May 23, 2021 / Day of Pentecost / Richard Holmer
First Reading Acts 2:1-21 / Second Reading Romans 8:22-27 / Gospel John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Alive In the Spirit
You have to feel sorry for any Bulls basketball fans who were born too late to enjoy the glory years. The Chicago Bulls won the NBA Championship six times in the nineties: a threepeat in ‘91, ‘92 and ’93 – and another threepeat in ’96, ’97 and ’98. That team never lost an NBA final. Our sons were old enough to enjoy the fun, and I can recall watching all those exciting games as a family and with friends. We were spoiled to have a team that was so dominant and victorious. Of course Michael Jordan was the incomparable star – but there was a great supporting cast of characters: Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, John Paxson, Toni Kukoc, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, Steve Kerr, Ron Harper. We came to expect a victory celebration every year.
It's been a different story since then. No championships since 1998. The Bulls have missed even making the playoffs the last four years. So if you were born after about 1996, you missed the parties and all the fun. There hasn’t been a lot to cheer about. If you’re under 25, you might be wishing you had been born a little earlier – so you could experience the glorious years of the Bulls.
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Why am I talking about the Chicago Bulls on Pentecost?? Not because their uniforms are red. Instead, I am pondering all those who have lived in the time since the glory years when Jesus was present here on earth. Those first followers got to hear Jesus preaching and teaching in person. They saw Jesus heal the lepers, the blind and the lame. They were there when Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead. They actually ate the bread and fishes that Jesus multiplied to feed thousands. They were present with Jesus at the Last Supper. They saw with their own eyes Jesus risen from the dead – and ate and drank with him. In so many ways, those original eyewitnesses could say: “It was so amazing and wonderful – you had to be there to grasp and believe what was actually happening.” Those who happened to be born as contemporaries of Jesus were uniquely blessed. They had firsthand experience of the goodness, the grace, the power and the glory of God’s Son, here on earth.
As for all the rest of us who were born later, we sure missed experiencing some amazing things. It would have been nice to have been there.
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Nevertheless, for 2,000 years since Christ was here on earth, many have continued to follow him. Christians actually number in the billions. How is this possible? The short answer is: The Holy Spirit. As his time on earth was coming to a close, Jesus tried to assure his followers that they would be OK – that his departure would by no means slam the door on the Good News. Today in our gospel reading we hear Jesus speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper: “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage (!!) that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you . . . he will guide you into all the truth.”
The word “Advocate” is a translation of the original Greek word “Paraclete” – which can also be translated as Comforter, Counselor, Helper and Guide. These are all names used to describe the function of the Holy Spirit. In John’s First Letter, Jesus is described as our Advocate with the Father who intercedes for us.
Of course the big difference is that the Holy Spirit is not a visible, embodied presence like Jesus. One cannot see the Holy Spirit, but one can witness the effects of the Holy Spirit – just as you can’t see the wind, but you can see how it moves the trees. You can’t see the Holy Spirit, but you can feel and sense the power of the Spirit. It is easier to describe the Holy Spirit in terms of what the Spirit does than who the Spirit is. The Spirit is not a static or stationary entity. The Holy Spirit is the active presence of God – God’s power in action. Better to approach the Holy Spirit as a verb instead of as a noun.
On Pentecost, we see what the Spirit can do: The Spirit causes fire-like tongues to rest on the disciples. The Spirit empowers them to speak the Good News of God’s love and power in a number of languages. The Spirit enables those present not just to hear what the disciples proclaim – but to believe it. By the end of the day, 3,000 new followers are added to the Fellowship of Believers.
In his Small Catechism, Luther describes the Holy Spirit using verbs (instead of nouns or adjectives). The Spirit is what the Spirit does” “The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ.” This is the assurance that Jesus gave to his friends before his departure. He says, “I’m going – but I will not leave you comfortless.” Jesus wants us to live in that same assurance.
The Holy Spirit is how God calls each of us. The Spirit called the twelve on Pentecost to boldly proclaim the good news – and gave them power to do so. You and I have been called by the Holy Spirit through our baptisms. At baptism the Holy Spirit was poured out on each of us: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence. And that same Spirit calls and commissions us “to proclaim the praise of God, and to bear God’s creative and redeeming Word to all the world.”
Brothers and sisters, God gives us both capacity and responsibility to share the Good News. The Holy Spirit GATHERS us. What struck me in a fresh way this year in reading the story of Pentecost is the opening verse: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” Jews from many far flung places had all come together in Jerusalem – and the disciples were all together as well. The truth is, we need to be together to be the Church. We can make connections remotely by means of technology. But as we have learned over the past year – Zoom is no substitute for being together in person. These days the Holy Spirit is gathering us in for worship, study and service.
The Holy Spirit ENLIGHTENS us – we are enlightened with the truth, as Jesus promised. The Spirit enables us to both recognize and to believe the truth when we hear it. That’s what happened on Pentecost. It continues to happen to this day. The Holy Spirit is the source of our Faith. As Paul reminds us: “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Where is the Spirit? In your faith.
The Holy Spirit SANCTIFIES us. Sanctify is a good bible term that simply means becoming more like Jesus. The Holy Spirit helps us to grow up into Christ. You and I become more like Jesus when we love the way he loves us. We are sanctified – made clean and whole – by the blessing of forgiveness, and as we learn to forgive as we have been forgiven. Where is the Holy Spirit? Look no further than the love in your heart.
The Holy Spirit KEEPS the Church united with Jesus Christ. Against all odds, and despite major conflicts and failings – the Church has endured for 20 centuries. Clearly this is not the result of human ingenuity – it is the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit keeps hope alive in the darkest hours – so that Christians do not despair or give up. As we like to say, Hope Perseveres. Today Paul reminds us that “in hope we were saved.” Vibrant, indefatigable Hope is the work of the Spirit. Where is the Holy Spirit? In the hope that carries you from one day to the next.
Friends, Christ has ascended – yet we are by no means alone.
Thanks be to God.