A few typos, but you get the gist. The coming of the Holy Spirit is a good thing, and we give thanks to God for all his many gifts. My favorite line (and it’s a tribute to an obscure line in a James Thurber piece called “Macbeth Murder Mystery”) is “No one says ‘Hey, those guys are on fire!'” Here’s the start, with more after the jump:
We finally come to Pentecost. We’ve spent the last six months covering the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord. The festival half of the church year now finishes with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the comforter. Today we celebrate and give thanks for his work in the church. And what is that work? What amazing things does he bring? We hear of the fire today. That must have been impressive. Strange languages. Also good. Miracles. Sure to impress. Jesus promises the disciples on ascension day that they will be poisoned and not harmed, the sick will be healed, demons will be cast out in Jesus name. We could use some more of that today – maybe with a healing ministry people would come to the church – at the very least the church could save a little bit on the pastor’s health insurance. Jesus promises such amazing things, and then it seems like today the church is so ordinary. Other churches have exciting programs, you feel like the Spirit is moving. Here we have the same people, the same old readings, the same liturgy, the same hymnal, the same reserved attitude. We could use an infusion of… something. A tongue of fire would be helpful. Maybe just one or two miracles. Something to let us know we are doing it properly.
But then, as Jesus says in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus – if they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they hear even if someone were to rise from the dead. We have the word and promise of our Lord. And while on Ascension Day he gives some rather lofty sounding promises, they are all fulfilled in the time of the apostles. He never promises they will continue.
Even the tongues of fire – the most obvious sign of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the apostles, doesn’t seem to last more than a few seconds or minutes. How do we know? Because when the disciples go outside and Peter preaches, the response is “these men are drunk.” No one says, “Hey! Those guys are on fire!” The Spirit dwelling in them with tongues of fire on the heads was a sign for the apostles and those who already believed. It was not an ongoing thing. It was to indicate that now the preaching of the Gospel was to begin. And begin it did. Peter preaches his famous Pentecost sermon. 3,000 are baptized that day. Enough that, when they all return home, there are little churches scattered throughout the empire. So, when the Jerusalem authorities start arresting and imprisoning the Christians – and even killing them – they have places to flee to in other cities. And when they are suffering so much they don’t have enough money for food because of the persecution of the leaders in Jerusalem, there are churches in other towns and cities that can support them with their offerings. Don’t be fooled by that 3,000 number. Those were visitors, not residents. The Jerusalem church was not the world’s first mega-church, with programs and activities for all ages, and a barista bar by the entrance and a fancy lighting system.
The book of Acts continually says the church was blessed and continued to grow, but it also describes significant poverty on the part of many, and significant persecution for those who dared to confess the name of Christ. The blessing was in those who would hear and believe the word of God. And the power of the Spirit was not in miracles that made life easier for the disciples – they were actually arrested and beaten for healing people. Where God is active, there you will find Satan working to tear down what God is building. And let’s look at what Jesus promises in the Gospel reading today. He says:
The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
The great gift of the Holy Spirit is to teach, and to help them remember all he said to them. That may not sound like much, but it is a great comfort to us. Because it means all that the apostles recorded about the life and death of Jesus – everything we’ve been hearing the last six months – is a true record. The Holy Spirit himself testifies that the word of the apostles recorded in Holy Scripture is true. One of our synod’s leading theologians used to introduce scripture readings with, “The Word of the Lord which the Holy Spirit caused to be recorded…” It was a way of saying, “The Word of the Lord in Holy Scripture is true. It is an accurate record of what happened. We can rely on it to be 100% correct in every detail.” There is no record produced by humans that can claim that level of authority. Only the Word of God, only the words that he gave to the prophets and apostles to record can claim that it is always exactly and entirely the truth.
Thanks be to God that the Scriptures are absolutely and totally trustworthy. We never have to wonder if this is really what happened. Was Jesus really born of the blessed Virgin Mary? Did he really suffer under Pontius Pilate, was he really crucified, did he really die, was he really buried, and did he really rise again from the grave, forever breaking the power of death? Yes! Amen Amen! This is most certainly true! No doubt should enter our mind about these events. They happened just as the scriptures record them. And we have the promise of our Lord Jesus himself that they happened as the Holy Spirit caused these men to record them. What a gift – what a blessed assurance we have – that what is written for our instruction is without a doubt the absolute truth.
And this means that the promise of forgiveness life and salvation through Jesus – through his death and resurrection – that promise is good. Your sins are forgiven in Jesus. In him through Holy Baptism you have been given a new life. In the Holy Supper you are truly given the body and blood of your Lord Jesus Christ. And as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup you proclaim the Lord’s Death until he comes again. What a wonderful gift the church has been given in the mystical supper. The promise is good. Any doubt is a work of your own sinful flesh that works against the Spirit of God. The work of the Holy Spirit it to create a new heart in you, to put a right spirit within you. To take your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. The language of Baptism is that you are torn from Satan’s grasp, and made a child of your heavenly Father. Satan is cast out, and a home is made for the Holy Spirit. But Satan wants back the souls that he stole from God because of your sin. He will do whatever he can to get you back. He wants you to reject the word and the promise of God, to walk away from the gifts given in Holy Baptism. To return again to your former way of life, where you were under the curse of sin and the Law, and were a child of wrath, destined for death. That’s what he wants for you again.
That is why we must always be on guard against the lies of Satan, and why we return again to the fountain – the source of our life. The Spirit has promised to work through certain things to keep you in the faith. The same church through which you were given the Spirit, the Word and the Holy Sacraments – that’s where you receive the gifts of God – salvation, new life in Christ. It’s why we return again to the word and promise of God. We return again to the place where the Holy Sacrament is administered so you can take eat, take drink, and be fed with the gift of Jesus himself for you.
But notice also what Jesus says in the first part of our Gospel. He says:
If anyone loves me he will keep my Word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my word. And the word that you hear is not mine, but the Father’s who sent me.
It’s not just the bare knowledge of the events in Jesus life that saves. Now, to be clear – we are saved by grace through faith, without any merit or worthiness in us, without any work on our behalf. And the work of the Holy Spirit is to bring you to faith. As we confess in the Small Catechism – I believe that I can not by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. But, once we are given salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus when we hear and believe the word of promise, the Spirit enters our hearts, and we begin to love God and desire to keep his word. How can it be any other way? No one says, “Oh, that man sure loves his wife. You can tell by the way he never says anything kind about her, and spends all of his time away from his family in the company of other women.” We don’t commend parents who abandon their children as examples of love and sacrifice that we should follow. So also, we are to Love God. And you don’t show that love by never going to the place he has promised to be for you – for your good. That’s why he commands that we come to church to hear and learn the Word. For your good – so you can receive the gifts he gives. To despise the Word, to despise the place God has set apart to hear that word and receive his blessings –that is to despise both the gift and the giver. If you were drowning and someone saved you and carried you to shore, only to have you spit in their eye, others could rightly accuse you of being ungrateful. Even if you said, “Oh thank you, I am so grateful that you saved my life.” And then left and spent the rest of the day complaining about the lifeguard, you would still rightly be accused of hypocrisy and being rather a jerk.
So, in Christ Jesus you have been saved – not just in this life – but eternally. And now you are a child of the most high God by virtue of the faith given in Baptism. So, how do you respond to this wonderful gift? Do you respond with songs of praise, with constant prayer? Do you continue to hear and learn God’s word? Or do you go off our own way, and say, “Well, I’m baptized and my name is on a roster of a congregation, but I have better things to do with my life than hang out there.” Do you say, “I don’t have to pray, even though God commands it. I don’t have to dwell in the word, or be conformed to Christ, or show in any way that I have been saved from eternal condemnation.” “I can love God without ever doing anything loving toward God, or receiving love from God.”
Christ has redeemed you, forgiven you all your sins, and given you every blessing in heaven and on earth through his death and resurrection. You have done – you can do – nothing to earn or deserve this. It is all gift. And, because you can’t earn it, because no work of yours can pay him back for this, or even make a beginning in showing your gratitude, because it is totally by gift, the temptation is to say, “I can do whatever I want.” This is true – there is nothing that is required under the Gospel. It is all promise. And you can do whatever you want. The question is – what do you want to do? Are your desires now driven by the Spirit who dwells in you according to the gift of Christ given in Baptism? Or are your desires driven by the sinful flesh to live in this world according to the pattern of this world? It’s possible to dull the conscience. To convince yourself that sin is ok – it’s not even really sin. You can dull your conscience such that it is effectively dead. You can go and commit whatever sins you wish and never feel even a little bit guilty about it. Or, if you do feel guilty, you lie and tell yourself that you are working on it, but golly sin is hard. And forgiveness is always available. No need to worry. But there is reason – remember – each commandment begins with “We should FEAR and love God, so that…” Fear of God and his wrath over sin. Even more – love of God and his word and command.
That’s what Jesus means when he says, “if anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him.” Those who love Jesus –that is, those who have received from him forgiveness of sins by grace through faith in him – all of those people gladly hear and learn the word – to more and more conform themselves to Christ and the example he sets for us in his holy life and conversation.
We are to love God, and serve our neighbor. That is what we are given to do in this world. It is what the 10 commandments command us to do. And those works that fulfill the 10 commandments are the truly good works before God. Love of God, love of neighbor. It’s what we do.
And we do it not out of compulsion, because we think we have to in order to earn the favor of God, but because of the love which God has shown to each of you. Your membership in the church is more than merely knowing certain things. It isn’t just in the head. It is in the heart – that the Spirit dwells in your heart and so you want to hear and learn the Word, you want to follow the command of God not because you can earn anything from it, but from love of God, proceeding from a pure heart and mind that have been renewed by God in Christ Jesus.
That is how we are to understand the work of the Spirit. That each day, the Spirit through the word and prayer returns you to your Baptism, bringing you to contrition and repentance, so that you despise sin, so that you drown the old Adam in you, so that your sins and evil desires die, and so that you live according to the new life given in Christ each day. That is true spirituality. People like to say “I’m spiritual but not religious.” It usually means – I’m not. Because to be spiritual is nothing more than to live a life given by the Holy Spirit through the Word and Sacraments. To return to those means given by God again and again. To respond to God in prayer with praise and thanksgiving.
This isn’t glamorous – it isn’t tongues of fire and special miraculous signs. It is the everyday work of living according to the word of God. Of learning more and more the wonderful love which God has shown through Christ Jesus to forgive your sins and make you alive again in him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. It is struggling against that old sinful flesh, stumbling occasionally in weakness, but returning to your Baptism by repentance so that you are brought back into your Baptismal grace. It is constantly living in the tension between the Command and promise of God, but knowing that the promise of forgiveness is greater than the command, greater than your sin. For your sins were swallowed up in the death of Christ. So in love toward Christ, even though you struggle in your sin, you do so while hating all of the works of your sinful flesh, and striving to be more and more like Christ, all the while trusting in Jesus for forgiveness of your sins, and living in love toward your neighbor according to the calling God has given you in this world.
May God grant each of us such Christian perfection to live our lives according to this pattern, with sincere trust that our sins are forgiven for Jesus sake, and with increasing love for all those whom God has placed in our lives so that we may show them in some small measure the love which Christ has shown us.
In the Name of Jesus, who sent the Spirit of truth into our hearts, to establish in us a living faith.