This month we celebrate what I have been told was once a really big holiday in the Church year -- Pentecost. I remember how, as a child, the accounts of that first Pentecost would fire my imagination: The sound of a rushing wind filling the place where the Disciples were, people being drawn in great numbers, the tongues of fire on the heads of the Disciples, now called "the eleven" but soon to be called Apostles, and then the preaching in all the various languages of those who comprised the crowd that day. Tremendously exciting stuff! We even read about the crowd reactions - those hostile to God accusing the disciples of being drunk already early in the morning. People were bewildered, confused, excited.
Then there was the preaching of Peter. The sermon was short and sweet, probably the most effective sermon in human history - converting over three thousand with one short talk. Of course, we know by our theology that it is not the sermon, but the power of God and His will that worked so powerfully through the Word, that day - and the fact that this day was the day of the first pouring out of the Holy Spirit among men. We don't really need to study the sermon to learn how to preach effectively - although some people insist on doing just that, as though the structure or content of the preaching was the thing that made it so powerful. We could study the crowd too. After all, God gathered the people together with a clever device, the sound of the rushing wind on what appears to have been a still and quiet day. We might even say that God stacked the deck: He called to the meeting just those that were going to be converted that day anyhow.
Of course, all of that is nonsense. The Bible doesn't tell us any of that. It tells us of the wind. It tells us of the sermon. It tells us how many were added to the Church on that day, approximately. It says nothing, however, about how many people came together at the sound of the wind. It tells us nothing about God being clever in who He gathered on that day. And the sermon was only twenty-five verses long, as reported, and God even made sure we know that we don't have the whole sermon - Peter (and presumably the others) kept on preaching - Acts says, And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" The point of the report is the mighty work of the Holy Spirit on that day, not of "effective" preaching or the productive way the Disciples worked.
Anyhow, Pentecost seemed to be so much larger in the life of the Church in the past than it is now. It was the day upon which the catechumen (those studying to become members of the Church as adults) were baptized. Those about to be baptized wore white - a symbol of purity and holiness - and (some have suggested that the custom of white garments for baptism of that day gave the day its ancient name of "Whitsunday". Pentecost seemed to be a fitting day for Baptism, since the Holy Spirit was first "poured out" on Pentecost. At times and in certain locations the festival of Pentecost took up three whole days (or so my books tell me) - referred to as "Whitsuntide". For some it was a solemn festival, and for others very noisy and joyful.
What it is, however we may celebrate it, is the festival of the Holy Spirit. It may seem strange to have just one day of festival for the Spirit, considering how important the work of the Holy Spirit is to the Church and to the sustaining of the faith, but - if we look at the question through our theology - it should not appear to be strange at all. After all, the Holy Spirit's mission is to draw all men to Christ, so that Christ may bring all glory to God the Father. The Holy Spirit is not about the business of drawing attention to Himself. In fact, I suspect that we would not know about the Holy Spirit if God had not seen fit to reveal His nature as Trinity.
Even with the clarity of the revelation of the Trinity in Scripture, some deny that the Spirit is actually a distinct person of the Trinity. They tend to explain the revelation of the Spirit away as merely a picturesque way of referring to God, or meaning only to convey the activity of God among men. These rationalizations arise among the anti-Trinitarian crowd - such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, to name a few. Clearly, such thinking ignores the Scriptures. Beginning at the beginning, where the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters, to the baptism of Christ, where the Spirit descended in the form of a dove, to the many references of Jesus to the sending of the Spirit, the Comforter, dismissing the personhood of the Spirit is an act of unbelief in which men dismiss the Word of God itself.
Some, mostly modern theologians, and often female or feminist, try to paint the Holy Spirit as the divine feminine, and like to refer to the Holy Spirit as "she". As tempting as that may be in our egalitarian age, it simply cannot be made to work in the light of the Scriptures. The first reference to the Spirit in the New Testament is that Mary is found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, in Matthew 1:18. Without reference to gender, the Holy Spirit appears to be the Father of the Lord Jesus, at least according to His human nature. In Matthew 10, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as "the Spirit of your Father". John quotes John the Baptist as referring to the Spirit as a 'He', John 1:32, "And John bore witness saying, "I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him." And again in John 14, where Jesus, speaking of the Spirit says, "the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you." There are several other places where the Spirit is referenced with the masculine pronoun, but these are sufficient. Our reason also tells us that the One who is united with Father and Son in essence, and who proceeds from the Father and the Son must also be masculine, as they are, so calling the Spirit "she" clearly steps outside of and ignores or disputes the witness of the Scriptures.
This gender issue is not significant generally speaking, except as a response to those who try to turn God into something He is not, or present a different god as either the God of Scriptures or as acceptable as an alternative view of the deity for modern Christians. But we know that either we are dealing with the God who has revealed Himself as He has revealed Himself to us, or we are making something up - as is consistent with the idolatrous nature of man from the very beginning. Actually, most of the references to the Holy Spirit in the Bible call Him "the Holy Spirit" or "the Spirit", and generally avoid the use of pronouns altogether. Old Testament references often use "the Spirit of the Lord" in the place of "Holy Spirit".
Other than the appearance of the Holy Spirit at the Baptism of Jesus in the form of a dove, the Holy Spirit is not seen. That is completely consistent with our understanding of what "spirit" means. A spirit is a non-corporeal being, which means that it has no physical body. That doesn't mean that the Spirit is not observed or observable. It means that when we observe the Spirit, it is by observation of the effects or works of the Spirit. The crowd gathered on the first Christian Pentecost, for example, witnessed the tongues of fire dividing themselves among the disciples. It is possible that the tongues of fire were distributed among just eleven - or it could have happened to all of the roughly one hundred and twenty who had gathered together before when the disciple chose Matthias to take Judas' place among the twelve. Scripture doesn't answer that question definitively. What it does indicate, however, is that the Spirit spoke through them after the tongues of fire had been distributed among them. So the Spirit was seen and heard in His activity, but not seen as Himself.
Later, when the Spirit came upon the Gentiles as evidence of God's acceptance of Gentile converts, the Spirit was recognized by what He worked in those upon whom He came. When Peter first preached to Gentiles in the House of Cornelius the Centurion, they began to speak in tongues and glorify God in evidence of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Gentiles. Scholars often refer to that day as the Gentile Pentecost. In each new expansion of the ministry of the Gospel, the Spirit was poured out with recognizable signs, so that the Apostles might witness the approval of God on that aspect of their work as well. It is important to note, however, that there is no indication from Scriptures that these visible manifestations continued in every place that the Spirit was working. Such displays were not normative for the Church, and very soon were not anticipated broadly. Modern Pentecostals are often confused on this point, and expect (and teach) that these phenomenal signs must accompany the genuine working of the Holy Spirit.
As a side note, it is interesting to hear the "Holy Ghosters" of our age talk about the Spirit. They demand that He be believed to be present only where and when the visible signs - the more sensational and visible "gifts" - are seen, and yet they generally deny the work which the Scriptures assign to Him. They usually hold to decision theology, and believe that the Spirit is present in them and among them by their works and their wrestling in prayer. They don't accept that He comes by the Word - which is clearly how He came in Acts. They reject that He works through the means of grace - Word and Sacrament - and in no other way. They want to claim that they can call Him down by their devotion and emotion, but decline to believe that He works through Word and Sacrament as tools - or means to create faith. Even when they turn the Spirit into the focus of their religion, they tend to deny what God teaches us about His Spirit, and invent teachings with no authority of Scripture to support them.
Paul wrestled with such people in His day. This issue is addressed in 1 Corinthians, from chapter twelve through chapter fourteen. In chapter twelve he wrestles with the false theologies of "gifts", and in chapter fourteen, he addresses the apparently prevalent false ideas about speaking in tongues. In each case, Paul reverses the natural human order of things and places humility and utility to the Gospel first, and human experience and pride last. Chapter 13, everyone's favorite 'Love' chapter, is about agape love, a love which humbles the one loving, and lifts up the one loved. It presents as most glorious and spirit-filled a kind of love to which we can only aspire, the demands of which humble us all. Then in chapter fourteen, Paul dismisses speaking in tongues as relatively undesirable - I would rather speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue. He goes on to tell the Corinthians -and us - that hearing the Word of God in an unknown language is a curse - a sign for unbelievers - and not a blessing at all. He then cites Isaiah 28:11 & ff., an Old Testament judgment passage on unbelief, as his authority, clearly expecting us to make the connection between the curse of Isaiah 28 and the speaking in not-comprehended language that modern tongues-speaking entails.
We celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, and not just on Pentecost. We know that the Holy Spirit is given to each of us that believes. That is why we believe! We don't have great signs to reveal Him and His presence in us, so we just have to take God at His Word. We pour out the Holy Spirit in the waters of Baptism - which is why we believe that baptism converts our infants and joins them to Christ in faith - a faith which we cannot observe directly. Pentecost Sunday gives us a day to focus on these truths, but we celebrate them each time we preach and each time we baptize. In fact, that is when the Holy Spirit is observed in our modern age: in the Marks of the Church. Where the Word of God is being taught in all its truth and purity, and where the Sacraments are being administered according to Christ's institution of them, there we see the Church, the work of the Holy Spirit, for we know from the Bible that the Spirit works in and through the Means of Grace and creates the Church and gathers God's holy people together.
There are no Pentecost Cards for sale. There are no candy treats associated with the day. We don't observe the custom of gift-giving because it is Pentecost, and there are no Pentecost-Carols on the radio - and only a few in church, generally speaking, so Pentecost doesn't seem to be a big holiday in most places, today. But it is an important day in the life of the Church. It is the festival of the Holy Spirit, and it is the anniversary of the day God kick-started the Church. Men had the Holy Spirit before Pentecost, because faith is worked by the Spirit, and always was. On Pentecost, God publically gave Him to us for our faith and our comfort, and as His continual presence among His holy people, not unlike the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night! Happy - which is what "blessed" means - Pentecost!!
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.
Send Pastor Robin Fish an email.