Sermon delivered on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.24-34; Romans 8.14-17; John 14.8-17, 25-27.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We can all relate to Philip’s request in this morning’s gospel lesson. Anyone who has ever shown any kind of interest in God would like to see God and this is confirmed consistently by Scripture (cf. Moses and the psalmists). In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, many of us would admit that we wish we had been a contemporary of Jesus because it would have been so much easier for us to follow him. He would have been around to answer all our questions and we could have seen Jesus in action first-hand. But even a superficial reading of the gospels proves this notion is mistaken. How many times did Jesus have to correct and rebuke his disciples, especially Peter? (Quite often.) How often did they get to share in Jesus’ mighty acts of power? (Not much.) No wonder we hear echoes of sorrow and frustration in Jesus’ answer to Philip (and to us when we essentially ask the same question in different ways in our doubts and fears)—“You know me and have seen all the works I have done. How can you say show us the Father? I speak and do the things I do only because the Father is in me. If you want to see the Father look at me. The Father and I are one (John 10.30).”
Then Jesus makes the most astonishing promise. He tells his disciples (and us) that those who believe in him will do even greater things than he does and it will be easier to know him than it currently is! How can that be? The answer, of course, is God’s giving of the Holy Spirit and this is what I want us to look at briefly this morning. Specifically, I want to set the story of Pentecost in its proper context, to look at why it is important for us to have the Spirit present in our lives, both collectively as the Church and individually, and then for us to look at some of the ways we can recognize the Spirit’s presence in our lives today because recognizing the Spirit’s presence and activities is not always as straightforward as it sounds.
Luke’s account of the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost reminds us that this particular instance of God’s gracious action among his people was no isolated event. Like everything else in the Bible, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—itself an OT festival that came 50 days after the great Passover celebration—had a context. Ten days ago we celebrated Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, an event that occurred 40 days after Jesus’ death and resurrection, events we have celebrated these past 50 days of Easter. On the cross, Jesus made atonement for our sins and reconciled us to God. He also defeated evil and the dark powers behind it. And in Jesus’ resurrection, God not only conquered the ultimate evil of death, he also ushered in his promised new creation, although not fully (cf. Romans 8.1-4; Colossians 2.13-15; 1 Corinthians 15.35-57). That’s why we, like Peter and the first disciples, still live in the last days. God’s new creation has not yet come in full and so we must wait for the final consummation. Now Jesus has ascended to the Father to take his rightful place at God’s right hand—NT code meaning that Jesus is ruler and Lord of all creation—and to intercede for us. There would be no more post-resurrection appearances (with the notable exception of Paul). So how is Jesus going to manifest his rule over creation? How are Jesus’ followers going to know he is still present with them if they cannot see him and interact with him as they had done prior to his Ascension?
Jesus provides us the answer in our gospel lesson this morning when he promises to send another helper, the Advocate. The Greek for another, allos, means another of the same sort rather than another of a different kind. In other words, Jesus promised that the Spirit would be another Jesus, but who would not be limited by space/time constraints the way the human Jesus was limited. The Spirit would therefore make it easier to know Jesus in this new mode, not harder, and the Spirit would be the one who would enable Jesus’ followers to do greater things than Jesus had done in his earthly ministry and to help us understand all that Jesus said and taught. The Spirit also advocates for us in our weakness to the Father and comforts and helps us in our trials and sufferings, not unlike how we are comforted by others in our grief and loss. This reminds us that even when we are given the Spirit to live in us, we are not promised to be immune from all the hurt, heartache, and suffering that exists in God’s good but broken world. Rather, what Jesus promises is that he will give us the needed resources to cope with and even transcend the world’s brokenness and our own. Paul says essentially the same thing in our epistle lesson when he tells us we are not given the Spirit to fall back into fear, but to transform us into the very image of Jesus so that we too can become God’s children. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is equivalent to God’s presence with his people in the wilderness in the pillars of cloud and fire and later in the Temple Solomon built at Jerusalem.
Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit was of course fulfilled at Pentecost, and in spades. No longer would the Holy Spirit fall on a select few like it had done with the OT prophets, e.g., Moses, David, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, et al. Now the Spirit would be given to all believers of Jesus the Messiah to transform us into his very likeness. And it is through his Spirit-empowered and transformed people that Jesus will manifest his rule over all creation. This is what Paul means when he talks about us being joint heirs and rulers with Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 6.2). Let that sink in for a moment. We who are followers of Jesus and who are being transformed into his likeness by his very Spirit living in us are called to be joint heirs of the kingdom with Jesus. It truly boggles the mind; but it is quite consistent with God’s original intention for humans at creation (cf. Genesis 1.26-27).
But before we get too giddy over this mind-boggling promise, let us also consider the clause that immediately follows Paul’s promise about being joint heirs with Jesus. Paul tells us we will be joint heirs with Jesus if, in fact, we suffer with him. Uh oh. We are all about that joint heir thingy but not so red hot about the suffering part. But the fact is that throughout Scripture God shapes and equips his prophets and the followers of Jesus to become like him through suffering. Consider Moses, who had to endure the rebelliousness of God’s people for 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and who provoked him to sin so that God denied him entrance into the promised land. Or consider David, who after being anointed by Samuel, had to endure the wrath of Saul, who was determined to murder his God-appointed successor. Then there was Ruth, the Moabite woman, who suffered the loss of virtually all her means of support but who remained faithful to her mother-in-law, Naomi, and as a result found great blessing. The writer of Hebrews presents an interesting litany of suffering saints that is a powerful reminder that this is how the game is played for those who love God (cf. Hebrews 11.32-40). And of course there was Jesus himself, who suffered mightily for us, and not just on the cross. Consider his wilderness experience and the profound sorrow he must have felt at seeing so much need and injustice and oppression in his day, as well as a reluctance by most people to do what was necessary to be God’s people. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, our Lord learned obedience and was made perfect through suffering (Hebrews 5.8, 2.10) and so apparently must we do likewise.
More about that in a moment. But for right now as we consider the prospect of ruling with Jesus we must remember that he came to serve rather than be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many. The greatest in God’s kingdom will not be those who lord it over others but who serve in the manner of humble slaves and this is only made possible by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.
So how do we recognize the Spirit’s presence in us? While he can sometimes enter our lives in dramatic fashion like the day of Pentecost, the Spirit more often than not comes to us quietly and gently. He never imposes himself on us so that we are forced to act against our will and it is entirely possible to quench his presence in our lives (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5.19). We see this poignantly illustrated in the wilderness narratives contained in Exodus and Numbers. Despite the fact that God is present with his people in the pillars of cloud and fire, they often rebel against him and fall into idolatry and apostasy. We wonder how this can be. But is it any different than those Christians who have the Spirit living in them but act as if they do not for whatever reason? God respects us and our relationship with him enough that he never forces us into a relationship with him. Neither does he force us to act in a certain manner because that would destroy the essence of a real relationship. But typically when we ignore his presence and act contrary to his wishes, we can expect him to withdraw his presence from us, just like he did with his rebellious people in the wilderness and later in the promised land when God withdrew his glory from the Temple and allowed it to be sacked and burned by the Babylonians. That is why Paul is adamant that we must put to death our sinful nature if we ever expect to reap the fruit and benefits of the Spirit’s presence. The Spirit will indeed transform us but we must put in the sweat equity and be willing to allow him in to help us become more and more like Jesus.
All this, of course, sometimes makes it difficult for us to recognize the Spirit’s presence in us and so we must learn to look for evidence of his presence. A good place to start is to look for the fruit of the Spirit in our lives—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. The Spirit is not like booze we pour into our bodies so that we come under its influence and lose control over our thoughts and actions. Instead, through prayer, study, and life circumstances, the Spirit will help suggest certain courses of action to take and then we have to decide if we will follow those courses of action. The following brief stories from C.S. Lewis illustrate this dynamic perfectly [read from The World’s Last Night]. We note two things about Lewis in these stories. First, he had to recognize the Spirit’s promptings and movement in his life and the life of others. This is only possible by cooperating with the Spirit and learning to recognize his voice. Second, he had to say yes to the Spirit’s prompting because he had the option to say no.
But perhaps the best indicator that we have the Spirit living in us is our ability to love, just as Jesus told his disciples. Biblical love is always the antithesis of the modern notion of love that seeks to give the beloved all that the beloved desires because the Bible recognizes that we are fallen creatures and our desires are inherently disordered. Rather, biblical love always seeks to act for the benefit of the beloved and this gives us continuing opportunities to assess how loving our behavior really is. Are we seeking to build up the other and point him/her toward Jesus? Are we looking out for others’ physical, emotional, and spiritual needs without enabling the other? In other words, are we feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, praying for and forgiving our enemies and persecutors, etc.? Do we love others enough to warn them when we see their behavior is leading to death and/or destruction? Do we love God and others enough to be outraged by acts of injustice or anything that dehumanizes us? This, of course, is where our suffering comes into play so that God can use it to mold us further into the image of Jesus. As Jesus reminded his disciples, much of the world does not know him because it hates him and will therefore hate us as well for advocating kingdom values. As this happens remember that God is equipping you to be joint heirs and rulers with Jesus in the new creation even as he is using your efforts to exert his Lordship and bring the kingdom on earth as in heaven (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.58). Take heart and be encouraged by that so that the Spirit can help you bear your suffering.
Then, of course, we can also tell if the Spirit is living in us by how well we are imitating Jesus’ mighty acts recorded in the gospels. Not all of us are called to ministries of healing and certainly not many of us are called to raise the dead (but then apparently neither were the first followers of Jesus because the NT only records a handful of such acts). But still there are many examples of Christians doing mighty and miraculous acts of power in the Lord’s name. Take John Wesley and the 18th century Methodists for example, who arguably saved England from social revolution because of their tireless efforts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the sick, and fight against all that dehumanizes God’s image-bearers, from alcohol abuse to prostitution. If preventing a revolution is not miraculous, I don’t know what is. The Methodists were ordinary people who gave their lives to God and allowed him to work on them to transform them into Jesus’ image so that they could transform the society in which they lived. They were able to do this because they believed the promises of Jesus to never leave or abandon his children in the power of the Spirit so that he could equip them to do far greater things than he did in his earthly ministries. This very dynamic is exactly what our mission statement is all about.
And speaking of St. Augustine’s, I would also call your attention to our many ministries. Every time we visit Worthington Christian nursing home, we are being led by the Spirit. Every time we bear each other’s foibles and burdens instead of ignoring them or being hostile toward each other, much as we might like to, we are being led by the Spirit. Every time we feed the hungry at Faith Mission, we are being led by the Spirit. Every time we talk to others about Jesus and why he matters in our life, we are being led by the Spirit. Then of course there are the individual ministries that we all have, which we don’t advertise (but perhaps we should). Anytime we can think of examples where we act for the benefit or building up of others instead of ourselves at their expense so that the kingdom comes on earth as in heaven, we are being led by the Spirit. And all this is possible because we worship, pray, and study Scripture regularly to make a fertile place in us for the Holy Spirit to live.
So this week, if you want to nurture the Spirit’s presence, I encourage you to do two things. First, learn the fruit of the Spirit as well as the fruit of the flesh (Galatians 5.19-26) and then keep a diary of what fruit you are bearing. As you assess your behavior, ask the Spirit to help you accordingly and have confidence that your prayers will be answered because as you get to know the mind of Christ better, you will know better what to pray for, and surely God will answer those prayers just as Jesus promised. Then second, find a Christian friend, preferably from St. Augustine’s, to share your successes and failures on a regular basis so that you can learn to encourage and exhort one another as needed. As you do, you will surely learn to see more clearly the Spirit’s presence in your life and be reminded that you have Good News, now and for all eternity. Who knows? People might even ask why you’ve been drinking so early in the day.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.