Let us Pray: Link us Lord with our brothers and sisters at Pentecost some two thousand years before. Not by ideology, culture, or theology, but by the same Spirit. Fill us with your Spirit by blowing the words of scripture right off the page and into our hearts. And now, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The Holy Spirit—that great force, being, reality that Anna just attested to from Scripture, often elusively escapes our purview. As far as its role as a member of the Trinity, in most main line churches God as the sustaining Holy Spirit undoubtedly plays the third-wheel role to God the Creator and God the Redeemer. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, “The church has always tended toward bitarianism, worshiping the Father and the Son while regarding the Spirit as a marginal member of the Holy Trinity,” (Volume X, Pg. 57.)
Look no further than a foundational creed of the church universal for evidence. Our church recites no creed more frequently than the Apostle’s Creed/el credo apostolico. The Trinitarian creed begins, “I believe in God the Father Almighty” and describes what God the Father Almighty does. It continues, “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord.” That statement identifies yet another role of God the Creator as the parent of the Son, and follows with a significant description of who God the Son is and what he does. Then, the creed continues, “I believe in the Holy Spirit. We say we believe in the Spirit, the Holy Spirit who…? The Holy Spirit that…?” Nothing. The creed says nothing about who or what the Spirit is. It continues pronouncing belief in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and so forth.
Whether or not the Holy Spirit gets its due in mainline churches, the Spirit remains hard at work. It keeps blowing where it will. It continues to guide, impact, inspire, and move individuals and communities. And it makes sense that the Spirit often flies below the radar. The Spirit is enigmatic, perplexing, difficult to discern, and impossible to control. Its work is often untidy which is unsettling to us sometimes uber-organized Presbyterians. I once heard a speaker characterize Christian churches as communities full of rowers. The Spirit however, works best it when infiltrates and guides communities willing to let go of the paddles and set the sails.
In her commentary on the book of Acts, Beverly Gaventa posits further explanation as to why the Spirit is ignored. Gaventa holds that the Spirit leads on a “journey that takes travelers beyond domestic borders into unfamiliar territory where passports are invalid and embassies afford little protection.” She continues, “Travelers,” those on the Christian journey, “who desire the predictability of an interstate highway system where all roads look alike and every interchange features three gas stations and two fast-food stores will find [the] journey more closely [resembling] A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (Acts, Pg. 25).
Today, Pentecost Sunday, we recognize that fateful day two thousand years ago when, “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” In that time and place, the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit recorded in the Old Testament was fulfilled. Clergyman and author Will Willemon calls that Pentecost day in Jerusalem a church “classic, a story to which the faith community assigns authority and to which it returns again and again as a guide for its life. Here is revealed what the community is by recounting its origin in a powerful work of the Spirit. Sometimes the story has given the church hope; sometimes this story has judged the church and found it wanting” (Interpretation: Acts, Pg. 29).
Often times, Pentecost is called the birthday of the church. This presumes that Pentecost set in motion the spreading of the established church in Jerusalem moving out into the rest of the world. Matthew Skinner is a New Testament professor who I spoke not too long ago at our Presbytery. Dr. Skinner led us on a brief journey through Acts that helped us rethink and consider deeper dimensions of the work of the Spirit. What will remain with me from his presentation was his assertion that many mainline churches miss the boat on Pentecost Sunday.
For Skinner, the mainline tendency is to celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the church, by looking back at the event through the eyes of nostalgia. Worship may try to reenact or recreate what happened two thousand years ago and ceremoniously lift it up as an important date in the past that the church cherishes in the present. So, the obvious question for him is, “How then should churches acknowledge Pentecost?” His answer: Pentecost worship is about testifying to what the Spirit is doing now—today! Pentecost two thousand years ago is a testimony of how the Spirit worked miraculously among a diverse group of people at that time and place, and what behooves the church to recognize, is that the same Spirit that made that happen, is still at work.
What happened after the Spirit descended? The apostles set out and took the church out of the comfortable confines of Jerusalem and preached the good news all around the Mediterranean world. What they found out, was when the security of the organized church was far off, they had to rely on the Spirit. When they preached the good news at Antioch or in Rome, they relied on the Spirit to interpret the message into the contexts of the non-Jewish world.
Pentecost showed them that the good news of God’s love, forgiveness, and compassion is translatable to all people and cultures. As Peter began preaching what some call, the first church Sermon, and interpreting the Pentecost event, he quotes the book of Joel which foretold the coming of the Spirit and encapsulates God’s inclusive Spirit. Just think, in a highly stratified, male-dominated society, the prophet Joel highlights how the Spirit of God will fall upon all flesh. He includes men and women, young and old, slave and free.
How can it be that this Spirit of Pentecost is so often overlooked by the church today? When a church or a denomination operates with rigidity, no room is left for the Spirit. When dogma, tradition, or church systems become unbending, the no room is left for the Spirit to blow. That is why it has been said: “Tradition is tending the flame. Not worshiping the ashes.”
When the Apostles moved away from the center of established tradition, and relied on the Spirit, they saw beyond the borders of tradition. They discovered that those uncircumcised could become Christians, and that those who did not follow the standard religious eating habits of the time could become Christians too. So could an Ethiopian eunuch from another nation. Their worlds were opened up to new understandings and realities. And the Holy Spirit became a corrective for the church in Jerusalem—illumining the hard to swallow truth that when the organized church squeezes out the Holy Spirit, the Spirit finds other places to work until the organized church sees the error of its ways and lets it back in.
A noted Christian author recently quipped that if a church is to thrive in the twenty-first century, it will look more like the early church of the first century more than the church of the twentieth century. For churches to remain vital, they may no longer rest on the laurels of privilege in society. Today’s disciples and apostles are called to listen; to go where the Spirit blows within our community and the world.
One of the deepest satisfactions I have experienced in twelve and a half years as Pastor of la sugunda iglesia presbiteriana, is to watch the Spirit of God at work. In a mainline church, with a rich history, a church sociologist would dawn our doors and tell us that statistically speaking, we should be declining. We should be set in our ways; locked in our steps. And that would be understandable. This congregation has a lot to celebrate in its past and our tradition is one to behold. But God’ Spirit clearly has had other plans for this community. I am surprised how often, out of a deep faith, members and friends of the church are willing to set down the oars of rowing and hoist the sails. Our openness to the Spirit has changed the ethos of the community and taken us on a new course that does not align with the typical mainline nautical direction. I will hold back from listing the impressive list of this church’s accomplishments so we do not dream of becoming comfortable with where we are. But without a doubt, the Spirit has led our church to more shared leadership, more spontaneity, and more focus outside the walls of our building. Thanks be to God!
Can you imagine the Pentecost event being planned by a church committee? The session forms a Pentecost Task Force. How in the world could plan an event of that magnitude? I can just imagine the discussion: We’re going to need to pick a windy day. My Iphone weather app says the wind will be strong on the 23rd. Whose going to do the translating between all the languages? I haven’t spoken Pamphilian for years. And there is no body in the congregation that speaks Phrygian. What are we going to do? And whose house should we have the Pentecost in? Wilma’s house would be perfect. Yeah but she hosts all of the nig events. And who is going to feed all of those people. We still have some frozen casseroles from the last potluck. But Wilma’s oven isn’t working. Who will preach and interpret the event? And where are we going to get the tongues of fire? Maybe the youth group will work on that. My point of course is that the Spirit leads and guides in ways that we cannot plan.
I want to be abundantly clear with the take-home importance of today’s message. The Holy Spirit is still at work. The Spirit is blowing and breathing, “Spirit” in Hebrew is the same word as breath-ruach. The Spirit is poised to be breathed into our lives and continue to be breathed into the community. May we allow it to work in our lives! May we let it chart our courses and trust as it takes us in directions we never could have imagined! The fiery tongues of Pentecost have since left ashes two thousand years before. May we not nostalgically worship those ashes, but tend the flame that continues to burn bright.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and thanks be to the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Palabra de Vida
You will find sermons preached by Rev. Robert Woodruff and guests preachers.