Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
For nearly 2000 years, the Church has celebrated Saint Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem on Pentecost morning. It was a sermon that would turn the world upside down. The 120 charter members of the First Church of Jerusalem added 3000 believers to their numbers that day. With courage, strength and conviction, the word went forth that, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” And ever since that first Pentecost morning, every preacher has aspired to speak as dramatically and effectively as Peter.
Fifteen years ago, while leading a college choir through Russia and the Baltic States, I was invited to preach on Pentecost Sunday in the historic Lutheran Cathedral of Riga, Latvia. It was an honor and a privilege to preach there. The cornerstone of the church had been laid by German missionaries in 1211, and the building itself stands today as the largest medieval church in all the Baltic States. In the guidebooks, it is listed as one of the “top five tourist sites” in the capital city. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any time to stay around after preaching for the service. As the words of the benediction were being said, I was whisked away to the neighboring country of Lithuania. A week or so later, however, I heard the first reflections on my sermon shared by an acquaintance. “Pastor Haug, I heard you preached a powerful sermon in the Cathedral last week. You brought the house down.” Being a shy and unassuming Norwegian, it was hard to receive such a compliment without blushing, but I did say thank you appreciatively. Then the friend added, “Literally, you brought the house down.” I was a little mystified until I opened the weekly newspaper the Baltic Times and read, “Cracks discovered in Church Columns. French engineering expert deems Cathedral until unsafe until repairs are made.” As it turned out, the church was closed for a year and a half.
That was almost as startling as the near New Year’s Eve fireworks mishap, when the volunteer fire department in Marine on St. Croix discovered a smoldering rocket I was responsible for igniting atop the 140 year old wooden church roof. I was asked the following day by an English woman whether it was a “sackable offense” for a pastor to burn down his own church.
Yes, for nearly 2000 years, the Church has tried to celebrate Pentecost in grand, colorful ways – trying to replicate the excitement of ancient Jerusalem, the ferocious, churning wind, the tongues of fire, and the crowd of 120 flooding out on the street. And I have done my best over the years to bring down the house. But scripture also reminds us that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit comes in quiet, subtle and unseen ways as well.
There is a second story of Pentecost found in St. John’s gospel. In this story we read that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a quiet, intimate scene which took place on the evening of Easter after Christ’s resurrection. Behind closed doors in the Upper Room, Jesus appeared to his disciples and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this he breathed on them, he said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is a mighty wind, while in St. John’s gospel the Holy Spirit is the breath of life, through which the world is offered forgiveness and the possibility of a new beginning.
My friends, this morning, I would like to explore with you ever so briefly, both stories- for the two stories remind us that we don’t all experience the power of the Holy Spirit in the same way. For you the Spirit may be a mighty gale blowing fiercely, and changing your life course, and for others the Spirit may be the very breath of life that offers you encouragement, strength and hope. Regardless of how you experience the Holy Spirit, you will discover that God will provide you with what you need- even before you may be aware of it. We all need change. We all need inspiration. We all need vision.
Pentecost is often referred to as the coming of the Holy Spirit. The danger here is that we may presume that the Spirit merely came into existence at this time. The Book of Acts and the rest of Scripture reminds us that the Spirit was present from the very beginning. The Spirit inspired the ancient kings and prophets. It was present at Jesus’ baptism, and then led him out into the wilderness for forty days and nights. The Holy Spirit was not new, but at Pentecost the Holy Spirit was experienced in new and exciting ways by the disciples.
First of all, Peter and eleven apostles were changed by the Holy Spirit. Seven weeks earlier when a woman questioned Peter at a fire, the cowardly disciple was frightened and scared. Peter lied to save his own skin, and denied knowing his master. When Jesus was taken from his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane by the Roman soldiers, the others disciples scattered like sheep. But now when they were surrounded by a crowd of over three thousand curious and some scoffing onlookers, the disciples demonstrated a strength which they had never known before. Peter suddenly had the courage to proclaim the good news, and in spite of the scrutiny of educated pilgrims and the Pharisees around him, the lowly man from Galilee, a fisherman turned apostle, opened his mouth and preached. Yes, for the very first time, the disciple was acting on his own. Before he had stood under the shadow of Jesus, but now the Holy Spirit had come to guide him.
The same was true for the others upon whom Jesus breathed and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” They were afraid. Indeed, they were hidden behind locked doors. There was nothing really remarkable about any of them. Most were fisherman, one was a tax collector, another was a militant, Simon the Zealot- a nationalist, sword- carrying Simon. They were a motley crew, and Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and they were changed. They became the Church.
Even now, God’s Holy Spirit blows into some people’s lives with a mighty rush and for others it is a gentle human breath. Either way, he is calling and urging you to change, and for you to become the Church. The Holy Spirit is changing you, and sending you out to serve your neighbor, some who are not even grateful, you hurt when other people hurt, you empty your pockets for other people’s children, you’re willing to work on someone else’s home, even when your own needs a good deal of work. My friends, the Holy Spirit dramatically changed the lives of Peter and the other Apostles, and he continues to change lives today. You have a role to play in that change. You have a word to speak. God has breathed on you.
Second, the disciples discovered that in the darkest hours of faith the Holy Spirit offered inspiration and comfort. On that first Pentecost morning, Peter was given a voice of eloquence and balance. These were not the words of a fisherman under fire, but the words of an apostle comforted and guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit offered an inner strength, and whispered words to Peter that were honest, tempered and true. And at the close of the day, 3000 would be brought into the church that in morning awoke to 120 strong.
The same was true for the disciples as Jesus breathed on them. They were anxious and afraid. The doors were locked. They were fearful of what would happen to them, and then suddenly Jesus stood in the midst of them, and said, “Peace be with you.” This was more than a greeting. It was a word of inspiration. As he breathed on them, he said, “Go in peace and my peace will go with you.” Comforted by this word, the disciples went forth to be Christ’s Apostles and to build the church. And in the moments, when the task seemed most treacherous, when the nights were darkest, and the moments loneliest, they were inspired and comforted anew by the presence of the Holy Spirit. And the same will be true for you.
I know this has not been a good year for all the members of our congregation. You have experienced surgery, illness, divorce, depression, death, unemployment, and at times, utter despair. It is a humbling task to offer your prayers before God. As the disciples gathered with their followers, they were no doubt struck by the daily trials of their faithful as well. Life would be so much easier, if choosing faith, and walking in the ways of Christ eliminated all of life’s struggles. But it doesn’t. In those dark nights of the soul, the disciples discovered that when they allowed the Holy Spirit to fill them with courage, hope and strength, they grew in a deeper understanding and awareness that that very Spirit helped them in their weakness. In those moments when they could not find the words to pray as they ought, the Spirit interceded with sighs too deep for words. Have you discovered that to be true? When you are struggling, emotionally and spiritually, trust in the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and comfort.
And finally, the presence of the Holy Spirit offered a spiritual vision for the future. Nearly 400 years ago, the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ landed on the east coast of North America, and in the first year they established a town site. The second year they elected a government, and in the third year the government planned a road five miles west into the wilderness. In the fourth year the people tried to impeach their town government for wasting public funds building a road to nowhere. “Who needs to go there, anyway?” they said. Here were people with the vision and determination to cross thousands of miles of treacherous ocean, but in just a few years they could not see even five miles out of town. They lost their vision.
It’s hard to miss the Spirit’s sense of vision as you read Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. With that vision, the disciples turned the world upside down, and the old walls came tumbling down. And we are here this morning because that vision of the Church has become our vision as well.
My friends, I do not know whether the Holy Spirit will be like a mighty wind turn your world upside down, or whether like a gentle human breath whisper to your heart to be of good courage. But I do know that the Holy Spirit has been sent to provide you with what you need- change- inspiration and a vision. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.