Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/KcS4so9cbsQ.
Pentecost C 2016
John 14:8-17, 25-27
So, have you been waiting for the arrival of the Holy Spirit this week? Got your marshmallows? Last week we thought about the fact that following the ascension, Jesus of Nazareth had passed the baton on to us- the work of the Messiah was done and the work of the body of Christ, the witnesses to the ends of the earth, had begun. When Jesus leaves the disciples he tells them to wait and here we are, we have reached the Sunday when we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming among us.
Now the fascinating thing for an Old Testament scholar, is that the day of Pentecost, which we often celebrate as the “birthday of the church”, has a much older meaning. The Festival of Weeks, as it is literally translated, is the festival of first fruits. It is the moment of profound thanksgiving for God’s abundant gifts. It is the moment that the Jewish people acknowledged their dependence on God. What better moment for God to make a gift of God’s-self in the form of the Holy Spirit?
Now of course, the Holy Spirit is nothing new. Right back at the dawn of creation Ruach, the breath of God, danced across the waters in the great act of creation. The Holy Spirit had always been present with people, with us. The Holy Spirit was present in Jesus of Nazareth from his conception. But this out pouring, this special benediction, is an abundant and generous filling up to overflowing of the people of God for God’s witness and work in the world. It is what equips us to be the body.
When Jesus is talking to his close disciples in the upper room about the next stage he tells them that they will do even greater works than he has done. That must have seemed as unlikely to them as it does to us, and yet, if you consider the Christian legacy to the world, it is true. Just for a single example it was Christian faith, Christian prophetic voices, Christian prayer, Christian protest that abolished the slavery that was rife in Jesus’ day. All the earthly Jesus did, as far as we know, was heal the odd slave, but the body of Christ acting together called for and obtained the abolition of slavery in the Western world. I know that I have always heard this promise of Jesus as an individual kind of a thing and felt that I don’t live up to his expectations- after all he healed people and even raised them from the dead, but maybe if we see it as the work of the whole body the perspective is different. We, the body of Christ, encompass plenty of people who heal people every day, and the modern medicine from which everybody benefits, regardless of their faith, is a gift of the HS.
Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will be our advocate, with us forever. We will always have someone speaking to us, for us and walking with us. We are not expected to be the Body of Christ by ourselves. The Spirit of Truth, as Jesus calls her, will teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus has said in his earthly life. Now, this is certainly the opening of the scriptures that we often hear about. Yes, the Holy Spirit interprets the scriptures to us, if we ask, but it is far more than that I think. The Holy Spirit, as I said last week, is unconstrained and can expand us and dwell in us in ways that we cannot predict or anticipate.
This is very much what happens to Peter and the others when the Holy Spirit comes upon them in the sound of a mighty wind and in the licking of fire on their heads. They were anticipating something but not quite what happened, I’ll be bound. Amazed and astonished was the reaction of those who witnessed it, because the Holy Spirit caused these Galilean men to speak in the many languages of those around them. I do not think that this is “speaking in tongues” as practised by the Charismatic movement. That is a legitimate and beautiful way of praying to God, and perhaps of delivering a message to those in the inner circle, but this, rather than being incomprehensible to those listening was the exact opposite- this was an act of personalisation of comprehension. How many of you speak another language? Well, if you are like me and you can just about get by in another language you may be able to communicate your immediate needs competently but when it comes to deep philosophical truths you are very relieved to hear them in your mother tongue. Imagine what it was like for them- suddenly, instead of being marginalised, they were right in the centre of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring. And have you even stopped to wonder what it was that was being said? The only clue was that it was about God’s great deeds of power. Was that the story of the life of Jesus? Was it bits of Isaiah suddenly there to be deeply appreciated. We are lucky! Ever since the reformation we have had the whole of the scriptures in our native language.
Peter seems to see this outpouring of the Holy Spirit as prophetic. He quotes Joel, himself a prophet, to tell us that in the last days- which are the very days that we are living in, God will pour out his Spirit upon all flesh. We are all going to prophesy, young and inexperienced, old and wise, male and female, slaves, both men and women. So this means that every one of us, whoever we are, is called into prophesy by the action of the Holy Spirit. This is the Spirit of Truth that Jesus says he is giving us. Now, sometimes we mistakenly think that prophesy is foretelling the future. Prophesy is truth speaking- but it is truth speaking that people need to hear right now, for now. It is truth speaking that has its basis in the Word of God. And Peter is himself prophesying- using the word of God to make meaning of an event that otherwise may not be understood. Peter will go on to speak the truth about Jesus of Nazareth and his truth speaking will lead 3,000 of them to be baptised that very day. Let me encourage you to go home and read what Peter said to the crowd and be inspired. Now we might all be called to prophesy, but I think we are not all called to be the kind of public evangelist, that is teller of the Good News of the kingdom, like Billy Graham. We might not all be called to speak at big rallies, though some of us are. We are however called to speak out truth. And if we are called to speak out truth at big rallies, we will be given the strength of the Holy Spirit and the words of the Holy Spirit who is our advocate, as we speak. If we are speaking to our neighbour or to our family we still need to make sure that it is the words of the Spirit of Truth that we speak. Words about big picture stuff. Words about injustice. Words about desecration. Words about greed and power that is destroying our world. Words that advocate for others, words that put other people’s interests first. Words that recognise the individual worth of every human being, created in God’s image. And then there are words about little picture stuff words that build others up, words that have at their base the love of God for his precious children. These are prophetic words, these are the words that the body of Christ needs to say for the world to hear.
And then there are the actions. Acts of service for others, acts of love and care that show others that they are the precious and honoured of God. This is also prophetic in its own way. This is how we become the witnesses to the kingdom of God, through the words and actions of love, the words and actions of truth.
The Holy Spirit indwelling in each of us, is not a gift for us but a gift for the rest of the world. It is the gift of God’s peace. The Holy Spirit dwelling in us is a gift for the whole of creation. The Holy Spirit is the one who calls us to join in the great dance of creation, and to speak the great words of love. May the Holy Spirit fill each of your lives and enable you to be the Body of Christ, witnesses to God’s glory, this week, wherever you go.