1When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says,/I will pour out my Spirit on all people./Your sons and daughters will prophesy,/your young men will see visions,/your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,/I will pour out my Spirit in those days,/and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above/and signs on the earth below,/blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness/and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls/on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
We often refer to the “Trinity” in the church in an attempt to understand how God can exist as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the same time. Is God three or is God one? Of course, the answer is yes…which isn’t always that helpful.
However, I believe that we Mennonites often fall into the category of “binitarians.” We love Jesus and we seek to be his disciples. We praise God for his glory and splendor. But the Holy Spirit? What do we do with that?
I’ll tell you what we do with the Holy Spirit. We have a word study sermon! That’s right, I’m going to walk you through the Bible, both Old Testament and New, to get a better look at this aspect of who God is. Unfortunately there is no way that I could touch on all of the times that the word spirit is used in the Bible, so we are going to look at a few of my hand-selected favorites today.
We here at Staunton Mennonite have our occasional “high spit” kinds of sermons. Today the chance for spit is extremely good with a high likelihood of slobber. This is because today we are looking at not one, but two of the biblical languages. That’s right, you’re going to learn both Hebrew and Greek. And since I know everyone enjoys repeating the words that I teach you, I brought with me today a little bit of protection. I have my son’s umbrella. Unfortunately for you, I don’t have one for everybody.
The first word that I want to teach you today is one that I have shared with you before. It is the Hebrew word “ruach.” Ruach is a word that we find in the Old Testament and it is often translated differently according to its context. Ruach can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit.
You do not have to read very far into the Hebrew Bible before you come to the word ruach. Genesis 1:2 says, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Elohim ruach, the wind, breath, Spirit of God hovered over the waters before God spoke the world as we know it into existence.
If we then turn one page to the right in your English Bibles (to the left in the Hebrew) you will find that same wind, breath, Spirit of God is put to a new use. In Genesis 2:7 we find: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
The word translated here as “man” is the Hebrew word “adam,” which sounds a lot like the Hebrew word “adamh,” which means earth or soil. What laid there on the ground was ground itself. It was a lump of soil until God used his spirit to breathe life into that lump of clay. God’s breath became Adam’s breath. God’s spirit entered Adam.
I believe that this story is why we have a word in English that is a little bit confusing. The word that I am thinking of is “inspire.” When we hear this word used in every day English it is often in the context of someone inspiring us to do great things. For instance, in less than a month my wife’s place of employment will be hosting an annual event called the Wheelchair Games. The Wheelchair Games draws athletes from around the region to participate in athletic events such as archery and track and field. When I see events like the Wheelchair Games, I am inspired by all of the hard work and dedication put forth by these athletes and their families. Their spirit is contagious.
But that isn’t the only way to understand the word “inspire.” From a biological perspective, to inspire means to breathe in. When you fill your lungs with air, you inspire. When you release that air back out into the atmosphere, you expire.
This is important because when God breathed his breathe into Adam, he did more than just fill him with air, God caused Adam to inspire. Adam was filled, not only with oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. Adam had the very spirit of God breathed into him.
This is what seems to separate human beings from the rest of creation. The earth, the trees, the water, the animals, all of these things are created by God and said to be “good.” But only human beings are said to be created in God’s image and only human beings are said to have the breath of God within them.
God’s ruach is more than just the breath of life. God’s ruach also bring new life. In Ezekiel chapter 37 we find the story of the prophet entering a valley filled with dry bones. These people were not just dead, they didn’t just stinketh like Lazarus had after a few days in the tomb. There was no life in them, no flesh, no tendons, no muscle.
God then speaks to Ezekiel and asks if these bones can live. Ezekiel replies, “Are you kidding me?” Actually, he is a little more tactful and says, “Only you can know, Lord!”
We find this in verses 5-6, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
God’s ruach can breathe life into a new human being, and God’s ruach can breathe new life into dry bones.
Those dry bones were symbolic of the people that God had chosen to work through to bring his message to all the world. During the exile, the Israelites felt like they had failed to be the people that God had called them to be, or perhaps even worse, that God had failed to use them as he had promised. But that ruach that God first breathed into Adam had never gone away. The people just needed a fresh breath, a fresh wind from God to call them back to their purpose.
This relationship between breath, wind, and spirit continues into the New Testament era. The New Testament was written in Greek and the Greek word for breath, wind, and spirit is pnuema. Pneuma isn’t a high-spit kind of word, but more of an I-just-ate-a peanut butter-and-honey-sandwich kind of word. Your tongue just sticks to the roof of your mouth for a little bit too long.
Pneuma is where we get the word pneumonia, an infection in the lungs, and pneumatic, having to do with air.
When Jesus is baptized in the Synoptic Gospels, the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove. This is the pneuma tou theou, or the pnemua to hagion, the Holy Spirit.
This pneuma, this wind, breath, and spirit is the same as the ruach of God in the Old Testament. This same spirit is said to have descended upon the prophets, like in Ezekiel 2:2, to empower them to speak.
Finally, let’s look at John chapter 20. John 20 begins with the empty tomb on that first Easter Sunday and quickly moves to the resurrected Jesus presenting himself to Mary Magdalene. Later in the chapter Jesus also presents himself to the disciples as they are huddled in the Upper Room. Jesus gives them a blessing and a commission in verses 21-22, “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
This passage seems to emphasize the connection between the breath and the spirit. This Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus at his baptism is now being passed on to the disciples. And he passes it to them by blowing in their faces. He passes the Holy Breath to equip his disciples to continue the ministry of reconciliation that he began.
So we come to today’s passage, which is the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples on Pentecost. Pentecost is a Jewish festival that is observed every year, 50 days after the Passover celebration.
Our text emphasizes that there were Jewish people in Jerusalem from all surrounding nations. Pentecost is one of the holidays that Jews would travel to Jerusalem for. Acts two tells us that the disciples of Jesus were gathered together on the day of Pentecost when they heard a loud rush of wind. Keep in mind the connection between the wind, breath and spirit. Because that wind that they heard was the Holy Spirit coming upon them. Instantly these believers began talking in other languages, and this is clearly God equipping them to share Jesus’ message of new creation with people of every tongue, tribe, and nation.
There is a bit of a debate as to how many disciples were given this gift of speaking in tongues. If we go to the previous chapter we read that the number of believers had grown to about 120 people. Then in chapter two we read that “they were all together in one place.” Is that “all” a reference to all 120 believers or all 12? I don’t know. But what is clear is that among those that received the Holy Spirit and the ability to speak in different languages were eleven of the original disciples and Matthais, who was added to replace Judas.
So here is my question: When did the disciples really receive the Holy Spirit? Did they receive it on Easter as we read in John’s Gospel when Jesus breathed on them? Or did they receive the Spirit on Pentecost when the Spirit came upon them like tongues of fire?
I believe that different people have different levels of the Holy Spirit. I realize that I am just not as in tune with the Spirit as some others are. But that doesn’t mean that I am completely devoid of the Holy Spirit, either.
If we go way back to the creation of Adam when God breathed life into a lump of clay, we find that simply having been given the breath of life means that we have a bit of God’s spirit within us. You didn’t have to do anything to earn it. You were created in God’s image and given the breath of life. That breath is God’s ruach, God’s pneuma.
But there are clearly times when an extra portion of God’s Spirit is poured out on individuals or on groups. This was the case for the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus at his baptism. Jesus and the prophets were clearly more in tune with God’s mission than most living, breathing people. And this extra portion of the Holy Spirit does not have to all come in one dose. The disciples received doses of the Spirit along the way. When they were sent out two-by-two, they performed miracles and healed the sick. That’s not normal. They required an extra dose of the Holy Spirit. Then they got a little more on Easter, which helped them maintain the ministry of Jesus for fifty days. But it wasn’t until Pentecost that they were gifted in exceptional ways by the Spirit to continue his mission.
This still seems to be the case today. There are times when people simply need more empowerment from the Holy Spirit to continue Christ’s ministry. There are times when situations arise when we simply do not have the skills or the experience to make good decisions. Those are the times when the Holy Spirit shows up.
But the Spirit does more than just empower us for mission. The Spirit is to be our guide in discernment. One of the Bible verses most frequently used out of context is Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
My question has always been Isn’t Jesus with me when I am alone?
This passage is about making tough choices, or to use a churchy phrase, “spiritual discernment.” Matthew 18:20 is a promise that when we come together to make difficult decisions, the Holy Spirit will be there with us to guide us in the process.
This past weekend I spent a lot of time in meetings with the Virginia Mennonite Conference Council. VMC is currently going through a lot of changes, including a significant overturn in staffing. On top of that, there are some challenging issues surrounding some theological and ethical issues. The decisions that we were facing as Conference Council were not to be taken lightly. So I was glad that I heard mentioned in prayer and in conversation the need for guidance from the Holy Spirit on these matters and the invitation to the Spirit to be with us.
The Spirit of the living God is all around us, all of the time. It is as close to us as the wind that blows past us and the breath that is within us.
I want to come back to the umbrella that I began with today as my only line of defense against your spittle. Umbrellas can be used for a number of things. We most commonly think to use them as ways to keep the raindrops from falling on our heads. But if you go to the beach, even on a very sunny day, you will see umbrellas up and down the shoreline. Umbrellas can provide shade. This is because umbrellas provide a barrier between us and the elements. We can isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. You can even use an umbrella to block the wind.
However, if you turn an umbrella around, it becomes pretty good at capturing things. You can collect the rain, sleet, and hail. Or, like Mary Poppins, you can gather the wind and fly.
As the wind blew through Jerusalem on Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago, some used their umbrellas to deflect the Holy Spirit. They didn’t believe the things that were happening and they accused the disciples of having a little too much to drink a little too early in the morning.
But there were others who used their umbrellas to gather the wind. They harnessed the power of the Holy Spirit to guide them, to equip them, and to help them discern God’s will. It is my belief that this Holy Spirit is still here among us today. All we need to do is turn our umbrellas around.