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June 4, 2006 (Pentecost)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
Ezekiel 37:1–14; Acts 2:1–21; John 15:26–27, 16:4b–15
My friend got married yesterday back in Minnesota. Chances are good that at this wedding, like at most weddings I’ve been to, one of the Scripture texts that were read was the verses from 1 Corinthians 13, which ends “And now faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of these is love.”
I don’t know if people understand what this means in a Christian context or just want it read at their weddings because it sounds nice and non-threatening, but these are probably the verses from Scripture that most often interact with assemblies of people not familiar with the gospel of Jesus Christ. So maybe this verse is a good one for us to understand better since maybe someday, someone at one of these weddings might ask us, “Hey what does that faith, hope, and love stuff mean to you?”
Since I got to talk about how Christ’s love compares to our world’s understanding of love in my last sermon, I think it’s kind of cool that today on Pentecost we focus on the gift of the Holy Spirit since the other two parts of the very popular scripture—faith and hope—are in the Spirit’s department as far as the Trinitarian division of labor goes. So today for Pentecost Sunday, we may be covering all the major bases here according for Paul, at least according to the theology of wedding ceremonies.
It’s pretty easy for us, especially in the Lutheran Church, to think of the Spirit as the third wheel of the Trinity. After all we know who the Creator is, we know who Christ is, but what the heck does the Spirit do all day? We are content to know it has a purpose but don’t really think very often about what that purpose is or how it might be at work in us and our church. What is the spirit up to? Is it just floating along on clouds or something? Is it spying on us, or what?
Well, as the text from Acts shows us, the Spirit shows up sometimes in some pretty miraculous ways, but the work of the Spirit is not normally miracles and other big attention getters. The Spirit is not out to get attention for itself but rather to tell people about the Trinitarian God’s mission of love for this world, to bring us into that mission through faith, and to remind us of our future in Christ’s kingdom.
When we look at the words of the Apostles Creed, we hear about the unsung work of the Holy Spirit. We say “I believe in the Holy Spirit” as if that clause is the only part of the Creed that has to do with the Spirit; well what follows is actually a description how the Spirit is at work, bringing the kingdom of Jesus Christ. We say “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” What does this mean?
Luther thought you might ask that question, so he wrote this explanation of the Third Article of the Creed in our Small Catechism. Here’s how Luther gives the Spirit its props. He says, “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his/her gifts, and sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way he/she calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church day after day he/she fully forgives my sins and the sins of all believers. On the last day he/she will raise me and all the dead and give me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”
That’s a lot of stuff, but what does it all mean? I thought you might ask that too. Well Luther claimed all his work in the Reformation was actually just the Holy Spirit working through him to let the Word of God loose in the world. His explanations may not be as easily understood today as they were then, even if you needed to memorize it for your confirmation class. So here’s my explanation of Luther’s explanation.
It is only through the work of the Holy Spirit that any of us have faith in Jesus Christ. Without the help of the Spirit, who among us could believe something as crazy as a loving God who would become human and die a criminal’s death to save us from our sins and give us eternal life. Without the Spirit who could believe this? Without the Spirit there would be no church, no sacraments, no resurrection. The Holy Spirit is like the mother of our faith. The one who weans us in our faith, the caretaker of the church and communion of saints, and the power behind the whole show. And so when it comes down to it, we owe all of our faiths—personal and communal—to the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
But that gift comes in a message of hope, the message of the gospel, and the words of prophecy that bring each of us to that good news. The prophecy of the Holy Spirit brings us into the reality of faith—even when we don’t understand it completely—because the Trust in God inspired by the Spirit and the Hope for the future kingdom is so real that we can’t help but believe it and tell others about it.
That prophecy is what is at work in our Scripture lessons today. Ezekiel is told to speak to the bones of an Israel in exile, a people whose faith had dried up in the absence of the Temple, the heart of their faith. Without it the chosen people thought they had no life, no breath, but Ezekiel is told to prophesy to these bones, to give them hope, to let them know their faith is alive, because their God is still alive and at work in the world, even in this time when it seemed that all hope had deserted them.
In our texts from Acts, Peter is given the words to prophesy to a community of Jews who could not understand what it was that they were seeing and hearing on the streets of Jerusalem. The Spirit shows Peter what he did not previously understand and makes him a teacher of the Scripture just as Jesus was. He quotes the Prophet Joel. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy. Your youth shall see visions and your elders shall dream dreams.”
The Spirit makes Peter a fisher for people and a proclaimer of prophets, just as the Spirit does with us as well. We are members of the same communion of saints with Peter and are given the same baptismal call and the promise that Christ will be with us, in us, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. So we, as Christians, 20 centuries later, are called into this Old Testament vision of the Prophet Joel, even though we may not understand it completely. The Spirit of the Lord is poured out upon us, leading us to prophesy, have visions, and dream dreams. Joel may not have understood completely his vision at the time, but it was fulfilled through Christ and the Spirit. And through this proclamation we are also called to be prophets of the reality of our faith in Jesus Christ.
The idea of being a prophet may seem very foreign to you. It may be hard to see anything we do in our lives of faith as inspired by the Spirit, or as up to par with the drama of the Pentecost in Jerusalem. But the gift of the Spirit once poured out continues to be poured out into us for the proclamation of our faith to the world, and I think that is also a form of Prophecy. The work of the Spirit brings a message of hope to the hopeless. It inspired change in those who find themselves stuck in the prisons of this world.
My friend Brian calls me on Saturday nights from Seattle after he gets done with his night shift at a homeless shelter. He calls me as he leaves the building on his walk home. It’s been a standing date this whole year, as most of my friends are asleep by early evening here, and since I’m usually preparing for Sunday’s service, or getting to bed early rather than doing normal fun Saturday night stuff.
His schedule and only slight time change have allowed for these interactions, which for me have always been somewhat prophetic. I think it’s hard for Brian to not be prophetic when he calls me. You see, as he talks to me he is walking home after working with crack addicts, he passes, in sequence, young professionals and college students drunk out of their mind leaving the bars in Pioneer Square, the adult theaters and movie stores on the way to Pike Place Market, and finally the most high class mall in Seattle, the West Lake Center, where the haves of society pass the have-nots on their way to their next $1000 fashion purchase.
Last might was Brian’s last walk before he and his family move to Minnesota, and so his insights were especially meaningful. He said he had been meditating on the Scripture in Ecclesiastes that says; “all is vanity;” “ it’s all just chasing the wind;” “there is nothing new under the sun.” He said how similar this seemed to the existentialist authors he had been reading recently. They ironically seemed to be saying the same thing as Ecclesiastes. There is nothing new under the sun, life is without meaning, and nothing but the moment should be taken seriously.
What keeps the world from this attitude? What keeps us from falling into this despair or these traps of our modern world—the releases that soon become prisons: drugs, alcohol, sex, consumerism.
The answer was the same for both of us as we compared notes on my sermon and his prophecy: Even though we fall into our own traps, we know about a hope that is active in the world, a hope that changes lives, a hope that is alive in us through the work of the Spirit, a hope that Brian wants to share, a hope that is inspiring change in his life as he prepares to leave for Minnesota to enroll at Luther Seminary, to prepare to proclaim that hope to people that need to hear it, in congregations and on the street.
Brian may be a prophet. He has been for me.
Looking at these texts and focusing on the gift of the Holy Spirit, prophecy seems to be something we all can do. Prophecy seems to be about speaking a truth that we may not understand completely but know is real. Prophecy isn’t telling people a truth that is laid out like a five year financial plan. Prophets, as we come to understand it in these texts—in Scripture and in our understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work—are not people called once they have everything figured out, once they know exactly what God is doing and where God is leading his people. The Prophet may not understand the whole picture, but through trust in God, the Spirit gives them the words they need to speak what needs to be said.
So that leaves me with this proclamation, this prophecy for you today: you could be a prophet, I could be a prophet. Who knows how the Spirit has already used us to speak a word of hope to a person in need of that guidance, even at times when we have seen ourselves as dry bones in a valley without faith.
The Spirit brings a message of hope that inspires faith, for us, maybe even through us. Through the Spirit we hear good news from a future reality where we live with God and Christ reigns, a reality where the problems of this world no longer control us, where faith and hope meet, and we understand what love truly is. We prophesy and proclaim a truth we don’t fully understand but know is real, through the work of the Holy Spirit.
That is the gift that came into this world at Pentecost and is shared in ways we don’t even understand, to bring faith in ways we cannot foresee, maybe even through the reading of scriptures that for us have become overused, like the 1 Corinthians text at weddings.
Jesus said that the gift of the Spirit was so good and so powerful that it was to our advantage that he go away. We are promised that Christ is alive in us when the Spirit is with us. That is hard to believe, but luckily we have the Spirit to help us with that.
May the peace that passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Copyright © 2006 Joshua Graber
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