The Reverend John Allison
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
May 23, 2021
Christ Church, Hudson
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Pentecost, which you could say is for us the completion of the Easter cycle that began way back on Ash Wednesday—with ashes—and finishes today with the fire of Holy Spirit. It is, to borrow language from Paul, the first fruit of the Resurrection. Sometimes it’s referred to as the birthday of the Church in that we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles to empower them to go out in Christ’s name, to do the work of God’s Kingdom.
Today’s reading from Acts takes up where we left off last week. The Apostles have chosen Mathias to replace Judas, restoring their number to twelve. As it’s now the day of Pentecost, we are told they are all gathered in one place. For the Apostles, Pentecost would have been a very different occasion from how we understand it today as Christians. In Jewish tradition Pentecost, which is simply Greek for fifty, was a spring harvest festival that recognized the first harvest of barley fifty days after its planting. It was also known as the Festival of Weeks and would have brought together many people from various parts of the region. By Jesus’s day the festival had taken on added meaning and was observed as a commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Sinai—the giving of the law to Moses. According to tradition fifty days had passed between the first Passover in Egypt and the arrival at Sinai where Moses received the law. This is the root of why our season of Easter is fifty days, but it’s also here that the similarities end between the Jewish tradition of Pentecost and what happened to the Apostles on that day. What happened on that day, what we remember today and celebrate, was something completely new and, at the same time, the fulfillment of prophecy that echoes throughout scripture. Peter preaches it in that first Pentecost sermon: In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
These are the opening words of what could be called the first Christian sermon, and Peter is quoting the Book of Joel, but in this we see the continuity of Christ with what has come before. We see the fulfillment of what has been promised, and HERE it is—for Peter and his listeners, just as much as for us gathered here today. The Holy Spirit is with us, and in us, and we are animated, given new life, new power to proclaim the Good News of Christ crucified and Risen, that everyone who calls on the name of Christ shall be saved. Everyone—all flesh. Peter’s message is one that is just as vital now as it was then: Through Christ, humanity is united in all of its diversity—no matter your age, gender, race, sexuality, social status, or whatever other identifier you can think of, all are united in Christ. We have a taste of that unity every time we step to this table, and our faith in God’s completion of that vision is what animates us to take that witness outside these walls—to be bearers of God’s love.
We didn’t read them today, but in the verses that follow, Peter’s sermon is further developed and we’re told that three thousand were added to their number that day. This is the outpouring of the Spirit to which Joel alluded and which Jesus also promised in his goodbye to the disciples. It’s the outpouring of the Spirit that empowers us today to be Christ’s witnesses to his love in the world.
Our reading from John’s Gospel takes us back to that evening of the Last Supper when Jesus says, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who is from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”
As I’ve said before, at this point the disciples don’t yet understand everything Jesus is telling them but they will; they do today. He goes on to tell them that his departure is necessary because if he remains it won’t be possible for the Holy Spirit to come to them, and this is a theme that runs throughout John’s Gospel: As long as the Incarnate Son—Jesus—is on the earth it is through him that the Holy Spirit acts. In returning to the Father, Jesus will send the Advocate who will make the unseen presence of the Father and the Son known in the lives of the disciples—in our lives even here today! This is the love of Christ that we embody; this is the outpouring of the Spirit that animates us, that empowers us as the gathered Body of Christ to love one another as Christ loves us!
What we celebrate today is the beginning of this empowerment. The Festival of Pentecost was about remembering the giving of the Law at Sinai, but in Christ we have the fulfillment of all the Law and the Prophets, and it is in this gift that we are saved and simultaneously called to be vessels of the love God has given us in Jesus.
Figuring out how we do that is essentially the ongoing story of the Church from that first Pentecost with the Apostles until this very day. The Spirit guides us in love and truth and we pray that we can follow faithfully where we are being led.
Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, compares this work to the pain of childbirth. As we wait, the Spirit works through us to bring about a new creation, and it is not easy. In fact, it can be downright painful, but our promise in Christ is of a joy that awaits beyond our imaginations—a peace that surpasses our understanding.
The Holy Spirit is with us through it all. Paul says it helps us in our weakness; we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. I’m guessing that a lot of us know that feeling. I certainly do. I look at the news or the suffering and division around me, and it’s overwhelming. There are days it’s so much I don’t know for what I must pray. All I know is that I need to pray. All I know is that I can’t do it myself. The Spirit is moving in me and I must trust. It’s then, in those times, when I am most aware of my total dependence on God. It’s then, in that surrender of will, that the Spirit intercedes—and sometimes, oftentimes, surprises us.
Today is a celebration of what happened in the past on the “birthday of the Church” but just as much, perhaps even more so, it’s a celebration of the Holy Spirit’s continuing work in us and through us as we remember who we are as a church and how our love is God’s love. We’ll do that together in just a few moments as we renew our Baptismal vows, but how we live out those vows is the work we are called to every day. We don’t always know how to do it perfectly but the Spirit helps us in our weakness.
May we all pray to be surprised by the Spirit, trusting that God’s will be manifest through our prayers, rejoicing in the certain knowledge that the Sprit intercedes for the Saints according to the will of God. Amen.