Pentecost is coming this month. Pentecost is a word from the Greek meaning "fiftieth day." It is seven weeks from Easter, on the fiftieth day after Easter. While the feast is movable, changing dates as Easter changes each year, it is always on a Sunday, just as the first Christian Pentecost was.
It is important to note "Christian" Pentecost because the Jews also celebrate Pentecost. They call it Shavu'ot, the Festival of Weeks, also known as the festival of First-Fruits. The first Christian Pentecost occurred on a Sunday, and on the Jewish holiday of Pentecost. While our Pentecost is always on a Sunday because we celebrate Easter always on a Sunday (because the first Easter was on a Sunday), the Jewish holiday moves with Passover, which is not always on the same day of the week. Pentecost for the Jews begins on the Monday evening after our Sunday Pentecost this year.
The festival of weeks and of first-fruits is a harvest festival. That reminds us of the harvest of souls in the Christian Church. The first fruits of that harvest were the 3,000 souls gathered to the Church on that first Pentecost. We celebrate that day of first fruits not just because of those souls gathered, but primarily because it was the day of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church in a visible and audible way, giving the Church its formal start.
I am careful to say that Spirit was given "visibly" and the start of the church was "formally" on that day because neither actually began on Pentecost. No one believes without the Holy Spirit, and the disciples clearly believed before that day, so they had the Spirit in them, and the Church existed throughout history as the whole total number of those that believe in Jesus, or in the promise of Jesus to come, or in the promise of salvation, first given in Genesis 3:15 as God was about to remove Adam and Eve from the Garden.
On Pentecost, God fulfilled the promise to send the Holy Spirit in a way that was recognizable and undeniable except to hardened unbelief. Although there were as many as 500 hundred brethren already before Jesus ascended (1 Cor. 15:6) who could be rightly called "Christians" (even if the term had not been invented yet, that happened in Antioch some time later, Acts 11:26), the Christian Church formally began, distinct from prior church bodies, on Pentecost number one. Like Lutheranism, the Christians would have been happy to remain in Judaism and reform it into the body of believers, but that was not to be. Unbelievers would not permit that any more than they would permit the reformation of the Roman Church at the time of Luther.
Pentecost today is the celebration of something we have never witnessed in quite the same way as the first Christians. Again, I say that carefully because we have witnessed it - the pouring out of the Holy Spirit - just not in precisely the same way as they did back then. They had the noise of the great wind (a spirit reference!) and the tongues of fire on the heads of the Apostles and the speaking in tongues of that first Pentecost to mark the event. I am unaware of any subsequent noises of a great wind happening spontaneously or tongues of flame which do not burn the wearer. Also, the gift of tongues on that day was different in kind from what men claim is the gift today because the Apostles all spoke languages of the people gathered around them. It was not merely ecstatic speech which was without meaning to all those who heard it. That day has never been replicated, to my knowledge, since the time of the Apostles. They had a couple of events which are mentioned in Scripture on which the Spirit was similarly poured out on others, but since then I know of none quite like those. I am not saying it never happened, because I do not know, but I am saying that much of what is blamed on God is not His working in many Pentecostal worship settings.
We do see the Holy Spirit poured out today, however. It happens in Baptism. We don't see the Spirit, but we see Him being poured out with the water. I know it happens because Scripture says so. My eyes only see the water, but my trust in the Word of God shows me the Spirit, as God performs what He promised and creates faith in those who are "born of water and the Spirit," John 3:5.
I hear the sound of the Spirit on every Easter day which is to say every Pentecost celebration - every Sunday - in the preaching of the Word of God in truth and purity. After all, "faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ," Romans 10:17. The sound of faithful preaching is the sound the Holy Spirit makes today to call men and women to faith and to eternal life in Christ Jesus.
We don't celebrate Pentecost to remember a single event of historical importance. We celebrate to take the opportunity to rehearse and re-teach the truths demonstrated on that day. Modern life can confuse us and deceive us by hiding reality from us. We get caught up in that which is easily seen and heard and felt and tend to forget that reality is somewhat larger than what our sense can reveal to us.
We cannot see, for example, the Holy Spirit at work in the Church as we worship. We can know He is there, by taking God at His Word, but we are responding to what we know and believe, not what we perceive with our senses, and the modern world has done an awfully good job of training people to believe only what they can perceive to be real - and not even all of that. But there is more. Science tells us that there are structures too large to be observed casually, and structures too small to be observed at all. Some of them are just inferred by their effects. And isn't it odd that if Science tells us something we cannot perceive is so, we tend to give Science the benefit of the doubt, but when the Bible tells us things we cannot observe, it becomes questionable?
We celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church to teach and lead and guide her, even though we do not perceive directly the hand of the Spirit, and the gift of the Spirit to each and every one that believes, even though believers generally do not perceive His presence in them. It seems like we should be able to sense His presence, and the burning desire to do so is the force behind much of what we observe as Pentecostalism today. Oddly, to our human reason, this situation is precisely the will of God.
Luther referred to the hiddenness of God, or Deus absconditus. Luther would say God uses tools or God hides behind masks or something like that. What He was describing is how we often cannot sense God where He is at work. He works through His Word, but when we hear it preached or sung (as in the liturgy) we do not feel His presence or work. When God forgives us our sins, we do not feel that forgiveness. We may believe it is so and feel about the forgiveness, but the forgiveness itself is not tangible. We have no nerve endings to sense that. It is the Holy Spirit who brings those gifts to us.
We don't think of it that way, often, because Jesus died for our forgiveness, and we might pray to God the Father for the forgiveness won for us, but the Holy Spirit is the one dealing with us - not that it makes any difference, since all God does in our lives is done by all three members of the Trinity - opera ad extra indivisus sunt (you cannot divide the external works of God among the Persons of the Trinity). We can distinguish among the Persons of the Trinity for teaching purposes, but those distinctions are artificial as far as human observation - or the witness of Scripture - is concerned.
We have the holiday of the Holy Ghost (Pentecost) to remember Him and His work, but He does His work behind the masks of God and does not seek His own glory. The work of the Holy Spirit is to bring all glory to God the Father through Jesus Christ. He is not about giving Himself glory, but giving it to Jesus which brings all glory to the Father. That is why everything we celebrate in the Church is focused on Jesus. He is the One whom we worship and praise and sing our thanks to each Sunday, while never ignoring or denying the truth of the Triune nature of the Godhead.
Take creation, for example. The Father was there. No believer questions that. The Spirit was there too, hovering above the waters of the tohu we vohu - the "formless and void". But the Church confesses that the Second Person of the Trinity created everything - John 1:1-4, the Nicene Creed, and so forth. Genesis even records His presence in the words "Then God said." The Word of God was there, creating, along with the other Persons of the Trinity, and, as John takes pains to point out, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we behold His glory, glory as of the only-begotten from the Father, full of Grace and truth," John 1:14. That was Jesus, pre-incarnate as to time, but Jesus nonetheless.
Christmas is about Jesus, obviously, but the Spirit was there, working through the Word of God spoken by the angel Gabriel, bringing Mary to believe the Word spoken to her and making her pregnant.
We know the Spirit was there at the Baptism of Jesus. He took on the shape that has become emblematic of the Spirit ever since, the dove. What is not so obvious is that He stayed with Jesus. Both Matthew and John make a point of the Spirit coming upon Jesus and, in John, remaining with Him. So everywhere Jesus went during His ministry, Scripture reveals that the Spirit went too. No one noticed Him then, though.
The one thing the Spirit does not seem to have done is go to the cross. The passion of Jesus was Jesus alone, the Second Person of the Trinity. Perhaps that absence was part of the reason Jesus cried out the word of Psalm 22, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" Luke and John do not quote these words of Jesus, possibly because the Gentile Christian audience for which they were writing would not have recognized them or their significance. It probably is not significant, but I think it is interesting that Jesus calls out "My God" twice. Of course, it could be for the value of making sure everyone at the scene recognized He was quoting the Psalm so they could not question what was happening before them. Then again, it also could be because He was bereft of the other two Persons of the Trinity for the only time in His life, or in history. But, as the Athanasian Creed goes to great lengths to make clear, and Luther's Christian Questions and Answers make explicit, the Father did not die for us, nor did the Spirit. Only the Son.
The work of the Holy Spirit is to make the good news of the gift of God in Jesus Christ known and to bring men to faith in what God did and what He promised in connection to what He did in Jesus Christ. He does that work through preaching, and through Baptism, and through the Lord's Supper and through holy Absolution and through the witness of the children of God when they witness the Word of God. He uses what we call the Means of Grace, the Word and Sacraments.
Anyone who wants to take you anywhere else to find the Spirit or identify His work is trying to lead you astray. He is a spirit, that is a non-corporeal being. He has no physical body to be seen, so if they want to show Him to you, they have to show the Word and Sacraments, which is not the Spirit, but are His tools, and where you hear or see them being properly and honestly used, you see the evidence of the Spirit at work and you may be confident that He is there, even if you cannot point to Him physically.
He isn't in your feelings, although you may be feeling about what He has done. He is to be found in the Church, but you may be able to enter a church and see them doing religious-looking stuff and He is not there because the Word of God has been falsified and the things they do as "sacraments" are self-described as mere symbols and rituals and nothing more. Thing is, even in the Church, you cannot see Him or who He is in for sure, you can just see His work being done and know He there.
So, on May 24, we will celebrate the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, the Person of the Trinity who wants you to look away from Him to Jesus.
Yours in the Lord,
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