“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” —John 15: 26
On this day of Pentecost, the church celebrates its birthday. Before that first Pentecost the disciples of Jesus were not yet the church. They had walked and talked with Jesus. They had shared meals and days with him, but they were not yet the church.
On the night when he was betrayed, they shared in what was to be his last supper and the first Eucharist, but they were not yet the church. Nor were they the church on the first day of the week when some women among them reported that Jesus had been raised from the dead, or even after they had seen him and touched his broken hands and wounded side. No, they were not yet the church because something was missing.
What was missing? Jesus had tried to tell them what to expect. Before he died, he told them he was going to leave them, but he would not leave them comfortless. He told them that the Father would send the Holy Spirit to them, and the Spirit would bring to them all that Jesus had told and taught them.
But the Spirit would bring to them even more than just his teaching and his commandments. The Spirit would bring them the presence of Jesus himself, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. When the Spirit comes, God in Christ is made present to believers.
That was the promise Jesus had made to them, that the Spirit would come. And so, when they gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost 50 days after the Passover, they immediately knew what happened when the tongues of fire appeared, and the mighty wind swept among them. They knew the Spirit had come among them.
Some of the bewildered bystanders thought they were drunk, but Peter told them, “These men aren’t drunk, they are inspired by the spirit who is being poured out on us in these latter days as the prophet Joel foretold.”
The coming of the Spirit meant the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. It was the inauguration of the coming of the kingdom of God, and it was the birth of the church.
Because only when the Spirit comes can you have the church. It is the Spirit that turns an old religion into a living faith. It is the Spirit that transforms human rites and rituals into the instruments of God’s grace and mercy. It is the spirit that turns the water of baptism into the power of new life, and the bread and a cup into the real presence of Jesus Christ.
When the Spirit comes, we can do things we couldn’t do otherwise. When the Spirit comes, we can make promises to keep, we can live for God and others, and we can find ourselves among a variety of people with not much else in common transformed into the church.
The Spirit of the God who raised Jesus from the dead is still the Spirit full of unexpected surprises. When the Spirit comes, things that were thought to be old are made new, things that seemed dead come to life, evil is overcome, injustice is righted, sins are forgiven. When the Spirit comes, unshakable empires collapse overnight and powerless love defeats loveless power.
When the Spirit comes, every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low, the humble shall be exalted, and the exalted humbled. The poor will be filled with good things and the rich sent empty away. The first she’ll be last and the last first. When the Spirit comes!
When the Spirit comes, ordinary people become extraordinary disciples of Jesus, and say and do unexpected things in his name; the kind of things he said and the kind of things he did.
When the Spirit comes, then and there you will find kindness, gentleness, patience, generosity, faithfulness, self-control, love, joy, and peace.
When the Spirit comes, our old nature is put off and our new life in Christ is put on like a garment, and we are transformed more and more into the likeness of Jesus. On our own we cannot do this. Such a change is surely not possible. But who can say what is possible when the Spirit comes?
The coming of God’s Holy Spirit is not just something that happened long ago on that first Pentecost. The coming of God’s Holy Spirit happens in every day and age. It happens now. The Holy Spirit of God who was there at the beginning, and will be there at the end of days remains.
The Holy Spirit of God is what makes the church the church, and so, on this Day of Pentecost we pray the ancient prayer of the church: “Come, Holy Spirit, come! Amen.
(I preached this virtual sermon on May 23, 2021, at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI. To view the service on YouTube go here.)