In John’s Gospel This Morning…, Day of Pentecost (A) – 2002
May 19, 2002
In John’s Gospel this morning, the gift of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples seems to be part and parcel of their initial experience of Jesus’ resurrection. If our worship schedule in church followed John’s picture, we would be celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit on Easter Sunday evening. The fact that we don’t do that is not only a mercy — many of us are so exhausted by the liturgies of Easter that we would be hard pressed to find the energy to come to church on Easter Sunday evening — it is also, and much more so, that our liturgical calendar sticks quite closely to the early pattern of worship in ancient Israel. Fifty days after the Passover, the feast of unleavened bread, came what they called the “feast of weeks,” celebrating the first harvest of new grain.
Sunday School children could possibly tell us that the emblem of the Holy Spirit is a dove. The business enterprises that pre-publish church bulletin covers all seem to think the dove is the right thing for Pentecost, the “sweet heavenly dove” of the Holy Spirit. And there is much to be said for this dove. It was a dove bearing an olive branch that flew back to old Noah on his Ark, signaling the good news of dry land after the great Flood. The Spirit of God descends “in bodily form like a dove” upon Jesus at his Baptism, according to Luke’s Gospel. A nice white dove suggests innocence and purity, peace, and the olive branch of reconciliation. Certainly the Holy Spirit is deeply involved in purifying our hearts and minds so that we “may have in us the same mind that was in Christ Jesus,” as St. Paul says. Certainly the Holy Spirit is actively engaged in the human enterprise of peace making whenever we work our way through conflicts great and small toward the goal of reconciliation.
St. Paul did not have the benefit of Hallmark Cards, which thinks doves are just like love-birds, billing and cooing come Valentine’s Day. But St. Paul knows for sure, that the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is love — not the love sold to us by Hollywood and the greetings card industry, but the love of God which is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, binding an aggregate of different and unlikely people together, creating new community on new common ground in the Body of Christ.
Is it not striking, then, that as we gather together to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, our first reading from Scripture, from the Acts of the Apostles, has nothing to do with the innocence and purity and peace and reconciliation that are associated with the Spirit as dove. On the contrary, Acts gives us the stunningly powerful imagery of a raging wind and flames of fire — elements of nature to be respected and handled with care, for they can be dangerous and destructive, as well as cleansing and comforting. The author of Acts has moved way beyond doves here. He is rooted not so much in the symbolism of Noah’s Ark, but in the great passage of Ezekiel concerning the valley of dry bones, where the Spirit blows like a rushing wind bringing the energy and dynamism of new life to a destroyed, limp, and lifeless nation. He is echoing the voice of John the Baptist as he points to Jesus and says, “I baptize with water, but one is coming who will … baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” He has in mind the figure of the prophet Isaiah, who was touched by coals of holy fire when he received the divine mandate to go forth and speak the word of God to the people of God.
The author of Acts knows that the Resurrection is simply the beginning of God’s mighty work of redeeming us in Christ; we still have to be charged with energy and fired up with our divine mandate from baptism. The dynamics of new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus still have to be fleshed out in our lives, and this is the work of the Holy Spirit, this is how we will be caught up in God’s work and God’s purposes so that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven, in our lives, our times, and our places. By giving us the forceful images of wind and fire, our author suggests that God still has one more surprise in store, even after the climactic shock of the Resurrection. God has a yet more wonderful purpose afoot. God has finished commanding his people, telling his people, speaking to and shouting at his people. Through the gift of new life in Christ, the Spirit of God is going to involve all God’s people in God’s work.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Jesus is shown appearing to his disciples in Galilee, and sending them forth to baptize all nations, to preach and to teach everything that he has taught them. At the end of John’s Gospel, the risen Lord appears to the disciples and says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” and then Jesus breathes on them just as God breathed life into Adam in the beginning. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says. And here in Acts 2, we see the effect and the result of this gift of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples ready to go forth into the world. It is as though the rushing wind has caught them up into God’s purposes, and the flames have set their heart and minds afire with the desire to bear witness to the good news of salvation.
Filled with the Spirit of God, the disciples can now speak, preach, teach, and communicate in such a way that they are understood by all sorts of different people in many different languages. The power of God to recreate the human community in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit breaks through the human boundaries of language and culture. It does so just as effectively as that same mighty power of God in Christ broke through death, the ultimate boundary of human life on earth, and broke through hell, the barrier constructed by evil and sin. In the words of the old hymn, we are “ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven,” in Christ-and now we are put to work with the Holy Spirit.
But is this scene from Acts 2 really about us? Isn’t it just one more miracle story affecting only a handful of high-class saints long dead? St. Paul, who quite famously was not there at the time and knew nothing of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection or the wind and fire of Pentecost first hand, was absolutely and utterly convinced that just as Jesus was Emmanuel, God-with-us and God-for-us, so the Holy Spirit is God-for-us and God-in-us. This is why Paul writes so passionately and convincingly in 1 Corinthians about how God is now getting the job done in us that he started in Jesus. We have a variety of gifts, he says, but it is the same Spirit that activates them. We are engaged in a variety of ministries and activities, but it is the same Spirit of God who energizes them in us. Wherever, and in whomever, we find wisdom, faith, knowledge, and healing-there is the Spirit of God at work for the common good of all.
There are times when we need to focus on the gifts of the Spirit to each of us as individuals, and that’s when the issues of Christian life and work come into play for every one of us. What shall we be and do as we grow up in Christ? There are times when we need to focus on the gifts of the Spirit to the whole community of faith, to congregations and denominations and to the whole Church at large. How does any one congregation live and work for the common good of its community; how does any given Vestry communicate, discuss, and decide for the common good of the whole parish — these are matters of our common mission grounded in Christ and energized by the Spirit.
But there are also times, and surely we are now living in one of them, when we have to stand back from our self-oriented examinations and concerns as Christian folk living and working among other Christian folk, and ask the Holy Spirit of God to blow mighty winds of change into the way we live with men and women of other faiths in our local and nation-wide communities.
We are surely living in a time when we have to pray that the Spirit of God will descend with wisdom, knowledge, and discernment upon the political and military leaders of our country, to change the ways we deal as a nation with other nations and stateless peoples of the small world we live in. As St. Paul characteristically puts it: just as the body is one, and has many members, all the members of the body, though many, are one body. So it is with the world we live in. It is almost overwhelming to consider that God invites us to receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts and minds to build us up individually, and to receive the same Holy Spirit into our lives in the body of Christ to build up the community of faith, and to receive the same Holy Spirit into our lives to bring reconciliation and peace to all the communities of the earth. But this is God we are talking about: God with us, God for us, God in us; God involving and engaging us in his work. And with God, all things are possible, and with the Spirit of God with us, in us and for us, all things can work together for good. Let it be. Amen.
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