Receiving The Holy Spirit
Day of Pentecost
from the book
PREACHING COMMUNITY IN SEASONS OF CHANGE
Today is Pentecost. Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the people of God. Today we celebrate the birthday of the Church of Jesus Christ, recalling our ancestors in the faith who received the power of God's Holy Spirit and began a journey which we continue in this moment as we take on the struggle to become a faithful people in today's world. Today we celebrate the arrival of the Advocate, the Spirit who accompanies and partners with us in life and faith.
That's a lot to say. And it's probably a good guess that many of the smiles in the pew this morning mask an interior monologue that goes something like this:
That's nice. But what is Pentecost? Where did it come from? What does it mean? Why do we even bother, on a nice weekend when most people are at the beach, to prepare special music and offer a special celebration? Who cares, anyway?
Does this ring a bell? Would it be accurate to say that for some of you, this Pentecost thing is a little less than vague?
"This," said the preacher, rolling up his sleeves, "is what seminary professors would call a teaching moment."
The Greek word, Pentecost (Pentecost) is a word which traditionally refers to the fiftieth day after Easter. The traditional Anglican name for this is "Whitsunday." In pre--Christian days this holiday was an agricultural festival which scholars suggest gradually came to be identified as the festival time when the Jews celebrated the day that Moses received the Law from God on Mount Sinai. This being true, it then needs to be said that the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the new covenant community taking place on the same date that the Hebrew people received the seal of the old covenant is quite significant. I doubt that the coincidence escaped the understanding of the early Christian community. In fact, one of the articles I read suggested that Paul, in writing about the law and the spirit, was also lifting this up using a liturgical connection.
Today, however, we claim the celebration of Pentecost as a Christian event drawing primarily from the story described in the second chapter of Acts. There are ample other scriptural references to the Holy Spirit, of course. Today's lesson, for example, has Jesus breathing the Spirit on his disciples, telling them that they are called to forgive (John 20:22--24). In Psalm 104:24--34 we hear that we literally live and die according to the presence of God's Spirit. And I love the story of Moses and the elders (Numbers 11:26f) where people get peevish and jealous when one seems to have more "spirit" than the other. Moses cries out, "Are you jealous for my sake?" It's the old "grass is greener" syndrome. It's rather like those people who think pastors only work on Sundays. Or other folks who look at what you're doing and say, "Gosh, what an easy job. I wish I had that." You just grin and realize that they don't know what the job entails. Moses agrees. He says, "Are you sure you want this gift of prophecy?" "Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets and the Lord would put the Spirit upon them!"
Well, it took a while, but Moses got his wish. And it's this wholesale pouring out of God's Spirit that we celebrate today. It's the same thing that the writer of Acts repeats from the Prophet Joel:
I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days I will pour out my spirit....
It is from many and diverse locations that we arrive together in the Pentecost moment. This is an exciting time. The Spirit of God is upon us at Pentecost. It howls into our hearts like a mighty rushing wind. It dances on the heads of believers like tongues of fire, provoking them to dance and sing in such a way that onlookers think they are drunk. On Pentecost the Spirit is on the move, and we are all subject to its wonderful unpredictable rhythms.
But our focus today is on a different kind of Pentecostal moment. Today, through the window of John's Gospel, we pull back the sash and we don't see mighty winds or dancing flames. We don't see the Patriarchs arguing about who has more spirit. No. This is a different kind of spirit--moment. Through this window, we see a group of frightened, hunted men hiding out from the police. It is the rag--tag remnants of Jesus' followers who have gathered in this room in great fear and distress. It isn't a great time for the Disciples, as they were called. The leader has been arrested and executed, and most of the once robust group has scattered. And to add insult to injury, it was one of their own that betrayed Jesus in the first place! And now, we look, and see this dissipated and worn out group, gathered in this place of hiding.
What's next? What's left?
Who couldn't help wondering what fears and doubts were raging in their minds. Maybe they were in a kind of collective shock? It staggers the imagination. One wonders if they were even speaking to one another. Were they arguing and blaming? Did they sulk and weep? Were they planning next steps? Were they figuring on splitting up until things cooled down a bit? The Gospel of John gives us no details on this, but it's not hard to imagine some frightened, tired, and discouraged people huddling in a locked room while outside the police are looking for them. And suddenly, into the midst of this gloom appears Jesus. Into the smog of despair and defeat steps the Risen Christ, and he says, "Peace be with you." Peace be with you? Doesn't that seem like a strange thing to say? Here they are, hiding out and hunted; wanted men scared to death, and Jesus basically says, "Calm down." And then he breathes on them and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained." Receive, in other words, the Holy Spirit of the Creating God, the power of forgiveness, the wonder of love, the hope of new life. Receive the accompaniment of God's power, a partner on the journey. Receive the power to forgive and the power to condemn.
This Pentecostal moment is a little more difficult than tongues of fire. It is a little tougher to get inside of than the hurricane of the Spirit that we experience in Acts. In the story of Pentecost in Acts, we have a faith community already gathered. There is momentum. People are coming together and celebrating the wonder of God in Jesus Christ, and then the Spirit comes upon them.
But here? This is different. Jesus marches into the sorrow of defeat and despair and offers God's wonderful Spirit. This is Jesus the gate crasher; Jesus crashing the party of hopelessness and gloom, telling his followers to relax, to calm down, and to receive the healing power of the Living God. This is Jesus, breathing hope into the midst of terror and defeat. This is the Spirit that moves forward into new life no matter what. It is the persistent solo voice of life, piercing the droning dirge of the choirs of death. It is, quite simply, the herald call of an unreasoning and unreasonable optimism in the worst of all possible times.
Most people don't like optimists. They usually are dismissed with a smirk and a quiet guffaw. Optimists. Give us a break. And when you consider it, there is some merit to the argument. Things in that room were desperate. Who knew what would happen? Arrest? Torture? Execution? They'd just seen it all. And then Jesus shows up and says, "Relax. I'm sending you out just like God sent me." And with that, the Disciples have to be thinking, "Sure, Jesus, send us out like God sent you. Look what happened to you! We'd rather stay put here until things cool down. Thanks, though ... It's, uh, good to see you."
Have you ever felt like the disciples must have felt on that day? Has defeat and exhaustion ever come to you so powerfully that you had to hide away? Have you ever felt fresh out of options? These are not times that we choose to jump up and down celebrating the wonder of God's Spirit. These are not times that we choose to reach out across the boundaries of our lives. And we seldom thank people who try to get us to do so. No. In times of defeat and despair, in moments of sorrow and pain, most of us are like the disciples. We find as safe a place as we can find, and we go in and lock the door. We hide, not really knowing, or thinking about next steps; not really planning or conniving. We just hide. It's instinct.
But, my friends, it is exactly into moments like these that Jesus insists on arriving. It is into Dietrich Bonhoeffer's cell in the days before his execution; it is into the dark nights of despair for prisoners of conscience; prisoners of fear; into our own dark places of regret and sorrow that Jesus simply appears, wounded hands in the air, saying, "Peace be with you."
It's really quite disturbing when you stop to think about it. "How did he get in here, anyway?" "We thought we were hidden pretty well." "We took the time to find a safe place, and to cover our tracks as we shut the door behind us." "We even locked the dead bolt." Like the disciples before us, we too lock the door as we hide away, trying to make sure that our isolation, our seclusion, is complete.
But the wonderful truth, the Pentecostal truth, is that Jesus doesn't need keys. He is the key! He doesn't need a map with arrows and directions pointing down the corridors and into the hidden rooms of our hearts. He doesn't need to know the way. He is the way! Jesus, already ever present in our lives, simply appears and stands among us saying, "Peace be with you."
He comes among us and shows us his wounds - not as an act of one--upmanship, for all of us bear wounds - but in a divine movement of solidarity. "You see?" he says. "I know how it feels. I've been there too. You don't have to be alone anymore." No matter where we're hiding, Jesus comes among us. No matter how numb we try to make ourselves, no matter how far we wander, Jesus comes among us. He comes and says, "You may be frightened. That's okay. You may be tired. That's okay. You may be discouraged or depressed. That's okay. It's all okay because the Holy Spirit is with you now." The wonderful Spirit of our God walks with you. And our God will ease your fears. Our God will lift you up and you will "mount with wings like eagles. You will run and not be weary, and you will walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31). And our God will sing you the song of new life so that you may dance in joy and celebration.
Today is Pentecost. And into this room comes Jesus, saying, "Peace be with you." Into our hearts comes Jesus, saying that just as he was sent by God, so are we sent by him to offer forgiveness and hope, new life and blessing. So whether the Spirit comes as a mighty wind with flame and power, or quietly into the fearful private places in our lives, rest assured, it does come. Whether the Spirit arrives in the voices and laughter of our children, or in the sorrowful faces of grieving loved ones, it does come. Whether it comes in a mighty wind of growth and movement, or in quiet healing ministries, the Holy Spirit comes and always comes among us.
We are blessed in abundance by God's Spirit, and the challenge that comes to us today is to open our hearts and our lives to the possibilities that the Holy Spirit offers. Who knows what wonders might be wrought, in our hearts, in our homes, our churches, even in our world, if we all embraced the power of God's Spirit in this time and in this place. Amen.