The Gift that Keeps On Giving

May 15, 2016

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
Day of Pentecost
Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, 25-27


I’d like to see a show of hands… how many of you have a birthday that falls during the summer months? I have a summer birthday. It’s in late July.

Summer birthdays are different than school-year birthdays. If you were like me, your birthday parties probably had fewer school friends, who were scattered for the summer. Instead, you’d have kids from the neighborhood pool and family. When I was young, I always wanted a school-year birthday because it seemed like they got more attention. I contend this isn’t just true for our personal birthdays, but also for the birthday of the church.

That’s what today is after all – Pentecost Sunday! The Birthday of the Church.

imageNow, unlike our birthdays which fall on the same date each year, Pentecost falls on different days because it’s always 50 days after Easter and Easter moves around. This year Easter was pretty early, so while Pentecost is usually a summer-birthday-kind-of-day, this year it’s been upgraded to a school-year birthday! So instead of a lot of folks being scattered, we’re all here to celebrate together!

We’ve got our festive red outfits on, our flamed-ribbon-sticks in-hand, a dove flying in the procession, special music – the works! It’s quite a birthday celebration for the Church!

But why is Pentecost considered the birthday of the church?

Well, what usually happens on your birthday? We get gifts! And the same thing happened for the followers of Jesus on Pentecost. They received the gift of The Holy Spirit!

In the opening verses of the book of Acts we’re told that after the resurrection Jesus was hanging out with the apostles, and it says:

While staying with the apostles, Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ (Acts 1:3-5)

So not unlike us a few days before our birthday, the apostles were told to wait for the gift that was coming soon.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that the term used for Jesus’ inner circle has shifted. In the four gospels these twelve were usually called disciples, which means learner. By contrast, in the book of Acts, this same group are now called apostles, which means to be sent forth. The word apostle only appears 9 times in the gospels compared to 140 uses of disciple. Apostle was reserved for when these twelve were empowered to go out to proclaim and heal in Jesus’ name. And now, as the title suggests, in The Acts of the Apostles, reveals clearly that the role of these twelve has shifted. They have been sent out to do the work Jesus has given them to do.

imageThis difference is significant because it illustrates the intention for our own spiritual progression. We all begin as disciples, learners of what Jesus’ came to do and how he revealed God anew in the world. But at some point as we mature spiritually, a shift occurs that moves us beyond being learners to being apostles. It’s not to say that apostles don’t keep learning, but learning alone isn’t the point. It is in being SENT OUT that we are able to be messengers for God, and to proclaim and demonstrate the good news of God in the world.

And immediately before the ascension Jesus tells the apostles just how sent out they will be:

“you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

So, they don’t just stick close to home – they are to go to places considered before to be off-limits to Jews, like Samaria, and to places unknown. In receiving this gift of the Holy Spirit, the apostles are empowered, and the same Holy Spirit continues to empower us, to be sent out to do God’s work in the world.
But how does this Holy Spirit thing work?

Well, John’s gospel delineates the three-in-one nature of God: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in a very specific and deliberate way. Today’s gospel from John conveys the unity, the oneness, between the Father and Jesus, the Son. Then, it introduces the role of the Holy Spirit.

In the midst of confusion the disciples are feeling as they try to grasp Jesus’ message that he will be leaving them soon, it says:

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth… You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

holy-spirit-dove-drawing-The_Holy_Spirit_by_HammerMarioThis Spirit of Truth is the Holy Spirit. An advocate – one who comes alongside to help – to be with the disciples and to empower their work as apostles! It goes on to say:

“the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

And a bit later Jesus says:

“I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; (Jn 16:12-13a)

The Holy Spirit is the gift to the church because it continues to help the community of believers, after Jesus’ departure from the earth. When we call upon the Holy Spirit in discernment, it continues to disclose truth to us in our daily life and community.

What’s more, as new discoveries are made, and our understanding of humankind and this world evolves, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us discern how to understand these things. The Holy Spirit is the lens through which we are to view these new things, so we can see them in light of God’s gift of love and God’s dream that all will be together, not divided, in the world.

We see this in the very first example of the power of the Holy Spirit from Acts:

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

The Holy Spirit gave the apostles the ability to break down one of the primary barriers that divides us from one another – language. The earlier reading from Genesis about the Tower of Babel, where God is worried that everyone speaking one language will cause humans to be more powerful than God, so God scattered them and gave them different languages. This divided and scattered way for the world is now being recast through the coming of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It’s no longer God for a particular people, but God for all people.

imageThose things that divide will not be impediments to God’s message being proclaimed. These people from all walks of life who were congregated together in Jerusalem

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. 

All these were hearing the message of proclamation, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ message was a call for oneness, not for division.

And while language is the most noticeable divider, and the one used in this story, there are so many ways that we are divided from one another. Even so, when we invite the power of the Holy Spirit into our life, when we accept this gift as God’s continual revealer of truth, then we become able to break down those things that divide. If not by words, by actions.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

Jesus departure makes room for the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus was God in-fleshed, and the Holy Spirit is God in-spirited! God as our very breath!

This is the Spirit of truth… You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 

When we do the work of discernment through the Holy Spirit, the result is that the barriers that divide us will be brought down. In this story, the apostles made themselves open to speaking a different language – to seeing things in a new way, and through it, they demonstrated the oneness in love that God dreams of for the world.

WARNING: if you do likewise, some will be amazed while others may sneer and accuse you of being filled with new wine – aka: they’ll say you’re NUTS! But the work of breaking down those things that divide us is precisely what apostles are called to do!

imageWe are called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world, the whole world. And what better place to start then right here where we are. We, the people of Christ Church, Norcross are located in what has been called the most culturally diverse county of the Southeast. What better place to start then right outside our doors. And even inside our doors, where we also find diversity – cultural, political, socio-economic, age, marital status, and countless other ways.

In spite of all this differentness, if we are going to be God’s people following Jesus, we are called to be connected to one another. We are also called to be sent out into the world to extend that connection to others. To find ways to get past the things that divide so we can build up the love of God among all people.

imageSo today, on the Birthday of the Church, we are reminded of the gift of the Holy Spirit! As we continue our parish discernment, may we repeatedly re-open this birthday gift given to the church. And with each opening, may it continue to teach us, direct us, and empower us to do God’s apostolic work in this place, in our community and throughout the world!

When we do this, it is indeed a Happy Day for the Church!



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