With Groans too Deep for Words
The work of Christ did not end with Easter -- even though Easter was one of God's greatest moments. Christ's resurrection from the dead on Easter stands as one of the great turning points in the world's history. But, Easter was not the end. Fifty days later -- after the resurrection, after Thomas' doubts were silenced, after one more breakfast beside the Sea, after the long walk on the Road to Emmaus -- fifty days later came Pentecost.
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came. It did not simply arrive, nor did it knock politely at the door so that it might pay a visit. Instead, the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples gathered there in the Upper Room. It fell on them with the sound of a rushing wind, appearing as tongues of fire resting on each one. And they began to testify to the work of Christ -- not for themselves or each other. They began to testify to the work of Christ so that people from many nations who were gathered in Jerusalem could understand, each is his or her own language, about the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Today, we mark Pentecost Day, the day we call the Birth of the Church. On this day, the power that was in Jesus Christ was given to the disciples so that they-back-then and we-today might witness with power to the Good News of Jesus.
What if God picked you out of all the people on the planet, like the Grand Prize winner in the Lottery Mega Millions drawing -- with a check for all the riches of the Holy Spirit written just to you? Would you receive it with happy excitement and anticipation? Or would you rather not be at home that day, hoping that God would take it on to the next person on the list?
Darryll started me thinking about this question last Sunday in his sermon; it was just a passing question he raised. But, it got me to thinking: What if the gift of the Holy Spirit with all its expectations is the gift we’d rather not receive? Thank you, anyway. Would you prefer to say, “NO”? Thus, we miss the fullness of the grace and the power God has to offer for living in this day, at this time in human history. If we knew what God is offering, I wonder if we might re-think our reluctance and instead receive God’s gift gladly. Let me tell you what I see, then you decide.
I. We are heirs of a vast treasure and yet many live in spiritual poverty. We are offered the gifts of the Holy Spirit and its energizing power, and yet we live unaware of our birthright as followers of Christ.
In Romans 8, Paul is now talking in the most positive terms about God’s people in Christ. He paints a picture of what Christians have to look forward to becoming. To paraphrase Paul:
All Creation will one day be set free from its slavery to decay and will share the glorious freedom of the children of God. For now, all of creation groans with pain, like the pain of childbirth. We, along with all Creation, wait for God to make us his children and set us free.
But, what is freedom? We Americans, of all people, should know what freedom is, but much of the time, our sense of freedom is impoverished. The ads on TV suggest to us that in America freedom is another word for *CONTROL*:
--the authority to use a Gold credit card that is going to impress clerks at fancy stores;
--control to inspire and direct those who work for us;
--control enough to ride the big wave on that surfboard you’re taking to the beach this summer.
But, the authority to control other people and the world around us is not freedom. The freedom Paul describes is experienced as release – release from slavery and decay. Ernest Kurtz described release as:
+ “The chains falling away,”
+ “a light going on,”
+ “a weight lifted,” or
+ “something giving way.”
He went on to say: Release is not an experience of triumph because “I did it!” Release instead is an experience of awe and wonder: “I somehow see what I never saw before!” Thus, we do not control our freedom (as the American way), instead we receive it (as God’s way). It reveals itself as a gift of God (4).
As long we are convinced that there is nothing we need from God – no peace, no hope, no light shining in the darkness – then there is nothing God can give us. We must realize the extent to which our lives are defined and limited and controlled:
+by the lifestyles we pursue;
+by the questions that we ask;
+by the celebrities that we choose to honor;
+by the market price which determines the ultimate value of absolutely everything for us.
These could be called the “little gods” that demand our obedience. We Americans, who define our freedom as control, accept control from all of these things. But, from all of these controlling things the great God of heaven and earth would give us release and freedom.
B. Paul said in the scripture:
19 All of creation waits with eager longing for God to reveal his children.
There is hope that creation itself will one day be set free from its slavery to decay and will share the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8.21).
One Sunday long ago, I got a sharp lesson in the meaning of Paul’s words. The retired preacher in my congregation greeted me after worship; he was clearly upset. “You only prayed for us,” he said. I didn’t understand. I mumbled something about praying for the people who had gathered in church that day, still trying to figure out why he was so upset. He got to the point: “You don’t have the right to pray only for this congregation.” He went on: “This community, this world -- even though it may never enter the doors of a church – is helped because this congregation gathers on Sunday to pray. Every time we pray, we must pray for the world beyond our doors. Whether they care or not, they depend on the prayers of the church.”
The world’s release from slavery into freedom depends on the revealing of God’s children.
III. Paul goes on to say that it is through prayer that we approach God with the help of the Holy Spirit to ask for God’s freedom.
26 In the same way the Spirit also comes to help us, weak as we are. For we do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit himself pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express.
Theologian Margaret Miles describes prayer as “a habit of interior attentiveness.” It is also a response to the realization, the discovery, that we are not in charge, not in control, not God. As Therese of Lisieux recognized, “Prayer arises, if at all, from our incompetence, otherwise there is no need for it” (7).
We do not know how we ought to pray. The Spirit of God comes to do what we cannot. It prays for us when life leaves us speechless with rage or sorrow or fear. The Spirit prays for us when we do not have the words to pray.
Again, the American desire to be control of everything – including our prayers. We believe that we can figure this prayer thing out. We can get the right words. We can stand in the right place. Our prayers will be heard. But, Paul acknowledges that often we are incompetent in praying.
+There are times when the need is too great for us to catch it in our hands.
+There are times when the truth is too painful to face completely;
+There are times when the need is too great for human words to express.
At such times, the Holy Spirit steps forward to speak the prayer that must be said.
[ILLUS: The prayer for Single Mothers, Mothers Day 2002]
I like to find a church when I’m vacation, and I like to find a church whose worship is different from what we would call “normal.” One particular vacation, we were away at the beach on Mother’s Day.
As the service began, we stood up to sing the opening hymn and didn’t stop singing or sit down for 30 minutes. It was one of those churches. After the pastor let us sit down, he started to recognize all the mothers in the congregation: the oldest, youngest, newest, most children, from farthest north (Montreal), from farthest south (Virgin Islands). One mother expressed disappointment that she hadn’t won any of these categories, so he added one for *mothers from a nearby town whose husband is named George*; she stood up and waved to everyone like she had won first prize. We clapped for each one as if she was a celebrity herself. If you are already hoping that I don’t get any ideas for next Mothers Day, you haven’t heard the half of it.
Then, the pastor announced that he was particularly concerned for single mothers. He wanted to have a special prayer for single mothers, so he asked them to stand. As he waited, I wondered to myself, “Are you sure about this? It appeared that this preacher didn’t know anything about social correctness. As you know, some single mothers have wonderful stories, but others can have stories that are painful for them and for their families. Is he offering an extra blessing for single mothers or singling them out?” If a single mother had come to church hoping to blend in with the crowd, she was out of luck in that church. Sure enough, some unlikely mothers stood up:
+the mother who was way too young to be a mother,
+the young mother sitting beside her own mother who stood because her mother announced to everyone that her daughter was shy because the daddy wasn’t with her again today.
Next, at the pastor’s urging, these single mothers came forward to stand at the front of the church. Then, he called women from the congregation to stand with these single mothers as he led them in prayer. As he prayed, a knot of women stood near me, gathered around the mother who was way too young to be a mother. As he prayed, they prayed aloud, too. And then I heard it; one of the prayers was spoken in tongues -- very softly. If I hadn’t been close I would have never heard it. All those voices lifted in prayer; all that love surrounding these mothers.
It was a moment of Pentecost. In the words of the prayers and the strong, loving hands laid on those single mothers, the Spirit of God was poured out and rested on many gathered in that place.
As I left the church that day, I thought to myself: “This is what the church is about: gathering up and welcoming all the kinds of mothers and all the kinds of people God leads into the house wherever you worship.
Imagine with Paul, a world marked and healed by the presence and the work of a Pentecost Church. Imagine a world where Christians and whole churches are in prayer for the healing of the divisions that hinder us. Paul could imagine all this. And further, he invited the Church of Jesus to be that Church. The world waits with breathless impatience for us to claim the gift and the Spirit that God is providing.
2. Rondeau, Rev. Dan. "Come, Holy Spirit."
4. Kurtz, Ernest and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection, pp. 164f.
7. Therese of Lisieux, quoted by Tugwell. Ways of Imperfection, p. 229.