Sunday, June 4, 2017
Pentecost - The Gift of the Spirit and a New Creation
Preached on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017
Scripture readings: Genesis 1:1-2; Acts 2:1-21
The sound of a violent wind; what appeared to be tongues of fire on top of every disciple’s head; your ability to share with others the message of the wonders of God in their own language: have you ever been there? I haven’t. Yet, somehow that is exactly where we are; all of us together. This is what is true of everyone who belongs to Jesus.
A week or two after I turned nineteen, I was in a Presbyterian youth group that had its own Pentecost. Alright, it was just a little Pentecost; no wind, no fire. It was something we all felt, although I was the only one there who began to speak in tongues, which I had never done before. I remember it very well. I remember how it felt for me.
I believe that we all can (and probably all should) have Pentecosts of our own; at least once in our lives, but maybe it should happen more than once: as often as we need it.
I believe we should all kneel before the Baby Jesus at the manger, and we should all stand at the cross, and know that something real is happening to us. I wish that for you all.
Jesus gets born in each of us, in our time, even though Jesus was born only once, long ago. Jesus dies for each one of us, in our time, even though Jesus only died once, for all, on the cross.
I must tell you that anything of real importance never stops. Everything that matters goes on and on, and it all can become yours. The crowd at Pentecost heard, in their own native languages, the wonders of God. In that moment, the wonders of God became their own. The wonders of God never end: not a single one of God’s wonders ever stops.
Pentecost is (like the birth and the cross of Jesus) a one-time event that is so important that it never stops. It can’t stop, because it is an event that has its place in the very nature of God. What God is, and what God wants, and what God gives, flows through our world, for all people, for all time.
We see God in the wind of Pentecost. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, our concepts of wind, and spirit, and breath are all contained in one single word (ruach). The same concepts are covered by a single root word in the Greek language of the New Testament (pneo).
In the Book of Genesis, when we read about the Spirit of God hovering over the unformed creation which is about to become the living, moving creation that we see around us…when we read about this Spirit of God, we are also reading about the Wind of God, and the Breath of God. This is what God breathes into the first human beings in order to give all humans life. We exist, we are alive, we breathe, and we are spiritual beings reflecting the image and the glory of God because we are all created. We are creatures. We are creations.
Peter reminded the crowd of the words of the prophet Joel, who told of the times of the last days, when those days are about to become the new day of the new creation. In that time, the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all people. All people need to become a new creation in order to be part of the great new creation of all things: a new creation of the Spirit. Peter essentially said that this was what Pentecost was all about.
Does this sound strange? The original Christian Pentecost meant that all Christians become the new creation of the Holy Spirit, because Jesus died for us and rose from the dead. By grace, and by faith, when Jesus draws us to himself, we die with him, and we rise from the dead with him, and we become new. It’s the will of the Father, and the work of the Son, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
When you read about the first generation of Christians, as told by the Book of Acts, you can tell that they weren’t always feeling new. You can tell that, from time to time, they had new experiences of the power and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They needed new experiences of being made new, if they were going to succeed at keeping on the road of the new creation.
The Spirit is like breathing, because it keeps on happening. That is how the Holy Spirit keeps us alive spiritually. The truth is that this is how the Holy Spirit keeps the whole universe going, all the time. If the Holy Spirit stopped its life-giving work, for only a moment, the whole creation would cease to exist.
But, for you and me, the work of the Spirit is like the alternative power source of the wind. It’s a renewable energy source.
And it’s not only for merely you and me, as individuals. The Holy Spirit was, and is, God’s power for the Church: for all the people of Jesus as a collective, single unity.
What we are together is kept alive, and goes on, and hopefully grows, because we love what the Holy Spirit wants to do in all of us, together. This means that we need to all be together, just as all of Jesus’ people were all together, in one place, for the Holy Spirit to take them all together and make them part of the same experience and miracle. The will to not be together is the will of something else than the Spirit of God.
The Spirit continually works in two movements, or two directions. The Spirit drives our movement out, into the world, to share the wonders of God with everyone. And the Spirit drives our movement in, together, to be one. If we, ourselves don’t participate in these two movements or in these two directions in life (if we don’t love these two directions of life) then we may not fully receive the life that comes from the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit can’t move us in his two special directions, then he may resort to moving without us.
Then, there is fire. Fire is a symbol of purity or purification. This is part of what was behind the burnt offerings, or the sacrifices, in the Old Testament. Fire took care of (and got rid of) the sin represented by the animal sacrifices slain on the altar.
Purity, or purification, is what happened when the prophet Isaiah had a vision of God, in all his glory and holiness. In the presence of God, Isaiah recoiled in horror at himself and his people, in the light of God’s glory. In this vision, Isaiah was touched on his lips with a burning coal, to make him clean, in order to make him what God wanted him to be, to free him from whatever kept him from being what God wanted him to be.
The fire represents the Holy Spirit because the life that comes from the Spirit sets us free from everything that keeps us from being what we are created by God to be. In a way, this is what John the Baptist meant, when he predicted that Jesus would baptize everyone with “the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3:11)
I don’t think the crowd saw the fire. I think they heard the sound of the wind and they were confused when they heard the message of the wonders of God in their own language from the people who shouldn’t have been able to speak their language.
It was only the people of Jesus, gathered in one place, who saw the fire resting on the heads of everyone there in that room, before they went out. I believe this vision of the fire tells us something important about our life together, and our growing together, in the Spirit. It tells us that we should be able to look at each other and see glory and purity.
For the Holy Spirit to make itself real and powerfully present for me, it’s necessary for me to look at each one of you and see you crowned with flame. For the Holy Spirit to make itself real and powerfully present in you, you must see each other crowned in flame. By the way, you should see me the same way, too. We don’t have the fullness of Pentecost without that reality, because that’s what God is all about: it’s what he is, and it’s what he wants.
Then, there’s the message of the wonders of God. The wonders of God are what we see in Jesus. Jesus said: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) The disciples weren’t only telling the people about Jesus, they were telling about their witnessing Jesus. (Acts 2:32) They were telling the wonders of God as they had witnessed them for themselves.
The Holy Spirit takes the things of Jesus and makes them ours. Jesus said this would happen through the Spirit. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26) “He will glorify me, because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John16:14-15)
When the people of Jesus shared the wonders of God with the others, they weren’t sharing merely the facts, they were sharing their very own lives with strangers. The wonders of God were their wonders. The Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, makes this so.
When I speak in tongues, I speak to God. This is what often happened in the early churches, and Paul writes about this in his first letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 14) It’s a way to speak to God in such a way as to share yourself with him beyond your understanding.
The tongues of Pentecost were different. They were a gift of communication with others. As such, in a way, the tongues of Pentecost were completely unnecessary. They were unnecessary because everyone in the crowd would have been able to understand the two languages that the disciples were also able to speak and understand.
Everyone in that crowd would have been able to speak and understand, more or less, the two international languages of that part of the ancient world. The two languages were Greek and Aramaic. Aramaic was a common international language to the east (at least as far as Persia). Aramaic included the nearby areas of Syria and Arabia. It included the disciples own home area of Judea and Galilee. Jesus and the disciples spoke Aramaic as their home language. It was their language of the heart, but it was also an international language for the lands to the east.
They also would have known Greek. People all over the Roman Empire knew Greek and there were Greeks in North Africa, and as far east as India, and what is now Afghanistan. Aramaic would serve a purpose for Pentecost: Greek even more so.
This rendered speaking in all those other languages completely unnecessary: except for one reason. All those many areas (except for Greece) had hearth languages. There were these old dialects that had not died away. These were languages of the heart, the private languages of the home.
For us (for you and me) the Holy Spirit wants to empower our ability to speak to other people’s hearts. God wants you to communicate in other languages than our holy church language, whatever that may be.
The Holy Spirit may give you the gift of speaking to people who seem to speak the same language as you do, only they may have the language of another way of life, another system of priorities and purposes that make you seem strange and foreign to them. The Spirit can empower you to bridge the gaps between your heart and their heart.
Here, again, the power of the Holy Spirit is designed to be so much more than a personal experience. The Holy Spirit wants to become an interpersonal experience: a heart to heart experience.
Pentecost is meant for each and every one of you, as the people of Jesus. It’s for all of us as we form a family of people together. There may be no audible wind, or visible fire. There may be no foreign languages. But there is that heart to heart with each other and with the people of the world around you.
There is that fiery, purifying freedom from everything that keeps you from being the person you were created to be, and touched by Jesus to be. There is the new creation; living in the new world. In the Holy Spirit, we live in a world that operates according to God’s will, and God’s priorities, and God’s victory in Jesus.
This new life of Pentecost is the gift of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The life-giving power of the Holy Spirit is like breathing. It’s a renewable energy. It has not stopped. It will not stop working for you. It will not stop being available to us, together.
It isn’t really our thing. It’s God’s thing. Pentecosts is God’s plan and intention for all people, including us. Don’t write it off. Don’t count it out. Be ready and willing to receive it. Be ready to do something new and unexpected.