“To Do What We Cannot Do” May 31, 2020
“To Do What We Cannot Do”
A sermon based on the writings of Luke the Apostle
from the 2nd chapter of Acts
Wow – Pentecost Sunday. To some, it’s just another religious holiday where everyone brings out their red clothes. But to others the season of Pentecost marks a turning point in the Christian calendar. It is a change; a change much in the same way that the moment the Apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, something happened. Something happened that we are still a part of to this day. You see, we have the word of God; we have the life and teachings of Christ; but with the gift of the Spirit, we have something special. As Amba Keeble writes, “The Holy Spirit puts the ‘super’ into our ‘natural.’ What is special about a life in the Spirit is that we are empowered. We are empowered by the Spirit– empowered to do, not just to be. With the gift of the Spirit we are empowered to continue the ministry of Jesus Christ. With the gift of the Spirit, we become the church.
So, Pentecost Sunday – What’s it all about? What’s the big deal? Let’s start with some definitions and get the boring stuff out of the way. Pentecost comes from the Greek Pentecoste which means “fiftieth.” For Christians, Pentecost is the 50th day after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but this wasn’t a number that was chosen at random.
It all started with a promise and a command. In John 14, Jesus makes a promise to his disciples, If you love me, you will keep my commandments. I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth…He then goes on to say, You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you. Later, in Luke’s gospel Jesus instructs them, saying, Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power. And so they do – and he does. And so it was that as the disciples gathered together for the Jewish festival of –you guessed it – Pentecost, that is when Jesus made good on his promise.
I think most of you know that I was raised in the Methodist tradition; an Ohio Methodist, to be precise. In those days, there wasn’t a town of any size that didn’t have a Methodist church or two. They were like Starbucks now days – you might even find two Methodist churches across the street from each other, and folks were OK with that. Now I’ll grant you the fact that I might not have been paying attention as well as I could have in those days, but I received a good education nonetheless. We covered all the basics; things like Adam & Eve, Daniel in the lion’s den, and the life of King David along with all the important teaching and parables of Jesus. Every worship service began with “Holy, holy, holy; Lord God Almighty,” and when we sang, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” I felt I had a pretty good idea what that was all about.
It was later in life, however, that I realized that for all the time we had spent on God the Father and God the Son, the Spirit of God had just never seemed to come up. For that reason, I found myself well into my 30’s at the neighbors 75th birthday party one day asking a friend of ours of the Pentecostal persuasion, “What the heck is Pentecost, anyways?” He, of course, explained it to me in great detail. I’ll admit that I was a bit embarrassed and somewhat concerned that when it comes to matters of the Spirit, I didn’t have a clue.
But here’s the thing: just because we’re not comfortable talking about it, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. If we look, we’ll find that the scriptures speak of the power of the Spirit from beginning to end. The Old Testament has countless references to the creating and empowering presence of God’s Holy Spirit. The book of Genesis speaks of the creating power of the Spirit – it is the source of life. Also, the book of Job and our reading today from the 104th Psalm tell of the Spirit’s creative power. The Spirit is depicted as a teacher as well as God’s presence in our world and in our lives. Scripture tells us how it was the Spirit that actually interrelated with the nation of Israel through all their hard times and good. And it was the Spirit that empowered so many of the leaders in those ancient times. Our reading today from the book of Numbers is a great example. And lastly, it was the Spirit that empowered the prophets to know, to understand, and to interpret the true word of God.
By the same token, the New Testament understandings of the Spirit are consistent with those in the Old Testament. Who was it that descended upon Jesus at his baptism? Who was it that was with him in the wilderness at his time of testing? What was the force that empowered his ministry of teaching and healing? It was the power of the Spirit.
So you see, this is not a new thing. The question is, why do we too often consider it an old thing – as in “old and not for us”? Again from John 14: I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. As Christian – as believers – we take comfort in that knowledge. But make no mistake: the Spirit’s power is on the move. It doesn’t rest; it doesn’t sit still. I may not agree with everything that Pope Francis has said in his short tenure, but his views on the Spirit definitely got my attention. He writes:
“To put it simply: the Holy Spirit bothers us. Because he moves us, he makes us walk, he pushes the Church to go forward. And we are like Peter at the Transfiguration: ‘Ah, how wonderful it is to be here like this, all together!’ … But don’t bother us. We want the Holy Spirit to doze off … we want to domesticate the Holy Spirit. And that’s no good. Because he is God, he is that wind which comes and goes and you don’t know where. He is the power of God, he is the one who gives us consolation and strength to move forward. But: to move forward! And this bothers us. It’s so much nicer to be comfortable.”
So, what is the Holy Spirit to you? As you have grown in your faith, how have you come to use – to utilize – this helper, this Advocate, this empowering Spirit? I’ll admit it: that’s hard question. All I can think to say by way of an answer is to ask the question, “When the Holy Spirit seeks to move in you, what do you do?” When you see justice ignored or when you see evil promoted and feel that ache in your heart, do you say to your God, “But what can I do? There is rioting in the streets, over 360,000 people have died worldwide from a disease we have no defense against – what can I do? Do I lash out, do I look for someone to blame; someone, something, anything? Or do I ignore it in the hopes it will all disappear? What do I do?”
When I went to Licensing School eons ago in Denver, I met up with a young Theology student named Jonathan Priebe. He is now the lead pastor at the FUMC in Cuyahoga Falls outside of Cleveland, OH. I’ve managed to stay in touch and am glad for it. He made an observation the other day that got me to thinking. He stated something to the effect that “The Holy Spirit empowers us to do what we thought we couldn’t do.” I have to agree because I’m sure doing a lousy job on my own. Can I – can we – truly be a presence of peace in this world? Can we be a voice of reason? Can we someway, somehow cast the vision of unconditional love onto a world that is frightened and angry? Can we even make a stab at being Christ in this world?
Just thinking about it makes our heads hurt. But take heart – we have an Advocate, we have a Helper; it is the Spirit of Truth. And so my parting words to you this day as we begin the season of Pentecost, is don’t discount the power of the Spirit. Those things we thought we could not do, they are doable. Empowered by the Spirit, they are doable. Welcome to the season of Pentecost.
Amen & Shalom