Who/What/Where/When/…and Why in the world is the Holy Spirit? Have you ever given that much thought before? I think God the father is (well, not easy; but let’s say easier) to imagine; God the son we know in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus on earth. But God the Holy Spirit…that is a tough one. Some Christian folks try to wrap their mind around this by associating different roles to different persons of the Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. That might be somewhat helpful but doesn’t capture the idea that each person of the trinity participates full in the work of the other two in perfect unity. But let’s not get bogged down in theological problems. I think to put it simply: The Holy Spirit is how you and I experience God. Here in this sanctuary, and throughout our daily lives. This is the person of the Trinity that empowers us to continue our call which began with Jesus Christ on earth, and his promise fulfilled to the disciples.
So 10 days after his ascension and they are told to go and wait in Jerusalem for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit…it happens. And that is today; we celebrate Pentecost. I want to make clear to you that Pentecost is not actually a distinctively Christian holiday. It was a Jewish holy day before the even we recall in the Book of Acts. It is also called the festival of weeks. It was a harvest festival when the spring barley harvest was brought in. It happened fifty days after Passover, and that is how we got the name “Pentecost” which literally means fifty. This day has special significance not because its a harvest festival, but because the Jewish people recalled that this is the day in which the law was given. That is why so many Jewish people from so many different, difficult-to-pronounce countries are all gathered into one place: for a holiday. And on that day, a sound from heaven like the rush of a violent wind and tongues as of fire came down upon the believers who were waiting in Jerusalem just like Jesus had told them. When they were filled with the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in other languages. And those Jews from all those difficult-to-pronounce-countries (Did anyone else start to worry that our scripture reader was speaking in tongues?) heard the believers; and they understood the believers. Because each one heard it in their own native language.
I recall being part of Pentecost worship services where the scripture was read in different languages. And I didn’t understand a single word that was said after they switched. I can’t help but notice that this is sort-of a mistaken understanding of the language miracle that happened at Pentecost. It was not a miracle of speaking, it was a miracle of hearing and understanding. Though those folks came from all over the world, they heard the Christians speaking in their own native language. The closest I can think of is when you see all those United Nations representatives with the headphones on so that they can listen to a speech in their own language. This was not a translation going on, it was hearing the Good News in what was already a familiar way. It was the Spirit at work in these people, coming to them right where they already were.
This is what the church is called to do – to take that Good News of God come down from heaven, in the person of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again, to take that and translate it for others. And I don’t necessarily mean go out and learn another language (though you could); translating the Good News to different tribes, cultures, peoples, and groups means making it relevant for them. Taking away the barriers to understanding what God did for them – or sharing it in a way that feels like a native language. How would you share the Good News with people you know at your place of work, your particular family, a club you are in, your culture, your world?
Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the church.” That is helpful, but a bit problematic. In some respects, yes it is very much the beginning of the church. The Spirit had been poured out just as Jesus had promised, and then it spreads out from there. But unlike a birthday which only happens once – every birthday after the first one is a look back, and certainly not a re-creation of that first birthday! But we believe that the Spirit is still on the move! Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to come and remain. Our celebration of Pentecost is both a look back and a look forward.
I think the Holy Spirit is kind of like this…Many of you are likely aware that the 70th anniversary of the D Day invasion was this past week. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/04/d-day-anniversary-veteran-paratrooper-jump_n_5447257.html?view=print&comm_ref=false) So, 70 years ago Jim Martin parachuted into France, behind German enemy lines, before the D-Day invasion. And last week Jim, at the age of 93 (an Ohio native) jumped into Normandy again to mark the anniversary. At the time of the draft, Jim was working in the defense industry which would have given him an deferment form duty but he volunteered anyway. He wanted to jump because he believed, being in his 90s, he very well may be one of the last men from his Airborne Division to ever be able to re-enact the event again. He will use a parachute like the one he used 70 years ago, and he will be wearing his jump jacket from the invasion. He was of course cleared by doctors to be both physically and mentally fit to make the jump. Of course he will be quite to admit “Some of my friends don’t think I’m mentally fit at all.” He remembers how when his Division arrived, the local folks thanked the soldiers for coming, even in the midst of war-torn disaster. And there were folks who witnessed this new jump who were little children when it happened the first time. That is like the Holy Spirit for us: Jim’s glory days are not behind him (I am 90% sure he could take me down in a fight, even at the age of 93. And I left that 10% doubt only in the off chance that I can run far enough away before he hits the ground). Jim’s glory days are not behind him, these 70 years later he continues to jump. And one more detail to add. Jim was not alone last week. They made him do a tandem jump (with another sky diver tethered to him); He cursed and screamed about it of course saying “They are making me jump tandem, they are worried about me getting hurt; but I said not to worry about it. If I get hurt or I get killed, whats the difference? I’ve lived 93 years!” But he had someone by his side to join him in his glory; in the recounting of past glory and the ongoing work of future glory. That is very much like the Holy Spirit.
Jesus delivered on his promise to offer the Holy Spirit. Our celebration of Pentecost this morning is not just about what came before; it is about the Holy Spirit joining with us now to carry us on to our ongoing glorious work for God’s kingdom.