Note: Today, Pentecost Sunday, was my last Sunday as pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Long Beach. I am retiring. What follows is both my Pentecost and my farewell sermon.
Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” Kind of like us. Here. Now. Today. They were all in one place and then all of a sudden a sound like a mighty blast of wind filled the place and tongues of fire appeared and came to rest on each of them. And all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.
That’s how the book of Acts describes the Holy Spirit coming upon the followers of Jesus. The writer of Luke, who was also the writer of Acts, really likes special effects, especially the ones that seem to pierce the boundary between heaven and earth. Just look at his Christmas story.
The description of Pentecost in Acts is dynamic and inspiring, and I know that the Spirit still does show up in some pretty remarkable and breathtaking ways sometimes. I think we should always be open to that kind of energizing experience of the Spirit, always praying for the Spirit to fire us up with a passion to speak about what God has done and what God is doing among us and in the world.
The story of Pentecost in Acts is knock-your-socks-off inspiring and it can speak to us very powerfully of hope and empowerment and mission. But there’s another story about the giving of the Holy Spirit that can speak to us just as powerfully even though it is a much quieter story.
The Gospel of John tells us that it was evening on the first day of the week when the disciples received the Spirit, evening on the day of the resurrection. The Jews have always understood evening to be a transition time, a time when one day is ending and a new day is beginning. For them the new day begins at sunset. John tells us that it was evening. An in-between time. And the disciples were all together, except for Thomas.
They were all together behind locked doors. They were tense. They were confused. They were apprehensive. Their future was uncertain. Kind of like us. Here. Now. Today. They were all in one place, smothered under the weight of their anxiety, when suddenly Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
He showed them his wounds. He spoke peace to them again. And then he told them they were going to be sent out. And then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness, it remains withheld.”
That’s how the disciples received the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John. It may not seem as theatrical as the fire and wind of Pentecost in the book of Acts, but it is no less dramatic. It’s just a different kind of drama—a quieter and more personal drama, but no less life-changing.
As much as we might long for a blast of wind and tongues of fire, it has been my experience that most of us have received the Holy Spirit more in a Gospel of John way than in a Book of Acts way. Most of us, I think, have experienced the Spirit as the quiet but revitalizing breath of Christ shared among friends in the beloved community. The Spirit has come to us in hearing, studying and sharing the Word of God, in sharing the bread and wine of the table and in a splash of water at the font. The Spirit has come to us in conversation and companionship, in words of comfort and whispers of prayer. The Spirit has come to us in laughter and in singing. And sometimes in tears.
As long as we have gathered together in the name and presence and love of Jesus, the Holy Spirit has never stopped filling us and renewing us in our life of ministry, worship and faith. Together.
When Jesus breathes on his friends he reaffirms the promise of peace. Shalom. “Peace I leave with you,” he had told them earlier. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”(John 14:27) And now as he fills the room with his breath, the breath of the Holy Spirit, he says to them once again, “Peace be with you.”
They needed that peace. We need that peace, because to receive the Holy Spirit also means receiving a mandate to pass it along. It means being sent out to carry the love, grace and joy of Christ into the world to transform the world.
Jesus sends us into the world, empowered by the Spirit, to forgive sins. Immediately after saying “receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness of any, it remains withheld.” Eugene Peterson in The Message said it this way, “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”
We have been given the power and authority and responsibility to free people from the burden of sin. Or to bury them under that burden if we neglect or fail to free them. We’ve been given the Spirit to make the love of God tangible, to make God’s grace visible in the world.
This is the news of Pentecost: God has a whole new way of being in the world. God has chosen to work in the world in us, with us, and through us. We cannot be afraid of change—because God has called us and empowered us to be the change that all of creation has been longing for. (Romans 8)
God, through us, is transforming the world, and that can be daunting. But God has shown us the Way, the Truth and the Life in Jesus and empowered us with the Holy Spirit so we can walk that Way, speak that truth and live that Life.
“Peace I leave you,” said Jesus. “My peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
In his book, God’s Politics, Jim Wallis tells about the time he was attending worship in St. George’s cathedral in South Africa during the days of apartheid. Bishop Desmond Tutu was preaching when suddenly the service was interrupted by South African security police who marched into the cathedral to intimidate Bishop Tutu so he would not speak out yet again against the apartheid government.
When the Security Police filed into the building with weapons, tape recorders and cameras, Bishop Tutu stared them down then said to them, “You are powerful. Very powerful. But I serve a God who will not be mocked.” Then with a dazzling, warm smile he said to them, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to join the winning side.”
Immediately the congregation was transformed. The spell of fear that had gripped them was broken and the people began to dance. They danced out into the streets where even more security forces were waiting to intimidate them, but the police ended up standing aside and letting the people dance in the joy of the Spirit.
When the forces of intimidation showed up at church, Bishop Tutu stared them down with a dazzling smile and the Fruit of the Spirit. That’s our weapon. That’s our most powerful tool in the God Family Business—the business of transforming the world: a dazzling smile fully loaded with all the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And also grace, which is often the same thing as forgiveness.
And I would add one more characteristic of the Spirit: gratitude.
As I stand here this morning preaching my final sermon as pastor of the Little Church with a Big Heart, my heart is overflowing. I am so grateful to God and to each and every one of you for the almost 12 years we’ve had together, for the love we’ve shared, for the joy we’ve shared, and even for the sorrows we’ve shared. I am grateful for the way you have all been the Church. I am grateful for your sense of mission that reaches far beyond this building. I am grateful for your consistent stewardship of your time, treasures and talents. I am grateful for the ways you have adapted to change. Most of all, though, I am grateful for the love you have given so freely to Meri and me as we have shared this life of faith together.
Thank you for calling me to be your pastor all those years ago.
And now God is sending us out, me to retirement and you to continue being the Little Church with a Big Heart in new and different ways. Be not afraid. You have all the gifts you need. You are the Body of Christ. You are filled with the Holy Spirit.
God be with you. As St. Paul said in Colossians: “Though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” Peace be with you. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.