Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018, Lectionary B
ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector Scripture: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to fill us, as you did those disciples on that first Pentecost, through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Can you see it? There is the material world and there is the Spirit world. Notice I did not say the spiritual world. Why? Because to say something is spiritual is not the same thing as saying its substance is spiritual. We have oft heard the expression, “Oh, he or she is so spiritual,” which usually means they are religious and have pious thoughts or something.
It is the Spirit world that created the material world out of nothing or in Greek ex nihilo. We clearly see the Spirit creating out of nothing or close to nothing in Jesus’ miracles—water to wine; a few fish and loaves into a great abundance of fish loaves. Think about that for a moment. This is not metaphor or analogy. This is the material appearing literally out of thin air and not some magician’s trick. It is fascinating to consider. For example, I hold out my hand and a loaf bread suddenly appears in it.
So, this alien force (in that it was not human), the Spirit, suddenly arrived while the disciples were all gathered together in one place. It challenges our reason to relate to or imagine the event. When was the last time that we were surprised, genuinely surprised (I don’t mean frightened) by an occurrence that was outside anything we might have imagined? Jesus, as we heard in this morning’s gospel from St. John, had told His disciples that something would happen. He put it this way: “When the Advocate comes,” but what would that or it look like? Had they given it any thought?
Perhaps they wondered whether His arrival might look similar to His arrival in Genesis 1:1. “The Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.” Not much of a picture there, though, is it? Maybe, the Spirit would be something like the sudden appearance of the Shekinah at the completion of Solomon’s temple. “So that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD” (1 Kings 8:11). Did the disciples remember John the Baptist’s prophetic words? “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).
Indeed, had the disciples imagined wind and fire and themselves speaking in unknown, foreign languages? Had they anticipated anything like what we heard moments ago from Acts 2? “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Far-out, right?
Imagine you and me in their situation. We are gathered together when, wham, from the Spirit world this mighty roar with flames of fire playing across the tops of our heads blasts into the room. Of course, in our low country context we might think it is not the Spirit at all, but a hurricane roaring and lightning crackling. Notice the exact language describing this wind on Pentecost. “From heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” The sound of the violent wind filled the entire house. Maybe, this just means it was a very loud wind, but how often do we speak of a sound filling a space? Did the rush of the violent wind start off softly and then crescendo to an eardrum splitting level? Usually, we say there’s a noise in the room, but we don’t qualify that it filled the room. So, what do we do under these extraordinary sound barrier breaking circumstances? Do we run, close our eyes, or simply say that this can’t be happening?
If we did say, “This can’t be happening!” Why would we say this? Why? Did Jesus mean for only the early disciples to have this extraordinary experience and gifting? What would be the sense of that? Why should you and I be any less equipped to proclaim the gospel than those early disciples? Why? Think about it. The early disciples had the advantage of watching Jesus in action—all the miracles and healings that He did. They themselves had heard Him preach and teach. Shouldn’t that have been enough without them additionally receiving the Spirit? Look at us. We have not witnessed Jesus in person—all He did and taught. Wouldn’t you think that we need the Spirit even more than those original disciples? Wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you?
Now, some so-called enlightened theologians (I say that tongue-in-cheek) would have us believe that we don’t need the Spirit and the concomitant miraculous anymore because we have the Bible. The Bible! What is the Bible, aside from paper and ink? Yes, it is a repository, a narrative of God working among His people toward His end purpose, but did Jesus ever heal anyone with the Bible? Did He pick up a scroll of the Torah (OT to you and me) and touch the leper, the blind, or the lame and heal them with it? Certainly not!
It is perhaps curious to consider that when I was ordained to the priesthood that part of the liturgy included the bishop placing a copy of the Bible on my head. This, though, suggested that I am first and foremost under the authority of the Bible, before any other authority. No, Jesus did not heal or do His miracles by placing a Bible (the OT then) on the head of the sick. There simply is no power in the Bible to heal, raise people from the dead, or turn water into wine. This is not to throw away the Bible by any means. We will come back to that later. For the moment, though, let’s look further at the Acts reading. What do we find the disciples doing?
As we heard, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” We might wonder why it was that they began to speak at all. Might the Spirit have enabled them to do something else—dance, draw pictures, whistle, shake one another’s hands, or give each other hugs? Yes, that sounds silly, but what was that we heard two verses before? “[A] sound like the rush of a violent wind filled the entire house.” In other words, the disciples as well were filled with sound, and what does sound make possible? Speech is sound, is it not? The disciples were filled with sound (sound from the Spirit world) and they began to speak.
However, it wasn’t just sound with which they were filled, was it? They were filled with the Holy Spirit. Think about that. They were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were not splashed, touched, dipped, or brushed with the Holy Spirit. They weren’t just given a teaspoon, a cup, or quart of Holy Spirit. They were filled with the Holy Spirit from top to bottom—sloshing around filled. They were so full of sound and Spirit that they began to speak in other languages. Pause there for a moment and put yourselves in those disciples’ places if you will.
Suddenly the Spirit of God comes upon you (whatever that means and feels like) and you find yourselves inexplicably speaking in a foreign language or do you?
Do you? God has graced you with God the Holy Spirit, placed words in your mouth in a language unknown to you, and what do you do, seriously? What do you do—run like crazy to get out of there?
A few of you may recall the story I told about our daughter, Caroline. Some years ago she was attending an Assemblies of God service with a friend of hers. After the speaker’s presentation he then told the teens that he would call down the fire of God, His Spirit. Whereupon, some of the youth began to speak in tongues; others sang in tongues; while others rested in the Spirit, though, not Caroline. She got up, as she told me, and ran out of there. Do you remember a certain Biblical character who did the same—Jonah, right? We can’t run from God.
Again, what would you do if you found yourselves suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit? Do you allow yourselves to speak the words God has given you? Do you clam up? Do you say this can’t be happening? Maybe, you are afraid of losing control. How, though, can speaking an unknown language mean you have lost control? Perhaps, you are concerned about what others will say if you speak in what has come to be termed “speaking in tongues.” Why, only religious fanatics speak in tongues, right? If so, what does that say about the apostles, whom we are encouraged to emulate? Would you spurn a gift that God has given you?
Though the language in which the Spirit-filled disciples spoke was unknown to them, it was not unknown to the devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. What did they say upon hearing the Spirit-filled disciples speak? “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” If the disciples had thought at all that they had lost control by speaking an unknown language, to the ears of those visiting foreigners what they said made perfectly good sense.
And, what had they said? They were “speaking about God’s deeds of power.” We are not told what those deeds are, but we might intelligently assume that those deeds most specifically have to do with the life and ministry of God’s work through His Son, Jesus, including raising Him from the dead. We, also, saw, as with most moments of the extraordinary, that there were naysayers, those who said it was not extraordinary at all. We heard, “others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine,’” suggesting that the disciples were drunk though it was morning. Regardless of either point of view, it begged the question then and it begs the question now: how do we interpret or understand what may or may not be the work of God in a given situation?
No, the Bible cannot heal, turn water to wine, or raise from the dead, but it can provide understanding. So, Peter, led by the Spirit, as Jesus had told them the Spirit would do (“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth,” said Jesus), Peter stood to explain the meaning of the disciples speaking in other tongues. “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
This rush of a violent wind, being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking in other languages with tongues of fire appearing, this extraordinary event, had been prophesied by the prophet Joel, who spoke by that same Holy Spirit, some 800 to 900 years before Jesus’ time on earth. Prophecy had been fulfilled when Jesus was born and prophesy was now being fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost.
Less we go to sleep on that note, we need to realize how unique the Pentecost event was and is. Prior to Pentecost the gifting of the Holy Spirit was allowed for just the very few—prophets, judges, and certain kings—David for example. The Spirit was not given to the people at large. However, because of the work of Jesus on the cross, because He died for our sins, the Holy Spirit was made available to all who believe in Jesus.
Later in chapter 2 of Acts verses 38 and 39 St. Peter tells what must be done to receive the Holy Spirit. “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 “For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.” In other words, that which had separated the physical world from the Spirit world had finally been torn asunder by Jesus’ offering Himself on the cross—the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
You see, we must get over this notion that Christianity is a belief system. It is not. Yes, it has beliefs in it. Yes, it has morals in it, but so do other religions. Christianity is first and foremost a new reality, given by God, for grace, mercy, love, and power—not political power or influence power, but Spirit, creating the universe, “raising from the dead” power. You see the difference. We cannot allow ourselves to be content to feed on stale theology, warmed-over liturgy, and over-chewed doctrine. Seriously, is that really all we expect of the Christian faith? I must tell you, “That is not enough for me. Who are we kidding?”
Oh sure, we could reformat our service, introduce new pop Christian music, and offer this program or that, but what kind of meat, what kind of meal, is that? Is it any wonder that Christians today (actually for a very long time) are emaciated and their testimony un-compelling? It is helpful to remember Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). And, I might add that without being born of the Spirit neither can we do kingdom of God type things—proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, liberty to those who are oppressed—healing, prophecy and the rest of the gifts of the Spirit. Did not Jesus say, “”Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to the Father” (John 14:12)?
Where then does that leave you and me? Do you and I feel as if we are filled with the Holy Spirit? Be honest, do we? Do we even want to be filled with the Holy Spirit? As Peter said in quoting the prophet Joel, “‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” Are you and I not flesh? This is not past tense. Why might we not want to be filled with the Holy Spirit? I’ll take answers. Maybe, I should put it this way? Why don’t you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit?
Let me suggest this. If you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit, close your eyes and say to God, “I believe in Jesus and I really want to be filled with the Holy Spirit right now. Please, Lord, fill me.” You can close your eyes right now and do that if you like. I’ll wait.
Lastly, on that day of the first Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out not just on an individual, but a group of individuals. In that respect this in part is why Pentecost is credited with being the birthday of the church; the Spirit created and empowered a group of people to be in community, to serve one another, and to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. There is, then, no reason why we here at St. Elizabeth’s should not avail ourselves of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and be filled, filled with Him even now.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.