Epiphanies: Noticing the Unnoticed

Acts 8:14-17

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Luke 3:15-16

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.



            Sometimes I wish I was one of those preachers who could just hear a little word from God about what exactly to preach on Sunday morning. Some of them don’t even need notes or a manuscript! They don’t even know what they’re going to preach before they get into the pulpit and extemporaneously become a conduit of the Divine message.

It would certainly free up some time during the week. Make Saturday nights a little less stressful. Maybe even unclutter some of my bookcases.

            Maybe you’d like that, too. Not so much a divine revelation for the sermonic moment, but a little divine disclosure for the everyday deliberations of life. Some people say they get it on a regular basis: how to invest their money, what to major in, where to park the car (that one might actually be the most useful of all divine disclosures in Harvard Square).

            Those of us preachers who are a little less apt to enter the pulpit without prior preparation are wont to say, “The Spirit can move in the study just as much as in the pulpit.” But maybe we’ve never even experienced the revelation our colleagues experience on a weekly basis. Who knows…

            This Sunday is the first Sunday of an experiment with a new layer of worship planning at OCBC through the implementation of short-term Worship Design Teams. Worship Design Teams are collectives of about three to five congregants who volunteer to plan a particular grouping of services – typically three to six consecutive Sundays – often spanning the course of a particular liturgical season like the Season after Epiphany. The Design Team works alongside the Tom and I, mostly behind the scenes through e-mail exchanges, some brief and some quite deep and involved, to think through a sequence of services in creative, imaginative, and theologically reflective ways. The basic idea being that several imaginations produce worship experiences that are richer than one or two imaginations alone could create.

            Thus far, the insights and imaginings that have emerged from this process are remarkable. They’ve shaped this service and theme of the Season after Epiphany in ways that I certainly could not have cultivated on my own.

In the e-newsletter this week, I also posed these questions to all of you: How do you experience the divine revealed? When have you had the palpable sense of something holy being unconcealed in your life? How does your unique vantage point, as an agnostic, as a justice-worker, as a contemplative spirituality practitioner, etc., affect the ways you experience a sense of the divine breaking into your daily life? What does it feel like to you when you catch a glimpse of the divine on display? 

Throughout the next four weeks during the Season after of Epiphany, people from the congregation will share their own experiences of epiphany, of disclosures of the divine, of the affect of revelation in their lives. Some will be poetic, others narratival. This morning we have both a spoken testimony from Sonja Amadae and a written piece that we’ll use for silent reflection during the prayer time from Grace Peters.

Part of the beauty of both the Worship Design Team and those who will be sharing testimonies with us in worship these next few weeks is what will be revealed to us of the complexity, the diversity, the difference, the pluriformity of the ways the divine is disclosed in our many and varied lives.

            When we discussed the theme of this season, the Worship Design Team described the experience of epiphany in many different ways, sometimes disagreeing about what epiphany really means and what disclosures of the divine are even possible and how we interpret such experiences when they emerge. Members of the Team described the experience of epiphany as “the once-unfamiliar becoming not only familiar, but also intimate and salvific,” “the affect of revelation taking over one’s body and impling that something very joyous has been unconcealed,” experiences that “allow you to step out of your ordinary routine and mindset, if only for an instant…when you have or take the opportunity to pay attention it is possible to experience something truly grand.”

            And yet, questions arose among us about whether perhaps we’ve gone too far in search of signs and when we experience such a thing, how do we really know what the feelings they impart mean or from whence they come?

            And I wonder: Is epiphany something we can really expect to experience in our lives? The once-unfamiliar becoming intimate and salvific, the affect of revelation taking over our body, something truly joyous being unconcealed, the experience of something truly grand that feels like the palpable presence of the divine being disclosed to us?

            If so, what are the conditions under which such an experience with the divine might be manifest?

            In this morning’s scripture texts, the central metaphor for such an experience is that of receiving the Holy Spirit.

In the reading from the book of Acts, Philip went to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them and “the crowds with one accord listened eagerly” to what he way saying  “the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.” In the text, those from Samaria appear to be partially converted. They “had accepted the word of God…yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them.”

Then in the Gospel text, the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning, whether John might be the Messiah. And John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” I’ve baptized you with water, but there is another baptism coming with the Spirit. They were partially converted.

            Later in that same passage from Luke, Jesus himself was baptized, the heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.

            If ever there were a scriptural metaphor for the experience of epiphany – the once-unfamiliar becoming intimate and salvific, the affect of revelation taking over our body, something truly joyous being unconcealed, the experience of something grand that feels like the palpable presence of the divine being disclosed to us – it is the metaphor of the Spirit descending, the Holy Spirit received by those who are partially converted, those who have “accepted the word of God…yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them.”

But it’s a bit askew from the way we normally speak of our Christian experience. “When the Holy Spirit comes upon us” – is that even a metaphor that touches something of our experience anymore?

            Some Christian traditions with more Pentecostal influence see the baptism of the Spirit as something quite ecstatic that comes at another time, after one has experienced salvation – often accompanied by gifts like speaking in tongues. Other, more staid traditions, see in this passage from Acts – of those who had accepted the word of God but were in need of a second stage of receiving the spirit – as a scriptural basis for the practice of confirmation some years after initial baptism.

            But neither of these understandings quite fit the experience and practice of faith in this congregation. Neither are bad understandings. They just don’t seem to fit the character of this community of faith.

So if “receiving the Holy Spirit” is to remain a metaphor with some potent meaning for us – if it is a condition of our experience of divine disclosures, of epiphanic revelations in the midst of everyday life – how will we understand the metaphor? How will we understand the Holy Spirit?

            This is, of course, not a question I, alone, can answer. It’s a question of communal significance – one that I am glad to be working through with those who are helping to design these worship experiences and those who are willing to share their testimonies of epiphany.

            But, for me, both views of this metaphor – the evidence of ecstatic experience, and the staid period of confirmation – fall short of conveying the fullness of the metaphor in these texts of the Spirit descending and being received by a community of Jesus’ followers. One threatens to become to exclusivist in prescribing a certain kind of experience one must have in order to be counted as among the Holy Spirit’s recipients. The other threatens to reduce the whole, profound metaphor to a program that one can complete when age appropriate.

“The crowds with one accord listened eagerly” to what Philip way saying. When “the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.” They “had accepted the word of God…for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”

“As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Krister Stendahl, former Dean of Harvard Divinity School, says when considering the Holy Spirit, the metaphor of “energy” more appropriate than the typical one of “power.” “Energy is a better word than power,” he says. “Power is for ruling. Energy is for living.”[1]

Frederick Buechner adds, “Like its counterparts in Hebrew and Greek, the Latin word spiritus originally meant breath (as in expire, respiratory, etc.), and breath is what you have when you're alive and don't have when you're dead.”[2]

And Peter Hodgson adds, “Biblical and classical metaphors of spirit represent it as a fluid, pervasive, intangible energy whose fundamental quality is vitality and freedom and whose fundamental purpose is to create, shape, and enliven.”[3]

Energy, breath, life, fluidity, vitality, freedom, creating, shaping, enlivening.

The Holy Spirit descends like a dove in the gospel text: the dove – quintessential symbol of peace. But an alternative ancient Celtic image portrays the Holy Spirit as a wild goose. Knowing this, in preparation for this sermon, I watched a YouTube video titled, “Funniest Goose Videos EVER,” just as a refresher on what wild geese are like. Certainly, if the descending dove is the quintessential symbol of peace, the wild goose is the ideal model for energy and the fluidity of unpredictability and of vitality and freedom.

If you, like me, aren’t one who often (or ever) has the epiphany experiences that one would describe with metaphors like “hearing from God” or being “filled with the Spirit,” it can create a bit of a spiritual inferiority complex. But what about being “filled with expectation?” Is there something deeply spiritual and potentially transformative about that? Something even epiphanic?

In Acts, “The crowds with one accord listened eagerly.”

In Luke, “The people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts.”

It’s not really an answer or an explanation robust enough to address this metaphor – receiving the Holy Spirit. It’s only a partial answer, really. Like a partial conversation, ever waiting on something more to be revealed.

Perhaps the conditions under which such epiphanic experiences of divine disclosure occur are less like a dove descending and more like a wild goose chase: a pursuit that is a bit foolish, possibly hopeless, chasing after something that you may be uncatchable, but full of vitality and freedom, looking at the world with expectation, eyes ever open to notice the unnoticed.



[1] Krister Stendahl, Energy for Life: Reflections on a Theme Come, Holy Spirit – Renew the Whole Creation (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 1999), viii.



[2] Frederick Buechner, “Spirit,” Buechner Blog, online: http://www.frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustrations-spirit-0



[3] Peter C. Hodgson, Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 277.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • January 10, 2016