The gift(s) of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.1-4; Galatians 4.1-7, 5.16-26; Luke 11.11-13) [Pentecost sermon 2017]2
May 31, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday June 4th, 2017 (Pentecost). The final lesson in an ongoing series, “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.
The creative Holy Spirit
The Bible begins at the beginning, When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters (Gen. 1.1-2).
Instead of God’s wind swept over the waters, your translation might say something like: the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. That’s because in the biblical languages, the same word means both wind and spirit.
When the earth was without shape or form, the Holy Spirit hovered over the chaos like a mother bird over her nest. The world was unformed and unfilled. But the Spirit was there, nurturing, protecting, forming, and guiding the cosmos into life. As our world was being born, the Holy Spirit midwifed the new creation.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that, when the church was born, the Holy Spirit was there, too. Our reading from Acts today told us: Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting; and, They were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Just as we found the Spirit attending to the creation at its birth; now we find the Spirit nurturing, forming, and guiding the church into life.
So when the world was being born, the Spirit of God swept over the waters as the creation came to life by the Word of God. And the story of the church’s birth at Pentecost shows us the Spirit sweeping over the followers of Jesus, giving them a message of new life and new creation to tell the world. The individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them calls to mind the book of Exodus. How God called to Moses from a burning bush when he sent him to set his people free. And how a pillar of fire hovered over Israel in the wilderness, protecting and guiding them home. In the same way, Luke wants us to see God’s presence and providence and protection with the church from the beginning, through the Spirit.
God sent the Holy Spirit to midwife the birth of the church. The Spirit also calls the church to our work in the world, guiding, guarding, and directing us.
The Holy Spirit in the life of the church
Some of you may have been taught that the Spirit only shows up for Big Events—like the creation of the universe, or the birth of the church, or inspiring the scriptures—and then goes on back to heaven to commune with the Father and Son. Leaving the children of God to wander the earth like orphans. Trying to figure out the hard stuff on our own. Like building community, or trying to love our neighbors and live at peace with our enemies (who are sometimes the same people).
Some of us might associate the Holy Spirit mostly with strange supernatural events. Like the disciples speaking in foreign tongues or performing miracles, which we do find in the book of Acts. We don’t really see a lot of that going on today, so we assume the Spirit has gone silent. It doesn’t help that a lot of the people who claim to have a direct line to the Spirit are ridiculous at best; and liars, charlatans, hucksters, and frauds at worst. Sadly, many folks in both the world and the church associate the Holy Spirit with the tacky televangelists. The guys who are always pulling a Reverse Robin Hood scam—robbing the poor and desperate to make themselves rich. They’re so creepy and weird, maybe we think to ourselves: If that’s what the Holy Spirit does to you, I don’t want any part of it!
And yet … Jesus said: The Spirit is the one who gives life (John 6.63). Throughout the Bible, the work of the Spirit isn’t primarily giving people power to do flashy miracles; the Spirit makes alive, nurtures, calls, comforts, guides, cultivates fellowship, instills hope. That’s the stuff of life. So to cut ourselves off from the Spirit is to cut ourselves off from life itself.
On Pentecost—the day we celebrate the birth of the church—we need to acknowledge that the church can’t be the church without the Spirit. Without the Spirit, we can’t be the people God made us to be.
When we think about Acts 2, what often captures our imagination is the spectacular miracle. How the followers of Jesus were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak. But this flashy miracle served a very practical purpose. God was beginning to call the scattered families of the earth back together in Christ. When the Holy Spirit enabled the apostles to speak in other languages, it tore down barriers to communication. And once you can communicate, you can start to build bridges and relationships. See what the Spirit was actually doing there? Cultivating community and fostering friendship.
The Spirit also troubled the hearts of those who heard Peter and the others preaching, so they wouldn’t resist the truth. Peter didn’t have to beg people to, Come forward as we stand and sing. The crowd responded: Brothers, what should we do? (Acts 2.37). And Peter answered:
Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites. (Acts 2.38-39)
Peter called them to a new life—to take part in God’s new creation—through baptism. Baptism involves water and the Holy Spirit. We saw that the creation of the universe also involved water and the Spirit. At least 3000 accepted God’s invitation to take part in his new creation that day. And how did God invite them? Through the preaching of the apostles, who were enabled to speak by the Holy Spirit. So the Spirit also calls people into life and fellowship—even those who are far away from God.
Peter promised that those who were baptized would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. He didn’t mean that everyone who gets baptized receives the power to speak in strange tongues or heal the sick or cast out demons. It turns out the gift of the Holy Spirit is about rather ordinary things—friendship, togetherness, belonging, sharing, growing, understanding. Because listen to what happened for those who were baptized that day:
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. … All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Acts 2.42-47)
Acts 4.32-33 adds: The community of believers was one in heart and mind … and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. Now, these were all people who up until a couple of days ago were complete strangers to each other. Do you really believe they did all that on their own power? No, it was the Holy Spirit that made strangers into a family. Through the Spirit, God was dwelling in their midst, sharing God’s own love and grace and peace with them.
Paul also had a way of describing how the Spirit creates friendship and fellowship among believers. He called it the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Eph. 4.3).
Speaking of Paul, in our readings today, we heard some other ways the Holy Spirit nurtures and guides the church. In Gal. 4.6, he said: Because you are sons and daughters—that’s the Gentile believers in Christ, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts—that’s Paul and the other Jewish believers, crying, “Abba, Father!” Notice, it was the Spirit who made the Jewish Christians recognize the Gentiles were also God’s children. So they praised Father God, and embraced their newfound family in Christ. The Spirit nurtures fellowship and friendship by helping us see others as children of God. Even those who may be very different than us. This is how we learn to welcome one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s how the Spirit makes a family out of strangers.
In our readings today, we also heard Paul tell how the Spirit takes away our selfish desires that destroy community; and gives us new desires that build up community by creating virtues in us that feed fellowship and friendship. Paul calls those virtues the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5.16ff).
The Spirit transforms a bunch of strangers into a family by creating and nurturing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in us.These virtues are born in our hearts and lives and actions through the Holy Spirit. Active in our hearts, and dwelling and working among the church in our life together. Notice these virtues Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit are all others-centered. None of them are self-centered. Again, the Spirit transforms strangers into a family by cultivating these virtues in and among us.
So we see the Holy Spirit isn’t distant from us, but is the very source of life. The Holy Spirit doesn’t make you act weird, and probably won’t give you the power to do miracles. The Spirit’s work is much more intimate, personal, relational, and even mundane. We best look for the Spirit at work in the pots and pans of everyday life. Inviting us to God. Breaking down barriers to friendship and fellowship. Creating community. Calling us to our work in the world. Nurturing us. Protecting us. Comforting us. Guiding us. Calling us to account. Making us a family. Holding us together.
The church just can’t be the church without the Holy Spirit. Who heals and transforms our lives and our world in small but significant ways that loud, flashy miracles never could.
Praying for the Spirit
Here’s something else we need to understand. The Spirit gives life. The Spirit draws us to God, and calls us to our mission in the world. The Spirit creates community and fosters fellowship. The Holy Spirit makes all these things possible. But we are free creatures. We can absolutely choose the way of death, instead of the Spirit who gives us life. Like the prophet Jonah, when the Spirit invites us to God and a mission in the world, we can choose to run away. The Spirit works to create a family out of strangers, but we can continue in self-centered and destructive attitudes and behaviors that tear down community. Through our action, and our inaction, we can break what the Spirit makes. That’s why Paul says we must make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together (Eph. 4.3). It takes work to maintain the unity the Spirit gives us. Sometimes a lot of work.
But this work must begin, can only begin, with prayer. We should pray for the Spirit’s work among us. We should pray that we will listen to the Spirit, and obediently yield to the Spirit. That’s what Jesus taught us in our reading from Luke’s Gospel today. His disciples asked him to teach them how to pray. He told them:
Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish? If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion? If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?
When we ask Jesus to teach us to pray, he tells us to pray for Father God to send the Spirit to work in and among us. Paul reaffirmed this teaching in his writings, and also tells us why this is such a good idea. We should pray for the Spirit, Paul says, because the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans (Rom. 8.26). We should pray for the Spirit to work in our lives and among the church because we often don’t even know what to pray for. Sometimes what looks like a fish to us is really a snake. The Spirit knows the difference, and as we learn to listen to the Spirit, we may also learn discernment to tell the difference, too.
So, church, may we confess that we often do not know what we should pray. And may that confession give us humility to ask our heavenly Father to give us the Holy Spirit. Because the gift of the Holy Spirit breathes life into us. Fosters friendship and fellowship. Creates community. Nurtures and nourishes our spirits. Shows us when we are wrong, and empowers us to do right. Holds us together in creative tension. Binds us together in peace. Comforts us in times of distress. Calls us to our mission. Invites us on adventures. Shows us what others need, and how to give it to them. All this and so much more. Because the Spirit is God’s presence among us. So many of God’s gifts come to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So may we go forth from here asking our Father for the Holy Spirit, trusting that he will answer. Because the church can’t be the church without the Spirit.