SERMON: Pentecost, Then and Now
SCRIPTURE: Acts 2:1-21
The Day of Pentecost. Another one of these yearly observances in the church that can be a little puzzling. Most of us have heard the story of that day, that original Christian Pentecost, many times. The Holy Spirit was poured out, tongues of flame rested upon the disciples’ heads, they spoke in tongues they had never learned, and the pilgrims from all over the world now gathered in Jerusalem – all heard them declaring the wonders of God in their own languages. In fact we probably, many of us, know this story well from the Sunday School lessons of our childhood. Maybe you even had the flannel-gram version, like I did.
But what I’ve found that has puzzled people over the years is the Holy Spirit himself. We acknowledge even in our hymnody that he is the most mysterious person of the Trinity. And we observe that the doctrine about the Holy Spirit – his person and his work – has been the playground for all sorts of false teachings and confusion. Witness the Pentecostalism which arose at the beginning of the 20th century and is still alive and well in Charismatic theology both here and around the world.
Well, sadly we don’t have time this morning to cover everything there is to know and say about the Holy Spirit. But I’d like us to draw some connections and reaffirm some basic points in light of this day, and this reading.
The Holy Spirit works in the Word
The Word testifies to Christ, and so does the Spirit
The work of the Spirit continues, and Pentecost remains, when and wherever the Gospel is preached, and the church believes it
One of our most important confessions of faith as Lutherans is the Augsburg Confession. It’s one of those statements that we pastors in the Lutheran Church swear to uphold and teach. And in Article 5, it lays out the distinctly Lutheran understanding of what Scripture teaches about the work of the Spirit:
So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel, that is to say, in those who believe that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that we are received into grace on account of Christ. Galatians 3:14b: “So that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Spirit comes to human beings without the Word through their own preparations.
So, it is through the Word of God that the Holy Spirit works saving faith, and also that word connected to the visible elements in the sacraments. This is where the Holy Spirit works. And while that still doesn’t explain everything, it is a great comfort to us – and it also keeps us out of a lot of trouble.
For one, we know not to look for the Spirit apart from the Word. He’s not going to bonk you on the head randomly or put some burning in your bosom. The Holy Spirit, apart from the Word, will not “lay it on your heart” or give you a special revelation of God’s will.
The confessions say it even more forcefully in the Smalcald Articles:
Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.” – The Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article VIII, 10
This is not to say that God “can’t” do as he wills, even work apart from the word. But that he has given us no direction, no indication, no promise of his blessings anywhere but in the word.
So if you want to know the Spirit, know the word. If you want to know where the Spirit works, or how, look to the Word. Even on the Day of Pentecost, those early Christians didn’t receive the Spirit in order to prove their second-level faith or to confirm that they were really believers. They received the Spirit in order to proclaim the word of the Gospel. Granted, a miraculous and unusual form of the word – empowering speech in strange languages – but still using the word to tell of Christ.
Which brings us to the next point – The Spirit always testifies to Christ. This follows from our first point. If the Spirit works through the word of God, then we know that the Spirit must testify to Christ, for the word of God testifies to Christ. Jesus makes that plain as day. “You search the Scriptures… these are they that testify to me!” The word of God is the word that points to Christ, tells of Christ, reveals Christ, proclaims Christ. And that is what the Spirit is all about. He’s not the Spirit of himself. He’s the Spirit of Christ. He’s like a bright shining spotlight that wants to point our attention always and only to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. Keep your eyes fixed on him! And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord!” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3)
The Small Catechism describes the Spirit’s work with four verbs – He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies. First he calls us… to faith in Christ. We couldn’t do it on our own. Just as we can’t die for our own sins, and pay the price that’s due – we need Jesus – so we can’t believe in Jesus on our own – we need the Spirit. The Spirit, for instance, on that first Christian Pentecost, called thousands of Jewish pilgrims to faith – people from all over the world – by a miraculous proclamation of the Gospel.
The Spirit would then use those believers to call and gather others to Christ, even as they returned to their various homelands. Even as he gathers us together in churches throughout the ages and even today – and through the word has called and gathered us all here.
The Spirit enlightens – he sheds light – he reveals and makes known the things of God. Again, primarily and ultimately, this means Christ. It is by the Spirit, that we gain deeper knowledge of the word, and a fuller appreciation of its testimony to Christ.
And the Spirit sanctifies. He makes holy. He keeps us holy before God, and he works in our lives to make us more Christ-like. He helps us in the daily fight with sin, the daily return to Baptism, the daily death and resurrection of repentance and faith. The life under the cross of the Christian. He sanctifies our vocations, and makes all our work done in faith to be good works pleasing to God.
Yes the Holy Spirit remains active in the world, and especially in the Christian church. Here he “daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers”. He applies the riches of salvation won for us at the cross. He transmits them to us through the means God has provided – words of absolution, sacraments of font and altar. He ever broods over the church like he hovered over the primeval waters of creation. And so, Pentecost continues, in the church, to this day.
Pentecost was a harvest celebration for the ancient Jews. It marked the early harvest of wheat. And you can see why it’s no accident that the Spirit is given on this day. Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few”. The Christian church is depicted as a harvest of the faithful. The Gospel seed is sown in soils of all kinds, and when it falls on good soil produces a harvest of even 100-fold. This is the work of the Spirit. This is the establishing of the church. This is the early harvest, looking forward to the final harvest when all the nations are judged, wheat and chaff are separated – the chaff to be burned in unquenchable fire and the wheat to be stored in his garner forevermore.
So for the church, everyday is Pentecost. Every time the Spirit gathers us around the word, speaks to us in our own language and declares the wonders of God. Every time sinners are called to repentance and faith in Christ. Every time your sins are forgiven and you are sent back into the harvest fields. Pentecost continues. The Spirit presses on.
The Holy Spirit works through the word.
That word always testifies to Christ.
When the word is proclaimed and believed, the Spirit is working, and Pentecost continues. The church is established, sustained, and it grows.
Thanks be to Christ, our one and only Savior. Thanks be to the Holy Spirit, the Lord of the Harvest, working for us, on us, and in us. Thanks be to the Father, who with the Son sends this Spirit, now and forever. Amen.