Acts 2:1-21 Psalms 104:25-35, 37 Romans 8:22-27 John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Gary was having a yard sale. A minister bought a lawn mower but returned it a few days later, complaining that it wouldn’t run. Gary said, “It’ll run, but you have to curse at it to get it started.” The minister was shocked. “I have not uttered a curse word in 30 years.” “I understand what you mean, but just keep pulling on the starter rope – the words will come back to you.”
Events also come back to us. Because Pentecost is when the church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit, we are tempted to read these verses from John’s Gospel too quickly. We know the subject. We hear it year after year. We know what to expect. We can easily say that the Holy Spirit is promised to the followers of Jesus. We can say that the wind that blows through and animates the church was given on this day in history. We can also say that it is promised to all members of the church. But that claim would simplify the readings. It would not allow for the superimposing picture of the Holy Spirit painted in Acts and in John’s Gospel. Here we see, feel, experience the unique aspect of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.
In Greek, paraclete means helper or advocate. It was a term used about Jesus who intercedes with the Father on behalf of sinners. In John’s Gospel, the word is applied to the Holy Spirit as the Helper, the Spirit of truth who will be sent to dwell in the disciples and guide them in witnessing about Jesus and his teaching. The Paraclete is the Holy Spirit in a special, personal role. It is the presence of Jesus when Jesus is absent.
Pentecost is aimed directly at us, the community of disciples known as the church. It is the story of how, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the church is gifted with an identity and an authority centered in the proclamation of the gospel.
This miraculous gifting of the Spirit to the church in Acts can be dispiriting to us. After all, the contemporary church does not resemble the early church. Even the most faithful Christian will occasionally express a nagging feeling that the church is a sorry shell of its awe-inspiring birth, that somehow the church has lost its thunder, that it no longer acts with conviction, that schisms and infighting have stripped it of its unity and vitality. We speak of the church at this time in history and of its decline in the face of the ever-increasing influence of culture. Even the most encouraging signs of spiritual growth, church renewal, and evangelism seem lukewarm compared to Pentecost’s infectious energy. How can our typical celebration of Pentecost Sunday – red altar coverings, red balloons and so many folks wearing red – compete with the tongues of fire? How can we compete with strangers from many languages speaking to one another with understanding?
The good news is that such comparisons are unnecessary. The story of Pentecost is not meant to be a benchmark of what the church should look like on any given Sunday. Rather, it seeks to communicate how important the church is and how inseparable it is from Christ. Pentecost serves as instruction that continues the tradition the church’s identity and purpose. Every year, on this Day of Pentecost, we are reminded of who we are as a church, what we proclaim, and the source of that proclamation. It is a message to the church from the church passed down through millennia to each generation.
The voice of the Pentecost story is infused with miraculous energy and enthusiasm. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the church receives the authority to proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ. Even Peter, the disciple who publicly denied Jesus, becomes a bold preacher. The gospel is intended for everyone; repentance and forgiveness are offered to all who call on the name of the Lord. The heavens open, something new and surprising is afoot. Throughout the Book of Acts, the presence of the Holy Spirit announces a fresh inbreaking of the kingdom of God. The powerful images of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, his many miracles, and his tearing the Temple curtain in half at his crucifixion demonstrate God’s intention to break open, tear down, and make new. The mighty wind and tongues of fire that fall upon the disciples in the reading from Acts are continuations of this work. In Acts, the work of the Holy Spirit is to call individuals into community as the body of Christ.
Pentecost emphasizes the centrality of Christ to the church’s identity, authority, and proclamation. This Christ-focused Pentecost has essentially inspired the nature and structure of the Christian Church. It gives us an opportunity to hear about the church in her many dimensions. The first, and most important dimension of the church is its universality. We confess this each time we recite the Apostles’ Creed. “I believe in the holy catholic church.” The word “catholic” means “on the whole” or “in general.” The Holy Spirit gifts the church to proclaim the Good News to the ends of the earth. Pentecost reminds us that, even though all our faith practices are rooted in local contexts, the church’s identity extends far beyond every congregation, denomination, and cultural tradition. Pentecost celebrates the face of Christ throughout the world in all its theological, cultural, and liturgical diversity. It also challenges North American Christians to engage the emerging vitality of the church in the Southern Hemisphere.
A second dimension of the church is the local congregation. Speaking of church universal can make some local churches feel small and insignificant, especially those who struggle with declining numbers or with the anxiety that they do not measure up to some congregational churches. Every congregation in the Episcopal Church participates in the work and worship of the entire church. We have wonderful opportunities for congregational renewal. We were offered such and inspiring interaction with our Bishop Frank with the Presiding Bishop Michael Curry this past week. Bishop Curry is so real, so honest and sincere that it is easy to see Jesus in him and with him. Bishop Curry encourages all of us to become members of the Jesus Movement in the Episcopal Church. When he says it, I believe it and I want to sign up!
Pentecost is also an opportunity to remind us, encourage us to look within ourselves and see what may be missing in our relationship with Christ. The book of Acts testifies to the filling of the Holy Spirit as an ongoing gift, not just a onetime event, and the church is constantly changing, according to the Spirit’s leading. The book of Acts reminds us that such a change is rarely easy or harmonious. Pentecost challenges churches, challenges us, to live into the promise that Jesus is present and alive in the midst of change. The altar rail in the chapel will be open if you want a private prayer for your journey with Christ.
Finally, Pentecost has something to say to individuals who do not feel that belonging to the body of Christ is necessary for personal Christian discipleship. It also speaks to those who feel discouraged, disillusioned, or excluded by the church. From the very beginning, Christ calls individuals into community as the church. Pentecost allows us to speak boldly to the church as we are and about the church Christ would have us become. The many dimensions of the church’s identity – global, local, and personal – are interrelated and essential. None can exist apart from Christ or from each other.
The Day of Pentecost completes the cycle that begins with Ash Wednesday and continues through Lent and Holy Week and into Eastertide. It is the capstone of a liturgical journey that moves symbolically from ashes to fire. Pentecost sums up the gospel with simplicity and audacity; Jesus Christ offers salvation to all, and the church exists to proclaim it. Pentecost is an appropriate time to reaffirm our participation as disciples in the body of Christ, to challenge ourselves to live into its promise, and to celebrate the global witness of the church. We will all profess our faith in the Baptismal Covenant in just a few minutes.
The book of Acts is the story of the disciples’ adventures, which is why it could be called the gospel of the Holy Spirit. In the first four books of the New Testament, we learn the good news of what God did through Jesus Christ. In the book of Acts, we learn the good news of what God did through the Holy Spirit, by performing artificial resuscitation on a room full of well-intentioned misfits and transforming them into a force that changed the history of the world.
Do we still believe in a God who acts like that? More importantly, do we still experience a God who acts like that? I don’t know your answer, but if you don’t have an answer, I hope that you discover one. God, the great three-in-one, has amazing things in store for us. And has shown us some wonderful opportunities during these last ten years together. Let us join the Gospel of the Holy Spirit and see what God has in store for us. Breathe on us, Breath of God! Amen.