungry. If Jesus is truly present in every person who needs us, Jesus had sure played us a joyful tune on his guitar that night.

“…what do I know, except what everyone knows – if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”

And so we did.

“We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.”

No, I cannot explain to you the Holy Spirit that we celebrate today in one sermon except to tell you that we didn’t start it and we can’t control it but there are times when we can feel it. And when it dances, we must dance.

You yourself, no doubt, have your own experiences of it, or perhaps you’ve spent years trying to experience it. Personally, I’ve experienced it in a few ways: in the still, small voice that people talk about, though I’ve often had my doubts about whether it was the Spirit or my own crazy mind doing the thinking. I’ve felt the Holy Spirit in the love that I have felt for and among other people. And I’ve felt it with the unspeakable joy and feeling of presence that I’ve described in these two little vignettes today.

I cannot offer any advice on how to feel the Spirit, nor do I believe that it can be controlled or felt by power of the human will. No, we didn’t start the fire. We can only pay attention when the Spirit begins to dance and will ourselves to dance too.

“…what do I know, except what everyone knows – if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”

I guess my only advice is not to overthink it when you feel that presence, but instead, rest in it, dance in it, glory in it. When he ascended, Jesus promised to be with us forever.

So look for him. Look for where Grace dances in your life, where the fire that has been burning since the beginning of time dances, and join in. Dance like the flames of Pentecost, even if people think you’re drunk. “…what do I know, except what everyone knows – if there when Grace dances, I should dance.” So let us dance, church. Let us dance. Amen.

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