More than once, I’ve been in a Bible study group, or in an adult Sunday School class, which began . . . not with a Bible reading, or a teacher presentation, or even a discussion, but with a question. And it was a sincere, wondering question, not one of those just-intended-to-prompt discussion questions. Why, it was asked, do we study and hear so little about the Holy Spirit in church? After all, it is, we profess, one of the three persons of God; co-equal with the one we call “God the Father,” and with Jesus Christ, according to our Book of Confessions. We hear a lot about the activities of God the Creator and Lawgiver and Protector of Israel, and a lot about Jesus – but very little about that third person, the Holy Spirit. Why?
The main answer, I think, is a strictly practical one, one based on how our worship service and sermons and lessons happen to be set up. It’s not that we think the Holy Spirit isn’t important; it’s not that we think it isn’t equal to the other aspects of God. It’s just that we plan our studies and lessons according to the Bible, and if you count the number of stories in the Bible about God the Creator and Lawgiver, and count the number about Jesus, and then count the number about the Holy Spirit – well, you will find that the Spirit is badly outnumbered; there just aren’t many Biblical passages referring to the Holy Spirit, compared to the number mentioning God or Jesus. We are a “people of the book,” and the book, being mostly about God’s work before and during Jesus’ ministry, not after, doesn’t say a whole lot about the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study the Spirit, but we do have to be a little more intentional about it, seeking out the references to it; they don’t pop up as frequently automatically.
Today, however, is the Holy Spirit’s day. Pentecost, the name which means “fifty days,” since it comes on the fiftieth day after Easter, is the day we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the apostles, initiating their activity, which resulted in the establishment of the church. Pentecost is the Holy Spirit’s day. Churches across the area have bulletin boards with sermon titles like “Catch the Spirit,” and “Light My Fire”; some release balloons or throw parties to celebrate the coming of the Spirit; some invite their members to dress in red, because Pentecost is the one Sunday on the church calendar which has red as its liturgical color. Pentecost is the Holy Spirit’s day. As Christmas celebrates the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, so Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Spirit.
There were some big differences between these two comings of God into the world, however. The biggest one probably has to do with anticipation. A Messiah, a Christ, had been promised for centuries before that first Christmas; the Jewish people were waiting for him, depending on him, so anxious for his arrival, in fact, that some of them even followed a false Messiah or two before Jesus finally came. He was expected. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, had to sort of sneak up on the disciples, who were still, quite frankly, most interested in maintaining their connection with Jesus.
Rev. Christianne Dutton, at one of Pittsburgh Presbytery’s meetings, described their attitude in her short meditation on the Ascension, or first Scripture lesson today. On that fortieth day after Easter, she pointed out, when Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples were still concerned with following Jesus – the man Jesus. He had been lifted up into the sky, a cloud had already taken him from their sight, and they still continued to stand there, staring into the sky, because they wanted to follow him. There could have been a Second Coming, complete with angels and armies from heaven, going on behind their backs, Rev. Dutton went on, and the disciples never would have known. They would still have been straining their eyes to looking for Jesus, for the God they knew and were comfortable with, completely missing the new activity of God, the continuing work of God in a new way. It took an angel to shake them out of it: “Why are you Galileans standing here looking into the sky?” Go to the city, like Jesus told you to do.
For God was going to come again, as promised, but in a new form. Jesus had told the disciples this. John 14 records part of his Maundy Thursday speech: “I shall ask the Father and he will send the Advocate, the Comforter, to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth. The Holy Spirit, which God will send, will teach you everything.” Luke 24 tells us Jesus’ last speech before ascending said “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” And Acts 1 has Jesus speaking these words to them: “Not many days from now, you are going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
But the disciples didn’t know what that meant; the words are rather mysterious and vague. To their credit, they were obedient; they did go to the city, and gather in the upper room. And they waited. And then the promise came true: a rush of wind; the appearance of tongues of fire; each individual experiencing the touch of God; the ability to preach, and to be heard in many languages; the courage to challenge kings, and religious leaders, and crowds of strangers, and enemies; the openness to accepting even Gentiles as God’s people; the conviction to travel all over the known world spreading the gospel. On Pentecost, God did come again – the Holy Spirit touched each of the disciples, beginning a new work of God: the spreading of the good news, and the founding of the church.
We believe that the work of that Holy Spirit continues through all Christians to this day. The Holy Spirit is that aspect of God which is with us, leading us, helping us to be good disciples. The gifts of that Spirit take many forms, we are told in I Corinthians 12: preaching, prophesying, healing, speaking in tongues, interpreting, wisdom, faith. “But at work in all these is one and the same Spirit, distributing them at will to each individual,” the passage says. “There are many different gifts, but it is always the same Sprit.”
A letter one Pentecost, from the World Council of Churches, described some of the other ways we experience the Spirit: “The experience of the presence and action of the Spirit is not (always) something extraordinary; we perceive in particular moments the supernatural dimension of the natural, the spiritual significance of ordinary events: In the struggle for justice, in the search for friendship, in each instance of human kindness towards a fellow human-being, in the stilled tranquility that follows prayer; in all that shatters our stony hearts and makes us aware of the beauty and mystery of life, we experience the action of the Spirit, making us sensitive to the overwhelming tenderness of God.” The Holy Spirit is that part of God that continues with us to this day – in dramatic, even frightening ways; and in small quiet personal ways. It is a gift from God.
It will be with us later this morning as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, a meal in which we feel Christ is especially spiritually-present, but in which we also invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit, asking for it to be with us in our partaking of the bread and cup, and after as we return to our ministries in the world. In the Holy Spirit, God has come again, to each of us – to comfort us, lead us, sustain our faith. It is something worth celebrating, on this Pentecost Sunday.
On that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came with the appearance of tongues of fire, and Rev. William Leety, a Presbyterian minister in Scranton, PA, thought of those flames in presenting this illustration in the magazine Presbyterian Outlook:
“One summer, great public outcry arose over fires devastating Yellowstone National Park. The Department of the Interior managed the park by allowing fires started by lightening to burn ostensibly out of control. People who had traveled to Yellowstone were angered and grieved as news reports enumerated the increasing acreage of burned forest.
“Ecologists debated whether to try to stop the burning or simply to control it. Some argued that lightning fires are the way nature changes and renews the landscape.
“The next spring, tourists returned to Yellowstone – some to lament the loss, the damage, the leveling of trees and the loss of animals. What they found, however, were new meadows rising in green shoots out of the ashes; cones from pines scattered on the ground, some opening already from the heat of the fire, others waiting to break open and sow their seeds in the nitrogen-rich ash; a show of wildflowers unequaled in years past; the return of elk and squirrels, nearly all of which had migrated from the forest ahead of the fire.
“It should have been little surprise. Years ago, when America was a land of small farms, and “air pollution” hadn’t entered the cultural vocabulary, the spring burnoff of the fields was an annual event. Small children worried about the rabbits and woodchucks, and their parents assured them that animals didn’t die in the burnoff.
By mid-summer, new growth had sprung from the ash. Even the wild raspberries, with their merciless thorns, had returned.
“At Pentecost, disciples received tongues of fire. Some argued that they were drunk. Some would manage the fire. Others would lament that everything had changed. Old ways weren’t what they had been. The landscape had been made unrecognizable. Much that had been good and familiar seemed lost forever.
“But, by God, it was a new meadow, the preparation by God for new growth. The ashes of burnoff would spring the meadows and pines of a new creation.”
The Holy Spirit: God working in a new way in the first disciples, in many new ways through countless new disciples since. As we approach the Lord’s table this morning, let us ask God for experiences of that Spirit, and for guidance as to how we can best be disciples serving the church, God, and one another in new ways.
Let us pray: God, thank you for coming to be with us, in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. Help us to know its comfort, its strength, its revelation, its guidance, its energy, as we strive to be your faithful disciples. Amen.