A sermon for the Feast of Pentecost, May 20, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
Today is the feast of Pentecost when the church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. One version of that is the story in our lesson from the book of Acts. The Spirit alights on the apostles like tongues of fire and everyone in their own language understands, while the apostles preach the Gospel. But the coming of the Holy Spirit is not just about a dramatic public event of evangelism. The Holy Spirit has always been regarded by the church as the presence of God, enlivening and guiding it.
In the Gospel today Jesus is addressing his disciples, anticipating that he will soon leave them—this is at the Last Supper, shortly before his arrest. And Jesus assures them that they will not be alone: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” The church receives the Holy Spirit who continues Christ’s work among us and in the world. Yet the world, the powers of selfishness, and service of power for the sake of domination is that very power that opposed Jesus and brought about his death. Jesus says this: “When the Advocate comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” And “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The Truth that the Holy Spirit leads us into is reality—that is to say real, realistic reality—and that reality is the compassion of the God we know in Jesus. We know that love of Jesus at the outset—any child can see it—yet it takes a whole lifetime to grow into that compassion.
The World, pre-occupied in serving self, cannot receive the Spirit because it does not see or know him—too often the Church paradoxically becomes that World, pre-occupied with fears and schemes, rather than the courage and love of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the Spirit does guide us, in our weakness and our blindness.
St. Paul says this near the end of the passage read from his Letter to the Romans today: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Holy Spirit is not something superficial, nor is it something emotional; rather it is the power of God among us, between us and within each of us, guiding and healing us in his love.
This passage appointed begins: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” A while ago, I read a wonderful book about the Roman Empire by Mary Beard called SPQR. While the book has little to do with religion and almost nothing about Christianity, it is clear that everyone in the Roman Empire at this time was very familiar with slavery and with adoption. The economy of the empire was based on slavery, from the lowest and harshest of menial labor in the mines, to very high functionaries in the households of the wealthiest aristocrats.
Wealth and comfort for the owners proceeded from the work of the slaves, yet they counted as nothing; they were regarded as invisible and of little or no worth. Any slave could be beaten or even killed, without the master having to even explain. Many early Christians were slaves and a substantial number of other Christians at the same time were owners of slaves. Everyone intimately understood the fear that dominated the lives of the slaves. Jesus, described himself as a slave to all—a most extraordinarily radical thing. Equally radical was that the church asserted that they followed this man, and honored him as God.
Adoption was also common in the Roman Empire, though not as common as slaveholding. Many Roman emperors were the adopted sons of the previous emperor. If a man of wealth and property did not have a son who he judged satisfactory to be his heir, he would choose someone to adopt as his son. This was the Roman version of the succession schemes we often see at modern corporations, where today’s wealth is often concentrated. In the Roman Empire being adopted was a typical succession plan—those who were adopted achieved higher status and security than they had had previously.
So St. Paul says, “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” The Holy Spirit, which the church receives on Pentecost, takes us out of fear and slavery through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And not only that, every one of us is now adopted, not by a wealthy landowner, or by a Roman Emperor, but by the God who created heaven and earth. When we boldly and audaciously say, “Our Father…” at the breaking of the bread, that Holy Spirit is bearing witness “with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” as St. Paul says. And he continues, “If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Suffering is indeed real, we can expect it, and the Holy Spirit enables us to face it squarely—without fear.
We are glorified with God as we live for others. We know the blessing of Christ’s presence through being generous and welcoming. We know God by looking Jesus in the face.
As it says in today’s psalm:
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them
All the earth is full of your creatures.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in all his works.
He looks at the earth and it trembles; he touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will praise my God while I have my being.
May these words of mine please him;
I will rejoice in the Lord.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.