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The Spirit Blows

John 16:4-14; Luke 24:50-53

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

Pentecost calls us to focus on the Holy Spirit in our lives. In most mainline congregations like ours, the Holy Spirit is the shadowy figure in the Trinity, underrepresented in our hymns, preaching and personal devotion. We pray to God the Father and to God the Son but rarely do we pray to God the Holy Spirit.

In our gospel reading for today, John writes that Jesus says he is going to leave and the disciples need to understand it is to their advantage. Luke writes that when Jesus leaves for good the disciples return to Jerusalem feeling great joy. That is not what we would expect.

Shouldn’t they be sad? At the Sojourners Retreat earlier this month, Joy led us to focus on the meaning of home. Weren’t we sad when we moved from our childhood home in Chinatown to our new ones in the Richmond or Sunset districts? Our son and daughter were sad when we sold our house where they grew up in Malvern, Pennsylvania to come to San Francisco in 1998. They still often speak about it.

Jesus is leaving. The days of traveling with him, seeing the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see—those days are gone. Shouldn’t they be heartbroken? Wouldn’t you be heartbroken? When someone we love leaves, they leave a hole inside us that seems like it will never be filled. The disciples have to face life without Jesus, and yet they return to Jerusalem and throw a party. How could this be?

Maybe for once the disciples remembered what Jesus had said: “It is to your advantage that I go away.” They had been given notice that Jesus would go and the Spirit would come.

According to three of the gospels, when Jesus first talked about leaving, the disciples were frightened and angry: “Jesus, this can’t be. Don’t say that again.” Then they had been through the pain of the cross and the ecstasy of Easter. We expect them to beg Jesus to stay, “We can’t lose you again.”

Yet, they seem happy. They apparently believe that it really is to their advantage for Jesus to leave. During Jesus’ ministry, each time he disappears the disciples are terrified. Their hearts pound with childish anxiety until they find Jesus again, praying by himself, wondering why they are worried. Jesus tells them that the best disciples live with faith: “Have you believed because you’ve seen me? Blessed are those who haven’t seen and yet believe.” Jesus goes so they can grow up.

Jesus tells them, “If I don’t go away, the Comforter won’t come to you; but if I go, I’ll send the Spirit.” The Spirit will live in the hearts and minds of this fearing little band of disciples. They will become holy people. They will live with love, joy, and faith.

Spirit Comes in the Church

Sure enough, it is after Jesus is gone that some of the best stuff happens. There are many more books in the New Testament after the Gospel of John. If you quit reading when Jesus leaves the disciples, then you miss the Spirit that leads the church to act like Jesus. It’s after Jesus is gone that the wind blows, the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, sons and daughters prophesy, the young see visions, and the old dream dreams. It’s after Jesus is gone that the church sells their possessions to give to the poor, gathers each day for prayer and the Lord’s Supper, and challenges the powers that be with a different vision of what success means.

Jesus never gave the disciples a business plan for how to be a successful church. He gave them an example of how to give your life away. With Jesus as the model of what the church can be, the disciples do the same things they saw Jesus do. They loved, shared and gave. They are the body of Christ.

The disciples are our spiritual ancestors, but it does not always feel like it. Sometimes we forget that the same Spirit that blew through the disciples still blows.

We are tempted to get comfortable and block out any invading thought that dares us to think about who we could be. We have an infinite capacity for sidestepping challenges that demand new ideas and commitments.

We are tempted to be content with little dreams and limited expectations. Part of us wants to believe that we are incapable of making a difference, caring for hurting people, being made new by the Spirit.

We are tempted to accept a second-rate faith, to keep a safe distance from that which requires us to grow, to love only the people who love us. We are tempted to focus on the past expecting it to be repeated when we could look forward and be surprised by the possibilities. We are tempted to focus on our limitations when we could dream dreams. We have a lot of growing up to do.

But it is easier to go through the motions, to ignore the prompting of the Wind. The problem is that ignoring the Spirit is listening to Muzak or your oldies but goodies channel on Pandora when you could be singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

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God calls us to feel the fresh wind of the Spirit, to break out of tired ways of thinking, and to go beyond where we are. If God’s grace is filling adventure in all the rooms of our church here in Chinatown, then why are most of us spending our time hanging around the doorway?

God invites us to live with the Spirit. In John’s gospel the first question the disciples ask Jesus is “Where do you live?” The final answer is “within you.” God blesses us with God’s presence.

That is why we are here. At our best, we are not here because we think the church serves a useful function in society; not here because we enjoy the company of like-minded individuals; not here because of anything we can touch or see or explain. At our best we are here because we have known moments when the wind blows.

Wind Breezes

Sometimes we mistakenly watch only for gale force winds like that in Acts 2, but the wind of the Spirit is more often a breeze. One of the ancient Hebrew words for God is ruach. My Old Testament professor Phyllis Trible used to tell us to pronounce it with a lot of air coming deep down our chests! Ruach! The word means wind.

The wind of God was said to have brooded over the chaos in the story of creation, waiting to bring life into being. God is an invigorating force, a spirit, a wind, the breath of hope. Pentecost is not usually the church in a tornado, but in the gentle refreshing presence of the Spirit. Every day there are enlivening moments when the wind blows for anyone paying attention.

We open our church front doors and with very little encouragement, visitors to San Francisco and neighbors running errands stop and come into our sanctuary and just for a few seconds feel the breeze of Spirit hospitality.

A Sunday school teacher listens to a 9-year old talking about what it means to be a Christian. She says, “Yes, that’s it,” and thinks she might have heard the whistle of the Spirit.

A homeless man who looks a bit like Jesus comes in to share in our abundance and just for a few minutes to feel that he is safe from others who might want to take from him and then quickly leaves. We wonder if the Spirit has blown in an angel for us to entertain.

A volunteer rocks a baby in our nursery. He pulls a shirt up around the baby’s chin because he feels a breeze.

As aunties and uncles, we play someone else’s mommy and daddy to a junior high youth. “Where were you last Sunday?” We ask, “Don’t you know you’re supposed to be here?” It’s never completely calm in the youth room.

The Thailand Mission Team is hurrying to invite sponsors and supporters by going on social media and planning to have a Sunday lunch fundraiser. Going on faith, they trust that the Spirit will watch over them.

A small group of seniors gathers every year before Christmas to put together ditty bags of toiletries and inspirational devotions so that the Seafarers Ministry in Oakland can invite the Spirit to deliver these small gifts to sailors far away from home.

Many of our fellowship groups volunteer at the different food banks sorting and packing donated food to feed the hungry. The wind that blew through the garden will blow all the way to the dinner table.

We may have first learned 1, 2, 3 in Chinese but we were able to learn 1, 2, 3 in English. But the wind blew from the many places in Asia, from west to east and people landed in San Francisco. When we teach at Friday Night School, we felt the gentle breeze when the students learned their 1, 2, 3 in English.

Before surgery, four people gather around the hospital bed for prayer. The pastor prays for a successful surgery in the hands of gifted surgeons and nurses. He prays for God to bring wholeness and recovery for the patient. And suddenly, the patient feels a gust of wind in the hospital.

This year’s Day Camp directors and counselors are planning and receiving training and reviewing the growing list of names of children planning to fill every room in our church building for 6 weeks. They are anxious and wondered if they are prepared. But then they heard words of encouragement from Pastor Visal and the Spirit is felt.

Seniors are planning their annual retreat and seeking the Holy Spirit to plan something new even after they have done this many times before. The Spirit stirs among them.

The young families of a fellowship group are busy in their own particular lives with more than enough reasons to be excused from assuming any more responsibilities hear the Spirit for them to always be inviting of new couples and young families to join them to which they are very blessed.

For over 15 years, eggs are scrambled, waffles are pressed, tatter tots are fried, and Lanna Coffee is served. What can it be but the Holy Spirit that led these kitchen saints to do what they have done!

For the love of the game, guys leave their work early and homes to coach kids to hit the basket or bat the ball by hoping the wind would help them score.

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Many golfers will strike the little white ball with the faith that the wind would take it all the way onto the green because they know that children and youth will benefit this summer from the funds they will be contributing.

An eighty-five-year old can’t take care of herself anymore. A fifty-year-old who is not related by blood cares for her like a family. He is the breeze that comes through the open window at the nursing home.

A dentist treats a child whose parents can’t pay their bill. A breeze gusts through the dentist’s office.

A counselor spends extra time with a troubled married couple. The wife thought there was no chance, but then she feels a wind, a spirit that feels like hope.

A pastor talks with a widow who is still mourning over the sudden loss of her husband is beginning to feel each new day is a promise of tomorrow. The Spirit is beginning to fill the emptiness in her life.

I don’t believe any of us knew one person in Nepal when the earthquakes devastated that country. But the Spirit led you to contribute over $4500 to the relief efforts.

When I went to Northeast India to preach at the convention of the Council of Baptist Churches, I just thought that I was an outside speaker. I come, see, preach and come home. But to my great surprise and in hindsight not unexpected, the Holy Spirit united my life with the Baptist people in Northeast India. I met this couple, Imna, the principal of Harding Theological College where I spoke at the commencement and his wife, Ke-Lang. She was the one who took care of my vegetarian meals. When I had breakfast in their home, I met their daughter Wendy who I believe has epilepsy. The Spirit is still stirring in my heart of what I might be able to do for this teenage girl and these lovely parents.

Just over a month ago, we came together for a “Mission Day in Chinatown.” Afterward, a number of you came up and shared how the Spirit is calling you to volunteer your time to make a difference in this community.

Even as we are feeling the tensions of the differences of opinions and understandings as a church, the Deacons and church leaders are praying to God for the Holy Spirit to blow among us to be open minded and committed to a possible amicable solution. The Deacons are now working on a “road map” with specific dates of events that we may take to move toward a hopefully informed and faithful decision.

Two Billion Christians

All of us would have loved to live while Jesus was alive. To sit at his feet and absorb the powerful words of the parables, to experience firsthand the healing of a man born blind, to marvel at his authority over death, demons, and the gathered crowds, and to feel the intimacy of God in his presence. Nothing would compare with that experience. But now Jesus tells his disciples that it will be even better when he is gone. Jesus promises that because he is going to the Father and sending the Spirit to take his place, his disciples will experience greater works than he did on earth (14:12). How can that be?

The giving of the Spirit of Jesus to the church and the world allows Jesus to be everywhere at once. In his physical flesh Jesus was limited by space and time, but now in the age of the Spirit, Jesus can be working in Nepal, in Thailand, and San Francisco all at the same time. Do you know that there are now 2 billion Christians in the world scattered across continents on a globe? This is 40 times larger than the size of the Roman Empire at that time. It’s the Holy Spirit that is leading us.

The breeze of divine grace blows upon us. Every time God’s outlandish love makes its way into our hearts, the wind of the Spirit blows. The Spirit leads us to the hungry, thirsty, hurting brothers and sisters. Every time we stop just feeling sympathetic and act on what we know is right, every time we hold firmly to the thought that each one of us can do something to bring some portion of misery in the world to an end, every time we open our church, our doors, or our hearts wider than before, the Spirit blows.

When we welcome the stranger, embrace an enemy, or respect someone that is different from us, then winds blow and the church is born.

The Spirit is blowing in First Chinese Baptist Church. All those with eyes to see and ears to hear know the signs of the ruach wind, though sometimes just a small breeze, enough for us to know that God is with us.

Let us pray.

Spirit of God, fill our hearts. Make known your presence. When we cannot speak, speak for us. When we cannot cry out, cry out for us. When words fail us, give us your words. We are thankful that you intercede for us and go to the Father on our behalf. Lift our spirits when they are downcast, give us strength when we have none and continue to whisper truth in our hearts when we have forgotten the promises of God. Thank you, Lord and may the Holy Spirit blows in your work in our lives. Amen.

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