Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
(Possibly begin with a reflection on Krzysztof Kieslowski, the Decalogue) Lately, I have been beginning my sermons with a confession. I do so again tonight. I confess that Pentecost is a difficult feast for me. I am not sure what to make of the descent of the Holy Spirit, even though I come from a tradition seeks to live life of the Spirit. I understand what happened could even say that it is the birthday of the Church. Yet, I found that I struggled with what it all could mean. As a result I found myself taking refuge in theological abstraction, far from the ecstatic reality presented in Acts. The ecstatic reality is too tied to modern and contemporary interpretations of the Holy Spirit, Baptism of the Spirit and speaking in Tongues. Even though Kate speaks in tongues. I want us to know this reality of the descent of the Spirit upon the church and the Spirit’s continuing presence, but where do I begin? I confess this because I have a feeling that many of us perhaps most of us have a similar ambivalence. Many groups of Christians we are all aware of will appeal to this passage in acts for their ecstatic worship. Others appeal to this passage to speak for embracing of human diversity and multiculturalism. With all of this we may have a deer in headlights experience when it comes to Pentecost and the Holy Spirit. Many denominations and Christian groups don’t even celebrate it. In Covenant Church it varies but often even in churches where Pentecost is celebrated, on a day like today Mother’s day would trump the feast of Pentecost. Before I forget let me wish to all mothers here Happy Mother’s day. This is not a mother’s day sermon, except in the most furthest reach possible, for I do want to talk to us about the Church (not our congregation, not some denomination, but the body of Christ that began two Thousand years ago on that one day on the feast of Pentecost. For the Church that universal entity that sum that is greater than its parts, is called the Mother of all the faithful. The Lutheran Theologian Carl Braaten’s main work on the church is called Mother Church.
But I have wandered. So, we know what happened and we know the various uses to which Pentecost is put but what to make of it all? The Spirit comes and fills people, tongues of fire rest on peoples heads and those people start speaking in various languages, Luke tells us that every language known to the first century Mediterranean culture and the Roman Empire was spoken on that day. For Luke the entire world in the representatives of the Jewish Diaspora around the world of the first century represented the universality of the proclamation of the new covenant. This bit of this story probably makes us all quite comfortable as those well trained and schooled in multiculturalism and valuing of diversity(at least that is so with me). The Holy Spirit as the spirit of diversity is something we can all get on board with. Yet, there is this thing of the ecstasy of the moment, the rushing wind, the confusion at least to those nearby the upper room where all were gathered together in one place. We must face the speaking of languages that these Galileans did not know. What is this to be filled with the Spirit that one then is able to do what one could not do by one’s own power or under one’s own control? I will admit part of what I have found discomforting and objectionable to Pentecostal and Charismatic church services is being caught up in a group ecstasy, of the chaos that seems to be allowed even encouraged in those services. And of the more orderly charismatic services of some more mainstream churches that use the praise and worship style I am put off by what I experience as the manipulation of my emotions to produce an ecstasy. And yet here it is in the Scripture text. The Spirit is powerful and descends with the sound of a violent wind and without warning people begin to speak in different languages, and people sit up and take notice.
Rarely do the above two ways of appropriating and relating the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost get joined together. And equally as prevalent is the tendency to simply say yep the Spirit came down and we are to be filled with the Spirit and we just continue on as before. In the story of the descent of the Spirit there is the universal reach of the Gospel message beyond human boundaries and is shown through power and the ecstatic reality of being filled with the Holy Spirit. This begins to come to view when we understand that Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit is seen as the birth of the universal Church, the Body of Christ. By seeing Pentecost and the Descent of the Holy Spirit as the birth of the Church brings together the ecstasy and power of the Spirit and the diversity of the embrace of the Spirit. What is the meaning then of the confluence of these three ecstasy, diversity and founding of the church?
Why would this event be the birth of the church? Had not Jesus already gathered the 12 and the other followers that were then numbering 120 or so? Had not Jesus appeared to them and even commissioned them at the Ascension? The answer is yes and yet it is reported that Jesus instructs his followers to wait. Something is still lacking the Holy Spirit will come. Then another question should be why Pentecost, this feast of the Jewish year? Pentecost was the feast of first fruits, it is a harvest festival, but it also came to be associated with the giving of the Torah and thus the formation of the people of God Israel with the Covenant at Mount Sinai. The Numbers 11 is one of the founding stories of the People of Israel, takes in the midst of their time in the desert as they begin to live out their Covenant life under the Torah. God leads his people through those upon whom the Spirit rests. In this particular story there is a lifting of Moses’ burden but also it is yet another demonstration that the life of the people of Israel does not depend on human ingenuity and powers. In the surrounding story of this passage we see repeated both in Moses and the people the falling back on human power and vision, and God showing time and time again that unlike other communities and nations Israel is sustained by God and Spirit not by human power or leadership. It is after all the whole point of Egypt and Sinai the giving of the Torah: God takes slaves to be a Nation that is to represent God to all other nations.
How does this fit with Pentecost? Pentecost the feast of first fruits, a festival that shows that the People of Israel recognize that their life and sustenance does not come from their effort but from God’s life giving presence in the world, and so from the very first harvest in the climate of Palestine, they offer that which they have first harvested. Since the life of Israel also depends on the Torah the day also becomes associated with the giving of the Law (which came to be seen has happening 50 days after leaving Egypt). Pentecost then is about what is given and what we receive. Pentecost is about the life giving power of God and that we only live by that power.
The Spirit descends on a feast celebrating that all is from God, and which remembers the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Pentecost then reminds us that we are not to depend on our own efforts. As such then we do not on this day celebrate human community and the diversity of humanity. The Holy Spirit is not the human spirit but the Spirit of Christ, the Third person of the Holy Trinity. What is affirmed and shown in the descent of the Holy Spirit is the community of God, and we those gathered together by Christ in one place are upon whom the Spirit descends with power, not for the purpose of ecstasy, or for having a particular supernatural ability, but to show forth the purposes of God, that all may be joined in this community, in order that all may come to know God; Father Son and Holy Spirit.
I do not deny that this message of God’s universal love and invitation has been at times attached to particularities that have nothing to do with the Gospel or the divine community of the Trinity. However, we cannot allow that failure of some Christians to obscure the reality that by the descent of the Holy Spirit formed a new community whose boundaries are not human boundaries but is still a distinct group gathered together by Christ and upon whom the Spirit descended. What we then see in the rest of Acts and in history is that this community is expanded, as God joins to the 12 apostles and the 120 more and more people. This new expanding community consists of those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ, and who affirm Jesus as Lord. Peter is clear that the fulfillment of the end times prophesy of Joel (In the last days) of God’s spirit being poured out on all flesh is fulfilled on that day 2000 years ago when the Spirit descended on the 12 and the 120 all gathered together in one place. The fulfillment of Joel is particular in extent but shows itself to be universal in scope. The invitation is not limited to a language or ethnicity or gender, or any other division or difference we can discover or invent. The particularity is in God. We are called to come into a particular community, to return to that relationship humanity had before the fall. But we are unable to form such a community. Only by being joined to God; being filled with the Spirit can we be part of this community. This community then becomes the witness of what God has done and God’s character, not upon our own power but as the Spirit gives us ability. Whatever we do, if it is working for justice, or to reveal and bring beauty to the world, or to speak truth into this world, or to live faithfully in the midst of a confusing and often sinful world, we do so to witness to God’s Kingdom, and we can give this witness only by the power of the Spirit. We are not the builders the Kingdom but are to be witnesses of its presence. We will not bring justice to the world; we cannot on our own bring beauty out of ugliness. By our own will we cannot make suffering and oppression and evil make sense or bring good from it. Only by the power of the Spirit can we do so. Ultimately, the center of this work of God by the power of the Spirit is the Church. When I say this I am not referring to this or that congregation you have been apart of in the past, not even this congregation of Reconciler. By “church” I mean the gathered people of God, the universal Church the body of Christ formed on that day some 2000 years ago when the Spirit descended upon the 12 Apostles and the 120, and upon whom the Spirit has remained till now. This is why in the Apostles Creed immediately after we confess belief in the Holy Spirit and then confess faith in the Holy Catholic Church. For the Holy Spirit that brings froth the church creates the church out of those Gathered together in one place. In the church we find the forgiveness of sins and are made one with the power of life and the Resurrection and so confess resurrection and the unending life that comes through being rejoined in communion with God. None of this happens in isolation, or simply between me and you as autonomous individuals and God, for god isn’t even an autonomous individual but a being that is a communion and community of three persons into which we are drawn as those Gathered together in one place. Only by living into this reality of life lived by the power of the Spirit, which is the reality of the Church, can we have the ability to witness to the Kingdom of God in the World.