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Sermon for May 20, 2018, 8 a.m.: Pentecost (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

Like some of you, I was raised with the 1928 Prayer Book. For those of you who don’t know, this was the third revision of the Episcopal prayer book and was officially used in the U.S. for approximately fifty years. Among other differences with our current prayer book, the 1928 Prayer Book referred to the Trinity – the three aspects of God – as, “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Now, when I was a child, I understood the idea of God as a kind of father because in those days many households – and certainly television families – had fathers who were in charge of the discipline in the house – so I thought of God as the one who made and enforced the rules. In Sunday school, I was told that “the son” referred to Jesus, who was God’s son. But no one was ever really able to adequately explain to me who this “Holy Ghost” was. All I knew about ghosts was from Halloween – and they were scary. How could a ghost be part of God?! So, I was secretly relieved when in the “new” prayer book the Holy Ghost became the Holy Spirit.

But I still didn’t understand it. “Spirit” is certainly a less creepy way of referring to the third member of the Holy Trinity – but I don’t know if it makes it any clearer who – or what – The Holy Spirit is. I realized how hard it is to explain the Holy Spirit when I set out to write the today’s Children’s Homily - and I knew for sure that the church had been falling down in its duty when I asked my husband what he thought and he said, “Well, there’s lot of support in the Bible for the Holy Spirit being like a scary ghost. What about when God sent the Holy Spirit to drown all of the Egyptians so the Israelites could cross the Red Sea? “Honey,” I said, “that happened in the Hebrew Scriptures –and it wasn’t the Holy Spirit. It was an angel. The Holy Spirit doesn’t come until the New Testament – until after Jesus is crucified, resurrected, and ascends – until Pentecost, to be specific.

“Well,” Gary said, “That doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist before. Don’t we believe that God – all aspects of God – existed from before time? So, the Holy Spirit was there then.” He’s not wrong. At our baptism at today’s ten a.m. service we will renew our baptismal vows in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, part of which says, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth; I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Yet, in today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he will send them, from the Father, a Spirit of truth to guide them – and in today’s lesson from Acts, that Spirit arrives. How can the Holy Spirit have conceived Jesus if Jesus sent the Holy Spirit after he died? It is pretty confusing- so let’s try to sort through it.

Here is what we profess to believe: before time as we know it, an entity with power we can’t imagine and a mind we can’t begin to comprehend was set over all beings, including supernatural creatures we call “angels.” At some point in time, this creator God made the world as we know it. We call that entity “God the Creator.” Jesus called him “Father.” Part of God’s creation was life – again, all of it, with human beings being the last and most complicated thing God made – and God loved this creation. Our scriptures are the story of the relationship between God and creation – about how human beings made bad choices and rejected God’s love – and about how God kept trying to make that relationship work. Finally, in the fullness of time, God sent a part of Godself to live as a human being among human beings to demonstrate God’s great love for us and to save us from ourselves – and yet again, we rejected God’s gift and sent him away – and that’s where today’s story begins.

Since Easter, we have been hearing about how after Jesus’s death, the disciples, mourning and fearing for their future, witnessed his return. He appeared to several people in several places, which gave them hope and heart to continue his movement. The resurrected Jesus echoed what the living Jesus told the disciples prior to his crucifixion – what we heard in today’s gospel- not to worry, that he will continue to be with them and show them the way.

What they did not understand when he was alive, they will now come to experience after his Resurrection. “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth…will testify on my behalf.” It is crucial, he tells them, that you receive this Spirit, because it will explain to you the things you can’t understand now, and it will help you to explain to others what my life meant. This Spirit –“Paraclete” in Greek - will have three aspects. First, it will be an Advocate – something that will speak on behalf of Jesus and Jesus’s movement – something that will prove the truth of what Jesus said. It will also be a comforter, helping them get over the loss of the earthly Jesus by being “the presence of Jesus when Jesus is absent.”[1] Finally, it will be a helper. The Holy Spirit will help God’s people to see the truth that others cannot and give us “the grace to courageously live and bear witness to it.”[2]

This “Paraclete” arrives in full force on Pentecost. There’s a reason for that. In our Wednesday Bible study, one of the things we’ve been talking about is how the author of Luke/Acts ties together events of the Hebrew Scriptures with the story of Jesus and his apostles. Today’s reading from Acts does this in abundance. First of all, it puts the disciples all together in a very public place on a very important day. Jews had come from all over the known world to celebrate the Jewish Feast of Weeks – called Shavuoth – which happened on the fiftieth day after the second day of Passover – thus the name “Pentecost” - fifty. The Feast of Weeks was associated with the commemoration of the giving of the law to Moses. The Jews, then, were there to honor their relationship with God and the promises that God had made to them. Suddenly, this great festival was disrupted with “violent wind” and tongues of fire appeared in the crowd and rested upon them, and all of them suddenly had the ability to speak so that the others could understand them. For Peter and the disciples, this event clearly signaled the fulfillment of God’s promises – and Peter told them so. “God told us,” he preached, “that God’s spirit would be poured out on us, and everyone would prophesy, and everyone who returned to relationship with God would be saved.”

There are a couple of very important things to remember here. First; God sent the Holy Spirit to everyone. The disciples didn’t get to pick who their representatives would be; it’s not just the smart or the rich or even the nice people – everyone can be touched by the Holy Spirt. Secondly, although many are drawn to the ruckus, the Spirit is first evidenced – and Peter’s first sermon is preached – to the Jews, not the Gentiles. Third, and most importantly, the arrival of the Holy Spirit is not about replacing or defeating one set of beliefs in favor of another. It is about renewal. It is not a unique attempt by God to redeem creation, but it is a spectacular one that demonstrates God’s continuing interest in us. God didn’t just create us; God watches, helps, and delights in us. As today’s psalm clearly states, “God is a God of creation, sustenance, death, and a God of renewal… [Just as Ezekiel found in the valley of the dry bones], the dead can be made to breathe again. The bones dried up to dust can be revived. The parched earth is made to teem again with living creatures upon the return of God’s spirit”[3]- and human beings can turn back from evil to good.

That is what the Holy Spirit is – not the revival of one soul, but the renewal of all souls. It is the experienced presence of the risen Christ in our hearts and in our lives, a perpetual reminder of God’s desperate and determined love for us – and it manifests itself in community. That is why Pentecost is called “The Birthday of the Church,” because even though the Holy Spirit rested on many individuals, it showed itself to them as a group, as a people – and it continues to do its best work in the same way today. The people of God are connected to God and one another in the church through the power of the Spirit and through God’s church the world can be renewed and reborn. AMEN.

[1]Judith M. McDaniel, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 21.

[2]Emmanuel Y. Lartey, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 22.

[3]Robert Warden Prim, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 13.

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