Sealed by Wind and Fire - Pentecost Baptism
(or an audio recording of this sermon, click here)
After the sermon today, I get to do one of my favorite tasks as a pastor. I get to baptize a new sibling into the beloved family of God. Baby Gavin will be brought to the font by his parents and godparents. We will all make promises, and we will pray for him, and I will pour water over his fuzzy, baby head and baptize him in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
And after that, when it almost feels like we’re all done, there will be a moment when I lean over to trace a cross on his forehead, and I will tell him that he is “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
Of course, he won’t understand a word I’m saying. And, if we’re honest, most of us are probably also a little fuzzy on exactly what that means, to be "sealed by the Holy Spirit." At least, I know that I had to break open one of my old seminary books this week when that question occurred to me! Because ritual theological language is beautiful, and powerful … but it can also be a little inaccessible.
Especially when it comes to the Holy Spirit! At least in the Lutheran tradition, we don’t tend to talk much about exactly how the Holy Spirit is active in our lives of faith.
God, the Creator, the Source of life, and truth, and love… that aspect of God we can mostly get our heads around;
And Jesus, about whom we have powerful stories and accounts of his teachings, as well as of his death and resurrection. Yes! Jesus feels knowable.
But the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is a bit harder to nail down.
Which makes sense, right? If the Holy Spirit comes with Wind and Fire and cacophonous speech, as described in the scene of the church’s first Pentecost … that kind of manifestation of God is harder to explain… and clearly impossible to control.
I mean, just imagine the scene. Imagine gathering for what you expect to be a safe and quiet prayer service… When suddenly there’s a violent wind, shaking the walls, and whipping our bulletins out of our hands. And then tongues of fire suddenly appear – not burning things up, but still pretty unsettling, resting on top of our heads and all. And then we all start speaking… speaking languages we don’t even know… but languages that other people DO know. And those people start coming. Crowds of people, thousands of them, pulling us out into the open where everyone can hear; and listening, listening raptly to words that declare the works of God in words their souls recognize.
Sounds pretty wild, huh?! Maybe a little scary? But undeniable. I imagine that if any of us had an experience like that we would have a pretty clear sense of the Holy Spirit.
Because, chaotic as the scene sounds, it’s not random. It’s not chaos for the sake for disruption. Rather it’s disruption for the sake of growth. It’s disruption that pulls the community out of a confined space, inhabited by just one language and culture, into an amazing and inclusive diversity. Into an understanding of who we are as followers of Jesus that keeps moving out into the world.
And that purpose-driven disruption, perhaps, helps us start to answer the question about who the Holy Spirit is, and how this Spirit changes our lives. Perhaps this Holy Spirit can be understood by what it does – by the way it works in the church to disrupt with a purpose, to create diversity without division.
Diversity WITHOUT division- that’s important, because division is always the threat when human communities move toward diversity. There’s an instinct to try to shut it down, because it feels too disorienting. And we see that in the story: one of the first reactions to the Pentecost scene is an accusation of moral failing – "they must be drunk!" And it they’re drunk, then we can just shrug this whole thing off.
But Peter declares “No. That’s not what’s going on. This is God’s Spirit at work. And God’s Spirit at work looks like divisions being overcome, just like the prophet declared! God is steamrolling divisions of gender, and age, and class, and vision – as well as language. Because God is about the work of saving EVERYONE!”
Commentator Debie Thomas gets at the same idea in the questions that she asks of this scene:
“What does it mean that the Holy Spirit empowered the first Christians to speak in an unmatched diversity of languages? Was God saying, in effect, that the Church, from its inception, needed to honor the boundless variety and creativity of human voices? That (God) was calling it to proclaim the great deeds of God in every tongue – not because multiculturalism is progressive and fashionable, or because the Church is a ‘politically correct’ institution – but because God’s deeds themselves demand such diverse tellings? Could it be that there is no single language on earth that can capture the deeds of God?”
I think the answer is obviously yes! Of course, we can’t capture the deeds of God in one language or culture! Just like we can’t capture God’s Spirit. Capturing, controlling is not the point… the point is that God’s Spirit shows up to do the capturing… or maybe rather to do the gathering and sending, the forming of a community where each person is drawn into the family of God, without having to give up our mother tongue, our uniqueness… because that uniqueness is needed for the work.
In case you can’t tell, I get a little excited about the Holy Spirit and the way the Spirit calls the church into community and outreach. But… I can hear the obvious question. That’s all well and good, Pastor, but how in the world does that help us understand what it means that Gavin is about the be “sealed by the Holy Spirit”? Because “sealed” does not sound disruptive and diverse. It sounds more… antiseptic. Confining. We seal things to close them, and keep contaminants out! Not to celebrate wild diversity.
It’s a fair question. This is why I had to go back to my seminary books this week. Because Holy Spirit and “sealing” DON’T seem to really go together....The seminary books didn’t really help, but the Bible did! When I went searching for the scriptural foundation of this idea of being sealed by the Holy Spirit, I found the first chapter of Ephesians, in which the members of the fledgling church in Ephesus are offered this reassurance:
“You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit because you believed in Christ. The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory.” (Ephesians 1:13b-14).
In this pastoral letter a young church is being told that they don’t have to be anxious, because the Holy Spirit is their evidence, their reassurance that God has claimed them. They have a guaranteed inheritance.
It’s the same promise that we see in today’s reading from Romans: The promise that we don’t have to be slaves to fear, because when we call out to God as our Abba, as our Beloved Parent, God’s Spirit “bears witness with out spirit that we ARE children of God, and if children, the heirs, heirs of God and join heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:15-17)
The sealing of the Holy Spirit is our source of assurance. Our security. The guarantee of the promise that God has us – we are safe.
So, actually, it makes total sense that at the end of our baptismal rite we tell the newly baptized: you are sealed by the Holy Spirit… This Holy Spirit that is uncontrollable, and shakes the walls, and sends us out to a world that is hungry for the Word of God but that also might get really uncomfortable or judgy about the boundary-crossing diversity that characterizes the Spirit’s Work.
Of COURSE we need to hear that this Holy Spirit is not ONLY a disruptor, but also a source of security. Also an Advocate, as the gospel promises. The Holy Spirit is also the one who reminds us that our inviolable identity is as a child of God, and none of the disrupting work that baptism calls us into will change that identity.
We need the assurance of that identity, because – as I was reminded this past week by Pastor Ryan Cummings from ELCA World Hunger, “baptism is risky.” Baptism calls us to community, and to growth in faith… but not just for our own benefit – always for the world the Spirit sends us to serve.
The baptismal promises that Jamie & Bill will make in a few minutes on behalf of their son make it very clear that those practices of the faith are so that Gavin will learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. Baptism calls Gavin and all of us into the disruptive and beautiful work of God’s Holy Spirit in the world.
Baptism is risky. It changes things. But within that change, we are also sealed by the Holy Spirit, bound to a new identity we can never lose.
To close, I would like to share an exhortation about how we might seek God’s wild, beautiful Holy Spirit, written by theologian and poet Susan Palo Cherwien.
Wind and Fire.
Picture wind whipping fire
the roar and the flame
Picture gathering together
and the sound of a great wind
rushing upon us
drowning our songs
silencing our prayers.
The rush of a mighty wind.
The power of the Spirit.
before we pray
“Come, Holy Spirit”
before we pray
“Set us on fire”
bow the head
as the roaring rises about us
It is a powerful and life-changing, security-giving and utterly disorienting promise to be sealed by the Holy Spirit. Because when the Holy Spirit claims us we are called into the kind of life that changes not only us. It also changes the world.
Come, Holy Spirit. Seal us and send us out.
Thanks be to God.
 Journey with Jesus blog: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2241