Hope In The Spirit (May 23, 2021 - Pentecost)
Acts 2: 1-4, 12; Romans 8: 22-27
Hope In the Spirit
Today is Pentecost Sunday. And the story of Pentecost picks up from the story last week of the ascension. Last week I mentioned that the disciples do a few things during the 10 day wait between the two events, but one of the main things that they did was take up residence near the Temple, maybe even on the temple mount. They are going into the Temple daily, and they’re praying constantly; praying that the Holy Spirit would come or Jesus would return.
And as they woke up on the day of Pentecost, that is what they’re doing. Now the day of Pentecost was a religious festival, not a really big religious festival, but a festival nonetheless in Judaism. This took place 50 days, or roughly 7 weeks, after the Passover. Pentecost means 50th in Greek. So, Pentecost was a thing even before Christians were around, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. Still, it was a holy festival, for which people would come to celebrate the harvest and offer the first fruits of the harvest to God as a Thanksgiving for another successful spring. This is what the people in Jerusalem were doing on this particular day.
Of course, for the disciples it just meant that the temple was a little bit busier today than it had been the previous nine. They’re still praying for the Holy Spirit to come to them. So they’re there in the upper room, they’re praying, some of them are probably going to the Temple; they’re ready for God. And we’re told there is a loud noise, I always imagine a thunder clap right overhead, that kind of a loud noise. It is just attention grabbing noise. And were told that a wind rushes into the room, and tongues as of fire rest upon the foreheads of each of the disciples there. The Holy Spirit had come and taken up residence in their hearts, and they became different as the Holy Spirit was in them.
They got up immediately and they went out into the street right in front of the house, and people had gathered. That loud noise was not missed. Thousands of people have come to figure out what’s going on. And the disciples begin to try and tell them what’s going on. Now, the people that have come to see them are from all over the Jewish world; we’re told in the book of Acts that there are people from everywhere the Jews have been: people from Egypt, to Rome, to Greece, to as far east as India. They have come from all these places to give thanks to God for the first of the harvest on this holy day. And even though all of them spoke Hebrew, and the disciples speak Hebrew, the people hear them speaking the language of home. So they hear them in the language of the Persians, of the Indians, or Greek, or Latin, or something like that. This is the true miracle of Pentecost: the message of the good news was not limited to the people of the Hebrew language but was available now for the entire world through the Spirit.
This would be the equivalent of a Roman Catholic in the days prior to Vatican II in the 60s, when they would do mass in Latin; this would be the equivalent of the priest getting up and speaking the entire Mass in Latin, but you hearing it in English. That’s what was happening here in this miracle. And then Peter quiets the room and he preaches his famous Pentecost sermon. And were told 3000 people repented and were baptized that very day.
Christians believe that this moment, this day Pentecost was a turning point in all of history, if not the turning point in all of history. We remember this day so much that even though the vestments up here are only red once a year, the pew cushions are red, the floor is red; red is a big color in our church because of Pentecost. Even our logo, the cross and flame, references the fire of the Spirit on Pentecost. That's what the flame is about in our logo. This is the turning point.
I like to study Civil War history, the tactics that were used, the ways that the war was done, things like that. And the Civil War had a turning point. Almost universally agreed the Civil War turning point was the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, halfway through the war. The Confederacy had begun an offensive, they were trying to put pressure on Washington DC, pressure on the government of the north to surrender and allow them to leave. And so Lee has taken his army from Virginia and he has traversed up into Pennsylvania. He’s trying to get behind the Union army to be able to get back to Washington DC, and the Union army meets him at a small town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. And here they fight for three days, and the Union army defeats the south. It is one of the first victories in the war for the union army. They win the battle and Lee is forced to retreat back to Virginia.
Most Civil War scholars completely agree this was the turning point in the war. But on the next day in 1863, as Lee was retreating into Virginia, nothing had really changed. Well, a little bit has changed, he was retreating now, this offensive had been stopped. But there was no reason to sit here and say the whole war was completely different. And yet we firmly believe that it was, at least in some sense. That was the last best hope the South had to win. There were still fighting to be done, the south didn’t surrender the next day or anything like that. There were still two years more fighting that was going to be happening. But everyone knew who was going to win, or at the very least who should win. From that point on it was more a matter of time then it was a matter of doubt. Thus we call it the turning point.
And Pentecost is like that. Pentecost is the turning point of history, the turning point in the battle between good and evil. The cross and Good Friday was the last, best chance for evil had to win. If they could beat God himself, incarnate in Jesus Christ, then evil could win the war. That was their last best chance, and they failed. Jesus has risen from the dead. And Jesus now sends the Holy Spirit to be with us. The war still continued. We experience evil in our world right now, the war still going on. But we know who will win: the cross, the resurrection, and Pentecost tell us that. This was the turning point of history. From here forward we know who will win. It is more a matter of time than a matter of if.
The reason for that is what the Spirit does. Jesus‘s death and resurrection open the door for the Spirit to remain with us. The Spirit had been active in the world before; prophesying, teaching, guiding the people of Israel (just Israel) for years for thousands of years. And we can see that throughout the Old Testament. But now the Spirit was open to come and reside with the church, with each and everyone of us. And on that day, 3000 people from the ends of the earth, people who were from India, and Rome, and Egypt, and Greece all joined the church, were baptized, and received the Holy Spirit.
And the Spirit goes with them back to their homes. And, just as with us, the Spirit teaches, the Spirit guides, the Spirit preaches. They receive the Holy Spirit and immediately they’re all preachers on the street. The Spirit helps people in their moments of weakness: whereas before those moments of weakness were moments that the evil in the world could win, now the Spirit is there to help and to strengthen during these moments of weakness. And most importantly I think the Spirit intercedes for us. We’re told in Romans that the Spirit prays for us even when we can’t pray ourselves; in fact maybe even especially when we can’t pray ourselves. The Spirit prays the prayers we need to pray even when we don’t recognize what we need to pray. The Spirit is there for us, with us, picking up the slack and helping us to live. If we are the clay, and God is the potter, then the Spirit is the kiln in which God solidifies us and makes us useful in the world.
And the Spirit becomes the basis of our hope. We are a people of hope, and it is the Spirit ultimately that brings us hope, that grounds our hope. We experience the Spirit. It is something we can experience. But it is not something we can see or touch or feel, and yet we can sense it. The Spirit is an entity to which we can listen, but cannot hear; which we follow, but cannot see. And it is working with the Spirit every day of our lives that trains us to find the Son that we can no longer see, and the Father we never could see except through the Son. We find the Spirit so we can see how the Spirit works within us, and the Spirit’s presence provides the hope that we can follow Jesus to where he is.
Romans tells us that what we receive and what we know in the Spirit is the “first fruits” of the Spirit’s work in the world. I love that line. Saying that something is the first fruits of the Spirit implies inherently that there will be more. It’s a statement of hope: hope that the Spirit is not done with us right now, that the Spirit will continue to work in our lives; hope that the Spirit is not done just in the church, that what God is doing in the world is more than what we are doing. That is a hopeful phrase, and I believe it is a true and accurate portrayal of how all Christians should live our lives and the hope that we need.
One thing that I have often talked about, and I hope you remember this from me, is that these big moments in the church calendar, these big moments in our year, they all lineup. That Christmas requires Good Friday, which requires Easter, which requires Pentecost. That the manger means nothing without the cross, which means nothing without the empty tomb, which means nothing without the Spirit residing with us. All of these are together and enlighten each other. The actions of the spirit that we recognize on Pentecost point out that everything is God acting, and God acting with intention and purpose to come to the world to save us in this way.
As I said earlier, the Spirit acts in the Scriptures in more than just the day of Pentecost, and certainly more than just after the day of Pentecost. But it was in little spurts. So you’ll see in the Old Testament where the Spirit of the Lord comes upon a person and they prophesy. This is the way that most of the prophets are written: “the Spirit of the Lord came up on the prophet Isaiah and he says” etc, and they lay it out. And a lot of these Scriptures we have subsequently interpreted to be pointing toward Jesus, and to be pointing toward the church. They point to the actions of God, toward Christmas and Easter and Pentecost. Things like prophecies talking about a king coming on a donkey, passages about the suffering servant of Isaiah, the passages about a new covenant in Jeremiah. These are moments where the Spirit was telling the people something about the future, and we have interpreted (with the help of the Spirit post Pentecost) how these stories and prophecies were fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ and in the actions of the church. The Spirit’s work that begins on Pentecost shows how the Spirit has been acting to set all this up, to tie everything together in a nice little bow that shows us how Jesus‘s life is indeed a plan of God to bring about the salvation of creation.
And that is good news. I will end with this. Every month for communion I say “now hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and that proves God‘s love for each and everyone of us.” Jesus didn’t wait before, therefore Jesus won’t wait now until we're perfect. But that goes for all of it. It’s not just the cross that matters: Jesus came incarnate in the world while it was still full of sinners. Christ was resurrected to a group of disciples that had abandoned him three days before, and he forgives them. He was resurrected in a world that was still full of sinners. And here, the Spirit comes to the church while it is still full of sinners. And that proves that the Holy Spirit is with us as well, that we aren’t unworthy. It proves God‘s love for each and every one of us. The Spirit is still working in this imperfect and still sinner filled world. Take that home with you today. And thanks be to God for that. Let all God’s people say amen. Amen.