SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, MAY 24, 2015, THE FEAST OF PENTECOST
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The past ten days or so we’ve been in a holding pattern - the no man’s land after Ascension but before Pentecost. And every day this week, at the daily office and at mass, the church prayed the same prayer:
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Today, we celebrate God’s answer to that prayer. Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church after Jesus’ ascension. Most of you know what Pentecost is about - Πεντηκοστη [ημερα] means “fiftieth day,” the Greek name for the Jewish “Festival of Weeks” from Leviticus 23 - fifty days after Passover (seven “sabbaths” or seven weeks plus one day), Jews keep a harvest festival. And they celebrate the time when, fifty days after God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, he came down on Mount Sinai to give Moses the law.
We enter the story at Acts 2 - the apostles and others who followed were all together when, on the day of the old Festival of Weeks, something happened. The experience they had is what the church calls Pentecost. So let’s take a few moments to draw out three “Principles of Pentecost”: (1) The hiddenness of Pentecost; (2); the Power of Pentecost; and (3) the Person of Pentecost.
First: The Hiddenness of Pentecost
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (2.1-4)
The apostles observed three phenomena that day: Wind, fire, and sound. Almost every commentary points out that the first two, the wind and the fire, weren’t actually what they appeared to be. There was a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and there were tongues as of fire resting on each person there, but we aren’t told anyone felt a breeze or that anything got singed. The point of the story isn’t that there was actual wind or actual fire; the point is that something happened hidden under the sound of wind and the appearance of fire. The sound and the fire were signs, signals, pointers to something else - signs of the arrival of God. In that way, there were like “sacraments,” outward and visible signs of inward, spiritual, invisible realities. God was hidden under the signs.
That’s how God does business a lot, after all. At the sacrament of the altar, the Eucharist, God is there in, with, under the bread; his presence hidden in the water and the wine. We can’t see God, but the church teaches he is there, and he was there with the disciples hidden under fire and wind on Pentecost.
Point two: The Power of Pentecost
If you were here on Ascension Day, we talked about how the ascension of Jesus is not so much about absence (that Jesus is gone), as it is about presence. After the Ascension, Jesus isn’t limited just to being in one place at a time physically, because with God’s spirit in us, Jesus is actually present throughout the whole world. Well, N.T. Wright goes a step further and builds on that. He says:
Pentecost is . . . the moment when the personal presence of Jesus with the disciples is translated into the personal power of Jesus in the disciples.
In fact, to understand Pentecost we must understand Ascension because they’re linked - At Ascension, Jesus said “You’ll receive power to be my witnesses,” and Pentecost is when the power comes. Other places in NT we find out what that power means - Philippians 2.13 says “God works in you, both to will and to act for his good pleasure.” Ephesians 3.20 says the power at work within us is able to “do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine.” Or earlier in Ephesians, in maybe the most amazing explanation of this power, Paul writes: “That power [in you] is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 1.19-20 (NIV)) The power that raised Jesus from the dead - that’s the power at work in us, that makes us witnesses in the world.
But what’s it look like in action? Are we able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? No - The principle of hiddenness applies to witnesses, too. God is at work in, through, and under us, his works are hidden under ours. Wright again:
The witness of the church does not consist mainly in big statements and loud trumpetings. The witness of the church consists, as it has always done, in living within the present world according to the new rule of the ascended Lord, living in faith, hope and love, putting into practice the generous self-giving love which is at the core of Jesus’ own message, living out the Beatitudes day by day, demonstrating to the world that there is a different way to be human, a way of charity and chastity, a way of patience and prudence, a way of joy and justice . . .
When we go out into the world and do the simplest things in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are “walking sacraments,” witnesses to the kingdom of God. That’s the power the Holy Spirit gives us, but it’s not an ostentatious power. We don’t wear t-shirts identifying us as Christians, but as Leonard Sweet said, “Let us so live that when we [do] tell someone we are a Christian, it confirms their suspicions.”
Last point: The Person of Pentecost
When the day of Pentecost had come . . .
Here’s a question: Why this day? The Holy Spirit could have come a week after the resurrection, a month, a year - why did God pick this day? For the answer to that, we have to look back to the OT Festival of Weeks. Remember it was a harvest festival, but it came to be a celebration of God giving the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. And our Pentecost is linked to the giving of the law, too, in that it’s both like Sinai and not like Sinai.
But not any more. Here’s why God picked this day to send the Holy Spirit - There’s a new mediator, a new person of Pentecost. Here’s how one pastor put it:
We have a better man on the mountain. Moses was great, but Jesus Christ is greater. He’s the ultimate mediator. He wasn’t just man, he was God and man, so he’s the perfect mediator, the perfect man in the middle. But when we sinned, he didn’t just pray for us, he died for us. And when he died, Matthew tells us the moment he died on the cross the veil in the temple was ripped from top to bottom and that fire, that glory, that was back in the Holy of Holies, that was fatal before, now that you are in Christ, comes into your life.
If you’re a Christian, because of your baptism (like Roisin’s today), it’s as if a tongue of fire came to rest on you just like it did the disciples. The presence and power of God are hidden in you. We’re filled with power to be witnesses to the world that Jesus is king.
Let us pray: Our father in heaven, let thy kingdom come; let thy will be done, on earth, in Boston, in our hearts and homes and lives as it is in heaven; through the power of the Holy Spirit hidden and at work in us.
1) N. T. Wright, “The Power of Heaven Let Loose on Earth,” a sermon preached at Durham Cathedral on Pentecost 2009, available online at http://ntwrightpage.com/sermons/Pentecost09.htm (last visited 22 May 2015).
2) “The Descent of the Spirit,” a sermon by Dr. Timothy Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City on 25 November 2012 (available for purchase online at http://www.gospelinlife.com/the-descent-of-the-spirit-7871.html (last visited 24 May 2015)).