Grace Presbyterian Church, June 4, 2017, Pentecost A
Numbers 11:24-30; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13; Acts 2:1-21
I confess that I get excited about Pentecost.
It isn’t necessarily for theological reasons, although there is plenty of theological meat to chew on where this day is concerned; nor is it because of any particular part of the liturgy, although there are a lot of good hymns available for the day – far more than can really be used in one service.
No, I get excited because we get to break out the red vestments. And as you can see, I like to go red.
Aside from services where an ordination is involved, Pentecost is the only Sunday of the liturgical year to which the color red is assigned. That seems strange to me – it’s not as if the Holy Spirit takes the rest of the year off, really – but between the dominance of green, purple’s hold on the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent, and white’s reign over Easter and Christmas, red just doesn’t get any other chances.
Of course the association of the color red with Pentecost comes quite specifically from the Acts story, in particular the “divided tongues, as of fire” that appeared in the room with, and rested upon, the disciples. You know, “red” for fire. And as far as it goes, that association works just fine for the particular occasion of Pentecost.
I wonder, though, if we run a risk of confusing the “red” of the event of Pentecost – this wild, unexpected outburst of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, leading to an event in which they were able to proclaim the gospel to a diverse and multilingual crowd in languages they themselves did not know – with the Holy Spirit itself. And that would be a bad thing for our understanding of the Holy Spirit. Maybe we need to be looking for a few more colors and shades of color other than our usual red.
Even the anthem just sung by the choir points to the Spirit as much more varied and less monolithic than our usual Pentecost reading suggests. A “mighty” Spirit, to be sure, but also a “gracious,” “truthful,” and “holy” spirit too. This is part of Paul’s message to the Corinthians – the Holy Spirit is about more, much more, than ecstatic utterances and flashy displays of spiritual power on which the Corinthians have become fixated. For Paul, the Spirit is what (or who) builds us up, who gives us the gifts that enable us to work together and live together and function together as the body of Christ. Those spectacular displays of ecstatic utterance were only upbuilding as long as the Spirit was also giving someone the gift of interpreting that utterance, while gifts such as teaching and leading were of more directly uplifting quality.
The extended passage from Joel quoted by Peter in his speech in Acts 2 points to yet another aspect of the Spirit. In this passage (you can compare it with Joel 2), what seems to be the key to the Spirit’s work is vision – vision that is not limited by age or status of any kind; “your sons and daughters shall prophesy … your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams … even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” This gift of prophesying, this gift of vision and dream, will be poured out on all, in Joel’s words, and Peter seizes upon this image in the wake of this event of the Spirit, even if “vision” doesn’t seem to be the first thing that comes to mind after what had just happened.
The Holy Spirit’s work among us is multifaceted indeed. We would be well-advised not to limit its work to the spectacular and dramatic and maybe a little eccentric. In essence, the Spirit is what sustains us in all ways, directly in a way that the ascended Christ did for the disciples while in human form on earth.
Of course, as Paul indicates in part, there are things the Spirit cannot, or perhaps will not, do.
I have to admit that I wonder about 1 Corinthians 12:3 these days. I don’t know that anyone would call for Jesus to be cursed when speaking under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but it sure seems to me that these days there are an awful lot of people running around trumpeting “Jesus is Lord!” with absolutely no evidence that the Holy Spirit is guiding their lives, and a ton of evidence suggesting that it is not. When we do things that are not even remotely reconcilable with the life and teaching of Christ, we just can’t claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
And yet we have a loudly self-proclaimed “Christian” (and a candidate for Congress) body-slamming a reporter for a question he didn’t like; another loudly self-proclaimed “Christian,” a radio host, defending said candidate by saying that if anything was going to “save Western civilization” it was going to have to be, and I quote, a “more aggressive, a more violent Christianity”[i]; and a congressman, also a self-proclaimed “Christian,” saying that we humans didn’t need to be worrying about climate change because God would “take care of” it, despite all that stuff in Genesis about being stewards of, you know, God’s creation.
You can’t do and say such things and claim to be led by the Holy Spirit. You just can’t be anti-Christlike and claim to be led by the Spirit. You just can’t, no matter how many times you call Jesus’ name. That’s not how it works.
When the spirit we are discerning shows us Jesus; when it builds us up into Christ’s body; when it cannot be contained by our preconceived plans as in the curious story from Exodus when prophecy wasn’t limited to the chosen elders; we then can have some trust that the Spirit is indeed the one we call Holy. When it doesn’t do those things, or when it does the opposite of those things, run very fast in the opposite direction.
For the gracious, truthful, holy, mighty Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #66, Every Time I Feel the Spirit; #292, As the Wind Song; #287, Gracious Spirit, Heed Our Pleading; #289, On Pentecost They Gathered
Image credit: agnusday.org. Maybe not just fire?