Sermon: Revisiting Pentecost

John 14:15-27

*Note, I have begun in my own devotional life using “Holy Parent (they/them), Son (he/his), Spirit (she/her)…I changed the language for Spirit, but not for Father. I know that’s a more difficult linguistic change for some. I’d like your feedback moving forward.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and the Father will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees her nor knows her. You know her, because she abides with you, and she will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” 

22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 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. 27 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.


Sermon: Revisiting Pentecost

The question I have this Pentecost season, as the church calendar invites us more deeply into life in the Spirit, is “Who is God with us?” Jesus was called “God with us,” but now we have, not the embodied Jesus, but the Spirit of God. The community that formed around the apostle John’s teachings likely produced this Gospel account, as well as the three letters of John. In 1 John, the writer encourages us to “test the spirits” to see if they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out. This is as true today as it was in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Many people claim to speak on behalf of God in this Spirit. I am most skeptical about the ones who seem the most certain that their words are God’s words. I’m sure you know these types. 

Ed and I were married on May 21, 2011. Leading up to that day, there was a Christian radio host, named Harold Camping, who declared that May 21st would be Judgement Day and the Rapture. The rapture is a whole different topic that we should at some point spend time on here— but suffice it to say, it is a concept that is very prevalent in American evangelicalism and pop culture, but relatively new in Christian theology and dicey when it comes to Scripture and tradition, at best. It’s also been extremely damaging to many folks that have been brought up with the idea. So May 21st, Camping proclaimed that Jesus Christ would return to the earth, judge the living, take up away those who would be saved and going to heaven for eternity, then leave the earth to horrible destruction and genocide for four months. On October 21st, I guess having had enough of the bloodshed and plagues, Jesus would completely obliterate the earth. It’s a rough prediction, to say the least. Camping’s radio station group, Family Radio, did a big publicity campaign around this prediction 2011. And the radio stations raised millions of dollars, other groups mocked him, some big names in the American church defended him— it was a whole thing. And that day was our wedding day. The rapture did not happen, but it provided some good jokes during the toasts.

It is possible that Harold Camping and his radio station employees were all swindlers propagating a known lie to elicit donations. That is possible, but uncharitable. It is also possible— and more charitable— that most or all of those who were a part of warning the masses of the coming rapture believed they were speaking in the Spirit of God. They did not just think it; they were certain of it. And that is dangerous territory. Certainty and God’s Spirit do not often overlap.

Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in mystic, even slippery, language. Earlier in John, Jesus likens the Spirit to wind. In my faith, I like the concrete. Even as someone who has rejected fundamentalism and upholds (at least intellectual) doubt as inherently a part of faith, I am drawn toward the concrete, the known, the certain in my faith. I tend toward the solidity of God being like Jesus, and what Jesus says and does, then, being the bedrock of my faith, my work, my spirituality. Yet, there are huge gaps in this. Jesus does not speak and act on everything. There are things I am concerned about in my life and the lives of my closest neighbors, that Jesus is not concrete about— many because he was in a particular context and we are in a different one: Climate change and democracy, the inclusion and celebration of LGBTQ+ persons, depression and anxiety, gun violence and gentrification, dating and sex. We live our lives in the midst of an uncertain faith— which is a Spiritual faith.

Just as God sent Jesus as a who, not a proposition or a doctrine, God sends the Spirit, too, as a who. The Advocate, Jesus calls her, in the Gospel reading. The Spirit with us is the opposite of the Satan, the spirit of the devil, the spirit that opposed Christ. That spirit is called, “Accuser.” How often we still confuse the two! The Spirit of God is our advocate. The Spirit of God, Jesus says, will remind us of what he taught…will love and abide with us as we keep Jesus’ commands. That last part sounds harsh, until we remember Jesus’ commands. All the law and the prophet Jesus sums up as: Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. 

The Spirit— God with us— Jesus says is an advocate who is truth, is known, is abiding, is life-giving, is loving, is a teacher and reminder, and is peace-making. Test the spirits. There are many false prophets. 

The Spirit abides in us and in God’s world. As the prophet Joel is quoted on the day of Pentecost almost 2000 years ago: God pours out the spirit on all flesh—In prophesy, in dreams, in visions, in liberation for those viewed as unworthy to be God’s dwelling—the Spirit has been and is being poured out.

Yet, the dominating spirits of right now are not those of peace, life, and love. Fear is the dominating spirit of our time. Accusation. Cold certainty. If you want to know what the spirit of Satan looks like in our time and place— which I wouldn’t recommend for your own soul’s sake— glimpse comments and commentators accusing the father who died alongside his young daughter as they tried to cross the Rio Grande. Fear, accusation, and a cold certainty are the spirits that are loudest and most kindled. They are setting people and institutions and culture ablaze and demolishing those in their path. 

When the Holy Spirit descends in the story of Pentecost in Acts, she looks like tongues of fire resting on each follower of Jesus. Yet, she is a fire like the burning bush Moses encounters. A fire that burns hot, but does not consume. A fire that is dangerous and wild, yet will not destroy. The fire of fear consumes and destroys. The fire of love emboldens and fuels. She is life-giving. Peace-making. But not tamed and not controlled by us and not contained by the concrete certainties we may place her within.

The hope and assurance and call is that the Spirit of God is at work in liberation, in advocacy, in love made known through justice, in abiding love in pain, uncertainty, and heartbreak. The Spirit is made known to us, abides with us, and we join her movement as we follow Jesus’ commands to love God and love our neighbor. The challenge, for me, in this is that it requires that I test the spirits not only out there, but within myself. Within my community. I may think and act seeking liberation, advocacy, love made known in justice— out of a spirit of fear and a hatred of those who are “other” to me. The spirit of fear and accusation is not far from me. And when the spirit of fear takes over, Jesus’ words seem shallow, almost insulting: “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.” The Spirit’s insistence to be poured out on all flesh, even those whose fear is setting fire to everything, is insulting. Yet, fear cannot drive out fear. Within ourselves, within our communities, within our nation, within the world. The Spirit of love must be poured out to overcome all other spirits. In each of us, in our communities, in our nation, in our world. Who is God with us?

The same Spirit of Pentecost, God’s Spirit of life and love and peace has been and is being poured out. She abides in you and in us. The invitation is not to grasp and control her. It is to abide in her, live in her, act in her. Abide in love, live in love, act in love. Be emboldened and fueled by the Spirit’s fire that gives life, rather than destroying it.