Sunday, May 15, 2016

Coming of the Holy Spirit

Day of Pentecost – Year C
Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.25-35, 37; Romans 8.14-17; John 14.8-17 (25-27)
Sunday, May 15, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

How do we even begin to fathom the depths of what happened on the Pentecost event we heard about in the reading from the second chapter of Acts? Jesus’ followers, gathered together to celebrate one of the major Jewish holidays – Shavuot. A festival with double significance. First it was a celebration of the wheat harvest in Israel – important to the livelihood and wellbeing of the people. And second, it was a commemoration of God giving the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, which occurred on the fiftieth day of the Exodus. Fifty days after the Passover. Hence the Greek name we know it as – Pentecost, meaning fiftieth day.

This is supposed to be a joyous occasion. A celebration of the riches of the land, and a celebration of God’s covenant with his people through the giving of the Torah, the Law. A celebration of relationship with the land and with God. A celebration of physical wellbeing, of religious and spiritual wellbeing.

But all that was overshadowed by the events of the last few days. Of the events of the last seven weeks. First, their teacher and their friend had been taken from them. Arrested, brought to trial, found guilty on spurious charges, tortured, and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Dark days, indeed. Agonizing days. But then, on the third day, he was resurrected. He was back with them. Joy had been restored. He continued to teach them and guide them. And then, ten days ago, he was gone again. Ascended into the heavens. Would he come back? Like before, after his death? After all, he did say he would be with them always. He did promise to send his Spirit to be with them.

But that was ten days ago. Did something go wrong? Did they misunderstand? What were they to do? How would they continue on without him? He told them to continue his ministry in the world. But how? They lacked a real leader. They were wanted men – they could be arrested by Roman soldiers or by the temple authorities at any time, just for following Jesus.

Yes, there was a mixture of feelings. The last seven weeks had been an emotional rollercoaster. Grief at Jesus death. Fear of being arrested and crucified themselves. Joy and amazement at Jesus’ resurrection. Sadness and grief at his ascension. And now, more fear and uncertainty.

But they had come together nonetheless. They were devout Jews. They gathered with their friends for Shavuot, even if it was not a particularly joyous time for them personally. At least they would be together in their grief, in their fear, in their uncertainty. And there was still a glimmer of hope. There was still the unfulfilled promise Jesus had made.

And then. And then something happened. Suddenly there was a sound like the rush of a violent wind, blowing through the home where they were meeting in secret. What could this possibly be? It was unlike anything they had ever experienced. And then, flames, tongues of fire, appeared and rested on each of them. And then something even stranger, even more miraculous happened. They all began speaking in languages other than their own. Languages that they did not even know how to speak. And despite this, they were not only able to speak other languages, they were also able to understand what was being said by the others, who were speaking different languages still. Something was definitely happening!

And it wasn’t just the 120 disciples – the original remaining 11, plus Matthias who replaced Judas Iscariot, plus 100 new converts – who noticed. The sound like a rush of a violent wind was so loud that it attracted the attention of many of the residents and visitors in Jerusalem for Shavuot. It was obvious where the wind was localized. “And at the sound the crowd gathered” (Acts 2.6). Just as the Spirit rushed into where the disciples were gathered, people from all over Jerusalem rushed to where the disciples were meeting, to see what was happening. And what they discovered was amazing. “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” And yet, they are speaking in other languages. Galileans. From the outer regions of Israel. Unsophisticated. Country folk.

All those people, speaking in other languages, so that all there, the 120 as well as the masses that rushed to see what was going on, could hear what was being said in their own native tongue. They heard about God’s deeds. They heard about the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, and all that he had accomplished. They heard that he was indeed the Messiah who had been raised from the dead. They heard how through all of this, the sins of humanity had been forgiven. They heard of the promise of eternal life. They heard the Gospel being proclaimed. They heard it in their own languages. The Word, proclaimed by these Galileans, not just for their own benefit, not just for their own people, but beyond. Proclaiming their message to others, taking their message into the world.

As the sights and sounds of this marvelous scene continued, the disciples began to understand what was happening. They remembered Jesus’ words to them. How he would send the Holy Spirit to be with them, to teach them, to guide them. Spirit. Or in the common Greek of the day, pneuma. Also meaning wind. The wind that had blown through that house on that morning. Just as the wind from God blew over the void at the beginning of creation. Pneuma, also meaning breath. Also meaning life. The breath of God, breathing new life into the disciples, just as the breath of God breathed life into the first human, Adam. This was what Jesus had promised. This is what they had been waiting for.

And Peter, moved by that same Spirit, steps up, claiming the position of leader of this rag-tag band of disciples. He steps up and invokes the words of the prophet Joel. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2.17). All flesh. Peter proclaims that in the coming of the Holy Spirit that has just happened, the last days are being ushered in. Not the imminent apocalypse as is associated with “the last days,” but a mission to restore the kingdom of God to Israel and to expand that kingdom to the entire world. A new era marked by God’s salvation. A new era in which the Good News of that salvation would spread to the ends of the earth. And they were witnesses to it. They were the ones who would make it happen.

For the Jews, Pentecost represented the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai – God’s covenant with the people. For these followers of Christ, this new Pentecost represented a new covenant with God, mediated not through the Law, but through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who energized the disciples and would continue to energize those who come after, to carry God’s message to the world.

While the disciples had various post-resurrection encounters with Jesus over the previous 50 days, they have, for the most part, been in hiding – away from the world, filled with grief and fear. Without Jesus, they did not have a purpose. They had no drive or direction. But now, the Holy Spirit comes on the scene. The Holy Spirit energizes them, motivates them, to get back on track. The Holy Spirit gives them the courage to publically proclaim the message of Jesus. Their fear is gone. They move on from the Pentecost experience and continue teaching and preaching, healing, caring for those in need, embracing those who are marginalized, and standing up to both the Jewish and Roman authorities. They spread the message of God’s love, of the forgiveness of sins, of the salvation obtained through Christ’s death and resurrection, not just to the rest of Israel, but to the whole world. In so doing, they change the world.

The Pentecost event, the coming of the Holy Spirit, was not just a one-off event 2,000 years ago. It was not just a personal gift given to a small group of Jesus’ followers. It was a gift that was given to the entire community. To the community of believers. The Spirit, most fully realized in the community of the baptized. In you and in me.

In his promise to send the Holy Spirit to the disciples, Jesus in today’s Gospel reading uses the term “Advocate.” This is an interesting term unique to John’s Gospel. The original Greek is Paraclete, signifying one who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts, one who refreshes. It can also mean one who intercedes on our behalf as an advocate in court. But perhaps the most interesting meaning is “one who is called alongside.” Jesus was telling us that the Advocate that he would send, the Holy Spirit that he did send, is one called to be alongside us. One who is to continually be with us in our own faith journeys.

Just as with the original disciples, the Holy Spirit who was called alongside those who follow Jesus is still with us. Pneuma. Spirit. Breath. Life. The Holy Spirit breathing new life into us. Strengthening us. Inspiring us. Energizing us. Transforming us. Filling us with courage to face the challenges in our own day so that we too may continue to change the world.

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