+ Someone recently (jokingly) told me they were shocked when, on Easter Day, I preached about the fact that I wasn’t a big fan of Christmas. I’m not a big fan of Christmas. I never have been. I’m just not one of those Christmas people.
On Easter morning I shared my view that I think Easter is actually my favorite moment in the Church Year. And I still do. But, you know, I gotta say: I think Pentecost Sunday is right up there with Easter in my estimation. I have some very fond memories over the years of how powerful this particular day can be.
How can it not be powerful? When we are dealing with God’s Spirit, we are dealing with a force that is beyond us. It’s sort like dealing with nuclear power or electricity. God’s Spirit is an amazing thing to celebrate.
This is, of course, a very important feast in the Church, right up there with Christmas and Easter. This feast of Pentecost was celebrated long before Christians even came on the scene. Originally it was a harvest feast celebrated 50 days after the Passover. The word “Pentecost” refers to the Greek word for 50. It was the feast on which the early Jews offered to God the first fruits of their harvests. Now that is particularly meaningful to us Christians and what we celebrate on this day.
It is meaningful that the Holy Spirit came among us on this feast in which the first fruits were offered to God. After all, those first Christians who gathered in that upper room in our reading this morning from Acts, were truly the first fruits of the Church. But like the nuclear power or electricity, God’s Spirit is sometimes a hard thing for us to grasp and understand. The Spirit can be elusive and strange and sometimes we might have a hard time wrapping our minds around the Spirit. But it is clear from the words of Jesus before he ascends back into heaven what the role of the Spirit is: Although Jesus’s prophecy from God might no longer among as it was when Jesus himself was with us physically, the prophecy does remains with us in the sending of God’s spirit. Jesus will leave—we will not be able to touch him and feel him and listen to his human voice again, on this side of the veil. But he is leaving something amazing in his place. He is gone from us physically, but God is still with us.
In a sense what happens with the Descent of God’s Spirit upon us is the fact that we now have the potential to be prophets ourselves. The same Spirit which spoke to Ezekiel, which spoke to Isaiah, which spoke to Jeremiah, which spoke to Moses, which spoke through Jesus, also can now speak to us and be revealed to us just as it spoke and was revealed to those prophets from the Hebrew Bible and through Jesus. That is who the Spirit is in our midst.
The Spirit we celebrate today—and hopefully every day—and in our lives is truly the spirit of the God that came to us and continues to come to us. It is through this Spirit that we come to know God in ways we might never have before. God’s Spirit comes to us wherever we may be in our lives—in any situation or frustration. God’s Spirit is with us, as Jesus promised, always. Always.
For those of us who want to grasp these experiences—who want to have proof of them—the Spirit doesn’t fit well into the plan. We can’t grasp the Spirit. We can’t make the Spirit do what we want it to do. In that way, the Spirit truly is like the Wind that came rushing upon those first disciples.
So, how do we know how the Spirit is working in our lives? Well, as Jesus said, we know the tree by its fruit. In our case, we know the Spirit best through the fruits God’s Spirit gives us.
Remember what the feast of Pentecost originally was. It was the feast on which the first fruits were offered to God. In a sense, what happens on our Pentecost, is God returning those fruits back to us.
On the feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the fruits the Spirit of God gives to us and we can be thankful for them, and, most importantly, share them in turn with those around us. The Spirit comes to us and manifests itself to us in the fruits given to us by the Spirit.
We often hear about Pentecostals—those Christians who have been born (or baptized) in the Spirit. They are the ones who speak in tongues and prophesy and have words of knowledge or raise their hands in joyful praise—all those things we good Episcopalians find a bit disconcerting. These Pentecostals—as strange as we might find these practices—really do have a lot to teach the rest of us Christians about the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
I remember the first time I ever attended a Pentecostal church. Rather than being attracted to that way of worship, I was actually turned off. Partly my reason for doing so, is that by that time in my life I had, in fact experienced the Spirit very profoundly in my life. For me, the Spirit of God came to me not in a noisy, raucous way, but rather in a quiet, though just as intense, way. The Sprit of God as I have experienced it has never been a “raining down” so to speak, but rather a “welling up from within.”
The fruits of the Spirit for me have been things such as an overwhelming joy in my life. I have known the Spirit to draw close when I feel a true humbleness come to me. When the Spirit is near, I feel clear-headed and, to put it simply, happy. And more than anything, when the Spirit draws close, I am filled with a true sense of hope. When the future seems bleak and ugly, the Spirit can come in and make everything worth living again. We experience God’s Spirit whenever we feel joy or hope.
As Jesus today’s Gospel, the Spirit of God is a Spirit of Truth. We experience God’s Spirit when we strive for truth in this world, when truth comes to us. In turn, we are far from God’s spirit when we let bitterness and anger and frustration lead the way. We frustrate God’s Spirit when we grumble and mumble about each other and hinder the ministries of others in our church, when we let our own agendas win out over those who are trying also to do something to increase God’s Kingdom in our midst. We deny the Spirit when we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
No doubt everyone here this morning has felt God’s Spirit in some way, although we might not have readily recognized that experience as God’s Spirit. But our job, as Christians, is to allow those fruits of the Spirit to flourish and grow. For us, we let the Spirit of God flourish when we continue to strive for truth and justice, when stand up against the dark forces of this world.
Yesterday the great Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred by gunshot while celebrating Mass in 1980, was beautified by the Roman Catholic. This is the last step before canonizing, making him a canonized saint in the Church. Of course, to be that martyr, to be shot down at that Mass like he was, he was truly led by the Spirit that we celebrate today—that Spirit of truth.
In his first pastoral letter as a bishop, entitled “The Holy Spirit in the Church,” which he wrote around the Feast of Pentecost, Romero wrote this wonderful summary of what Pentecost is about. He wrote:
“…the feast of Pentecost, through the church’s liturgy, ‘makes present’ and real for us the great event of the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Church so that we might be filled with [the Spirit’s] saving grace. The Spirit was sent to strengthen the Church from on high and make it a witness of the Lord through the whole world. This dynamic presence of the Spirit in the Church…speaks by itself as loudly as anything my poor words might be able to tell you about the solid reasons for living lives of hope…”
This dynamic presence of the Spirit speaks loudly to us. Certainly we have seen God’s Spirit at work here in our congregation as we celebrate a bountiful harvest—the growth and vitality here. We see the Holy Spirit at work in the ministries we do, in the love we share with others, with the truth we proclaim as Christians, even in the face of opposition. We experience this Spirit of truth when we stand up against injustice, even when that injustice might be within the very Church organization of which we are members.
This is how God’s Spirit comes to us. The Spirit does not tear open the ceiling and force its way into our lives. The Spirit rather comes to us just when we need the Spirit to come to us. Though, often the Spirit comes to us as fire—an all-consuming fire that burns way all anger and hatred and fear and pettiness and nagging and all the other negative, dead chaff we carry within us.
So, this week, in the glow of the Pentecost light, let us look for the gifts of the Spirit in our lives and in those around us. Let us open ourselves to God’s Spirit and let it flow through us like a caressing wind and burn through us like a purifying fire. And let us remember the true message of the Spirit to all of us. Whenever it seems like God is distant or nonexistent, that is when God might possibly be closest of all, dwelling within us, being breathed unto us as with those first disciples.
On this feast of Pentecost—this feast of the fruits of God—this feast of the fire of God—let us give thanks for this God who never leaves us, who never stops loving us, but who comes to us again and again in mercy and in truth.