The coming of the Holy Spirit

Pentecost, 28 May 2023, St James Colwall

Acts 2: 1-21; John 20: 19-23

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

It can be quite confusing in the bible to find seemingly different, or even contradictory, accounts of the same event. In particular, John’s Gospel paints a very different portrait of Jesus’ life in comparison to the other three gospels—he recounts miracles, encounters and sayings which are not found elsewhere. And even the timing of events, for example Jesus overthrowing the tables of money changers in the temple, varies significantly between John’s Gospel and the synoptics.

And today is another case in point. We tend to think of the coming of the Holy Spirit as the day of high drama, which Luke recounts in Acts. After Jesus had returned to be with his Father in heaven ten days earlier, the disciples had stayed together in Jerusalem, in obedience to Jesus’ instructions, praying for what was to come next.

And what came next hit them with full elemental force. How do you explain the inexplicable? The only words they could find to describe what happened was as rushing wind and leaping tongues of fire as they discovered a supernatural ability to communicate with people in their own languages.

The coming of the Holy Spirit causes such a commotion in Jerusalem that the crowds assembled there from different regions to celebrate the ancient festival of Pentecost or Shavuot accused the disciples of being drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning.

But far from being drunk, Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit and is bold enough to testify that what is happening is a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. Whatever their native language, the people listening understand and begin to recognise the presence of God moving among them in such a powerful way that at the end of Peter’s sermon we’re told his hearers were cut to the heart and asked what they must do to be saved.

Repent and be baptised, says Peter. And three thousand persons were added to their number. So the church is born in the power of the Holy Spirit with God’s forgiveness and the love of Jesus at its heart.

John’s account of the giving of the Holy Spirit provides us with a complete contrast. He tells us that it was on the first day of the week, that is, on the very day of Jesus’ resurrection, that Jesus comes to the gathered community of his disciples in the room where they are hiding in fear of further retribution from the authorities. As yet, they have no concept of how they will go forward into the future, despite the fact that Jesus has long been preparing them for their continuance of his mission after his return to the Father.

In the so-called Farewell Discourses of Jesus, which make up Chapters 14, 15 and 16 of John’s Gospel, Jesus reassures his disciples that, though he is leaving them, it will be through the Holy Spirit that they will know Jesus’ encouraging and strengthening presence with them. The Holy Spirit will remind them of all that Jesus has taught them, will testify on behalf of Jesus, will convict the world of sin, will guide them in all truth, and will give them peace. God and Jesus will send the Holy Spirit to the community of Jesus’ followers to make the ongoing love of God in Jesus known in the world.

But for the time being events would seem to have erased this teaching from their minds, as the disciples huddle in fear behind closed doors. That’s when the risen Jesus comes amongst them. His first words, repeated, are ‘Peace be with you.’ He has come to send them out to continue his work, and to empower them in this mission he gently breathes on them, saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ ‘Go and make God’s forgiveness known in the world.’

Are these two very different versions of apparently the same event incompatible?

No, I don’t think so.

It has always been the case, and continues to be so, that the Holy Spirit comes upon individuals and upon communities in different ways. The Holy Spirit may move us as gently as a soft breeze or as forcefully as a roaring wind. The Holy Spirit may refresh, renew, and fill us like dew upon the grass or as a torrent of rain on parched ground. We may respond by discovering supernatural gifts, such as the gift of tongues, or prophecy or healing. Or we may simply be given the inner conviction, courage, and comfort of the guiding presence of Jesus, God with us.

What matters is not the nature of the experience itself, but the difference it makes in our lives and in the lives of the Christian community of which we are a part. Because our task as Christians and as the church, goes hand in hand with the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit we carry with us who enables us to be God’s people and to live Jesus’ life in the world, and that is our calling.

In the power of the Holy Spirit, from the room where they were hiding, the risen Jesus sends his disciples out to make God’s love and forgiveness known in the world. In the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter, the fisherman who once denied that he even knew Jesus, preaches a powerful sermon to the gathered crowds, which convicts his hearers to repentance and commitment to Jesus. The next chapter in the story of Jesus Christ and God’s love for the world has begun.

Because when we read on through Acts—the book called the Acts of the Apostles should really be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit—we see that this same Spirit is poured out on all who come to believe, creating community, empowering signs and wonders of healing and liberation, guiding in major decisions facing the communities of believers and giving the apostolic leaders courage to face persecution and martyrdom. Spiritual gifts of teaching, pastoring, healing, and prophecy are given to individuals in the different young churches in order to equip and build up them for their ministry. The movement of the Holy Spirit in the time after the resurrection takes the message of God’s love in Jesus far beyond the borders of Jerusalem and Galilee.

We often speak of Pentecost as a celebration of the birthday of the church which at one level of course it is. But there is a danger that in doing so we reduce the coming of the Holy Spirit to a one-off event that we recall without appreciating that the Holy Spirit remains active in the world and continues to be poured out on individuals and communities. The Holy Spirit continues to move beyond borders bringing light and love and life to the world.

We celebrate Christmas, not only to recall the birth of Christ at a time long ago, but to make real in the world in which we live, the meaning of the incarnation, of God deeply and intimately involved in the life of the world.

We celebrate Easter, not just as a historical event of the resurrection of Jesus, but to discover over and over again the power of God to bring hope and transform even the darkest of situations.

And we keep the festival of Pentecost, not just to celebrate the birthday of the church but to discover and know in our daily lives the encouragement and power of the Holy Spirit, who refreshes us, fills us, and renews us in our task of continuing Jesus’ work of making God’s love and forgiveness known in the world.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill us, inspire, refresh, and renew us. Amen