Living in the Spirit – A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday
As I have mentioned before, the Feast of Pentecost is our third biggest event in the liturgical year after Christmas and Easter. And, as I also mentioned, it is the only one of the big three that our culture has not taken over and secularized in a commercial way. This is entirely our feast as the church. You won’t hear any mention of it in popular culture. And perhaps that is the way it should be.
Pentecost Sunday has also been characterized as the birthday of the church. And in one sense, it is both a completion and a beginning. For Luke the gospel writer, it is the conclusion of the miraculous events of the gospel accounts. It really is the end of his first of two books. It is as if the God is now saying to that small group of disciples and believers, “All right – now the rest of the story is up to you.” Get out there into the world – spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and transform the Kingdom of God.
And just to make sure you stay on track and remember what you have been chosen to do, I will send you my Spirit – the Spirit of the presence of God active in the world and walking beside you all the way. And that is literally what one of the names given to the Holy Spirit actually means: A term we don’t use much any more but one with meaning: Paraclete. Paracletos in Biblical Greek and originally used to describe someone who speaks on one’s behalf in in a court of law. An advocate. A lawyer.
But Jesus uses it in John’s gospel in the 14th chapter as one who is a helper, one who is always there for you (to use modern jargon) “I’m here for you, man”
Someone who walks beside you on the journey of life and urges you to go a certain way and to do certain things. A comforter – an ever present friend and counsellor. It is a term that is hard to pin down to just one function.
And to go back to the 14th chapter of John’s gospel for another look, we find Jesus speaking to his followers in the days before he is arrested and put to death and he is attempting to comfort them. And he says: “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate (a paracletos) and he will be with you forever. This is the Spirit of Truth whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him, but you know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
And a little further on, Jesus goes on to say, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” And then these wonderful comforting words
“I will not leave you orphaned.”
And in all of this, Jesus is speaking in the future tense. This is something that is going to happen. It has not yet happened. And it cannot happen until he has finished his earthly journey and has gone to be with the Father.
Which is why we celebrate Pentecost Sunday exactly 50 days after Easter Day. Why 50 days? Because it was originally a Jewish feast called Shavuot – a celebration in Israel of the first spring wheat harvest about 50 days after planting. And it was also a Jewish feast commemorating the giving of the Law to Moses by God.
So naturally, Luke records, “When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place.” Still Jews in so many ways, this was a natural thing for them to do – to gather together probably for a common meal, perhaps to go to the temple and make a sacrifice and to remember to give thanks for God’s gift to Moses.
But God has a surprise for them. “A sound like the rush of a violent wind, tongues of fire resting above the heads of each one of them, and the whole community babbling in all sorts of foreign languages. And the most amazing thing is that even though they are all speaking different languages, miraculously, they all understand each other perfectly.
No wonder people looking on thought they were drunk. And I love the Apostle Peter’s objection to this slander – “How can we be drunk at nine o’clock in the morning?” Well, I know a few alcoholics who might disagree with that conclusion.
So what is going on here?
Well, like many of these amazing events in the gospels and elsewhere. There is a lot of symbolism and metaphor in Luke’s description of the Pentecost experience.
And that description should have reminded you of an equally amazing event in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Remember the tower of Babel. How God punishes the people for daring to reach heaven by building a gigantic tower – all on their own. The Bible records that, at this time, all the people of the earth only spoke one language and so God punishes them for their pride and daring by cursing them with all different languages and their inability to understand each other and then get along. The story was meant not only as an explanation for all the different languages in the world but also for the tribal violence and warfare which resulted when they could no longer understand each other.
So what is going on at the Pentecost experience? It is the reversal of the curse of humankind. The Spirit allows us to understand each other in spite of our differences. The church is being born not only for the Jews but for the whole world. This is God’s gift to humanity, a gospel that transcends our petty differences and binds us together as one. Christ’s teachings and his gospel are for the whole world.
And the Spirit is saying, “Get out and spread the news.”
The Spirit said that to the small group of believers at Pentecost and is still saying it several thousand years later. The work is not done – not by a long shot. Our world is still a very divided place – we all speak different languages on so many different levels. And it sometimes seems as if it is getting worse rather than better.
But our job is to live not only in unity and love with each other but with all the rest of our brothers and sisters. Because the way we live out the gospel on a daily basis will speak far louder and get far more attention than any words we speak. Words are great but actions speak far louder.
And I believe that God’s Spirit is constantly working in our world to bring about the Kingdom. Even when we sit down and try to hammer out a peace treaty or a cease fire to stop the killing. Even when we send food and supplies to various parts of the world to help those in distress. Even when we recognize those rare people in our world who work tirelessly to bring peace.
Many may not see the hand of God – the hand of the Spirit – working in those human efforts but I believe that is how the Spirit works.
A wise Bishop once told me, “It is easier and clearer to see the work of the Spirit when one looks back rather when one looks ahead”. He said, “It may seem as if we don’t know where we are going in the church much of the time, but when one looks back, the pattern and the direction are there. That’s the Holy Spirit”
For many of us, the Holy Spirit is that still small voice in our heads, giving us advice, helping us find a direction, encouraging us when things look grim, just like a constant friend who may not say very much out loud or very obviously but who is always there for us. Even when we don’t even know it. Even when we think we are the only ones in charge – even when we think we know how to get to heaven all on our own.
I have been aware in my own life, those choices I have made and paths I have taken have not been entirely of my own doing. One can be a sceptic and call it chance or coincidence – one can even rationalize it all – but when one looks back, as the Bishop said, one can see the pattern and the design. And faith tells us that it is not of our own doing. God’s hand is there. The Holy Spirit was probably walking beside us all the way.