A couple years back, Chapman University polled Americans about their fears. As usual, public speaking was the number 1 fear, followed closely by heights; bugs, snakes, and other animals; drowning; blood; and down the line. Chapman thought it was interesting to see the difference in the fears of Republicans and Democrats, and it turns out that Democrats are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to have a fear of clowns, though clowns just barely beat out ghosts on the bottom of the entire list. If they had polled just me, fear of clowns would have been much higher, just for the record.
Fear is natural, of course; even the irrational fears we all seem to nurture are natural in their way. Some fear is good and healthy – our healthy fears keep us from doing things like mishandling fire or driving way too fast or randomly picking fights with badgers. Fear helps to keep us from needless injury or death, and so fear is not just simply a bad thing.
When the day of Pentecost had come, Luke tells us today, they, the twelve Apostles and presumably most of the gathered Church, were all together in one place. They weren’t in one place because that place was Club Med and they were all having a phenomenal time together, though that would have been nice. They were all together in one place because they were afraid. Fear had gripped them, gripped them to the extent that they were huddled together behind locked doors.
Please don’t get the idea that I totally blame them for being afraid. As Joseph Heller wrote, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you.” The Church might not have right in hiding out, but she wasn’t exactly wrong, either. The Jewish authorities would have certainly mistreated them, to say the least, and didn’t Jesus say something about waiting it out in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit arrived?
But then the Holy Spirit did arrive, and what we get in 11 short verses is the story of the Church Afraid and the Church Not Afraid. The Church Afraid and the Church Courageous.
Pentecost is the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus referred to as the Comforter, the Advocate. The Spirit’s actual arrival doesn’t sound comforting, if we’re honest. Suddenly, the sound of a mighty wind (in this case, not the mighty wind referred to in the Christopher Guest film of the same name). But the sound was just like a violent wind – that was the best metaphor Luke had available, because Luke had never heard what a freight train sounded like. Then there was something that appeared to be like tongues of fire, fire coming down from the roof onto their heads. None of this sounds particularly comforting.
So let’s remember here that the Holy Spirit is the same Spirit who drove Jesus out into the wilderness after His baptism. The same Spirit who compelled the prophets to speak uncomfortable truths to power. He is the giver of life and power, judgement and fire. And the Holy Spirit is, beyond a doubt, the dispeller of fear.
What would our lives look like without fear, or at least without the fears that fill our hearts and hold us back? What would you grasp more tightly? What would you let go more quickly? I remember when I was in my 20’s, I probably should have feared more things than I did. But in the midst of some good times, I had this lurking dread: I knew deep down I was being called to the priesthood, but I was afraid to pay attention to the call. I knew that if I listened to God and allowed myself to be examined by the Church, I would have to deal with what was found. I would have to let go everything I had known and enter the different life. I would have to go back to school, after years of being free from classrooms and homework. I would have to submit to the authority of my bishop, God help me (and God help him). I was right to fear all that, of course, but I had let the fear stop up the ears of my spirit, so that the Holy Spirit’s voice couldn’t be heard. Did my life change when I allowed my faith to be stronger than my fear? Oh, yeah, it did, but infinitely for the better.
What would our church look like without fear? What would happen if the Holy Spirit came down upon us like a fiery freight train? That’s a trick question: one of the great things about the Holy Spirit is that you never know what the Holy Spirit is going to do, only how He is going to do it. It’s also a trick question because the Holy Spirit is remarkably strong in this place; He causes us to gather together in praise, to perform the incredible amount of good work we do, to proclaim Jesus in our community. I don’t know what the Holy Spirit has in store for us, but I do know how He will work it out amongst us: we will ask for His presence and guidance, we will choose faith over fear, and He will grant us the comfort, the courage, and the will to do great and wonderful things.
So what are we afraid of? For me, it’s still clowns.