The Holy Spirit's Resume

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Pentecost
May 28, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Christ gives his disciples the Spirit on the first Easter evening, but the story of the Spirit in the world goes back to creation. The Spirit was active among God's people before Christ's coming, and accompanied and empowered Christ in his ministry. Arisen, Christ gives the Spirit to the church, with authority to reprove sin and call sinners to faith in his saving work.

On the evening of the first day of the new creation, the risen Christ comes to his disciples and says, twice, "Peace be with you." Then the one who bears the marks of the cross says to them, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." The mission that they are to go on will bear the mark of the cross, perhaps in a quite realistic way. It isn't a task to be undertaken lightly. So Jesus says, "Receive the Holy Spirit."

Today is the festival of Pentecost, a celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit a few days after Jesus' ascension. The only account we have of the first Pentecost is in the second chapter of Acts, and it is fairly detailed. It's an important text but focusing on it can give the impression that the Holy Spirit came without preparation on God's part. Today we'll consider that preparation, culminating in our reading from John's gospel. It's set several weeks before Pentecost, on the evening of the first Easter Day.

The role of the Holy Spirit in the biblical story is not just to appear for the church's birthday and set off the fireworks. The Holy Spirit is God, the third person of the Trinity, and the Spirit wasn't waiting idly for long ages in heaven before becoming active in the world a couple of thousand years ago. Already in just the second verse of the Bible, at the beginning of the first creation story, there's a note of the Spirit's activity. We're told there, in obviously symbolic language, that the "spirit of God" was moving like a wind over the primordial waters before creation.1

In the Hebrew scriptures we read in several places about "the spirit of the LORD" or "the spirit of God" working to guide God's people. The Spirit comes upon Samson, who fights the enemies of Israel, to David when he is anointed king, and to one of Judah's prophets who instructs God's people in a time of crisis.2 (Later the Nicene Creed would say that the Holy Spirit "spake through the prophets."3)

In the book of the prophet Joel there is a promise that God's spirit will be given to more than just a few individuals. There God says,

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

your old men shall dream dreams,

and your young men shall see visions.

Even on the male and female slaves,

in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

On the Day of Pentecost, Peter will remind the Jerusalem crowd of those words.4

In the period between the testaments, hopes for a successor to King David, a Messiah, as well as for an outpouring of God's Spirit, grew among the Jewish people. Those hopes came together in Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Spirit plays a role in all the gospel accounts of Jesus' life and work.

The Spirit with Christ

Luke's gospel testifies to the activity of the Holy Spirit from the very beginning of Jesus' life, when God's messenger promises his birth to Mary.5 The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the descent of the Spirit "like a dove" on Jesus at his baptism, and he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested.6 Then, "filled with the power of the Spirit," Jesus returns to Galilee7 proclaiming that the kingdom of God has come near, and that people should repent of their sins and believe the good news.

When Jesus was invited to speak in the synagogue of his hometown, he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."8

The people of Nazareth had heard those promises of healing and liberation before when the scriptures were read. But Jesus' words when he stopped reading made them radically new - "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."9 The young man was saying that he was the fulfillment of prophecy, the one anointed by the Spirit!

People couldn't help but be impressed by the way he spoke, but those who had known him as a child weren't ready for the idea that those promises might be pointing to Jesus himself. They were even less enthusiastic when Jesus reminded them of passages of scripture that spoke about God coming to the aid of people who weren't even Israelites. That got the hometown boy run out of town and almost killed!

But Jesus wasn't deterred by this rejection. He went immediately to a nearby city to preach and heal people in the power of the Spirit. He called people to follow him and prepared those disciples to spread the news that God's kingdom was on the way. Later, when his disciples returned from one mission trip and reported their successes, Jesus "rejoiced in the Holy Spirit"10 and gave thanks to his heavenly Father. He was glad that such power was shown in the weakness of ordinary people like his disciples.

But if we've been paying attention to the gospel accounts up to that point, we know that the mission of Jesus was not going to continue as anything that looked like a success story. Jesus had already told his disciples that he would be rejected by the Jewish leaders, handed over to the Gentiles and killed. Even as he taught, healed and encouraged people, he was on his way to the cross.

The Spirit with Christ's People

The Gospel of John devotes three chapters to a conversation of Jesus with his disciples on the night before his death. Three times in that conversation,11 Jesus promised them that the Father would send them the Holy Spirit. He used a word for the Spirit that had both a passive and an active sense. It's sometimes translated in the former sense as "Comforter" or "Helper." The Spirit would support and strengthen the disciples. But in the active sense the word can be translated (as in the NRSV) as "Advocate." The Spirit would guide and empower disciples in proclaiming their case. (In several European languages the word for a lawyer is - with some spelling variations - an "advocate." The Spirit would enable disciples to "make the case" for their faith.)

Those are promises for the future. But it's a nearer future than the disciples realize when Jesus is speaking.

Jesus promised that the Spirit would be given to them, and on Easter, that happened. The risen One came and proclaimed peace to his still fearful and doubtful disciples - they had, after all, locked the doors "for fear of the Jews." We're told, in an undoubtedly massive understatement, that "the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord." After again saying, "Peace be with you," Jesus told them that he was sending them to continue the mission that the Father had given him, empowered by the Spirit. The task was stated simply. "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

The basic task to which the church is called is twofold - proclaiming God's law that condemns sin and announcing the good news of God's forgiveness of sins because of Christ's death and resurrection. So on the Day of Pentecost, when the crowds are convicted of their sin by Peter's preaching and cry, "Brothers, what should we do?", his answer is, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ."12

Every day Christians are to hear that message anew. And always the church, empowered by the Spirit, is to call people to repent of their sins and receive the forgiveness and acceptance won for them by Christ's death and resurrection.


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