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A Mighty Wind

by Audrey West

Whenever I read episodes from the book of Acts, I can’t help wondering whether the early disciples recognized themselves as the first-century super-heroes that they appear to be rather than the everyday people that they were: fisher folk, farmers and merchants, women and men hailing from villages and cities of ancient Palestine and Asia Minor. In this second book from the author of the Gospel of Luke, we learn nothing about how those first followers of the crucified and risen Lord managed the laundry while traveling, or if it was ever a hardship to pay the rent, care for aging parents or locate a sitter for the children. Surely they faced the first-century equivalents of these challenges, but we do not hear about it in our Scriptures.

Instead we read of escapades worthy of the big screen. To be sure, no modern-day car chases, vampire love triangles or glassy-eyed aliens appear in the narrative. But plenty of astonishing events occur, nonetheless. Rather than living moment to moment like the rest of us do, those early disciples seem to have lived miracle to miracle, with one awesome experience following another. They care for the sick, speak courageously to people in power, embark on journeys to unfamiliar places, suffer catastrophes of various sorts and get out of hot water in ways that nobody could predict.

Their ability to tell the story of the God who loves the whole world comes from beyond themselves. The book really should be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit” instead of “Acts of the Apostles,” so that we might be reminded that it is the power of God that emboldens these first Christians (and others after them) to participate in the mission of Christ for the sake of the world.

I suspect that the disciples were surprised by all they accomplished as a result of that day of Pentecost when the wind danced through the crowd in Jerusalem. It was not just any wind, but the blustery, creative WHOOSH of the Holy Spirit that changed the world and marked their lives from that day forward.

That same wind-blown Spirit empowers God’s people today to love and care for others, have courage to speak truth to power, journey to uncomfortable places, endure life-altering challenges and live and speak gospel hope in a world dominated by fear.

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The Spirit’s impossible possibilities

Only seven weeks had passed since Jesus was crucified and word spread that he had been raised from the dead. It was time for the annual festival of Shavuot, or Feast of Weeks, a celebration of the recent grain harvest and remembrance of God’s covenant made with Moses and the people at Mt. Sinai. Jewish pilgrims made the trek to Jerusalem from the northern region of Galilee as well as from lands far beyond the borders. They came in order to recall the gracious, life-giving presence of God.

Jesus had promised that his followers would testify about him “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). However, he had not outlined a strategic plan for exactly how that mission would happen, nor was there a guaranteed funding source in place to cover its expense. Communication was a bit more complicated in those days, without text messages or Facebook updates, no email or second-day package delivery, not even free advertising in the local paper. Traveling more than a very few miles from home happened rarely for most people, and then only for really big occasions like the festivals at Jerusalem. If we add to those challenges the fact that much of the population lived at or barely above subsistence level and could neither read nor write, we have the ingredients for a spectacular failure in mission.

I can almost hear the voice of Glum, a character in the old television cartoon series, “Gulliver’s Travels,” who faced every challenging situation with characteristic pessimism. “We’ll never make it. We’re doomed. It’ll never work.” Is there a Glum in your church? Do you ever feel like Glum yourself? The tiny Lilliputian has a point, after all. How could a small group with so few resources and no prior experience in mission work possibly testify to the ends of the earth?

The answer was unexpectedly simple.

God brought the ends of the earth to their front door. (back to top)

An out-loud faith

Local residents and people from all over the place were present in Jerusalem that day. We need only the barest knowledge of geography to recognize this ready-made mission field just beyond the doors of the house where the believers had gathered. “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs…” (Acts 2:9–11).

These people “from the ends of the earth,” heard the testimony about God in Christ as the sounds wafted through windows, out of doors, across courtyards, down alleyways and into the streets. Perhaps the amazing thing about the first Pentecost is not simply that the disciples were able to speak in other languages, but that the Holy Spirit made it possible for them to engage in mission in this unexpected way: to live their faith out loud.

How is the Spirit prompting you or your church to be a visible and audible proclamation of God’s good news for the world, even when you feel anxious or your success seems unlikely? Whom has God brought to your “front door,” so to speak? Who needs to experience the promise that God loves them and desires life for them? What are the places in your neighborhood, workplace, or home that might be transformed by a sign of human compassion born of the Spirit’s power? Where is the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing you today, this week, this year?

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The Spirit makes us weird

When the Pentecost visitors to Jerusalem heard their native languages being spoken by Galilean peasants, they did not know what to make of it. They were bewildered by the experience, Luke writes, and then to emphasize the point, he uses three words to describe their reaction: amazed, astonished and perplexed (Acts 2:7, 12). Indeed some people sneered at what they saw and heard, accusing the believers of overindulging in wine.

Let’s face it. Sometimes it feels just plain weird to be a follower of Jesus, whether one lives in the first century or the 21st. Today, for example, the numbers of “nones” and “dones” are rising quickly in the United States; that is, those who say they have no faith tradition or belief (the “nones”) and those who were once part of the church but have left it (the “dones”). In such a context, many folks will look at you sideways with raised eyebrows when they discover that you attend to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

On top of that, it is not always easy to recognize the ways of God. Some experiences of the Spirit are powerful and dynamic, such as a surge of strength that fuels courage and confidence in the face of injustice. Others are peaceful and grounding, such as an unusual dream that offers comfort in a frightening time or one that brings clarity to a difficult choice. I can identify two such dreams in my life, and both of them continue to be a source of reassurance that God has not abandoned me even when evidence might suggest otherwise. Those dreams have made it possible for me to say “yes” to God in circumstances that I could not have faced on my own.

These varieties of spiritual experience may be difficult to interpret without the help of hindsight and a wiser, more experienced guide. In the case of the visitors to Jerusalem, who wondered whether they had just witnessed an alcohol-fueled debacle, it was only after Peter gave them a framework for understanding their experience that they recognized that God was up to something in their midst.

In the case of my dreams (one involving a dog and the other a pod of dolphins—yes, I know it sounds weird!), it took the help of a mentor for me to recognize either dream as something born of God’s Spirit. I am unaware of any dolphin- or dog-themed dreams in the Bible, but in the many years since those dreams came to me I have been guided by the healing power they represent. I remain convinced that they are gifts of the Holy Spirit that keep me engaged in the sometimes challenging task of living into the gospel’s promises.

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The Spirit’s wind blows

The campus chaplain at a college near our home was asked whether he believed it was his mission to convert students to Christianity. “Conversion is not up to me,” he responded. “Conversion is God’s mission. But God calls me to live and speak in such a way that the people I meet will see Christ and say, ‘I want Christ, too. I want what he’s got.’”

It is the Holy Spirit, active among us, around us, beside us and in us, that empowers such a witness and draws us into the heart of God’s mission.

Last summer I had the privilege of teaching at a family camp in South Dakota. We were a varied lot, hailing from places across the country such as California and Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Pennsylvania and even one family from Paris, France. Every morning before breakfast we gathered on the deck outside the dining hall to give thanks for homemade bread and jam, freshly cooked eggs, savory bacon, fresh melon and a bottomless supply of coffee and hot cocoa. Those prayers, together with morning and evening worship, gave structure to days enriched by Bible studies, horseback rides, mountain hikes, kayaking adventures, quiet conversations and rugged games of softball.

On our last day together the whole camp gathered again to hear the story of the mighty wind at Pentecost and the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. The preacher asked everybody to shout, simultaneously, the name of a person, event or activity that had helped them to experience God during their time at camp. We counted down . . . Three!...Two!...One!...and together we called out our most powerful memories from the week. As the shouts flew through the old barn in which we were meeting, we could hear the WHOOSH of the Spirit’s wind, dancing through the crowd, giving flight to our recollections and bearing them into the mountain sky. In the silence that followed, a child’s hushed voice spoke out in wonder. “Whoa!” he said. “That’s awesome!”

So it is.

Audrey West is a New Testament scholar who tries to keep an eye open for the movement of the Holy Spirit, mostly from the home she shares with her husband, a dog and two cats in Bethlehem, Pa. (back to top)

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