Pentecost C ~ Fr. Ray Kasch ~ May 2013
There is a wonderful story in the Book of Genesis that answers the childhood question of where all of the languages came from. It occurs after the story of Noah and the flood, during the rebuilding of the earth. At that time everyone spoke the same language and because of that they were able to cooperate in a profound manner. Their intent was to build a tower in a city that could reach to the heavens. When God saw what they were doing He concluded that because of their unity, there was nothing that they could not do if they put their minds to it. That was a problem given how wicked the world had previously become. Evidently God decided that the only thing worse than being wicked is being organized and wicked, so he confounded their language and scattered them over the face of the earth. From that time on the place was known as Babel.
The reason that story is relevant to us today is because today is the Feast of Pentecost. In today’s story we see a reversal of the curse of Babel. On this feast day God reunites mankind around the language of the Gospel. The Apostles spoke in tongues as they were given ability and when they spoke each person from around the world heard them speak in their own language. They were speaking about God’s deeds of power. This miracle of Pentecost sends them out to the ends of the scattered earth to draw all people so that we will be one flock under one Shepherd. The unifying voice of the Gospel undoes the confusion of Babel.
On these points most Christians agree. Where things tend to get fuzzy is what role the Spirit plays in our individual lives. Some groups say that unless you speak in tongues you do not have the Spirit. Some even say that if you do not speak in tongues you are not a Christian. Some say that the gift of tongues has passed away with the writing of the Scriptures. Others say that the Spirit is given to make you sinless. Some, particularly in this part of the world, say that you know that you have the Spirit if you can pick up snakes and not be bitten.
There is a story of an Anglican priest being invited to attend a Pentecostal service. He sat next to the preacher on the platform and saw for the first time people speaking in tongues and shaking and falling down. It made him a little uncomfortable but he thought to himself, “To each his own” and chalked it up to the diversity of gifts. But when about half way through the service they brought out the snakes the priest leaned over to the preacher and asked, “Do you have a back door in this place?” The preacher smiled a wry smile and said “No we don’t.” The priest then asked, “Do you know where you would like to have one?” It is because of such confusion that I find it helpful on Pentecost to review the reasons for the sending of the Spirit according to Jesus. I read a very good synopsis of Jesus teaching in a very approachable commentary on John by Bruce Milne and I want to expand on his points in hopes of making things more clear.
First, the Spirit is sent to us to give us power to serve. After Jesus gave the Apostles the Great Commission to go into all of the world and preach and baptize, He told them to wait in Jerusalem until they had been empowered from on high. The Commission that Jesus gave to the Apostles could not be done under their own power, especially when we consider that almost all of them were being sent out to be martyrs. If they were going to do the job that Jesus gave them to do, then they were going to need the same Spirit that had come upon Jesus and that is exactly Who Jesus was going to send them.
We have the same needs as the Apostles. If we want to be a safe little church that barely holds its own, then all we have to do is to set goals that we can accomplish and then get busy or at least mildly so. But if we want to be about the Father’s business, and accept the vision that Jesus would have us accept, then we embrace impossible callings and seek the Holy Spirit to empower us to do what God has called us to do. He is sent to empower us to serve.
Second, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to unite His followers into a new community. Since we have all been baptized by the one Spirit into one Body, it only makes sense that we should be one. We are not one because we all share the same politics because I’m quite certain that we don’t. We are not one because we have the same taste in food or music or even because we all have the same theology. I have no doubt that our theologies vary. What makes us one is that we have received the same Spirit and so it is like being in a very diverse family that sticks together because they are the same blood. The wonder of the Holy Spirit, however, is that He even transcends blood lines and the history of the Church has taught us that while blood is thicker than water, Spirit is thicker than blood.
Third, the Spirit is sent to unite the Church to the Father. We saw this passage a couple of weeks ago when Jesus said that if we keep his words that the Father will come and make his home with us, and it is only by the enablement of the Spirit that we can keep his words.
There is a song that we sing frequently during communion called, “In Remembrance.” It has a line in it that captures this idea of the Father living with us through the Person of the Holy Spirit. It says, “Don’t look above, but in your heart for God. Do this in remembrance of me.” This line was written before the rise of New Age religions that falsely teach that we all have a god within. This passage is to be understood as a celebration of a God who is immanent, who is among us, who tabernacles with us by His Spirit. Thus if you have been baptized into Christ you have received the Spirit and are one with the Father. That is a truth worth celebrating.
Fourth, Milne says that the Spirit is sent to support us in loving obedience. To me the key word here is “loving.” I remember being a kid out playing baseball until it was almost too dark to see the ball. About then my parents would yell for me that it’s time to come in. My response was typically, – “Aw do I have to?” Looking back, I’m not sure why I did. It wasn’t as if my parents were going to change their minds and say, “No that’s okay Ray, why don’t you just skip your homework tonight and finish the ball game with your friends.” They never gave in and so I would reluctantly, unjoyfully acquiesced. It was anything but joyful obedience.
This is certainly the impression that many people have of Christianity. The Christian life is unjoyfully acquiescing to a series of demands from a God that is against anything that is fun or that could possible lead to dancing. But St. Paul’s explanation of the Spirit is just the opposite of this kind of unloving legalism. In fact he contrasts the Spirit to legalism because it is the Spirit that gives us the kind of relationship with the Father where we obey as His children who love and seek to please Him. The Spirit changes “do I have to?” to the privilege and joy of being able to. The Spirit inspires us to loving obedience so that like the Psalmist we can say, “I delight in your decrees.”
Fifth, Jesus tells us that He will send the Spirit to bring back to remembrance all that He said. That too is very good news.
I am finding that I am more consistently doing things like looking all over for my glasses only to discover them in my pocket, or walking into a room and not remember why. Have you ever experienced these kinds of forgetfulness? Well to the best of my knowledge the Holy Spirit doesn’t do a thing about them so take a shot of B-12, pour another scotch, or just get used to it.
But what the Spirit does do in terms of memory is to bring to our attention all that Jesus has taught. In terms of the Church we see this promise fulfilled in the inspiration of the Bible, bringing back to the writers of the Bible all that Jesus said. In terms of the individual follower of Jesus, we see the Spirit fulfill this promise by bringing to our remembrance passages that we have read or memorized at just the moment we need them.
When I was first ordained and started doing pastoral counseling, it was remarkable to me how often a person would bring up a problem that could be directly addressed by a verse of Scripture that I had read just that morning in my devotions. In fact it happened so often that at first I was suspicious of it. I became concerned that I was transferring my issues onto them, rather than offering them objective insight and truth. But when I spoke to more experienced clergy and when I saw the fruit of trusting that this was not transference or coincidence, I began to appreciate the process. It was both comforting and humbling to be used by the Holy Spirit in this way. But it was a cooperative effort. I had to be regular in reading God’s Word for the Spirit to bring back to my remembrance what I had read. I put it in East Tennessean for the Inquirers’ Class, “you can’t REmember, what you ain’t never memberd.” So be faithful to read the Scriptures and you will see the Spirit work.
Lastly Milne reminds us that Jesus imparts to us the gift of the Spirit so that we can abide in the peace of Christ. St. Paul says in the Book of Romans, “…the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6).
How is your peace quotient today? It is difficult to maintain these days isn’t it? Constant threat of terrorism, our nation in trillions of dollars of debt, the price of gas, skyrocketing health costs, rising tuition, the possibility of living longer than your savings, or every time you forget something thinking that it is the beginning of dementia? I am finding that I am more consistently doing things like looking all over for my glasses only to discover them in my pocket, or walking into a room and not remember why. Wait, did I mention that already? See, there it is!
You get my point. There is so much every day that can rob you of your peace that it is little wonder that your average American is struggling. I read one report that said that 40% of incoming freshmen are on some form of mood altering prescription. We all could use more peace.
Now I’m not suggesting that the Holy Spirit is a panacea and that if you were truly filled with the Spirit that you would never need medications. But what I do believe that Jesus is promising is a presence that remains with us through the storms of life. The thing we must remember, as is repeated in a common blessing, is that the peace of the Spirit is a peace that surpasses all comprehension. It is this way because it is relational rather than logical or situational. It is not a peace that makes sense because life is going your way or a peace that comes because the DOW is back over 13,000 and that is good because situations and circumstances are on constant flux. The Spirit’s peace is relational. He is the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God and in the end that is the most important thing to know.
We live in a time when there is so much threatening both our unity as Anglicans and the unity of the Body of Christ in general. If rather than focusing on what divides us, we focus on all that the Holy Spirit is intended to bring us; like empowerment to serve, oneness with each other and the Father, loving obedience, peace and the like, we will be a lot further down the road in accomplishing the work that He has given us to do. I end with a simple ancient prayer. Come Holy Spirit come. Amen.