The Day of Pentecost - Whitsunday
May 15, 2005
The Gospel: John 20:19-23
Sermon: "Celebrating the Gift of the Holy Spirit"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
Celebrating the Gift of the Holy Spirit
The Day of Pentecost - Whitsunday - May 15, 2005
Over the years churches have celebrated this day in a variety of ways. Some churches have had big parties on the front lawn. Some have had balloons attached to the pews. Others have rented tanks of helium and given everybody a red balloon. When the service was over, everyone walked outside and released the balloons into the air. Some churches have had the lesson from Acts read in different languages. Reading in different languages is said to relive the event in Acts where the disciples spoke in many languages. All of these celebratory means are intended to help us comprehend, in a physical way, the birthday of the church. There is nothing wrong with any of these manners of celebration.
What does it mean though, for us to celebrate this incredible day? What are we truly celebrating? The easy answer is that we are celebrating the receiving of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised the disciples the Comforter. On this day, the Comforter came to the disciples. Since this day, the presence of the Comforter has been with us.
What is the role of the Comforter? Jesus does not give us a list of what the Comforter will do. He does not give us explicit answers. In fact, the disciples receive the Comforter at different times according to the writers. In Luke-Acts, we heard the disciples received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost in a room with closed doors. They bound out onto the street speaking in tongues. The people hear them speaking in their own languages.
However, in John, they appear to receive the Holy Spirit shortly after the resurrection. They are gathered together and Jesus suddenly stood among them. When he appears he says to them, "Peace be with you." These words are a traditional greeting of the time. But they also carry a greater significance. During the last evening with the disciples, Jesus promised the gift of his peace to the community. Here, in this room, he fulfills that promise. He gives them his peace. He then tells them He is sending them out into the world. Immediately, he breathes on them. When he breathes on them they receive the Holy Spirit. Now, this reception is very different than what occurred in Luke's account. Yet, it is very reminiscent of another time when God breathed on humanity.
In the very beginning of Genesis, God made humanity from the clay of the earth. Humanity was fashioned and formed. When the body was finished, God breathed life into the Adam. The spirit and breath of God in Hebrew is called Ruach. God breathed God's spirit into Adam. In Hebrew Adam is a term that means humanity. It is not just a name of an individual. At the beginning of creation, God breathed life, physical and spiritual, into humanity. Somewhere along the way, humanity did not understand what God had done.
So, here we are with Jesus and the disciples. Jesus breathes God's Holy Spirit into the disciples in a new way. They are now empowered with God's Spirit to do what Jesus has done. They are empowered to go out into the world. Now, here comes the interesting part. Jesus does not give a laundry list of things to do. He does not say, heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead. He does not say build churches, wear robes, and write songs. He does say if we forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.
All right, so what does Jesus mean by this statement. We might believe it is simply about forgiving people for wrongs they have committed. If we forgive people for moral sins they are forgiven. This statement is true. If we forgive someone for hurting us they are forgiven. If we don't, they are not forgiven. Simply look at our daily lives and those statements are true. Yet, the Law of Moses also taught forgiveness for moral sins. It would have been possible to follow the Law given to Moses and achieve that end.
So, Jesus has to be talking about something in addition to the forgiveness of moral sins. Yes, forgiving is important. If we don't forgive for moral sins, then we eat ourselves up with loathing and hate. We hurt ourselves deeply by hanging onto sins. Jesus is talking about something of greater importance. Forgiving has a broader and deeper definition. Forgiving includes bearing witness to the identity of God as revealed in Jesus. We are being asked to recognize who Jesus is. He is the One who was to come. He is the Messiah. He is the Son of God. As a part of that recognition, we are to share this news with the whole world. We share this news by loving one another in the faith community.
Now, it is important for us to be real clear about what that means. If we are holding enmity in our hearts for another person in this community of St. Thomas, then we are not setting the example of love to the world. If we hold enmity towards our neighbors, then we are not setting the example for the world to see. In other words we are called to be honest and loving with one another, treating one another as Jesus treats us. We are called to be honest and loving with one another in the entire faith community. Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian; all who proclaim Jesus as the Son of God are called to be witnesses of Christ's love for the world. We are called to Christ's example to one another as the faith community. We are called to be faithful to the world as Christ's example. By being examples of Christ's love to the world, then we are bearing witness to the love of God in Jesus to the world. Therefore, forgiving is being a witness of Jesus Christ in the world.
All right, so how do we begin sharing this forgiveness? We begin right here. We begin with our relationships with one another. We witness to the love of God by loving one another in every single relationship we have. Parents to children, children to parents, teacher to student, students to teacher, neighbor to neighbor. If we can't begin witnessing the love of God in these relationships then we will have a difficult time sharing them with the world.
Today, we do celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit among us and within us. It is only through the empowerment of the Spirit that we have the capability to witness to one another the true love of God. Perhaps the best way we could celebrate this gift would be to promise to share the true love of God in Christ to someone else we know this week. If we can be bold enough to share God's love to even one person, then I believe we would offer to God more honor and glory than anything we could possibly do with balloons, streamers or birthday cakes. I pray the breath of God will refresh us and empower us to be faithful witnesses of Christ in the world. AMEN