May 19, 2013
“The Promise of the Holy Spirit”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, 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, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
The title of the sermon today is “The Promise of the Holy Spirit.” So I had this title rolling around in my head all week, and I am a word person (a logophile, if you will) and that word “promise” takes us in two different directions, both which matter very much to the text we read today.
The background on the text is this. The book of Acts is the “part two” of Luke’s gospel, written 40-60 years after Jesus died. It tells the “what happened next” part of the resurrection story.
It is Pentecost, which takes place 50 days after the Passover, and Passover is what Jesus and his disciples celebrated together on the night of his arrest. Pentecost was one of the three big pilgrimage festivals which brought many people from all over, into Jerusalem. Pentecost was a harvest festival, but it was more than that. In the description of this festival in Leviticus, you not only brought your offering, reminding you of your abundance, but you were instructed not to harvest your whole field, to leave the edges untouched for the poor, the outcast, and the orphan, reminding you of other’s want.
So it was Pentecost and Jesus’ followers, the remnant, were all together, waiting. And they were waiting for the completion of the promise.
There are two meanings to the word “promise” – it is a noun and a verb (I will keep my promise, and I promise that this will not be a long sermon).
The Holy Spirit was a promise made over and over, and the disciples were waiting for God to make good on this promise.
In Luke’s account of Jesus’ life we find John the Baptist saying, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (I have often wondered if the people who heard him were looking forward to the Holy Spirit, or dreading it)
And finally Jesus last words before he is taken up to heaven, shared at the very beginning of the book of Acts, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized withwater, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit . . . you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The Holy Spirit was a promise kept, the completion of the resurrection story.
One pastor and blogger I came across feels very passionately about this. Pentecost is her favorite day. She writes that we are rightfully dazzled by Easter, but if that is where we stop then our view of salvation will be quite narrow. The resurrection story, the story of salvation is not complete until the Holy Spirit is set free in this world.
She writes, “We are not equipped to be who God wants us to be in this new world moving toward new creation until the Spirit comes whooshing through the room. Pentecost is the day that makes the future of the church possible. Without Pentecost, we’d just be people who tell Jesus’ story. With Pentecost, we’re people who live into Jesus’ story.”
The Holy Spirit is described differently by different writers.
For the writer of the gospel of John, the Spirit is the ongoing presence of Jesus with the church, and the source of peace.
For Paul, the Spirit is that which unites us to Christ, makes us into his body, and gives particular gifts to each person for the sake of the community.
For the writer of Acts, the Spirit is the power of God, the mighty burning wind that blows the church into new and unexpected places of ministry.
And of these descriptions the one we find in Acts is the most unnerving. Who knows what might happen with the Holy Spirit on the loose in the world, blowing the church and us into unexpected places and in unexpected directions?
Back to the word “promise” – it is also a verb that carries us forward from this one moment in time at Pentecost, and it just keeps going. The promise of the Holy Spirit is that God is “up to good” in the world at this very moment, and in many ways.
The Holy Spirit is God’s promise to always be working against the pain and decay and loneliness in the world. The Holy Spirit is God at work in re-creation. We learned from all those weeks in the book of Revelation, that this is the end game, the recreation of the world, either through our own attempts at building a just and vibrant world, or in spite of all our attempts at domination and destruction.
It turns out that the coming of the Holy Spirit was not a sign of rejection (based on what John the Baptist said, we were not so sure), it was a sign that God intends to reach and reclaim the world.
There was a story on the radio a couple of months ago about a woman returning to Baghdad after the war, after many years of begin away, and standing in front of the home she grew up in, and finding that she barely recognized it – it was a wasteland. She said all the remained that had life in it was the wind that blew through Baghdad. The Holy Spirit is like that. For those of us who desperately need hope in the face of destruction and pain, God’s Spirit always, always remains.
The promise of the Holy Spirit is that for all our attempts at dividing and segmenting our world, God is moving us toward unity. In Jerusalem, those touched by the gospel were walled off by language. It was God’s Spirit that broke down those barriers.
In our time, we are walled off by any number of things – denominations, race, economics, politics, culture. The Holy Spirit is pushing us towards what God always intended for us and for creation, what we see in the briefest glimpse in Eden, and what we see in the briefest glimpse in Revelation. It is a vision of a place without shame, without lies, without all the walls, real or otherwise, that we put up between ourselves and other people, and ourselves and God.
We are in the business of putting up walls, and the Holy Spirit is in the business of miraculously breaking them down.
Our world seems to constantly grow smaller, and yet we find more and more that would divide us. We get glimpses of the Holy Spirit when in spite of all that would divide us, we still find ways to understand one another and find common ground in spite of all that would keep us apart.
So the promise of the Holy Spirit is that God is right now working against decay, and working against divisions. And one more promise is that the Holy Spirit gives us the courage to work against the decay and work against the divisions.
The Holy Spirit gives the courage to stand up and proclaim what we believe, but to live what we believe – that takes courage. That is what see happen to all these followers who were waiting. They have the courage to speak and live the truth and to do it loudly.
C.S. Lewis in his book the Screwtape letters, has letters from one demon to another, instructing him how to gain a young man’s soul for the devil (the book is better than this description makes it sound), and the more experienced demon is urging the younger one to promote cowardice in the young man, and so he writes to tell him that, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Courage is what happens when honesty is tested, when mercy is tested, when chastity is tested.
And he reminds him that, “Pilate (who sentenced Jesus to death) was merciful until it became risky.” We are given the courage to overcome barriers, the courage to take part in the work of re-creation.
The promise of the Holy Spirit is that there is more to this world than meets the eye, and we can’t just sit back and accept that this is just how things are. The promise of the Holy Spirit is that God does not leave us stagnant or weak. Through the Holy Spirit we have the courage to take part.