’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed.
Amazing Grace is a great hymn any time of the year, but it has a special resonance on Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is when the Holy Spirit came down on a group of flawed individuals and turned them into fearless teachers of faith.
Faith is a hard thing to teach because fear is such an ingrained element of human nature. This fear can lead us to do extreme things to protect us from it—and many times those things hurt other people. Fear of hunger can lead us to theft. Fear of being humiliated can lead to lies. Fear of losing earthly comforts can lead to every sin in the book. That’s why humans created laws—to protect us from each other’s sins. The problem is, our spirits can get weighed down by laws rooted in fear. They distract us from the only fear that is justified: fear of God.
That’s why the feast of Pentecost is so liberating. It reminds us of our spirit’s potential when set free from humanity’s gravity. It’s about the liberation of God’s grace, as delivered by the Holy Spirit. It even frees us from the laws of human language. In this Sunday’s first reading (Acts 2:1-11), the people seeing Christ’s disciples receiving the spirit and teaching in a language they could understand were amazed.
“Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” The witnesses to that first Pentecost then asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?”
Because our native language is of God, not of man. It isn’t governed by laws of syntax or grammar. As Paul tells the Galatians in our second reading (Gal 5:16-25):
“If you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. … In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.”
That’s because if we liberate our spirit from fear of breaking human laws it is free to tell the truth which comes from the third person of God: the Holy Spirit, which resides in each of us and is meant to be shared with others. That can’t happen if we’re shackled by our fear-based protections. As John quotes Jesus in our gospel reading (Jn 15:26-27; 16:12-15), “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. And you also testify.”
We testify in many ways, but most effectively without human language—and instead, by how we live.
I’ll end with an example from my work world. At the place I used to work, we would have a Friday afternoon phone call with the head of our group. We would all be expected to share our successes from that week with each other. For fun, the boss would assign a moderator from our group to host each weekly call. The moderator is responsible for supplying a theme song for the week, to kick off the meeting. The D.J. for each week’s meeting gets his/her chosen theme song off the Internet and plays it at the top of the meeting. One of my closest colleagues recently told me he was the D.J. a few weeks ago, and rather than selecting something “safe” from the pop charts, he selected Elvis Presley’s version of Amazing Grace (his daughter’s name also happens to be Grace).
A typical office is made up of people from all backgrounds and faiths—and non-faiths. That makes choosing a spiritual song rather dangerous because it goes against the human law of freedom of—and FROM—religion. So my friend’s choice was rather brave, considering its spiritual nature.
The result of his choice? He got a call at the end of the meeting from a fellow worker whose spirit was so moved by the message of this selection—not just the words of the selection, but the fact my friend had the guts to select it—that she felt spiritually liberated from the fears that govern our behavior amidst the gravity of the workplace. That Pentecost moment taught her something.
Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.