Pentecost Sunday: A Contagious Presence

Sermon on John 15-16

To me, the most mesmerizing, fascinating sights are simple: anything with water or fire. Some of us are beach people, we could sit in front of the ocean all day long looking out at the seemingly endless horizon watching wave after wave crash over each other, or maybe some of us prefer a river or creek watching the water softly cradle leaves and branches in its currents, or maybe some of us like skipping stones across the surface of a quiet lake creating gentle ripples that radiate into the edges. I’m more inclined towards rivers and lakes, and that works out great because Andy hates the beach anyway [the folks who will go to the DR this year will get to witness his distaste for sand and sun]. Some of you know that I grew up in Colorado and love the outdoors – my favorite memories are of youth group backpacking trips, and of course, the campfire every night. We would often stay up much too late, sitting around that fire pit, throwing more wood on it to keep it going for as long as possible until our youth pastor threatened to leave us behind unless we went to bed. There was something about the way the flames danced and sparked disappearing into the clear night sky as we threw in more and more branches that kept my eyes locked onto the little waves and ripples in the fire.

The campfires were beautiful, but they didn’t make the moments memorable, it was the community around the campfire. We would share parts of our lives, stories and details not even known by our families. I’ll never forget a trip in college when one girl, her name was Crystal, told how she got pregnant in high school, her boyfriend had abandoned her and wanted nothing to do with her, she didn’t say anything to her family, and ended up miscarrying the baby. She went through all of it alone, but that night she was able to let it go. We shared feelings of loss, moments of confusion about identity, or when we were hurt by people, or when we felt the elation of someone returning our love and affection. The tears, the laughter, and revelations about faith – that made it special, meaningful, and…eternal, as if this feeling was meant to go on forever.

No doubt, the disciples shared these kinds of moments with Jesus. All throughout the New Testament, we read about these campfire kind of moments, these moments of deep connection, as Jesus and his disciples journeyed together, all the teaching, healings, miraculous feedings, the moments of quiet fishing together on the sea of Galilee watching the waves lap against the side of the boat, memorable meals together with the religious leaders, tax collectors and prostitutes, and the constant walking together through town after town bedding down wherever and whenever. For three years, they were always together, and it never crossed their minds that there would be a moment that Jesus would not be there.

But, as one pastor puts it, “At this point, Jesus was telling them to stay put. He had promised them another Advocate whom he would send from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who would testify on his behalf and enable them to testify on his behalf; an advocate that would expose the world for what it was and is, with its distorted notions about life and love; an advocate that would give them what was necessary to remain connected to each other and to him. He told them he was the way, the truth and the life; and he would encourage them to bank their life on that promise.”

Now though, the currents were sweeping them away in a direction different from what they expected when they first started following Jesus. They couldn’t believe they would carry on this work without him, they never imagined Jesus not being there, and they didn’t anticipate he would send someone else in his place. Who or what was this spirit of truth, this Advocate that would somehow anchor them to Jesus?

Whenever the discussion turns towards the Holy Spirit, you can almost see people start to shift a little in their seats. Sure, it’s fine and easy to talk about God the Father and God the Son, God the Creator, Jesus, Son of God; those are pretty straightforward and easy. Last Sunday we explored a bit about the special relationship between the Father and the Son, and how their relationship is the model and the life source for our relationships in the church and be what “makes us one.” It seems fitting that we would turn to piece to the God-Puzzle, the presence of the Advocate, God’s Spirit, today, this Pentecost Sunday, the day the Spirit gave birth to the church.

And while it can be confusing the way the Holy Spirit muddles our picture of God, the Spirit is absolutely a necessity in our understanding of God. Andy preached once, as Christians, “we believe that the Son and the Holy Spirit were present with the Father even before we meet and get to know them in the New Testament. For the Spirit, the Greek word that is used in the New Testament is ‘pneuma.’ It is the same as the Hebrew word ‘ruach,’ in the Old Testament. So when we see that the wind, or breath, or Spirit of God blew across the waters during creation, we understand that the Spirit has always been active. The coming of the Spirit on Pentecost is not to be understood as something new, but rather as God showing up in a wonderful way for the disciples.”

The Holy Spirit might blur the lines in our nice definitions and categories for God. But, as numerous theologians have said about the Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Spirit – it is not meant to explain or satisfy all our questions about God and God’s presence, rather it preserves the mystery of God, the wonder, beauty, awe of God in this world. Thus, without the Holy Spirit, the Advocate we would not have a complete picture of the relationships and community within the Godhead…and we would be missing something vital within the church at large and the community here…we would be missing that piece that gathers us together.

For it is significant that the Greek word for “Advocate” is “paraclete.” It is translated in a number of ways, we have the familiar “Counselor,” “Comforter,” and “Helper.” It is a word found only in John’s Gospel and in the letters of John later in the New Testament, and though scarcely used, it is a hint at the way God would continue journey with the disciples, and all of Jesus’ followers, including us. I got some help from William Barclay: Para – typically meaning “from, of, at, by, besides, near,” and Clete finds its roots in “kaleo” or “to call,” so we get “called beside or near or by.” The Advocate is one who is called alongside or next to the disciples. For the disciples, though Jesus told them to stay put – the journey would continue on, and the Holy Spirit would travel right along with them. This little band of disciples was so important to God that God would continue to maintain that little community through his own presence and Spirit.

And so we are here today. “If we are to understand Pentecost to be the birth of the Christian church, a gathering of people committed to the ministry of Jesus Christ—then certainly being gathered together is important. The same is still true for us now. A church is a gathering of people who need Jesus and who are committed to Jesus Christ—and it has its roots in the people gathered together in one place. That place of course is here, in the house of God. This is where it finds its beginnings, where we find our beginnings and births…We’re gathered together and as the Spirit blows through this place, we are then ready to be disciples at home, at work, at school, at the grocery store, on the baseball fields and in all places…and this is God at work…and it happens in many places, but it often happens just as it did with the earliest disciples long ago in Jerusalem—as they were gathered together in one place.”

The Spirit being called near and beside us is the model and life source for how we are called to be beside each other, to be the church, or in Greek again, ekklesia, ek-out, klesia with a similar root in kaleo “to call,” we are called beside and called out into the world. As we gather together, our very being together testifies to the world that God is near. That’s all the testimony the world needs from us, no words are really necessary, just our being together, as manifested here on Sunday mornings, on Wednesday evenings in FISHandCHYPS, at the Adult Dinner Groups, at Safe Harbor, at Project, at the Furniture Bank, at all the Bible Study groups and book clubs, and meals and times together, these are the moments through the Holy Spirit where God’s presence spreads like wildfire.

Of course, it is natural that this day, the day we celebrate God’s presence raining down flames on the people gathered together would be perfect for confirmation, as we “initiate” a handful of youth into the church community. Rev. Jan Richardson invites us to consider, “For the followers of Jesus, the day of Pentecost becomes an occasion of profound initiation. With the gift of spirit and flame, the community that Jesus had formed is now fired, prepared, propelled into a new stage of its journey. Like a vessel in the furnace of a kiln, the followers of Jesus receive the transformation they need from God. They are no longer a group of believers but rather a catalyzed community, a body that, enlivened by the Spirit, will endure and continue the work of Christ,” (Jan Richardson)

This is another beautiful sight to me, the profession of faith made by these young souls in front of the congregation and the affirmation of their journeys by all present. They have journeyed long and far this season, and they certainly have much more to learn from us, but much more to teach us. It is a blessing to witness and testify to it. As we confirm them this morning, as we remember the waters of baptism and the fire of Pentecost, as we ponder the ways we are called to be near and beside God’s children, and called out to be God’s church, may we catch fire and courageously live out the promise of God’s contagious presence in the world.