(This teaching sermon on the Holy Spirit was preached on Pentecost 2010 at Lebanon UMC in Mebane, North Carolina.)
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” –Acts 2: 1-4/
“For all who led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a Spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” –Romans 8: 14-17
After Jesus was raised, and after his friends had watched him ascend into heaven, Jesus’ friends all gathered back in the city of Jerusalem to celebrate the great big Jewish festival called Pentecost. The Pentecost festival happened every spring: people from all over would come together and walk the streets, share in food and games, and go to special services. It was like Mardi Gras in New Orleans: or picture Mebane during the Dogwood Festival and multiply that times 10, and you have an idea of what Pentecost looked like. They were celebrating several things at Pentecost: they were giving thanks for the early harvest that had come in the fields, and they were also celebrating the gift of God’s law and God’s commandments. Pentecost was a time to remember and give thanks for the way God had provided for God’s people by giving them food for their bodies through the harvest, and also food for their souls through God’s commandments.
So Jesus’ friends had gathered to party at Pentecost like everyone else: only when they were together, something happened that would change their lives forever. I have a friend who’s a pastor, and every Sunday at the start of the service he prays, “Lord, let something happen today that’s not written down in the bulletin, that’s unexpected, that will surprise us.” On Pentecost, something happened to the disciples that wasn’t in the bulletin.
Jesus had promised his friends that a time was going to come when they were going to be given the power of God’s Spirit. And on that Pentecost, Jesus’ promise came true: the Spirit came. Jesus’ friends had an experience of the Spirit’s presence that was so powerful it went beyond words. It felt like the rush of a mighty wind that was going to blow them over. It felt like they were on fire, only it didn’t burn: it was like everyone glowed. They experienced the Holy Spirit.
Just before that time, for the past few weeks since Jesus’s death and resurrection, Jesus’ friends had mostly kept to themselves, shy and timid, unsure of what to do next. Now, they knew. Suddenly, everything changed. They felt God’s Spirit poured out on them, a power greater than their own, and it propelled them out into the streets to talk to all kinds of people that had gathered for the Pentecost Party. They found themselves talking with a whole United Nations gathering of people from all around the world, who spoke all kinds of languages: Greek and Latin and Arabic and Spanish and Chinese – it was like all the barriers that kept people from different countries apart were blown over by the rush of that mighty wind. The Spirit made it clear that God’s love is for all people, everywhere, that there are no limits to who the Gospel is for. On Pentecost, it was almost like there was this explosion that happened, this kind of supernova of salvation, and all the rest of the Bible tells the story of how through the Spirit the message of Jesus just kept expanding outward from that explosion to reach more and more and more people.
We are still here today, 2000 years later, because of that Pentecost, and because of that gift of the Holy Spirit.
We don’t talk enough about the Holy Spirit. When talk about God, we speak of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And God the Father, we can understand that image. We can talk about Jesus, the Son. But the Holy Spirit always seems a little bit mysterious, kind of hard to pin down. One person has said that’s its almost like the Holy Spirit is the shy member of the Trinity, because it’s always pointing us away from itself to the Father and the Son, and so we often don’t notice it. When you look through a window at the world outside, you don’t always notice the window pane itself, because you are looking through the glass, and at something else. When we talk about the Holy Spirit, in some ways we are talking about the window pane through which we experience and come to know the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is the way that we experience that active presence and power of God in our lives, not just through a story long ago, but now, today, every day. The Holy Spirit is God’s active presence making things happen, around us and within us.
So who or what is the Holy Spirit? When the Bible talks about the Holy Spirit, it gives us three images of what the Holy Spirit is, and what it does. The first image for the Holy Spirit is breath. The Holy Spirit is like breath: it’s like the air that you breathe. Now within the past few seconds, you just took a breath, you just breathed in. And that breath, that air, that oxygen, is giving you life. Most of the time we never think about this: we never even think about our breathing except when we need air, or on those cold days when we see our frosty breath beneath our nose. But if you forget how important breath is, I’d invite you to just try to hold your breath for the rest of this sermon. (No, don’t do that. Instead, I want you to do this: I’d like all of us to take a deep breath.)
The Holy Spirit is as close to us as the air we breathe. It is what gives life to our relationship with God. It is the oxygen of our faith. And that’s why it’s so important to breathe in the Spirit of God. When Margaret was pregnant with our daughter Ada, we didn’t know anything about having a baby, so we went to these prepared childbirth classes. One of the things we learned is how important it is during labor or even any hard time to concentrate on your breathing. “Hoo-hoo-hee.” We learned that if you focus on breathing in and breathing out, on that basic thing, it helps you get through the pain of labor. (I did a great job of that: WE did great with the labor.)
The point is that the same is true in our faith: we have to focus on our breathing. Sometimes I think we imagine that what it means to be a Christian is that God in Jesus has given us these rules to follow, and now we’re supposed to try really really hard to live by those rules and to be like Jesus. And when we don’t do a good job of this, the problem is that we need to just try even harder than we have been to follow those rules. But that’s wrong: we can’t live the right way on our own, no matter how hard we try, and that’s why we been given the Holy Spirit as our helper. That’s what changed at Pentecost: now Jesus’s friends had been given access to a power far greater than their own: and that’s what enabled them to do what they did. We can’t live a good life without the Holy Spirit’s help: trying to follow Jesus without asking for the help of the Holy Spirit is like trying to run a race while holding your breath. It just won’t work. You’ve got to breathe in, you’ve got to depend upon the Holy Spirit, ask the Holy Spirit to help you. The Holy Spirit is the breath, the air, the oxygen that our faith lives by. So are we breathing? Are we breathing?
(Part II of this sermon will be posted on Thursday)