Sunday, May 15, 2005

Sermon: Pentecost

15 May 2005 at Mt. Olive L.C., Metairie, LA

Text: John 16:5-11 (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:1-21) (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Jesus sometimes says things that are hard to understand. And you can imagine how much harder it was for the disciples without having the advantage of hindsight! Jesus, the Messiah who has been promised and expected since God Himself told the devil that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent’s head, is now telling his followers that he is going to leave them – and this is to their “advantage.”

For thousands of years, the prophets have foretold the savior of Israel and the whole world whose kingdom would have no end. And finally, after so much misery – captivity in Babylon, the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple, occupation by the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans, at last, he is here! He was worshipped by the magi, he was declared to be the Messiah by John the Prophet, he did extraordinary miracles – including raising the dead. And now, as the time comes for him to take his throne, he tells everyone: “Well, I’m going away now. And this is to your advantage.” It is no wonder that everyone is too intimidated or afraid to ask him “where are you going?” Just as whenever Jesus started talking about his upcoming death on a cross, the room suddenly got quiet with everyone looking down at their sandals.

This is where faith comes in. This is the really hard part about the Christian life. When our reason tells us one thing, and when Jesus tells us something else, how do we override our reason? This is what it means to have faith – it is belief even when belief seems ridiculous. Such a faith cannot be cultivated by will power, by using reason against itself, nor by making some kind of “decision” to have faith. No, this kind of faith is purely a gift from God, completely by grace, and entirely the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a childlike trust that Father knows best – even when our rebellious egos think otherwise.

So Jesus really puts his hearers’ faith to the test. They don’t want to hear about him going away. Remember when Peter, James, and John witnessed our Lord in his transfiguration glory? Remember how Peter said: “Let’s stay here, build tents, and never leave this glorious place!” But Jesus said “No.” That may have been Peter’s selfish desire, but it was not God’s plan. There’s work to be done, and God has a plan to get it done.

This work is the salvation of mankind, the re-creation of the fallen universe, the reparation of what we have broken. God’s glorious plan is not only to save us from Hell (that alone would be sufficient), but also to re-make all of creation without the stain of sin and the misery of death. He “goes to prepare a place for us,” he said. But to do that, he has to go. Part of the plan of Jesus’ coming is for Jesus to return to his Father for the next phase of the battle plan. Satan is mortally wounded, and now we are in the endgame of the war that will see our final and complete liberation.

So, while Jesus returns to his Father, he needs his ministry to continue on earth. But how can this be done? How can Jesus leave the salvation of the world and the reclamation of the universe in the hands of eleven sinful men – all of whom abandoned him when he was arrested. How could the likes of Thomas the doubter, Peter the coward, and James and John who wanted to be considered better than the other disciples – carry out this work? Clearly, they needed some help – some divine help. They needed God himself.

So Jesus empowers his Church by sending the Holy Spirit to them. Our reading from Acts spells out in great detail how the tiny band of confused men in a very short time became the New Israel that today includes some one forth of the people on the planet. God the Father (the first person of the Trinity) and Jesus (the second person of the Trinity), sent the Holy Spirit (the third person of the Trinity) to continue the work and ministry of Jesus.

And like Jesus, the Spirit is humble. He doesn’t call attention to himself, but quietly carries out the will of the Father and the ministry of the Son. For Jesus tells us in our text that He, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, doesn’t speak “on his own authority,” and that he “will glorify me” – that is, he glorifies Jesus, not himself. He takes what the Father has given to the Son, and what the Son has given to the Spirit, and the Spirit showers the Church with these gifts. His job is to guide the Church to truth. Like a rudder, the Holy Spirit keeps the Ark we call the Church pointing in the right direction. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is able to steer the ship.

How does this work?

We see in our Epistle text that when the Spirit came, the apostles were given the gift of boldness, the ability to communicate with preaching in such a way that the language barrier was overcome, and the Gospel might go forth unto all the world. In response, the apostles were mocked. They were accused of being drunks – the same thing Jesus was accused of. But they were not drunk with wine, but rather they were filled with the Holy Spirit, which gave them abilities that others did not have.

The language barrier – which came about at the Tower of Babel because of man’s sinfulness – had been overcome, as people of many different nationalities heard the Gospel proclaimed in their native tongues. The fear that once crippled these first pastors was gone. Jesus’ prophecy that it would be “an advantage” for Jesus to go away was being proven true. For instead of only having one Christ to contend with, one preacher of the Gospel, one mouth out of which flowed the Word of God, now the Devil must contend with an army of preachers – all empowered by the Holy Spirit himself, all bearing the Word of God himself, all baptizing, all handing out the Body and Blood of Christ himself – all at the same time, in every nation, and flooding the world with the Gospel in every tongue.

And it was meant to be this way all along. For in our Old Testament reading, the prophet Joel gives us a glimpse into Acts 2 at least six centuries Before Christ. This was the master-plan. The Father would sacrifice his only begotten Son, who would rise from the dead and ascend to the right hand of the Father, and then the Work of salvation would be carried out by the Church with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This work will continue until our Lord returns to bring history to a close.

And this is why Paul can say the Church is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” She is guided by the Holy Spirit – whom Jesus calls the “Spirit of Truth.” The Lord himself promised that not even the gates of Hell would overcome the Church – and this is because of the work of the Spirit.

The work of the Spirit is often misunderstood. In the last 100 years – and especially in the last 40 years or so, people in many church bodies have tried to redefine the work of the Holy Spirit. Rather than seeing the Spirit as supporting the ministry of Jesus by empowering the Church to preach the Gospel, they set the work of the Spirit over and above Jesus’ ministry. Some Churches have replaced the cross with the dove. Some churches have turned the Trinity on its head by making the Holy Spirit into a false god to be worshipped apart from the other persons of the Trinity. Some Christians insist that baptism is incomplete without an additional “laying on of hands” that makes you jump up and down and jabber in baby talk. Such teachings don’t glorify Jesus, but rather call attention to oneself. “Look at me! I speak in tongues. I have ‘spiritual gifts,’ and you don’t. All you have is a pastor absolving you. You need more!” Such teachings are false, because they denigrate Holy Baptism and the simple preaching of the Gospel in search of bombastic signs, prophecies, and miraculous “healings.” Such teachings of the Holy Spirit are all about the sizzle and not about the steak, and are alarmingly close to those that are professed in various cults.

This is why the church fathers devoted so much time agonizing about the Trinity. This is why we confess the creeds. In fact, some of the exact wordings in the Nicene Creed were in direct response to a group of heretics called the Montanists – who stressed such a distorted view of the Holy Spirit and championed enthusiastic worship, babbling in nonsense, the claim to the gift of prophecy, and women’s ordination. As Solomon so wisely noted: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

The real work of the Holy Spirit may not be as extravagant as the televangelists and phony faith healers promote – but it is even more miraculous. In the laying on of hands by pastors, the Holy Spirit is given to men to preach, baptize, forgive sins, and feed God’s people with the very Body and Blood of Christ. That sinful men can do such mighty acts for the Kingdom is proof that the Spirit is at work, and Jesus is physically present. That’s the real miracle. In Mark 2, when Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic, the Pharisees were outraged. Jesus cured him of his paralysis and told him to walk as a sign, as proof of the real miracle – the forgiveness of sins. While thousands of people pack stadiums to watch celebrity preachers strut and make a show of false miracles, the Holy Spirit works genuine miracles every day, in churches around the world like this one, as ordinary men, filled with the Holy Spirit, pronounce the forgiveness of sins in the Name of the Trinity before a handful of people – opening the gates of heaven to those who believe. That belief is indeed a miracle and a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer’s life.

Similar to when a pastor is ordained by the laying on of hands, when a Christian is baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he is likewise given the gift of the Holy Spirit, who hovers over the waters as he did “in the beginning” and who guides the Christian into all truth. He is our helper, comforter, and advocate, the one who points us to Jesus and leads us where he may be found: the Church. It is this Holy Spirit that dwells in the temple of the Christian’s body, leads him to the Holy Sacraments, and draws him to where the Scriptures are read, where the Gospel is proclaimed, and where the Body and Blood of Jesus are distributed. He beckons us, woos us, calls us, and broods over us. He is the “Lord and giver of life.” And it is this Spirit’s work in our lives that attracts us to the faith, keeps us in the faith, and sanctifies us as we live out the faith.

And while the Holy Spirit is fully God, and while it is fitting that we pray to him, praise him, confess his divinity in the creed, acknowledge his miraculous works in our midst, and worship him - let us truly honor the Holy Spirit by honoring Jesus. For what pleases the Spirit is when we follow his lead – and that lead takes us to the crucified Jesus, where our sins are forgiven, where our bodies are made fitting temples of the Holy Spirit, and where we pray that the good and gracious will of our Father may be done.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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