[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church earlier today.]
Today brings us to the third great festival of the Church Year. There’s Christmas, then Easter, and now Pentecost. Of course, Christmas and Easter get all the attention. Churches are filled for celebrations of Jesus’ birth and His resurrection from the dead. But unless young people are being confirmed on Pentecost, something that’s scheduled to happen both next year and the year after here at Saint Matthew, attendance is rarely higher on Pentecost Sunday than it is on most other Sundays of the year.
In the secular media, magazines and cable channels seem to always use Christmas and Easter as occasions for specials claiming that they’ve found “the real Jesus.” There’ll be no special Pentecost programming on CNN or the Discovery Channel tonight.
Maybe that’s because the Holy Spirit, the One Whose coming fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead Pentecost celebrates, doesn’t really call attention to Himself. He’s been called the “shy member of the Trinity,” the the third Person of the Three-in-One God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—Who seems always to be in the background. Cartoonists may show God the Father as a white-bearded old man. And Jesus has been the focal point of endless artistic renderings for the past two-thousand years. But the Spirit has always been tough to portray.
Though the Scriptures insist that the Spirit has a personality—Jesus calls Him a Counselor, a Comforter, an Advocate, for example, it’s been hard for artists to find ways to portray Him.
The Holy Spirit is sometimes shown as a dove. That’s because Luke’s Gospel, for example, tells us that when Jesus was baptized, the Spirit came to Him in the bodily form of a dove, a bird that the ancient Jews thought was pure, without bile.
Sometimes the Spirit is shown as fire. This is appropriate not only because in our first lesson for today, the Holy Spirit rested on 120 praying followers of Jesus like tongues of fire, but also because of some properties that fire shares with the Holy Spirit. Fire enlightens, destroys, and purifies. So does the Spirit of God, depending on our needs at the time.
And sometimes, the Spirit is seen as wind. This too, is appropriate. The word translated as spirit from the Old Testament Hebrew is ruach, a word that also means wind or breath. It’s God’s ruach—wind or spirit—that moves over the waters in Genesis to create the world. It’s also God’s ruach that God breathes into dust to make the first human being. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word pneuma has the same multiple meanings as ruach. Pneuma can also mean wind, breath, or spirit. But the problem with trying to picture something like wind or breath is that, as Jesus told Nicodemus, you may hear the sound of it—and on the first Pentecost, the Spirit must have sounded like a freight train filling the house where the first disciples had been praying--but you can’t really see it. You can only see the evidence of it.
Maybe the Spirit’s shyness and His insusceptibility to being pictured are why we attach so little importance to Pentecost.
Maybe too, it’s easier to understand what Jesus does for us than it is to understand what the Spirit does for us. At Christmas, we easily understand that Jesus, God the Son, took on the burden of being human. At Easter, we understand that after dying on a cross for us, Christ rose to give life to all who turn from sin and follow Him. But what exactly does the Holy Spirit do for us?
A lot of things, really, if we will let Him do them for us. I want to talk about two things the Spirit does for us today, as seen in our first lesson, which comes from Acts 2.
First, the Holy Spirit gives us the courage to live past our fears. Before the events recounted in our lesson, 120 followers of Jesus had gathered in room to, just as Jesus had ordered them to do, wait and pray for the power of God to come upon them. When the Spirit came upon them “like the rush of a violent wind,” they did something they probably couldn’t have imagined doing moments before: They hit the hostile streets of Jerusalem, moving out among some of the very crowds who, just a few weeks before, had cried for Jesus’ death. They told anyone who would about God's mighty deeds and conveying the message that all who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved.
The Spirit gives courage to people who pray. Years ago, Ann and I knew a woman who was the mother of three children. Once, there had been four. The oldest child died at the age of two. After that tragic death, the woman had taken solace in two things: being a super-mom to her second child, another girl, and in using God as a lucky charm.
When she wasn’t doting on her daughter, watching her like a hawk, she was immersed in church activities, intent on warding off anything bad that might happen to the child. One day, the woman turned her head for an instant and when she turned back, the little girl was gone. The mother looked everywhere. When she finally found her, the little one was at the bottom of their pool. She had been there for some time.
Terrified, the woman, who had gone to a waiting area once her child had been transported to a hospital emergency room, screamed out to God. Then, panting between her shrieks of terror, she heard, in her mind, a message that must have come from the Holy Spirit: “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
From the Holy Spirit, Who, Jesus says, convicts us of our sin and convinces us that Christ can forgive our sin and lead us down better paths, this woman learned that her “faith” had really been superstition, a ploy to be in control of a world not in our control. She had been worshiping her child. She needed to let go, letting God be God and letting both her daughter and her to be children of God.
Miraculously, the child survived and grew up to be a brilliant young woman back when Ann and I knew her. But, whether the daughter has survived or not, from the Holy Spirit, the mother knew that God had given her the courage to live past her fears. The Holy Spirit does that for us.
The Holy Spirit also gives us a reason for living. Often, elderly people will ask me, “Why hasn’t God taken me yet? What am I still doing here?”
Sadly, these questions often come from people who have been hard workers their entire lives but who are no longer able to do the things they formerly could. I try to remind these elderly Christians that they (and all of us) are human beings, not human doings.
They (and we) have value not because of what we do, but because of who we are. When we stand before the judgment seat of God in eternity, God won’t ask us, “How many pies did you bake? How much money did you make? How often did you clean your house, stay late at the plant or the office?” Instead, God will ask, “Were you a believer in the Lord Jesus? Were you a repentant sinner? Were you a grateful disciple?” All baptized Christians are given the gift of the Holy Spirit Who reminds us that by grace, God accepts us we are and by that grace, God gives us a reason for living no matter what our abilities.
The first followers of Christ must have wondered after Jesus ascended into heaven why they were still around. In Jesus, they’d glimpsed eternity and they wanted to be with Him. But here they were, stuck on a planet filled with people who would rather worship themselves, or possessions, or power, or prominence, rather than the God Who made them and died and rose for them. They were stuck living a life in which they would have to struggle and possibly suffer. But when the Holy Spirit came, He gave Jesus’ praying followers a reason for living this as fully as they could. In short, the Holy Spirit game them a vocation.
All followers of Jesus have the same vocation, whatever jobs they do, even if they can no longer do a scrap of work. A village in southern Italy learned this in the waning days of World War 2. The German soldiers who had occupied their community after re-installing Benito Mussolini as the Fascist dictator of Italy, retreated in the face of the Allied military forces. But as the Germans fell back, their artillery shattered a statue of Christ that had once stood in the village square. The local priest told the men of the village to search for the arms, legs, and head of the statue of Christ. In the meantime, the women would prepare a village feast. At dusk, in despair, the men approached the priest. “Padre,” one of them said, “we have tried to put the statue back together. But there are no hands for Jesus. They are in pieces.” “Children,” the priest replied, “don’t you realize? You are His hands?”
You are the hands of Christ. That is your vocation. That is your reason for living. And, as was true of the first followers of Christ, the Spirit will give you the capacity to fulfill your vocation, to be Christ’s hands, whether you’re two or one-hundred, whether you're strong enough to run a marathon or on your death bed.
Some of you have heard me speak before of our friends Sig and Chris. They came to this country from Germany in the early-1960s. Sig was an engineer and Christ was a pediatric intensive care nurse. But above all, they were ambassadors for Christ! When Sig died several years ago, he was a patient at a hospital in Cincinnati. His room was a holy place, bathed in prayer, filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. When Sig would occasionally regain some semblance of consciousness, he would ask that Scripture or writings by his favorite writer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, be read to him. People who weren't even believers wanted to be in that room, so palpable was the presence of God. Even as he lay dying, you see, Sig had a reason for living. He had a vocation.
The Holy Spirit doesn’t get a lot of attention. Maybe in some ways, He doesn’t want it. He’s like the quiet saint content with a ministry of praying for others, or of giving an anonymous offering so that a child can go to church camp, or of being the choir member who never sings a solo, or of carting the food offerings to the local food bank. The Spirit takes a backseat in the Trinity, content with supporting Jesus as He speaks to us, content with supporting us as we call out to Jesus, follow Him, and share Him with others. The Spirit never calls attention to Himself. But He showers us with gifts, including the courage to live past our fears and a reason for living, a vocation of pointing others to Christ, serving them in Jesus’ Name and inviting others to follow Christ, a vocation that lasts our whole lives.
Today, I not only wish all of our moms a happy Mother’s Day, but I wish to all of you, a very happy Pentecost! May you keep in prayerful contact with the Holy Spirit so that you will have the courage to live past your fears and a reason for living life every day you remain on this earth. Amen