An incredible promise
A sermon preached at St. Mary's, South Perth and also at St. George's Cathedral, Perth on the Feast of Pentecost 2020
Ten days after the ascension… when Jesus returned to his Father… devout Jews from all over the world had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, known by it’s Greek name as Pentecoste. The Feast of Weeks is a harvest festival that is celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover, and it’s against this backdrop that the dramatic events of Acts Chapter 2 take place, specifically, the arrival of the Holy Spirit…an event which had been promised to the disciples on multiple occasions by Jesus.
I’d love to know what the disciples imagined the arrival of the Holy Spirit would be like. Jesus had ordered them to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit arrived. He told them that they would be baptised by the Holy Spirit, and that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them; and that they would be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Given all that they had been through, I wonder what they were hoping the Holy Spirit would do for them? In their shoes, I’d probably be hoping that the Holy Spirit would, at the very least, take away some of the challenges or problems they were facing. But our readings today tell us that that’s not the way it works. The disciples didn’t get to run away from all the challenges and hardships they faced. Instead, the Spirit equipped them to persevere….. to flourish even, amidst those challenges and hardships.
In today’s gospel passage, John tells us that the disciples were hiding in the upper room terrified that those who crucified Jesus might come looking for them next. What does Jesus do as he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them? Well, what he doesn’t do, is lead them away from Jerusalem to a safer place. He doesn’t even help them fortify the room in which they were hiding… Instead, he sent them out into that dangerous world saying: “As the Father has sent me, so I now send you” (20:21), and then he gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit to create in them the courage they needed to do just that.
Similarly in our first reading from Acts, the disciples were all together in one place, waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit and, once it had come to them, they found themselves speaking in other languages to the point that they drew a crowd wanting to know what was going on. Suddenly, they found themselves proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ – not to family and friends, but to people who they might reasonably have expected to be at the very least sceptical, if not openly hostile, to their message – devout Jews from every nation under heaven who were living in Jerusalem.
In today’s second reading Paul, writing to the Christian community in Corinth, explains clearly that the Spirit is given to enable individual believers to look beyond their individual needs, hopes, or fears and to equip them with distinct gifts, all in order to work together for the “common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).
Throughout these passages, we get the sense that the Spirit isn’t some kind of superhero sent to rescue us when times get tough, but rather the Spirit is the one who equips, who encourages, who stays with us, helping us perceive the needs of our neighbours and the wider community and then helping us to rise to the challenge of meeting those needs with equal measures of tenacity, competence, and courage.
That’s all well and good, of course, but perhaps it’s helpful to admit that very often this isn’t what we expect, or hope, the Spirit will do in our lives. What I mean by that is that I think we often hope that the Spirit will just come along and save us, or at least take us away from whatever challenges seem to threaten to overwhelm us in a particular moment.
But…when things get tough, God, instead, comes alongside us in the presence of the Holy Spirit in order to strengthen and equip us to endure, and even to flourish, amidst the challenges and difficulties that life throws at us. Why? Perhaps because God may actually be working through us for the common good, to care for the needs of our neighbours, our community, and the world.
When Jesus appeared to those frightened disciples behind locked door he said “as the Father has sent me, so I now send you”. He sends us too:
· to care for those around us just like God cares for us;
· to make wherever we may find ourselves a better place; and
· to share God’s love in word and deed so that others may know they are not alone, and that they are loved.
Simply put. we are here, not just for ourselves but for those around us.
You and I are called to model all that in the life of the Church. For we are, after all, the Body of Christ, those authorised and equipped by God to care for this world that God loves so very much. And it’s the Spirit who reminds us of this role and enables us to fulfil it. This may not always be easy, and it may not always be what we want, but perhaps it’s what those around us need.
The Promise of Pentecost is not that we won’t suffer any more difficulties or hardships in our lives, nor is it that God will remove us from the things we find challenging. The promise of Pentecost is that in the Holy Spirit, God comes to be with us, and for us, to use all that we have and all that we are for the sake of those around us. And that’s an incredible promise..