Life, Death, and the Holy Spirit
Feast of Pentecost
Acts 2: 1-21; John 20:19-23
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
May 31st, 2020
May the Words of my Mouth and the Meditations of all of our Hearts be Acceptable in Thy Sight, O Lord our Strength and Our Redeemer.
Fifty Days ago, we celebrated the Feast Day of Jesus Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. Today we celebrate Pentecost.
For the first forty days following Jesus’ resurrection nearly 2000 years ago, Jesus lived and moved among his disciples in his resurrected body. During that time he ate with them, interpreted the Scriptures to them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God. The disciples, after being with Jesus both before and after his resurrection, came to believe in him as the long-awaited Messiah.
But, as the Messiah, Jesus was not meant to dwell on earth permanently after his resurrection as the disciples might have hoped. Rather, he was meant to rule from heaven, seated at the right hand of God, his father. So on the 40th day following his resurrection, his last day on earth, Jesus ascended into heaven. And that day, we remembered 10 days ago, as Ascension Day. But before he ascended back to heaven, Jesus gave his followers a curious directive. He ordered his followers not to leave Jerusalem. They were to stay there, he told them, to wait for the promise of the Father. How long were they supposed to wait exactly? They didn’t know, but they did as Jesus requested. And what was that promise they were to wait for? They were to wait for the promise that they were to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said to them, “This is what you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
The disciples, of course, never quite knowing exactly the intent behind Jesus’ words, had asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” That is something they would have very eagerly waited for, indeed. But, Jesus replied to them, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you: and you will be my witness in Jerusalem in all Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth.” The disciples were to be witnesses. They were going to have a job to do. Perhaps, that is not what they were expecting or hoping for. Nevertheless, after Jesus spoke those words, he ascended into heaven. And, the disciples did what they were told, they remained in Jerusalem and waited.
Mercifully, they were only going to have to wait 10 days after Jesus ascended. The 10th day after Jesus ascended corresponded to one of the great festivals of the Jews called Pentecost. And, on that day, Jesus did what he had promised, he sent the Holy Spirit and inaugurated what we would now call the Christian church. The day that God chose to send the Holy Spirit and to form the church, the people of the new covenant, was not arbitrary. The Jewish day of Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks, was the second largest festival day of the Jewish tradition. Thousands of people would be in Jerusalem to celebrate this feast, not only Jews from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, but also foreigners from many lands would have also made the journey to attend this spring festival, which would have had lots of trading and commerce.
But the day of the Pentecost was not only significant because it was a Jewish harvest festival. It was also significant because it is the day the Jews also celebrated God’s giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. On that day, God officially designated the Israelites as his people. He made a covenant with them. They were to be his people, and God would be their one and only God. The opening sentences of the 10 commandments say exactly that. The opening sentence of the 10 commandments you will recall is, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.”
But what event happened 50 days prior to the Festival of Pentecost in the Jewish tradition? It was the celebration of Passover, the most important Jewish feast in their tradition. As you will recall, the Jewish Passover was the event in which the Jews were instructed to put the blood of a slaughtered lamb over their doors, so the plague would pass by them and spare their first-born sons.
So, 50 days following the Passover event, was the Jewish feast of Pentecost, where they celebrated the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In the Christian tradition, the Passion of Christ began with a passover meal, Jesus himself is referred to as the lamb of God, whose blood was shed for all so that they may be saved from sin and death. “This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you,” Jesus said, during the last supper, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, God sends the gift of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers. And what did the gift of the Holy Spirit do? It bound them together as a new people. The Holy Spirit bound each of them to each other, and also bound them collectively together to Christ, making them into a new people, the people of the new covenant.
As we read in the passage from Acts, and which is echoed in the readings from 1st Corinthians, God’s signature gift of the Holy Spirit was an awesome, fiery, dynamic, and extraordinary gift. It was a gift that would equip them to learn not only how to live together as God’s new people, but also equip them to go and share the Good News that Jesus Christ was now king over the rulers of all the earth and that none were to be afraid of the power of sin and death any longer.
There were about 120 people gathered together that day in the Temple praying at 9 O’Clock in the morning. The scene was extraordinary. We hear that fiery tongues appeared over each other’s heads and that not only were they speaking in different languages, not their own, but that they could also understand each other perfectly well. And, after the Spirit descended on those 120 people, those 120 went out into the crowds that had gathered for the great festival, crowds from Samaria and other neighboring places, and converted nearly 3000 people on the spot. 3000 people in a day. That is how powerful the gift of the spirit was in the hands of those first 120 Christian missionaries, fresh from the event.
That first day of Pentecost was only the beginning of what the disciples of Jesus were going to be called to do. They would be called to witness not only in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, but they were also going to be called to witness to all about Christ the king to the ends of all the earth. That is what the gift of the spirit was for. It wasn’t a reward for their faith, something they earned; it was a gift to help them live faithfully and share their faith with all whom they would meet. Such a task would be both joyful and dangerous.
And what were those gifts exactly? Paul spells them out in 1 Corinthians as the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
- Discernment of Spirits
- Various kinds of Tongues
- Interpretation of Tongues
And what are these gifts for exactly? Paul tells us that they are for the common good, for the body of believers and for evangelization. They are not ours to possess and to boast about. They are given to us so that we can use them to live as a people of the resurrection, as a people of the new covenant.
One of my favorite parts of the Baptismal rite is right after the person is baptized with water. After baptizing the person with water, the priest dips his hand in a chrism of oil, makes a sign of the cross over the person’s head and says, “You are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” The two-fold part of Baptism helps us understand the significance of both water and the Holy Spirit. With water we are purified and cleansed from our sins. We are born again into new life as we come up out of the water. But God does not just stop there. Not only does he give us that new life free from sin, but he gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us to live out this new way of life going forward.
As some of you may remember from my Sunday School class that we did on NT Wright’s book Resurrection and the Son of God this past spring, NT Wright had given the analogy of understanding the difference between the life of the flesh and life in the spirit. The main difference he says, is not the kind of substance our body is made out of, like whether a boat is made out of wood, or metal, or carbon fiber. Rather, the significant difference between the life of the spirit and the life of the flesh is the power source of that life. In creation, God breathed life into the dust of the earth to form Adam. So as humans on this side of the resurrection, we are powered by the air we breathe. And, once we stop breathing we die. But in our resurrected body, NT Wright argues, we will be sustained not by the air we breathe like we are now, but rather our resurrection bodies will be animated by the Spirit. Just like boats can be powered, by wind, or gasoline, or nuclear power, we in our resurrected bodies will be principally animated by the Holy Spirit, not simply air.
We are still of course, physical beings, made of flesh and blood and we need Oxygen to survive, but as baptized Christians who have been baptized with water and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are also now living as people of the resurrection. As people, who share in the life of God and are powered by his spirit, our life can be transformed in extraordinary ways. And, as people of the Holy Spirit we have a task. Our task is to be witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ as king over all the earth, and to live our lives in such a way that people can see that our faith makes a difference to how we live.
It is the Spirit in us that teaches us to love rightly. This means loving the right things, in their proper order, and in the right way. When we let the Spirit direct our lives, we are more willing to confront our sins honestly. When we let the Spirit direct our lives we are more willing to forgive those who have hurt us. We can learn to love our enemies. When we let the Spirit direct our lives we are more courageous in our faith. We can endure hardship and suffering, knowing that it is not futile. When we let the Spirit direct our lives we can become more wise and discerning. When we let the spirit direct our lives, we can become more trusting of God, letting go the of the need of power and security, or for esteem and affection. When we let the Spirit direct our lives, the frenetic, chaotic, and demonic forces of the world, which are bent towards deceit and power, will not drive us into decisions based on fear, but lead us to act into the future with faith and hope.
Today is the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has been given as a gift to the church and to each of us as well. We are a people of the resurrection. And, to live as a resurrection people, we are a people who, on the one hand, deeply respect life, who embrace it with gratitude and joy, but on the other hand, we are a people who do not have an inordinate fear death. As a resurrection people, God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to inspire us, to help us exercise courage, and to witness to our faith so that we might encourage hope in a world which is troubled and confused on matters of life and death. One only has to glance at the headlines on any given day and notice that we live in a world that is not only indifferent and callous toward life, but also deeply terrified of death at the same time. The Christian faith offers a different path. May God help us to show that path to others and have the courage to walk that path ourselves. Amen.