Sermon given on Pentecost Sunday 2017, June 4, at St. Mark’s in Teaneck

I

In the languages of the Bible, “Spirit” and “breath” are the same word.

In the gospel of John, on the evening of Easter Sunday, Jesus breathed himself into his gathered disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Jesus became communicable. He is the living One, who through the process of his death, made his life communicable—all he is, his divinity and humanity, his virtues and excellence, his human history, all he accomplished, and all he attained—all this he now breathes into us. By the Holy Spirit, he enters us to mingle with our life, to conform us to his life, to make us like himself.

So, when we hear the Gospel read to us, when we really hear it, Jesus is carried by the Gospel and breathed into us. “The words that I say to you are Spirit and life.” This happens when we listen attentively and open ourselves to his presence. We hear so we may remember, so Jesus can be made present to us, so we can take him into ourselves. We listen to the Gospel so we can partake of the Lord’s Supper.

II

Luke wrote both the “Gospel according to Luke” and the “Acts of the Apostles.”

In Luke’s writings, the Holy Spirit comes at the beginning of Acts. In John’s gospel, the Holy Spirit comes at the end: everything in John’s gospel moves to this conclusion. In Acts this happens at the beginning, because everything that takes place in Acts springs from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is like the river in Ezekiel chapter 47 that flows out from the altar, and keeps getting wider and wider, and more and more full of life.

So, just as in Luke’s gospel, Jesus begins his mission by receiving the anointing of the Spirit at his baptism, so in Acts the church begins its mission by receiving the Spirit on Pentecost. If Jesus made himself communicable on Easter—so that now he lives in us as the Holy Spirit—then on Pentecost, we receive the Spirit just like he did, in order to carry out the same mission that he had.

In other words, at Pentecost—because we are now one with Jesus by the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and mingling with our life—we receive the same Spirit that Jesus did at his baptism.

III

So what happened when Jesus was baptized? Renouncing his own will and becoming a penitent, he accepted baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. As he came up out of the waters, he saw the heavens open up like a curtain, and remain open! and then the Holy Spirit come through them and alight on him, and remain on him! and he heard a voice come out of the heavens saying, “You are my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” This is a picture of the Trinity: the voice speaking from heaven, the Holy Spirit alighting, and the Beloved receiving.

At that moment, Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit with the power he needed to carry out his mission. In the gospel of Luke, after he came out of the desert, he went to Nazareth and announced that the Spirit of God was upon him. God has anointed him with the Spirit to announce the Gospel to the poor, to proclaim release to captives, to give sight to the blind, to free those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the Year of Jubilee.

If Jesus was the Son of God, as the devil reminded him again and again in the desert, why did he need to receive the power of the Holy Spirit to carry out his mission? Didn’t he already have that power?

Yes, he did. But at his baptism he renounced that power! It was this renunciation that was tested in the desert. Jesus had emptied himself and made himself poor in the sight of God, poor in spirit. That is what his baptism meant.

For Jesus, it meant that, from then on, he was not going to do his own will, even though it was without sin, nor do anything by the strength of his own ego. He was only going to do the divine will, and do it by the divine power that would be given to him.

All those miracles he did? All his preaching? All those exorcisms? He did it by the Holy Spirit. However confident Jesus was, he never acted like a trumped-up man, but always with humility, as someone who was stripped down to the level of poverty in the sight of God.

IV

What happened at Pentecost was the same for us, only instead of it happening to an individual it happened to the entire church, to the gathered disciples—which included us. Pentecost was not an individual experience of receiving the Holy Spirit, but an experience that happened once and for all to the entire church. Everyone who now becomes a disciple of Jesus and joins with others, is baptized and later receives the laying on of hands by the bishop, what we call confirmation. When this happens, they come under this anointing; they begin to participate in it.

So, what happened on Pentecost? First the Spirit came down on the 120 disciples gathered together. Then Peter preached to the crowds. When he finished, he said, “Repent and each one of you be baptized upon the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Everyone who repented and was baptized, about 3000 souls, received the same Holy Spirit the 120 did. Did they experience the same thing? Maybe some did, but probably most did not. However, when they joined the Body of Christ, they came under the same anointing that came upon the others.

They now were anointed too. Whenever they acted as a member, as a limb or an organ of the Body of Christ, the anointing of the Holy Spirit was upon them, whatever it was they were doing.

V

What was this anointing for? Why have we received this gift, this power? It is entirely for the sake of the mission. It is not a supernatural power given for our own use, to help us with our own desires and agendas and schemes, but so God can use us for God’s own purposes.

What might this purpose be? If we look at the Acts of the Apostles, one thing is clear: the Holy Spirit was out and about creating community. First, the Spirit took 120 individuals and made them one Body; then that one Body became a community of 3000. People started going out, and everywhere they created new communities, communities of believers learning to love one another. And in the school of the churches—churches are schools, after all —they were learning to love their neighbors in the world around them, to have a transforming effect on their societies.

A “person” is different than an individual. An individual is a unit that can be independent and isolated from all others. A person, though, is someone who sees and is seen, who gives and receives, who is in relationship to others. The healing of personhood is the mission of the Holy Spirit: to help us become who we are, to restore the image of God to our humanity, to make us resemble and even participate in the fellowship of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, in their community, in their self-emptying and mutual filling of each other, in their mutual love.

This community is empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the advance guard of the coming reign of God, the “Year of Jubilee” that Jesus announced in Nazareth. Let us remember the power of the Spirit in this community as we move towards the Lord’s Supper and on into the world.

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