On June 5th, Christian congregations across Canada and all over the world celebrated the beginning of an important, but somehow less-known season in the life and work of the church. Many of us are familiar with the annual observance of Advent/Christmas, or with Christian traditions around Lent/Easter, but what about Pentecost?
Pentecost falls at the end of the celebratory season of Easter, those “Great Fifty Days” in which the church gathers for celebratory worship of our resurrected Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He trampled death itself and his salvific work on humanity’s behalf was completed—finished—through his incarnate life, suffering, death, resurrection, and his ascension back to glory.
The earthly departure of Jesus did not leave his followers without help or comfort, although the ascension of Christ must have been a shocking event for the disciples.
John 14:15–17 records these pre-resurrection, pre-ascension words of assurance and hope, spoken by Christ himself: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
Who is this Advocate? It’s the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, given to believers at Pentecost. This is an indescribably beautiful and powerful gift that is available to all who follow Christ, in every age, including our own.
Let that sink in, for a moment. God. Dwelling. In. You!
But how did this happen? According to Acts 2:1–5, the followers of Jesus were gathered together on the day of Pentecost (after the resurrected Jesus had returned to heaven), and a sound “like the rush of a violent wind filled the entire house. 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.”
This gift of the Holy Spirit marked the birth of the Christian Church on that long-ago day in Jerusalem. The Spirit has faithfully fuelled and guided the Church ever since.
On that first Pentecost, all these people who’d been watching these supernatural events unfold were astonished, and “the crowd” asked Peter and the other apostles what they should do in response to this extraordinary gift of God. Peter tells them to “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38b–39).
Scripture records that about three thousand people responded to Peter’s invitation on that day. Three thousand people! All in one day! I know several churches who’d be thrilled if three people come to faith in a year, which makes me think that our expectations are much too small.
Those three thousand converts on the day of Pentecost offers just one simple example of the power of the Holy Spirit who called out to people in that particular place, at that particular time.
The response was immediate and abundant.
That’s how we know that God was in it!
We know that it wasn’t Peter’s persuasiveness as a speaker that caused so many people to follow Christ that day; after all, this guy was the same disciple who publicly denied Jesus not once, but three times before the crucifixion!
This was stubborn, impulsive, act-before-you-think-it-through, sword-carrying, ear-slicing, fearfully-hiding-behind-locked-doors, hardly-grade-A-leadership-material Peter … that was Peter, alright, before the Holy Spirit descended and filled his heart.
After the Spirit descended, though, Peter the fearful, Peter the wishy-washy, distract-and-deny, leave-or-lie disciple became someone entirely different. Fuelled by the indwelling presence of God, this man became Peter the brave, Peter the faithful, Peter the courageous messenger of Christ.
He became Peter, the rock upon which Jesus has built, and will continue to build his Church, until the end of time and the blessed completion of the Kingdom of God.
Yes, Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost was a powerful example, but it was still just one example of the Holy Spirit’s power, calling out to people through a human messenger in that particular time and place. Here’s the amazing follow-up that you need to know: the Holy Spirit is still calling out, is still at work on earth, today.
The Advocate is still inviting human hearts to respond to God’s offer of redemption in Jesus Christ.
This invitation is for people in every place and time, among all ages and genders, social classes and races, for people of all nations and languages, ethnicities, and belief structures, all customs and cultures. The Holy Spirit calls out to (and will enter into) every willing heart, every baptized soul—it’s a gift of God, for the people of God—for those nearby, and those who are far away.
This is where Pentecost stops being “just” a liturgical event and starts to become a responsive relationship between the God the Spirit and your human heart. Scripture tells us over and over that all who follow Christ have access to the Spirit, will be filled with the Spirit, and will be identifiable to others by the gifts of the Spirit (see 1 Cor 12:4–13, Gal 5:22–23, Rom 12:6–8).
These aren’t gifts that are meant for us to hoard, or to consider as our personal, individual blessings, though! The gifts of the Holy Spirit are for the building up of the Church; we are only capable of maintaining that unity through the power of the Holy Spirit. We certainly couldn’t manage that on our own strength! Without the power of the Advocate at work within us, two congregants won’t agree about how to be the church together, let alone trying to build or maintain unity between the 2.38 billion believers who inhabit the earth right now!
As Ephesians 4:12–13 explains, it is the Holy Spirit, working through the grace and peace of the risen and ascended Christ, who gives all believers the spiritual gifts that they need—not for their own personal benefit, but “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
The writer goes on to tell us to “grow up,” to stop behaving like immature toddlers who stomp our feet and want our own way, but to instead live for others, speaking and living the truth of the gospel, building up the church, and healing this beautiful, yet deeply broken world that God so loves and longs to make whole (see Eph 4:14–17).
You see, the Holy Spirit is the power that fuels the Church. We—us, you and I together, this community of faith—we are the Body, the hands and feet of Christ in this world. We cannot transform this fallen creation into the kingdom of God in our own strength. It’s simply not possible.
On our own, we are as hopeless as Peter the fearful; but, when we are filled with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered by God and enabled to perform superhuman tasks, such as loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us (see Luke 6:27). When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we can do all things—more than we could ever ask or even imagine as human beings (see Ephesians 3:20).
Another amazing role that the Holy Spirit performs on our behalf as followers of Jesus is intercession. Romans 8:26–28 tells us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
I dare not attempt this Christian life on my own, in my own strength. None of us should be trying to live up to the high and holy call of Christ alone. The formation of the Church at Pentecost was a momentous beginning, but it was just that, a beginning. We add our contributions now, in 2022, as a community of faith, a congregation, or gathering, of believers. Did you know that the word “church” in Greek is rendered as ekklesia, the “called out ones?”
We are called out by God.
Don’t mistake this for being “called out on the carpet.” God is patient and kind, merciful, and gracious. You are not being shamed or punished when God calls you out. But God does call us out of our former selfishness, fearfulness, bitterness, individualism, or pride in our possessions or status. God calls us to let go of who we once were.
We are called out ones, called to rebirth, called to new life, in Christ.
We are called out from our past, we are redeemed and remade in Christ, and we step out of the baptismal waters as entirely new creatures, stepping into a faith-filled, faithful future with hope, grace, and the abundant peace that Christ has promised us. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live for the glory of God and the restoration of the world, through the work and witness of the Body of Christ, that is, the one, holy, catholic Church.
We participate with God in that patient, restorative work, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the love of Jesus Christ. It’s a daily unfolding of grace and mercy, day after day, decade after decade.
This is the life of faith, fuelled by the Spirit. Eugene Peterson called it “a long obedience in the same direction.”
On the days (or in the middle of the nights) when this journey seems too long and too difficult, please remember this: we do not work alone. We are part of the local congregation of believers, here at Southwood United Church; we are part of the wider work of the Chinook Winds region, and we also participate in the national work of The United Church of Canada. Beyond our own borders, we celebrate, support, and pray for the work of the global Church, in all its various forms, in every place where God is glorified, Jesus is proclaimed, and the Holy Spirit is welcomed.
We are also not responsible for the entire planet; the whole gig is not ours to manage, and thank the merciful Lord of heaven for that! We are called to do our part, and only our part.
That particular truth is such a source of profound relief, for me. If you are one of those well-meaning people who tend to “carry the weight of the world on their shoulders,” in some misguided notion that it’s your Christian duty, please, just stop it.
I’m not kidding.
Put that planet down! It isn’t yours to carry, and it’s ridiculous for you to try. It’s a God-sized burden, and only God is strong enough to bear it.
Remember, as you answer the call of God in your life, you won’t be left alone to try to figure out what you should do, when you should do it, or how it ought to be done. We are not students who are left without a Teacher, doomed to muddle though our lessons as best we can. No, we have the Advocate to teach us everything we need to know. The Holy Spirit will equip us and lead us, comfort and guide us.
As Jesus told his followers in John 14:26–27, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Through seasons of change and challenge, in times of plenty and times of want, there is no reason to fear; Christ himself has given us his peace, and has sent the Holy Spirit to unify and equip us, to remind us of the power that God has entrusted to us, in Jesus’ name. No matter what happens to us or around us, we can choose not to let our hearts be troubled. We can choose courage, instead of fear. This is also a gift of the Holy Spirit.
So, dear friends, now you know: Pentecost marks the birth of the Church. Pentecost is a kind of “churchy shorthand” for the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was and is the fuel that nurtured the Church of yesterday, that sustains the Church today, and that will continue to call, strengthen and inspire the Body of Christ in the future, uniting and guiding people of faith until the end of time itself.
The gift of the Spirit reforms us, shaping us into a community of faith, an ekklesia of believers, in Christ, for the glory of God, and for the restoration of the world.
Prayer: Gracious God, as we pause in our day to reflect on the power and purpose of your Holy Spirit, we want to thank you and praise you for your indescribably beautiful gift. Remake us, we pray! Strengthen us in body and mind, soul and spirit; cause fresh courage and conviction to bubble up in our hearts. Let us not become discouraged by difficult circumstances or temporary setbacks. Let us sink ourselves deeply into the hope you have offered us, in Christ. Let us rest in the Spirit, abiding in the Advocate who comforts and compels us, nurtures and nudges us. We entrust our selves to you completely, for you are trustworthy, faithful, and attentive to our needs. Amen.