Pentecost, June 8, 2014
Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 1 Corinthians 12:3-13, John 20:19-23
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I have a confession to make. I have never seen the Holy Spirit manifest as tongues of fire, and I have never heard anyone speak in tongues. Nor have I ever participated in the kind of mass spiritual experience described in our lesson from Acts, in which thousands of people come to the faith. When I hear of miracles, my first reaction is often skepticism, and when I go to a worship service full of people waving their arms and jumping and dancing and shouting “Amen!” as they feel moved during the service, I feel uncomfortable. And since this is a common attitude for Lutherans and other mainline Christians, I bet there are many of you out there who would agree with me.
This may be why we don’t pay as much attention to the Holy Spirit as we do to the Father and to the Son. Today is Pentecost, which in some Christian traditions is the third holiest day of the Christian year, behind Easter and Christmas. We do celebrate this day more than ordinary Sundays—We dress up! But we certainly don’t plan the service as carefully as we do Christmas and Easter, and people don’t tend to plan big family celebrations for Pentecost Sunday. We don’t expect it to be a big day, just like we don’t expect the Holy Spirit to be a major factor in our lives.
That’s okay, though, because the first followers of Jesus weren’t expecting the Holy Spirit, either, and it came just the same. Imagine the disciples. Jesus had died and was risen again, but they were quite comfortable in their meeting rooms behind closed doors. They were a small group: twelve men, about that many women, a few other miscellaneous people. Outside their doors were the people who had killed Jesus and would be quite willing to kill them, too, if they started making waves. Since Jesus had showed up after the Resurrection, they weren’t quivering in fear, but they weren’t going out and shouting their story to the rooftops, either. They were comfortable. Secure. Happy. They’d been praying, and they’d been talking and retelling the stories about Jesus. But they didn’t know what was coming.
And what came was the Holy Spirit. It dragged them out into the square, and it inspired them to speak, to tell the story of Jesus. Because what God needed then was for the story to spread beyond their walls, beyond their small group. God needed them to spread the word, and so he sent the Holy Spirit to empower them. Empower—it sounds like such a “new-age” word, a word of psychologists and social theorists. Yet that is literally what the Spirit does: it puts power into people. Power to do God’s will—and the skills needed to do it.
I would bet anything you want to name that, had the full planning of the missionary work been left up to those first followers, it wouldn’t have looked anything like this. “Well, we can only talk to the other Jews, because we all know Hebrew and Aramaic. A couple of us know Greek, they can speak to any God-fearing Greeks we find. But there’s no point in seeking out the foreign Jews who don’t speak Hebrew anymore, because we won’t be able to speak with them. We just don’t have the gifts.” That’s what they would have said. “Who can we put in charge?” they would have asked. “Who’ll be the spokesman?” If anyone had suggested Peter, they would probably have laughed. Let’s remember that Peter wasn’t his real name; his parents had named him Simon. Peter was a nickname, and it meant “Rocky.” Peter was a real rock, all right; solid, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth type who would not win any contest of smarts or charisma. Peter’s most common contribution to the disciples was to get things spectacularly wrong so that everybody else had an example of what not to do. He got several things right … and always followed up his good ideas with something boneheaded. Peter, good ol’ Rocky, as the public face of the organization? Rocky as a preacher? Naaaah. He just didn’t have what it takes.
Many churches, if you give them an idea of something they could do, some new ministry they could try or people they could help, will respond with reasons why they can’t. “We couldn’t possibly do it! We don’t know enough, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have anybody who could or would do that …” And I bet you the early church would have been no different. After all, what happened on Pentecost is a lot bigger than starting up a food pantry or sending people out to build handicap ramps or do a mission trip.
And yet, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered them. The Holy Spirit swept into their lives like a rushing wind, and they listened to it. They might not have chosen the things the Spirit empowered them to do, but they listened when it came to them. They followed where it led them, and they all—particularly Peter, good ol’ Rocky—used the gifts it gave them to do the ministry it called them to do. I bet it was scary. I bet it was nerve-wracking, to get out there and trust that the Holy Spirit was going to give them the ability to speak in new languages. They could have said no, but they didn’t. They could have said, “My it’s windy today! Better close the windows tight!” and kept on praying, in their back rooms. But they didn’t. They realized it was the Holy Spirit, and they followed it. And the Holy Spirit gave them the ability to do what needed to be done.
I’ve never seen tongues of flames; I’ve never seen people speaking in tongues. But here’s the thing: I’ve seen other gifts of the Spirit. Because even though we don’t pay much attention to the Spirit, it is here among us, blowing. It is here among us, empowering. It is here among us, equipping us for the ministry that God is calling us to. Which may not be the ministry we’re expecting. But whatever God is calling us to, God is also giving us gifts to handle.
The Spirit gives many gifts. Saint Paul lifts up a few of them in his letter to the Corinthians. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healing both spiritual and physical, prophecy, discernment of spirits, interpretation, miracles … these are all gifts of the Spirit. But do we notice them? Do we acknowledge them as such, or do we dismiss them? A lot of times we take the gifts of the Spirit for granted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked with Christians over the years where someone pointed out a gift they or their church had, only to hear them dismiss it in the next breath, find some reason why it wasn’t enough, wasn’t what they needed, wasn’t useful for the ministry of the church. Unless there are bolts of lighting and literal tongues of fire, we don’t tend to notice these gifts of the Spirit for what they are. At the Synod Assembly last weekend, I heard several pastors get up and talk about great things happening in their congregations. And although they were all good pastors whom I respect and admire, it wasn’t the pastors’ actions that were making things happen. It was the congregations, who were willing to respond when someone pointed out what gifts the Holy Spirit had given them. They noticed the gifts the Spirit had given them, and they listened to where the Spirit was calling them, and it has led them to do some amazing things.
Something else to notice from Paul’s account in Corinthians is that nobody gets all the gifts. Everyone has different gifts, and quite often they go together: someone gets knowledge, and someone else gets the wisdom to know how to use that knowledge. Someone gets the gift of tongues, and someone else gets the gift of how to interpret it. It’s only when you start putting those gifts together—when people come together to form the body of Christ—that things start to happen. It can’t be just one or two people—no matter how talented and dedicated. It has to be the body, together, using the gifts the Spirit has given for the common gift of ministry.
When the Spirit came to them, those first Christians were ready. They went where it sent them, they realized the gifts the Spirit had given them, and they used those gifts as the Spirit called them to. And because they did, the Spirit did great things through them. May we, too, learn to hear the Spirit’s call and follow where it leads.