Sunday, June 4, 2017, was Pentecost Sunday! In our church we all wore something red, which is the liturgical color of that Sunday. And, of course, I preached from Acts 2:1-21, Luke’s account of the Day of Pentecost. Here’s the audio of that message:
Sunday, June 4, 2017, was Pentecost Sunday! In our church we all wore something red, which is the liturgical color of that Sunday. And, of course, I preached from Acts 2:1-21, Luke’s account of the Day of Pentecost. Here’s the audio of that message:
Pentecost Sunday is the last big Sunday in the liturgical year, but often churches that celebrate Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter fail to give equal emphasis to Pentecost. Pentecost is the culmination of the Christian Calendar, and has been called the “birthday of the church.” Without Pentecost, the Christian Year is incomplete because it is at Pentecost that Jesus fulfills his promise to send the Holy Spirit to empower, equip, enthuse, and embolden the apostles. It is also on Pentecost that the church launches it mission of taking the Gospel to the whole world.
Pentecost carries great significance for those early followers of Christ, and for us today. Here’s the sermon I preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012, titled Living in the Power of Pentecost.
On Pentecost the fire of the Holy Spirit fell on the apostles. Debbie installed this multi-layered representation of the Pentecostal fire for our celebration of “the birthday of the church!”
I preached on Pentecost last Sunday as “Babel Revisited.” In that sermon I repeated the conventional thinking that God punished mankind’s attempt to build a tower to reach to the heavens. But listen to what Wendell Griffen says,
That interpretation of Genesis 11:1-9 is not fair to God. Do we really think the Creator of the universe is threatened by a municipal construction project? Are we dealing with a Being who is so insecure that a few people who put a city together and build a skyscraper get on His nerves? If God is that petty, God should not be called good and gracious, but petty and tyrannical.
Instead of reading the passage to mean that cultural diversity is divine punishment, we should understand it to show how cultural diversity is part of the great redemptive purpose of God. God is not threatened when people cooperate to construct cities and tall buildings. One story buildings and rural settings are not entitled to divine favor.
What the passage truly shows is that God wants humans to be spread throughout the world and enjoy cultural diversity without being afraid. If there is a condemnation in the passage—and I use the word if intentionally—it condemns the idea that cultural sameness is the way to salvation. We are one people because we have a common Creator, not because we speak the same language or live in the same location. Our oneness lies in who we are before God, not who we are physically related to by human ancestry and geography. God loves our diversity. God intentionally caused our diversity. God is glorified by our diversity.
— from Babel and Pentecost by Wendell Griffen
I wish I had said that. I will not think of Babel in the same way again. Griffen’s interpretation gives even more meaning to the Pentecost event, as God’s means of bringing diversity together again to send us back out into the world with God’s message of hope and salvation. Read the entire sermon here.
Judge Wendell Griffen is a former Arkansas appeals court judge; the first person of color to join a major Arkansas law firm; CEO of Griffen Strategic Consulting; pastor of New Millennium Church; professor of law at the University of Arkansas’s Bowen School of Law.
25“All this I have spoken while still with you. 26But the Counselor, 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. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. — John 14:25-27
The Third Person in The Creed
I had the opportunity to speak to students at Duke Divinity School this past week, and to meet Dr. Curtis Freeman, who is the director of The Baptist House at Duke. Dr. Freeman and I had a chance to chat later in the afternoon. In the course of our conversation, my sermon series on The Apostles’ Creed came up, and Dr. Freeman was curious as to how that was going. He had read about my intention to preach on the Creed this summer, and emailed me that he was going to be speaking at a conference in Alabama at Samford’s Beeson Divinity School — a Baptist university — on the Nicene Creed. So, creeds seem to be more and more popular in Baptist life, not because we are in danger of adopting one officially, but because we believe the statements in the great creeds of Christianity. He also told me that Duke Divinity was hosting Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, distinguished professor in systematic theology. Dr. Freeman told me that Wainwright uses The Apostles’ Creed as his outline for his sytematic theology lectures. Of course, he’s a Methodist, which explains a lot, but nevertheless, I’m not so far out in doing this series after all.
So, let’s get down to business today. The Apostles’ Creed could be easily divided into three main sections:
Two powerful lines in the Creed are devoted to God, and ten lines are devoted to Jesus. The two lines about God use high content titles to describe God — Father, Almighty, Creator. Those three words describe our relationship to God; God’s own pre-eminence over everything; and, God’s creative act.
The ten lines about Jesus walk us through his life from his relationship to God, to his conception, birth, suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, descent into hell, resurrection, ascension back into heaven, his position at the right hand of God, and his sure return to judge the living and the dead. Those ten lines cover a lot of territory, but they also tell a story familiar to us, and a story that forms the heart of the Christian faith.
At first glance, one might look at The Creed and think that there is only one line devoted to the Holy Spirit, and that line is not very descriptive — “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Period. End of sentence. But actually, a semicolon resides at the end of that phrase, connecting the Person of the Holy Spirit to that which follows.
In other words, our belief in the Holy Spirit acknowledges that it is the Holy Spirit who empowers the church, unites the saints, regenerates sinners, breathes resurrection life into transformed bodies, and sustains us in the life everlasting.
So, while we are going to talk about each of those things — the church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting — when we do, we will also be talking about the work of the Spirit.
So, the Holy Spirit is not getting short shrift in the Creed, or in our attention in this series. But today, we’re going to stop at the very short, but powerful phrase — “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
Who is The Holy Spirit, and How Did He (or She) Get Here?
Who, then is the Holy Spirit? Well, if you read the popular work of inspirational fiction, The Shack, you remember that the author portrayed the Holy Spirit as a blithe female persona, flitting here and there in the blink of an eye.
We may not be ready to call the Holy Spirit “she” today, but by all means we should not call the Spirit “it.” The classic understanding of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, or any of the other names the Spirit is identified by is that the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Divine Trinity.
There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has always existed as co-eternal with God, of the same essence as Father and Son, and yet with unique ministry.
We encounter the Holy Spirit first in the first verses of Genesis, where the Spirit of God broods over the unformed earth. The image there is one of a hen brooding over her chicks to bring them safely and carefully into full maturity.
“But,” you say, “I thought God the Father, Almighty was the creator of heaven and earth?” God was, and here is where all this gets a little tricky. It is very easy for us to talk about the Trinity, but very hard for us to explain the Trinity.
Perhaps this will help: The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who encounters humankind here on earth.
And, so the Holy Spirit is now God with us, and that is exactly what Jesus says to his disciples in the passage we read today.
Just as God sends Jesus to the earth, to humankind, so God the Father and God the Son send the Holy Spirit to earth to be God’s continuing presence with those early disciples and with us today.
Our Problem With The Holy Spirit
But, we are often like the believers in Ephesus. When Paul arrived there for the first time, he asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit since they believed. Their reply was, “We haven’t even heard if there is a Holy Spirit.” And here’s why 21st century Christians in America sometimes act that way: we’re not sure we want the Holy Spirit.
That’s right, we’re just not sure we want to go there. We as Baptists are pretty sure we don’t want to do weird stuff, like speak in tongues, heal the sick, and jump pews. We’ll leave all of that to our Pentecostal friends, thank you very much. So, the first problem we have with the Holy Spirit is a problem of weirdness.
And, there is a lot of weirdness that takes place when the Holy Spirit is around. On the Day of Pentecost, weird things happened — the sound of a rushing wind filled the place where the apostles were staying. Flames of fire appeared over their heads, and they spoke in languages they had never learned. So, what was that about?
Well, while it sounds weird, several things were going on at once. For the Feast of Pentecost, Jews from all over the known-world had stayed in Jerusalem since the Passover. They came from a variety of cities, nations, and tongues. And, so the speaking in “unknown tongues” was a reversal of The Tower of Babel story. Once, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, man had tried to make a name for himself and build a ziggurat that reached into the throne room of God. But God frustrated that effort by confusing their language, mixing up their speech so that they could not understand one another and could not finish the project.
But at Pentecost, God unscrambles that confusion by giving Peter and the other apostles the ability to preach in languages they had not learned, so that everyone who was there, no matter where they were from, understood and heard the story of Jesus. So, when God does weird stuff, it always has a purpose.
But, that doesn’t mean we want to be weird, and besides the Day of Pentecost has come and gone.
Which brings me to our real problem with the Holy Spirit: we think that the Holy Spirit only does the weird, the miraculous, or the extraordinary.
But Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “the Comforter.” That doesn’t sound too weird, or even miraculous. Jesus said to the disciples that the Holy Spirit was “with you, and shall be in you.” The Holy Spirit is the abiding presence of God in our lives.
I have often heard people remark during or after a particularly difficult time, “I don’t know how people who don’t believe in God are able to get through what I’ve just been through.” That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, comforting, strengthening, caring, and guiding. That’s not weird at all.
But whether we are comfortable talking about the Holy Spirit or not, the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives and the lives of all believers.
Get Used to The Holy Spirit Because He’s Our Down Payment on The Resurrection
Paul said that the Holy Spirit is the earnest money, the down payment on our own resurrection. In 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, Paul says:
21Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
The Spirit is the guarantee, the down payment, of what is to come. God gives us himself as personal guarantee of the fidelity of His promises, His saving grace, and our eternal place with Him.
So, it would seem like we need to know something of the Holy Spirit, because after all, the Holy Spirit is our guarantee of life everlasting.
The Holy Spirit Equips The Church
One of the primary purposes of the Holy Spirit is to give gifts to each follower of Christ. Of course, the greatest gift is God’s gift of salvation, but there is more to being a follower of Jesus than just eternal life. There’s life here in the body of Christ called the church.
Paul said that Christ is the head of the body, but that the Holy Spirit gives each of us gifts to fit into the body. Some have supernatural gifts, some have more everyday type gifts, but none of us is overlooked in the gift-giving of the Holy Spirit.
If I were to suggest to you today that we could do what Jesus did, some of you would think that I was either speaking rhetorically, or I was exaggerating. But that’s exactly what Paul, and Jesus himself, said. The key to that, though, is we don’t do it alone. By bringing our gifts, and using them in concert with the gifts of others, the body of Christ carries out the work and ministry of Christ in this world today. Feeding people, healing people, announcing the good news, befriending the friendless, demonstrating kingdom values — all these things are only possible if we live in the Spirit, and express the gifts the Spirit of God has given to each of us.
The Spirit Also Wages Spiritual Battle
But, let’s not kid ourselves. This world is a long way off from being what God intends for it to be. The Lord’s Prayer asks for God’s will “to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” We are not close to having that prayer answered universally yet.
As a matter of fact, the Spirit is also fighting for us and the kingdom of God. Now, we know how the story will end because Jesus has already defeated sin and death. But have you ever watched those “nature-at-its-wildest” shows? I saw a new one the other day called “Monsters of the River” or something like that. The star was trying to catch some gigantic fish that lived in the Amazon, or a river pretty much like it.
The one thing they always say after they catch the gator, or croc, or in this case a fish that looked to me like the world’s largest catfish — the one thing they always say is, “Okay, be careful when we put him back in the water, because his tail can be deadly.”
And, that’s where we are today. Satan is a defeated foe, the church knows its going to be victorious, but in his death throes, Satan’s tail can be deadly.
Paul said, “10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” — Eph 6:10-18 NIV
We’re in a spiritual battle, we’re to take the sword of the Spirit, we’re to pray in the Spirit — sounds like the Holy Spirit is doing a lot for us in the realm of the unseen world, that we need to know about.
I am reading David Augsburger’s book, Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures. Augsburger is primarily speaking to those who will offer pastoral care and counseling to persons from cultures other than their own. He told this story to illustrate the power of a world known to other cultures, if unknown to us:
In Indonesia, a man converted to Christianity from Islam. He was troubled by a talisman — a gold coin — visible just below the surface of his skin, on the underside of his forearm. He said that this talisman has brought him good luck, success, prosperity, and power in the past.
But when you examine his arm closely, you notice there is not scar or visible sign of how the gold coin got under his skin. He says that a Muslim priest, a shaman of sorts, placed the coin on his arm, and then the shaman covered the coin with his own hand. When he removed his hand, the coin was imbedded under the man’s skin.
The young man came forward during a worship service at his new church, asking the pastor for prayer for this talisman. The pastor showed the young man’s arm, with the gold coin imbedded in it, to the congregation and asked them to pray that the power of the coin would be broken.
As the congregation prayed, the pastor placed his hand over the embedded gold coin, just as the Muslim priest had done. As they prayed, the pastor removed his hand from the man’s arm.
The coin was no longer under the young man’s skin. His arm is clear, scarless, and with no sign of the coin. The pastor held up the coin in his hand as visible evidence to the congregation that the power of God was greater than the power of the coin.
That is a true story, and if we do not understand it, it is because the Holy Spirit works in ways beyond our comprehension or culture.
We do believe in the Holy Spirit for every time we weather a storm, bear a burden, survive a difficulty, or need comfort, the Spirit is there. He is at work in our world, continuing the ministry of Jesus, at work in our lives through each assembly of believers called the church, and at work in the unseen world where the struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, and powers, and rulers of darkness.
Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed series continues with this sermon, I Believe in the Ascension of Christ, from Luke 24:36-53.
I Believe in the Ascension of Jesus
36While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
37They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
40When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate it in their presence.
44He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
What Do You Do With The Body?
A favorite part of just about any murder mystery is what to do with the body? You know how those stories go: first, the murderer kills the victim. The details of the murderer — is he or she an escaped convict, a deranged lunatic, a jealous lover, or a scheming con artist?; and, the victim — is the victim an unfaithful lover, a double-crossing partner, an innocent bystander, and so on — change with the particular plot line, but the basics of the story are the same — one person kills another.
This story is as old as Cain and Abel, and the problem of what to do with the body of the victim is as old as the murderous act itself. Cain apparently buried his brother Abel in the same field where he killed him, and when God asked Cain “Where is your brother, Abel?” Cain replies, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?”
Nice try, but it didn’t work. God tells Cain that the blood of Abel cries out to God from the ground. In other words, I know what you did with the body.
Same thing happened to Moses. Moses is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter from among the bulrushes of the river, and eventually is raised in Pharaoh’s household. But somewhere along the way, even though he looks and dresses like an Egyptian, Moses finds his Hebrew identity. He is outraged at the treatment the Hebrews are receiving under Pharaoh’s regime, but there’s not much he can do about it. Until one day, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew.
Moses anger swells, and before he knows it, Moses kills the Egyptian. Which is sure to be a big problem for him with Pharaoh and his henchmen. So, Moses buries the Egyptian’s body in the sand to conceal his crime. It doesn’t work, however, because someone saw Moses do it, and so he has to flee to the backside of the desert, which is a long way off.
But with the story of Jesus, we have a different problem. The Apostles’ Creed has us affirm —
On the third day He rose again from the dead.
Now, the problem is this — Jesus has risen from the dead. That’s Easter, that’s the resurrection, that’s the moment in which God breaks the power of sin and death, and the life of Jesus becomes the prototype for all humanity, for all life to come.
But, what do you do with the body? The empty tomb is mute evidence that Jesus is not dead. Jesus appears to the disciples for a period of 40-days between Passover and the coming of the next big Jewish festival, Pentecost.
But, this is a big problem now. Jesus appears about 11 times to various individuals and groups of followers. And, he is very much alive, not a ghost like they imagine in the passage we have just read. In his appearances, Jesus does several things:
So, Jesus does at least 9 things, and maybe more, that show he is a real, live person, not a ghost, a vision, or an apparition. But, then what? What do you do with the body of Jesus, even if He is alive?
Getting Off The Stage
When I was in high school I got involved with the drama club, and we put on several plays of somewhat uneven quality, I must admit. But, we learned a great deal about what actors call “stage craft” — the business of acting. One of the big moments in any play is an actor’s entrance. So, if you’re coming through a door, you make sure the door knob turns, or the door doesn’t get stuck, so your entrance is smooth and doesn’t become a sort of comedy of errors in itself.
But just as important as getting on the stage, is getting off. Again, if you’re going through a door, you want to check ahead of time to be sure the door opens, or the knob turns, or whatever needs to happen, happens. An actor wants his exit to be important, but not awkward. If you aren’t in the right position on stage when you need to exit, things can get very awkward.
And, in one way, that’s where we find Jesus. In a place on the stage of history that no one has ever occupied. His entrance was to be born. That, of course, was pretty dramatic in itself, for he was “conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.”
Pretty amazing stuff, and in terms of stage presence, Jesus had that too. He went about healing people, feeding people, teaching, raising the dead, and training a band of followers who continually seemed not to get what Jesus was trying to teach them.
But, the story takes an distressing turn for Jesus’ followers. He is opposed by religious leaders, eventually arrested, beaten, tried, and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Then, he’s crucified. When he dies, he’s taken down off the cross, and buried. And here is where the story might end, because all the other stories like this, or even close to this, have ended this way. The hero gets killed, the body buried, and that’s the end of the story as his followers slip away into the darkness.
But not this story. In this story, the hero doesn’t stay dead. In some inexplicable, supernatural event, Jesus rises from the grave. And, in case there is any doubt about His resurrection, the massive stone gets mysteriously rolled away from the mouth of the grave, the grave clothes are lying neatly folded, and angels announce the news that “He is not here, He is risen from the dead.”
But, now what? How does Jesus get off-stage, so to speak. Most of us exit through the door of death, but for Jesus, death was just a revolving door — in and then out again. How does this story resolve itself.
I suppose Jesus could have just hung around. But that wasn’t the plan. The plan from the beginning was that Jesus enters the human realm, does what only God-Incarnate can do, then goes back to his throne in the presence of God the Father, but in His place sends the Holy Spirit. So, that’s the plan, but how does Jesus get off-stage, so to speak?
Who Comes Down Now Goes Up
We have the old saying, “What goes up, must come down.” That’s called the Gravity Creed. But, in Jesus case, what, or better, who came down to earth, must also go back up into heaven.
In the 19th century, theologians got really upset that Jesus ascended “up” to heaven. Some even said that the idea of heaven being “up” was an outmoded, primitive idea which proves that the story about the ascension couldn’t be true. Heaven wasn’t up, they said, and so Jesus would not have gone up to go back there.
Well, they’re batting .500 — they got it half right, in other words. Heaven isn’t up. Heaven is the presence of God. Heaven is no more “place” as we know places than God is a man as we know men. But we speak in the only words we know, and in the first century their idea was that the living were on the earth; the dead were in the pit, or the underworld, or the land of the dead which was under the earth; and, that heaven was above the earth. Theologians call this a three-tiered cosmology, which is pretty much how we still think of life, heaven, and hell today — here, up from here, and down from here.
And remember, the Bible tells stories with a theological point. Which doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t go up, but it does mean that there is a deeper meaning to “up” than we might think.
The Significance of Up
The Bible uses this “up-and-down” language to represent a lot of theological ideas. Here are some of them:
So, the people of God revealed in Scripture understand that one goes up to God, and down to sin, death, and the grave.
One way or the other, Jesus is going up to God, to heaven, and to the right-hand of God for eternity.
Going Up Doesn’t Mean Going Away
But, just because Jesus goes up to God at the ascension, doesn’t mean Jesus goes away. Jesus goes up, so the Holy Spirit can come down to Jesus’ followers.
Jesus has already told his followers that he’s going to send the Paraclete, the One-Called-Alongside, to help the disciples. They’ve seen the power of God in Jesus’ healing and other miracles, and Jesus has promised them that they will do the same things, and greater than He has done.
Jesus has already breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” That in itself was a theological act, and act reminiscent of God’s act at creation, breathing into Adam the breath of life. Only this breath of life was the life of the Spirit.
Jesus had told the disciples that all authority was given to him, in heaven and earth, and that they were to wait for the Holy Spirit.
And, so they waited. For days. In fear. In Jerusalem. Uncertain what would happen, or if they would even know it when it did.
And then, all heaven broke lose. The wind blows with a mighty rushing sound — the presence of the Spirit. Tongues of fire — another manifestation of the Spirit appear on the disciples heads. The disciples speak in languages they have never learned, a reversal of the confounding of languages at the Tower of Babel. And Peter, inspired by the Spirit, says, “This is what the prophet Joel spoke of.”
The Spirit comes, the church is born, the followers of Jesus are empowered, Peter preaches and three thousand who had great doubts about the man called Jesus were converted in an instant and were baptized.
Going up doesn’t mean going away.
We Are Living The Story
We tend to think of all these things as past-tense: Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus rose again, Jesus ascended back to heaven. The Holy Spirit came. End of story.
But it’s not the end. It’s the beginning for us. The beginning for the church. The beginning of witness. The beginning of the faith. The beginning of the good news which would be carried to all the world. Jesus is alive, and what’s more, He’s seated at the right hand of God the Father.
It has pleased God, the Bible says, to put all things under Jesus’ feet. In other words, Jesus is in charge. Jesus reigns. Jesus is the Lord of All. Jesus sends the Spirit to us. Jesus is still active in this world that he came to live and die for.
We are living the story of God’s redemptive love. We are the present actors in this great drama written and directed by God. Jesus the Messiah has made his entrance as the most helpless of humanity — a tiny baby. He has lived his life as the most unusual of men. He has died a horrendous death. He as risen victorious from the grave. He has resumed the mantle of heaven and ascended to his rightful place.
But here’s where it really gets good — He’s left us to represent him here in this world that he loved so much he gave himself for it. And, we’re not alone. He sent the Holy Spirit to fill us, gift us, guide us, and empower us. We are living the story of Jesus, in the power of His Spirit, for the life of His creation.
That’s what the ascension is all about. Not just a clever theatrical trick to get Jesus off-stage, but a dramatic theological transition, a moment that transcends time and space, where heaven received in victory the risen Christ, and earth received in gratitude His ever-present Spirit.
As we gather at His table today, He is present with us. Theologians have argued for almost 2,000 years about “how” Jesus is present in the broken bread and poured out wine. The church was split, denominations formed, and wars fought over the “how” of Jesus presence at this table. But that misses the point.
Our concern today is not “how” Jesus is here. Our concern today as we gather at this table is that He is here, and we are present with Him. Had he not come, he could not have gone. Had he not gone, he could not have sent the Spirit. Had the Spirit not come, we would not be gathered here today.
This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2009. I hope your day is filled with God’s presence. May the fire fall on us.
The Work of the Spirit
John 15:26-27, 16:4-15
26“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. 27And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.
4I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you.
5“Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. 7But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt[a] in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: 9in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; 10in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
12“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.
Why Are We Wearing Red Today?
Today is Pentecost Sunday. This is the last big Sunday, a feast day in the medieval church, before we enter ordinary or normal time. So, we’re wearing red today because red is the liturgical color of the Holy Spirit. Red is the color of fire and symbolizes the presence of God. Just as Moses saw the burning bush as a symbol of God’s presence, so we wear red today as a symbol of God’s presence with us, but also as a reminder of the coming of the Spirit on that Pentecost after the resurrection and ascension of Christ.
Of course, the story of the coming of the Spirit is found in Acts 2, but today we are reading the Gospel lesson for this year’s lectionary, John’s Gospel, chapter 15:26-27, and chapter 16:4-15. Because before the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost, before the ascension of Jesus, before the resurrection and the crucifixion of Christ, he promises the disciples the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
So, today I want us to look at the work of the Holy Spirit, which is not something we as Baptists often do. Baptists in the 19th century bought into the idea that the sign gifts, the extraordinary manifestations of the Holy Spirit which include speaking in tongues, gifts of knowledge, gifts of healing, and other sign gifts ceased with the end of the apostolic age. In other words, we believed that when the apostles died, and the Scriptures as we know them today were finished, that God had given us all we needed to proclaim the Good News.
And then, something very amazing happened. In 1906, in California, at a prayer meeting, the Holy Spirit fell on those who were praying at Azusa Street, and the Azusa Street revival sparked the renaissance of awareness of the Holy Spirit’s active work in our world. A work that continues in extraordinary ways, in unlikely places, with amazing results.
In the 1970s, the charismatic movement burst on the scene of mainline and evangelical churches. Churches steeped in the tradition of both organization and liturgy found themselves struggling to explain and cope with a new wave of the Holy Spirit in their midst. The charismatic movement swept through Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and yes, even some Baptist churches. Sadly, some churches majored on minors in this resurgence of awareness, and some fellowships were fractured.
Today, the fastest growing segment of Christianity is the Pentecostal/charismatic segment, and it is growing fastest in South America and in Africa. Pentecostals were the only group in a recent US study of church growth and decline, to post positive growth. So there must be something to the work of the Holy Spirit. Let’s take a look and see what Jesus had to say, because he is promising to send the Holy Spirit to his disciples after he’s gone from them.
The Work of the Holy Spirit is Creative
Let’s take a quick trip to the first chapter of Genesis, where Genesis 1:1-2 says —
2 Now the earth was [a] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
So, there he is, the Holy Spirit present in the first two verses of Scripture. God’s creative spirit is the Holy Spirit. And the picture in Genesis 1:2 is of a mother hen brooding over her chicks — hovering over them in a life-giving act. God’s creative spirit brings something from nothing, and then sits on it like a mother hen until all of creation is hatched, newly formed, and alive.
But, that’s not all the creative spirit of God does. This creative spirit is also a life-giving spirit.
4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens- 5 and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground- the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
This creative spirit (and the word ‘spirit’ is the same word for ‘wind or breath’) then gets breathed by God into his new creation called Man, and this wind, this spirit, this breath, gives life. God imparts himself in the ‘breath of the Spirit’ into Man, and by extension, each man and woman. This life from the Spirit is part of the image of God in each of us, part of the presence of God with us all from the moment of God’s creation.
The Work of the Holy Spirit is Companionship
Just as God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden before their sin, Jesus walked with his disciples during his earthly ministry. But, Jesus has told the disciples he is going away in that famous moment when he says,
John 14:15: “If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
Just as Jesus has been their companion for the past three years, he promises to send the Holy Spirit to continue God’s presence with them.
There is a misconception that in the Old Testament we have God, in the Gospels we have Jesus, and in the Book of Acts we have the Holy Spirit. But, the reality is that the Spirit of God is the Holy Spirit, the same spirit that created Adam and Eve; the same Spirit that called Noah and Abraham; the same Spirit that rested on Samuel, and Saul, and King David. This Holy Spirit is the same Spirit who inhabited the Temple in his shekinah glory, and then withdrew from the Temple when God’s people turned from God.
The Holy Spirit has always been God’s companioning presence with his people. He appeared as a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire at night to lead the nation of Israel through the wilderness. The Holy Spirit fell as fire from God when Elijah prayed and he consumed the altar, the sacrifice, and the prophets of Baal. The Holy Spirit is the same spirit who spoke through the Judges who led God’s people; through King Saul, and after his sin, through King David. This Holy Spirit is the spirit who in the Old Testament is referred to as upon God’s chosen.
But in the New Testament, beginning with this passage, God’s spirit inhabits each believer, just as the Spirit inhabited the Temple at its dedication. Paul even refers to believers’ bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit. So, the Spirit is our companion, the paraclete — literally the one called alongside us. He was sent by Jesus, made manifest on the Day of Pentecost, and demonstrated his powerful presence first through the apostles, and now through his people 2100 years later.
The Holy Spirit Gives Courage
If we had been there with the apostles in Jerusalem waiting in an upper room, waiting for who knows what, we would have seen a scared, leaderless group, uncertain of what the future would bring. But on the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit’s presence announces itself as a mighty rushing wind. Tongues of fire appear on the heads of the apostles and they begin to speak in languages they have not learned. Peter boldly ascends a makeshift pulpit to proclaim that this — the wind, the fire, the speech — is what the prophet Joel spoke of — the coming of the Spirit on young and old, the restoration of confidence and courage to God’s people.
A phrase repeated over and over as the nation of Israel prepares to take the land of promise is, Be strong and of good courage for I am with you! That same Spirit of God that gave courage to Caleb and Joshua, and others like them, gave courage to Peter and the apostles.
That same Spirit that gave courage to Peter, not only preach but eventually to die, gave courage to God’s people through the persecution of Roman emperors, starting with murders of the apostles, and extending through the end of the first century as thousands of Christians were martyred for their love of Christ. The same Holy Spirit gives courage to Christians in Iraq, and in Iran, and in Sudan where fundamentalists factions are seeking to wipe out all influence of Christianity in the name of Islam.
The Holy Spirit Brings Conviction
In a compelling description of one of the main works of the Spirit, Jesus says the Holy Spirit will convict mankind. That conviction comes in three ways —
The Work of the Holy Spirit is to Speak of Christ
3But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.
With these words, Jesus reminded his disciples and us that the work of the Spirit of God is not to draw attention to himself, but to point to Jesus. Jesus is the hope of the world; Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; Jesus is the light in a dark night; Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the Door, the Bread of Life; Jesus is God’s Messiah; Jesus is the savior of the world. The work of the Holy Spirit is to take what belongs to Jesus and make it known, bringing glory to Jesus in the process.
So, when Peter stands to speak on Pentecost, he explains the phenomenon of the sound of a mighty wind, the flames of fires, the unknown tongues, and the boldness of the disciples. But after he explains the signs, the expounds on the savior. After he clarifies the situation, he celebrates the Son of God. Peter says,
22“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men,[d] put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
Then, continuing in verse 29 —
29“Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ,[f] that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. 32God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
36“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
And so the sermon on the Day of Pentecost wasn’t about the Spirit of God, it was about the Savior from God, Jesus. And, Peter preached that sermon in the power of the Holy Spirit.
What About Today?
Which brings us back to today, Pentecost Sunday here in Chatham, Virginia. We frankly are relieved that there has not been a sound of rushing wind. We are relieved that tongues of fire have not appeared on our heads, and that we have not all, or at least some of us, spoken in languages we did not learn saying words we did not understand. We are especially relieved that the service did not overflow into the streets of Chatham, and that our neighbors did not come rushing out to see what all the noise was about. And, we are really relieved that we do not have to explain to them that, No, we’re not drunk, this is just the work of the Holy Spirit. But, should we be relieved?
Cliff Barrows, Billy Graham’s associate for their entire ministry, told this story when we were with him at The Cove a couple of weeks ago. Barrows said that when he was a boy of about 8, in the early 1930s, his father took the family to Yosemite on a camping trip. He and his father had climbed to the top of Glacier Point, but as the afternoon lengthened, they made their way down for a surprise that his father promised him.
As they got back to the campground, which was called Camp Curry, and night was falling, his father held Cliff’s hand, and told him to watch the 3,000-foot cliff at Glacier Point. Night fell, and all the campers gathered in chairs and sat on blankets on the ground, almost silently waiting for the evening spectacle.
About 1872, the tradition had begun of pushing the glowing coals from a massive bond fire at Glacier Point, over the edge of the cliff, and watching the burning hot coals fall like a ribbon of molten fire 3,000 feet to the canyon floor below. Those gathered there that night knew what to expect, but Cliff Barrows said it was all new and marvelous to him as an 8-year old boy.
As darkness blanketed the scene, an invisible voice echoed from Glacier Point —
“Are you ready, Camp Curry?”
In reply, a park ranger shouted, “Let the fire fall.”
Cliff Barrows said the most spectacular sight he had ever seen occurred that night. Crimson embers, hot with burning cascaded over the edge of Glacier Point. The pushers were skilled in pushing the fire slowly so that it appeared to be a steady stream of red-hot lava flowing over the edge of the rock.
Barrows said it lasted seconds, but seemed like forever. The fire fell, people in the camp sat in rapt silence, and then burst into applause as the last dying embers reached the valley floor.
In 1968, the fire fall was discontinued. Lack of interest and environmental concerns were the official reasons given. At the last firefall, the offical park bulletin proclaimed–
The Firefall, a fancy of James McCauley’s that caught on, and was popular for almost a hundred years, died Thursday, January 25, 1968 in a blazing farewell.
It was a dandy Firefall, fat and long and it ended with an exceptionally brilliant spurt, the embers lighting the cliff as they floated slowly downward…
There weren’t many people around to watch. Maybe fifty. Hardly any congestion at all. *
Hardly any congestion at all. And I wonder today if, we are no longer interested in having the fire of God fall. If in our observance of Pentecost, we have replaced fire with fabric, courage with color, and look with relieved nostalgia back on an extraordinary event that we are thankful doesn’t happen here.
But suppose God were to say, “Are you ready Chatham Baptist Church?”
Would our response be “Let the fire fall!” ?
That gives us something to reflect on today, Sunday, May 31, 2009 — Pentecost.
(*The Story of the Yosemite Firefall can be found at — http://firefall.info/)