Harrowing Of Hell
May 24, 2015

Pentecost Sunday

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

Acts 2:1–21; Romans 8:22–27; John 15:26–27, 16:4b–15

How many of you are really comfortable in the Episcopal Church? Not so sure? Still making up your mind. I’m a cradle Episcopalian. That means I was born into this tradition, baptized as an infant, and raised in such a way that these prayers, this hymnal, this particular way of worshiping God is as familiar as the back of my hand and as soothing as a home cooked meal surrounded by lifelong friends.

Upon hearing the gospel text earlier this week, however, the words “Advocate” and “testify” made me a little uncomfortable. Despite coming from an extended family of lawyers, this kind of legal language in scripture seems jarring. I prefer thinking of the Holy Spirit as the Old Testament ruach meaning “breath, wind, or spirit;” not an authority figure testifying on Christ’s behalf in some sort of cosmic courthouse. Other translations weren’t much better, offering instead of “Advocate,” either “Friend” or “Helper.” I don’t care for those much either.

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘When the Advocate comes,” ‘When the Friend comes,’ ‘When the Helper comes,’ ‘…the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.”

And that got me thinking about testifying, giving a witness, sharing your testimony—which is also something that makes good Episcopalians squirm in their pews, right? You don’t have to answer that. Just silently nod if you agree, or wiggle an eyebrow maybe.

To get some clarification on this, I went directly to the source and asked a self-proclaimed evangelical. She told me that “giving a testimony” could be sharing a story of how the Holy Spirit has been at work in your life. “So it’s kind of like sharing a really real moment?” I asked. “Sure,” she replied.

A really real moment, for those who may not know is a moment you never forget. They are specific. They are a feeling, and yet more than a feeling. They are a confluence of our personhood, of our temporal and eternal being, all together, fully integrated in a flash. They are moments when life’s circumstances, our heart’s desire, our mind’s attention, our body’s feelings, our community’s support, our soul’s purpose, and God’s presence are all know to us fully at the same time, in a providential instant that is permanently embossed upon our hearts.

Telling that story is giving your testimony. Sharing a really real moment with friends. And that doesn’t have to be scary, not even for Episcopalians.

This past week, I have been asking people to tell me about a time when the Holy Spirit was at work in their life and I have been getting some great answers.

One person shared a twenty-year-old story of middle-school bullying: a story in which she and another girl conspired against a mutual friend, an undesirable and awkward teen, casting her out of the group. The remaining friend then went on to repeat the pattern, leaving this woman alone in a sea of adolescence, a rejected rejecter. While walking through a crowd one afternoon, she heard a powerful voice, the voice of God say to her by name, “I will never reject you.”

For her, that was a turning point. That was a really real moment. That was her testimony to me.

While you are thinking of your own really real moment, I want to share one more with you. I said to a close friend the other day, “Tell me of a time when the Holy Spirit was at work in your life.” Without missing a beat or even stopping to think about it, she said, “when my dad was in the hospital and we got to California, Marta was there. She showed up at the front door.”

I immediately knew the power of that sentence, the presence of the Holy Spirit between the lines. Because I know that her father was young and died from that accident only days later. I know that Marta is her best friend in the world who lives in Minnesota and by coincidence was in California when her friend needed her more than anything. I know that my friend believes God was present, through the pain of losing her father. And the Holy Spirit was there in the presence and company of her friend Marta who was at her side through no great coincidence.

That was a really real moment and that was her testimony. What is your testimony?

As we marched in festival procession this morning, we sang:

Blow, thou cleansing wind from heaven,
Burn, thou fire, within our hearts.
Spirit of the Lord, possess us,
Fill our lives in every part.

We want to feel the Holy Spirit. We long for that cleansing wind from heaven to blow in and shake things up in our lives. We yearn for that fire, the Spirit of God, to burn brightly in our own hearts, particularly when we are feeling alone, or sad, or wounded.

The second verse says, “Be our strength, who are but frail.” When we are feeling frail, raw and vulnerable against the changes and challenges of this life, we want to know that the Holy Spirit abides inside us. We want reassurance that the Holy Spirit is in the world, That She is truly all around us.

Last Sunday was the Feast of the Ascension, an important theological day because the ascension is the guarantee of Christian destiny. It means that God’s promise is realized in the pouring out of the Spirit by the risen/ascended Christ. Through the ascension, we have received the Holy Spirit and are now witnesses to Christ. The Spirit of God, you see, has already been loosed in the world. She’s out there spreading like wild fire, blowing as the wind. After receiving communion today, you will each receive a candle to light from the Paschal candle, the Light of Christ.

We lit that candle in the new fire at Easter and it has burned these Fifty Days. You will each light your own candle from it signifying the Pentecostal fire divided and shared in community. As we leave, at the end of the service, I will extinguish the Paschal candle. By doing so, we are reminded that the risen and ascended Christ, though gone from our sight, is still present in the Holy Spirit.

And now, we are commissioned to go out into the world to spread the light of Christ, symbolized by our lit candles. The commissioning happened historically at Pentecost when the church was birthed out of fire and the spirit. It happens individually and also communally at each baptism when we are again commissioned and called by name through baptism, as Boardie will be this morning.

The hymn text also reads:

Fill thy church, inspire and strengthen,
Chasten, mould, empower and lead.
Make us one, and make us joyful,
Give us grace for every need.
Be our life, build firm thy kingdom,

What an impassioned cry and beautiful prayer to ask of God, especially from a church community worshiping together on Pentecost. The Spirit of God is already loose in the world. We are merely taking the light out to meet the Spirit that is already running around.

The spirit is ever present with us—all the time. We are asking for that to be made strong, to be made clear, to be made manifest in our lives through those really real moments.

This fire burns within us always. I know that it does. So, what is your testimony?