Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35,37; Romans 8:22-27; John 20:19-23
Sunday, May 31, 2009 – Trinity, Redlands

On this, the Feast of Pentecost, we remember and celebrate the giving of the gift of the Holy Spirit to humanity. Each of the scripture readings we just heard deal with the Holy Spirit and the giving of that same Spirit in some form or fashion.

Of course, the first reading, from the second chapter of Acts, is the signature story for Pentecost. It is the story that we all tend to think of when we think of this day, this event. This is the story of the rushing in of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a violent wind. Accompanying the arrival of the Spirit, or perhaps a manifestation of it, is the appearance of tongues of fire resting on each of the persons present, and the proclaiming of the gospel in many languages, with those present speaking in their varied native tongues, but also being able to understand the words being proclaimed by others. We are told that this story takes place 50 days after Christ’s resurrection and was in keeping with Christ’s promise to send an Advocate in his place following his ascension. This fulfillment of Christ’s promise was witnessed by a multitude, not only Jesus’ disciples, but a myriad of others, including devout Jews and newly converted Gentiles from all over the known world.

The Gospel lesson from John, on the other hand, is a little more limited in scope. In this account, the gift of the Holy Spirit is not given to a multitude, but rather is only given to ten of the disciples – the original Twelve minus Judas Iscariot, who had committed suicide, and Thomas, who was inexplicably absent. And rather than occurring after Christ’s ascension, this conveying of the gift of the Holy Spirit occurred much earlier. In fact, it occurred on the Sunday evening of Christ’s resurrection. And rather than the Holy Spirit being sent by Christ, this bestowal of the gift of the Spirit was directly initiated by Christ himself – “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Very different circumstances, very different cast of characters, but the same Spirit.

Despite the differences between the Acts and the John stories, the purpose is essentially the same. In both cases, the Holy Spirit is given to humanity as a gift to provide the continuing presence of Jesus among his followers in the aftermath of his death and resurrection. The Holy Spirit is given as a gift to guide the community of believers, to inspire them, to energize and vivify them for the continuation of the work begun by their master – the work of proclaiming the gospel and building the Kingdom of God that they would now be called to continue.

The third story, the lesson from Romans, is quite a bit different. Written some 25 years after the Pentecost event, this passage does not deal with the events leading up to or experienced in the giving of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Rather, Paul, writing to a disparate group of Jews and Gentiles that comprised the Church in Rome, talks about the Holy Spirit in the context of the entirety of salvation history, from the beginning of creation right up to the present day. He is concerned with the implications of the gift of the Holy Spirit for humanity, where humanity has been, where it is, and where it is going. While written to a group of early Christians in Rome in the mid-first century, the meaning and implications continue to be significant and applicable for us Christians, nearly two thousand years later and half-way around the world.

Paul captures the essence of the meaning and implications for the Holy Spirit in our lives in the very first line of today’s Epistle lesson. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Unlike the other two readings which document the sending of the Holy Spirit to particular groups of people on behalf of all humanity, Paul, in his reporting talks about the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, delivered upon the entirety of creation, for all humanity. And he makes clear that the coming of the Holy Spirit was not a single event that happened nearly 2,000 years ago, but an event that is ongoing. The Holy Spirit was not sent once, but is continually being sent for the benefit of us all. The gift of the Holy Spirit is on-going and is all-encompassing.

In saying that the whole creation is groaning in labor pains, Paul invokes the image of physical creation. In this passage, we have the meeting of seemingly polar opposites – creation and Holy Spirit, the physical and the spiritual. This should be of great comfort to us. We often think of the Holy Spirit as a source of inspiration, as a guiding power in our lives. And it is. But the Spirit is more than that. Much more.

Throughout our lives, we have periods when our own lives are filled with the groaning of labor pains. When we struggle with the burden of choices and decisions, with discerning what is right for us, with what God is calling is to do and be. Such times are sometimes difficult. They can cause much soul searching, much anguish, much internal struggle, much spiritual pain. We are filled with the groaning of labor pains as we struggle with emotional hardships. With the pain of loss, of the death of a loved one, of the end of a relationship, of the loss of a job, as we struggle to make sense out of what is happening, of figuring out how we will possible go on in the face of such all-consuming emotional pain. We are filled with the groans of labor pains as we struggle with physical limitations, with the onset of infirmity and disease, as our bodies, once young and vibrant, betray us and succumb to the inevitabilities of age.

I think Paul is right in using the imagery of labor pains. For in such periods of our lives, regardless of whether the pains have their root in the spiritual, the emotional, or the physical, we are indeed struggling to give birth to something new, to a new creation born of God and of the Spirit, born of our very being – the new creation that God is calling us to be. What is being born may not at first glance be pleasant or fun or joyful. But in the new life born of the groans of labor pains, spiritual, emotional, or physical, something new is indeed being born. We are being born into a new way of being whether we like it or not. But even if it is not what we would have envisioned for ourselves, there is hope in what is being brought forth. For the constant in all of this is the hope of redemption promised through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. These are labor pains filled with, and only made possible through, our faith and an abiding sense of hope.

When Paul talks about hope, which for him, is the hope of redemption, we are not talking about hope in our contemporary understanding. We are not talking about wishful thinking. We are talking about something that is already promised to us. We are talking about trusting that it will happen. We are talking about the certainty that it will happen. We are talking about the pregnant expectation that the promises made to us by our Savior will be brought to fruition in due time. We are talking about the knowledge in faith that it will happen.

Paul assures us that in the face of this sure and certain hope, even in the face of the groaning of labor pains that we may face along the way, we are not alone. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit to accompany us on the journey that ultimately leads to the fulfillment of that which we hope for. We have the Holy Spirit to help us make the most of the journey so that when it is complete, when the promise is fulfilled, we will have the most fruitful experience possible. In this, the Spirit walks with us, keeping us company, encouraging us, keeping the sense of hope alive even when we feel that things have become hopeless. In this, the Holy Spirit carries us when we feel as if we cannot possibly take another step.

There are even times on the journey when we may feel that we cannot even so much as utter a prayer on our own behalf. While the other readings imply that the Holy Spirit is a gift from God through Christ to the disciples, and by extension to us, to strengthen, inspire, and energize us for what we are called to do, the reading from Romans implies a much more relational approach. The Holy Spirit is not a one-way conduit with God’s energy and grace flowing from God to us. Paul implies that the conduit works both ways. The flow goes both ways – from God to us, but also from us to God. The “Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Even when we cannot find the words to pray, when all we can do is heave a heavy albeit pregnant sigh of frustration, anger, sorrow, fear, or resignation, the Holy Spirit is there to take that sigh and lift up to God, transformed by the power of the Spirit into the most eloquent of prayers that cannot help but be heard by God, cannot help but pierce God’s heart.

On this day, we celebrate the most precious gift of the Holy Spirit, sent by our risen and ascended Lord to provide continuation of the gift of his love, strength, and encouragement in his physical absence. Over the years, there have been many products and services that have claimed to be “the gift that keeps on giving.” The only gift that truly can bear up to that moniker is the Holy Spirit. We can be assured that the Holy Spirit will be present, providing us with Christ’s love day after day after day, for as long as we live. And that at all times, in times of joy and particularly in times of need, the Holy Spirit will be with us, the Holy Spirit IS with us, through every groaning from life’s labor pains, through every cry for help, and even when all we can do is utter a pathetic sigh. Because of this promise, every day is Pentecost. This is our sure and certain hope. This is our sure and certain reality.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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