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Welcome the Overwhelming Holy Spirit

Did everyone love the reading from Acts, with all the different languages going on at one time?  Raise your hand if you think we should keep doing this every week: just read the Scripture lessons in several different language translations but simultaneously. 


Okay, be honest: how many of you were like, I can tolerate this for a few minutes because we do something like this every year on Pentecost and I know it’ll be over soon.  Yeah, same here.  I enjoy some friendly chaos here and there, but the description of Pentecost, with the rushing wind and the weird flames and the many languages—that would probably be too much for me.  I might be with those guys saying, these dudes are on something and I’m getting out of here. 


But if being uncomfortable is all it would take for me to leave, then I’d be missing out on the Holy Spirit.  Which could be problematic, since Jesus had a lot of good things to say about the Holy Spirit, who would clothe the disciples with power from on high[1] and who would glorify Jesus.[2] 


Jesus has to know that his disciples will not be pleased with the news that he has to depart from the earth, so he tries to explain that things will be even better after he’s gone because the Advocate—whoever that is, some “Spirit of truth who comes from the Father”—this Advocate will only show up after Jesus is gone, ascended into heaven.  But how is this better than being with Jesus?


Dr. Robert Saler, a professor of theology, explores this question:

“How could it be better for Jesus to go away?  The answer…seems to be inherent in the logic of the incarnation itself.  To be incarnate into an actual, fully human body…is to be enfleshed in spatial particularity, and thus spatial limitation—Jesus, as a body, can only be in certain places at certain times.  The force and power of the Holy Spirit’s work in and through him is spatially bound.  …though, the story of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost is the story of this Spirit’s work taking on flesh across multiple bodies, multiple geographies, multiple contexts.  …when you get the Spirit, you get all of Christ.  Thus, Jesus’ ‘going away’ is stunningly not a withdrawal at all: it is an expansion and intensification of presence, both across space and time and …bringing Christ nearer to us than we are to ourselves.  The coming of the Spirit is the coming nearer of the Christ, and this time for the healing of all that God loves.”[3]


In other words, only through the Holy Spirit could it ever be possible that Jesus can be everywhere at the same time.  After the disciples are introduced to the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, there’s no longer any particular place on Earth that’s holier than any other place.  The Holy Spirit can meet you right where you are, wherever you are.  Like, even if you tried to outrun the Holy Spirit—and some of us have tried—you would still be caught, tangled somehow in God’s love. 


It probably doesn’t feel that great, at first, either.  I wonder how the disciples felt on the day of Pentecost, the great birthday of the church.  What does it feel like to be overwhelmed? 


Claire Williams talks about overwhelmings in her book “Peculiar Discipleship: An Autistic Liberation Theology.”  She explains that autistic people, with great capacity for receiving information through their bodily, physical senses, can experience the present moment as overwhelming.[4]  She writes, “This appears negative but need not be.  These moments are sometimes called ‘meltdowns,’ when they include visible responses such as calling out, rocking or running away, or ‘shutdowns’ when the response is not visible to others.” 


She also mentions overwhelming autistic joy as a “recently constructed phenomenon in the autistic community which refers to the pleasure obtained from immersion in special interests…usually described in negative terms by academics and medical theorists, that are all-consuming focused pursuits.”


Overwhelm, of course, is not an experience unique to autistic people.  Williams references David Ford, who says that all of modern life is naturally a state of being overwhelmed.[5]  And when you consider a life of notifications from electronic devices, the noise of machines, the visual noise of a city street or advertising, the sheer number of choices available to you in stores, restaurants, activities…yeah, being overwhelmed is a daily experience, which could be negative, but Williams talks about the positive things that overwhelm us, like being overwhelmed with love for one’s family, or overwhelmed by beauty. 


Williams cites the work of another theologian, Nicola Slee, who reflects on a “theology of overwhelming:”

“To be overwhelmed is to have an experience that is totalizing.  The experience of being overwhelmed, whether positive or negative, is of being caught up, carried along, or bowled over by some event, force, or person, over which one has no control.  It takes over all our senses, our body and our mind, our emotions and our consciousness.”[6] 


It can be terrifying to feel like you’re losing control.  Even watching someone else experience losing control—if you’ve ever witnessed a behavioral tantrum—the event can be terrifying, or unsettling at best.  Williams, accessing Slee’s work, suggests giving oneself over “fully to the immersion of the [overwhelming] experience.”  She writes:

“This is an act of consent—‘I am overwhelmed and I’m not acting against it’.  This is intrinsically an optimistic and hopeful stance: the belief that God is present and at work in the midst of a negative situation.  We can also hold the tension of being in a negative space, live in the intersection of a difficult time with the hope that a new and better reality can emerge from it.”[7]


Imagine sitting with an uncomfortable situation, an uncomfortable feeling, or accompanying someone else having their own moment of being overwhelmed, and consciously choosing not to “fix” it by trying to talk them out of their feelings—as if that’s even possible.  Feelings are not always rooted in solid logic.  If you’ve ever tried to talk a toddler out of a tantrum by explaining to them that it doesn’t matter if they drink from the blue cup or the green cup, that will leave you wondering whose behavior is more foolish. 


But this is not the same as ignoring an overwhelming experience: Slee suggests “giving it attention, a prayerful stance where the situation is brought to God in the life of the church.”  So get this: you can approach an overwhelming experience not trying to fix it or change it, but trusting that God is already at work, AND this truth can be spoken aloud in a grace-filled way that acknowledges the experience of the person who is overwhelmed because we are all part of the body of Christ and Williams recalls the teaching from the letter to the Galatians that we “bear one another’s burdens.” 


I should mention here that this theologian, Claire Williams, describes herself as a Christian within the Pentecostal tradition, which generally welcomes the movement of the Holy Spirit in a different way than Lutherans do.  Lutherans are generally uncomfortable with the unexpected and similarly uncomfortable in the unpredictable world of feelings and emotions—we would much rather study or explain.  That reading from Acts that happened earlier in worship: that was rehearsed.  We rehearsed the chaos.  Which isn’t wrong at all: the Holy Spirit can work through our preparation and our minds too!  But let us not miss out on the gifts of the Holy Spirit that come through the surrender of control and the embrace of the Spirit’s movement. 


Williams names the experience of the disciples on the day of Pentecost as overwhelming.  She writes:

“The Spirit is auditory, visual, linguistic, sensory, and completely present in the space and time that the disciples are in.  They cannot move away, look away, or exist outside of the presence of the Spirit in that moment.  They are overwhelmed.  However, it is a positive and liberative experience.  They are given a fresh voice, new opportunity, and greater hope in the time that follows the overwhelming.  It is a positive version of the effect that trauma can have on a person—the ‘time before’ can never occur again.  The disciples cannot go back to their previous selves because God has overwhelmed their present and moved them into a new future.


“To be overwhelmed can be an ordeal, and to be autistically overwhelmed is perhaps a normative experience in this community.  Anxiety is severe and debilitating for autistic people.  Sources of anxiety can be sensory—unpleasant textures or smells, loud noises; it can be linked to change; social encounters can be difficult to navigate, or related to alexithymia (finding it hard to identify emotions in oneself or others).  However, if modern life (and also autistic life) is a series of overwhelmings as David Ford suggests, then our faith has a solution, or a reply.  The spirit of God offers us to be overwhelmed by the love, care, sacrifice and divine attention of God.  In a way, that is for us and for our good.”[8]


“…Attentiveness in the autistic life might be a slowing down, a waiting in the midst of, an acceptance of the ‘meltdown’ or ‘shutdown.’  It might mean accepting the unpleasant experience of the overwhelming in order not to contribute to it with feelings of shame.  Thus, says Slee, the unexpected nature means that there cannot be answers to the problems associated with overwhelmings, only postures.”[9]


There are no answers for overwhelmings; there are only postures.  That means you get to choose how to respond.  The sensory, bodily experience of being overwhelmed is not a failure, it’s not something to avoid: overwhelmings are simply a fact of life, a human experience, and you can decide what posture to take. 


And in the experience of an autistic person having the feelings of overwhelm, particularly if they are not able to clearly or verbally communicate their needs, then it becomes the work of the community to surround them with support by noticing and naming what’s going on, which is nothing less than speaking another language like the Holy Spirit gave to the believers on the day of Pentecost. 


There are no answers, only postures.  We belong to a God who is not afraid to sit with us in our human experiences, even the overwhelming or unpleasant human experiences.  God is present, even bigger than a bodily presence like Jesus Christ, but reaching us directly and intimately, through the Holy Spirit, who will glorify Jesus and point back to Jesus every time—that’s how you know it’s the Holy Spirit. 


Even when everything looks like chaos, God is still at work—this is not an explanation but a posture of faith.  Trust that with time, through God’s grace, all things will start to make sense.  It may feel frightening at first, you might feel nervous, but you are not alone: you are held and surrounded in the body of Christ. 


Trust the one who calls you.  As Jesus said, “The Spirit will guide you into all the truth.”[10]  Are you ready? 


Pastor Cheryl


[1] Luke 24:39

[2] John 16:14

[3] Robert C. Saler, “Going away and coming closer,” “Sunday’s Coming” lectionary commentary, The Christian Century, May 13, 2024,

[4] Claire Williams, “Peculiar Discipleship: An Autistic Liberation Theology,” page 63. 

[5] Ibid 64.

[6] Ibid 64.

[7] Ibid 65.

[8] Ibid 66.

[9] Ibid 67

[10] John 16:13


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