John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.
I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, 5 but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. 7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
Happy birthday to the church! Many people today name Pentecost Sunday as the official beginning of the church. I know, it seems like just 50 days ago or so we were celebrating Easter. Today is the day we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit, which the book of Acts tells us descended upon the followers of Jesus like tongues of fire, gifting the church with supernatural gifts, like the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound and be faster than a speeding bullet. Perhaps I’m confusing my stories a bit.
I love the way Bible scholar Walter Brueggmann says it: “Pentecost is the moment when gestation ceases and birthing occurs. Thus, it is both an end and a beginning, the leaving behind of that which is past, the launching forth into that which is only now beginning to be. Pentecost therefore is not a time of completion. It is moving forward into new dimensions of being, whose basic forms are clear, but whose fulfillment has yet to be realized.”
Yes! The church has been in utero for the last three years or so, and now she is bursting into the world to do something new. But she doesn’t have to do it alone. That’s what Pentecost is about.
Maybe you are like me and the word “Pentecost” conjures up some uncomfortable images of ecstatic worship where people are convulsing on the ground or speaking some unintelligible language. Maybe you think of people handling snakes in a church service. Or perhaps have some positive thoughts of the Holy Spirit and you think of the gifts that the Holy Spirit provides to equip the church. The arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost has been interpreted by many different people in many different ways, but there is one thing that most all Christians can agree on. The Holy Spirit is the very presence of God living in us, among us, and through us. And though I readily admit that the Holy Spirit doesn’t get the same amount of attention as the other members of the Trinity, I also readily admit that we are utterly dependent on the Spirit to do the work Jesus has called us to do.
We could spend weeks looking at the Holy Spirit and asking what the Spirit does, and maybe that would be a good series to launch, as the Mennonite Church tends to be a little week on what is called “Pneumatology.” But today I want to show you that one of the central reasons the Holy Spirit was sent was to empower the church to be the people Jesus has called us to be. The Holy Spirit was sent to help the church be the church.
I want to start with just a little bit of background on Pentecost. The word Pentecost is just an anglicized version of the Greek word for “50th.” Pentecost is the 50th day after the Passover, which roughly coincides with our Easter season. Acts chapter 2 tells us that the disciples were gathered together on the day of Pentecost. But they didn’t know that this was the day that the Holy Spirit would come to the people. They were gathered to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which you may know as the Festival of Weeks. The book of Leviticus states in chapter 23, verse 16, “Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord.” The people were to count off seven weeks after the Passover feast. Seven weeks comes out to 49 days. Then on the next day, they were to celebrate by bringing a portion of the early harvest to the temple as an offering to God to thank them for their harvest.
Anybody bring radishes or spinach today?
Shavuot is considered one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals from the Torah, meaning that if they were physically able, all men were required to make the trip to Jerusalem for this celebration.
This is why the disciples are all gathered in one place in Acts 2, they are there to celebrate Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. This is also why people are there from all over the known world. People who spoke many different languages. Let’s pause that story for a few minutes and turn back time a bit to look at the passage from John that was our focus reading for this morning.
When reading John’s gospel, you find that Jesus gets all the way to chapter 2 before he starts ticking people off enough that he becomes worried for his own life. At least in Matthew and Luke Jesus is able to make it all the way to chapter 4 until the people try to throw him off the cliff after giving his first sermon. In John chapter 2 Jesus cleanses the Temple and tells the leaders that if they destroy “this” temple, he will raise it up again in three days.
Through this gospel we find Jesus pushing boundaries. He challenges the Sabbath laws, he challenges those who are in power. He spends time with sinners, prostitutes, and all kinds of questionable characters. He offers forgiveness to people. He heals the sick, he raises the dead. He frequently refers to himself as one who is in a unique relationship with God, like a father and a son. And on more than one occasion Jesus finds his very life threatened.
As the Passover nears, Jesus tells his disciples that he wants to go to Jerusalem, but they try to convince him otherwise. They know that if he goes to Jerusalem, he will be killed. But they will go along, even if it costs them their lives.
Our scripture for this morning takes place in Jerusalem the night before Jesus is put to death. He is gathered in the Upper Room with his disciples, where Jesus washes their feet, breaks bread and shares the cup with them, and chapters 13-17 show how Jesus was preparing his disciples for life without him. He says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35), and “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” (15:12). Don’t forget, he also said, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you,” (15:18).
Which is kind of a weird thing to brag about, but that’s not the point.
I think that when Jesus talks about loving one another, he is simply encouraging the disciples to continue doing what he has been doing. This is what love looks like: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, teach, preach, give, heal, forgive, and spend time with people society tells us aren’t worth our time. That’s what it means to love. It is simple, but it isn’t easy, and Jesus knows that.
So Jesus promises to send someone to help. In Greek, it is the paraclete. We translate that as the Comforter, the Advocate, the Companion. Since we are just past our sermon series on comparative religions, I feel it is important to note that Islam teaches that Jesus was here proclaiming the sending of Muhammad. But we Christians read this differently. We see this as Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit.
Let’s put that all together. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem where he and his disciples expect him to be killed. He hosts a private meal for them where he gives them some final instructions about staying strong in the face of persecution. And he says that they won’t have to go through it alone. No, they will have an advocate.
Marianne Meye Thompson writes in her commentary on John that the Paraclete is the one who “causes the disciples to recollect and understand all the truth of Jesus’ words and deeds.” It is the Holy Spirit who helps us be the church.
Let’s go back to those disciples, huddled together about 53 days later. The disciples hear something that sounds like a loud wind blowing through the city. They saw something that looked like tongues of fire, whatever that means, descend upon them. Then in Acts 2:4 we read, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
But the disciples weren’t the only ones in Jerusalem that Pentecost. No, this was a required trip for all Jews. In verse 5 we read, “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.”
Every nation? Probably not, but every known nation. Back to verse 6, “When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?’”
What a wonderful way to spread the good news in the 1st century! These men and women are Jews, gathered together, hearing about Jesus in their own language. They are hearing that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.
Can you imagine getting back to wherever they had come from and someone asking them at work the next day, “Hey, Bill. Anything exciting happen on your trip to Jerusalem?”
“Funny you should ask, Fred…”
I believe the love of Jesus, which I described as a culmination of his words and deeds, is something that needs to be translated into every language and understood by every person. As some of you know, the Mennonite churches in Augusta County are working together to try to plant a Spanish-speaking congregation in Waynesboro. A little over a month ago we had five brothers and sisters in Christ sitting in our Church Council meeting sharing their vision to start a church that is going to look a lot different from ours and it will sound a lot different from ours. And as they sat in our fellowship hall, there was an off-the-cuff comment made along the lines of, “You know, we will probably be looking to plant a Spanish-speaking church in Staunton next.”
They then took a self-guided tour of our facilities.
The love of Jesus crosses our language barriers, but as we see in the gifting of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, one of the best ways to spread the message of Jesus is by speaking the language of the people. And if you are interested in helping with the church plant in Waynesboro, please let me know.
Now there are debates about the gifting of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost: was this a gift of speaking different languages, or the gifting of hearing other languages? I think based on the text above that a case can be made for either.
And it is clear from other passages that the gifting of the Holy Spirit takes many forms. If we look at passages like 1 Corinthians 12, we find gifts like wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues.
These gifts aren’t meant for you to use to get more power, money, or fame. These are gifts from the Advocate, the Helper, whose goal is to help us live out the teachings of Jesus, to share the love of Jesus, to be the church in the world.
When I think about these gifts, and I consider which I would most like to have, and which might be the most helpful today, I think that I would like to have the gift of interpretation of tongues. But I want to nuance that a bit. If I could choose a gift, I would want to be able to understand everyone. And I’m not just talking about different languages. I want to be able to understand other people who speak my own language, because it is my opinion that many of us struggle to understand, even when others are speaking English.
After the 2016 Presidential Election, I heard many people say “I can’t understand why you voted for him/her.” And when we don’t understand, we start to assume, we start to label. All at once I start to hear people say, “If you voted for Donald Trump, you must be a racist.” Or “If you voted for Hillary, you must be a baby killer who wants to take away our guns.”
I’m convinced that these practices of stereotyping and dismissing come not simply from a difference of opinion, but from a lack of understanding.
We in the church are just as guilty of this. When we find someone who disagrees with us, we are quick to label them. They are conservative; they are liberal. They need to read their Bible. They just hate gay people.
I’m not saying that everything is relative and we can go on believing whatever we want to believe and doing whatever we want to believe. There are practices that are hurting people at the government level, and there are practices that are hurting people at the congregational level. But calling names, labeling, and dehumanizing people doesn’t help.
That is why I pray for the gift of understanding. Help me understand why you believe what you believe. Help me understand why you voted why you voted.
Look at the speech that Peter gives on the day of Pentecost. Drawing from the book of Joel, Peter says that the Spirit will be poured out on all people. Sons and daughters will prophesy, young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams. Men and women will receive the gift of the Spirit. And it does come to the Parthians, Medes, and Elamites. People from Egypt, Arabs, and Cretans.
The gift of tongues, the gift of speaking in other languages, the gift of hearing other languages gives agency to these people. And while each person remains distinct, the line between “us” and “them” is reduced.