GOD'S POWER IN HUMAN LANGUAGE
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Erskine and American United Church, Montreal, Quebec. May 26, 1996. Acts 2:1–21.
....in our own language we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power. Acts 2:1–21
Today is the day of Pentecost, which – along with Christmas and Easter – is one of the three major festival days in the calendar of the Christian year. The birth of Christ, his resurrection, and the coming of the Spirit – these are the three major religious events for Christians. But, many people have some problems with Pentecost. Why is this so?
Well, Pentecost is a problem, first of all, because fairly often it falls on Victoria Day weekend, and it is hard to have a major Christian festival at the time when many people are opening their cottages for the season. Then again, on some years Pentecost falls on Mother's Day. When I was a student minister in eastern Ohio, I learned that when you are serving small churches in farming country, one thing you don't do is celebrate Pentecost and ignore Mother's Day. It’s just not a good idea.
But there is a third way that Pentecost can be a problem, and that is because many of us find it harder to understand and embrace Pentecost than we do Christmas or Easter. We understand what those days are about, but when we talk about the coming of the Holy Spirit, many people are just not certain what that means. And in the United Church we don't usually talk much about the Holy Spirit; and when and if we do, it rarely sounds as if the Spirit is a dynamic reality in our lives.
So, then, what can we discover about the Holy Spirit from our scripture reading in the book of Acts today? We could, of course, focus on such things as the sound which was like the wind, the flames, and the gift of languages. But I want to suggest that while these images are there and they are important, they can also distract us from the things that the writer really wants us to hear.
If we turn back to chapter 1, verses 4 and 5 of Acts, we find that the risen Jesus told his followers 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 baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." And then in verse 8 he said, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." And all through the book of Acts, we find this theme, that the Spirit is the promised power of God, and it will be evident in the church's mission. In other words, the Spirit is the power for effective witness – both in words and action.
Now if this is what the Spirit really means – the presence and the power of God, then let us here today ask ourselves where we see that happening. Do we see God working with power somewhere? . . . . . If not – if the Spirit seems rather to be absent from our lives and our churches today, what does that mean? . . . . . Well, it may very well mean that God is no longer close and vital for us, but rather that God has become remote. When there is an absence of the Spirit in our lives and in our common life, what that suggests is that we no longer experience God's presence and God's power.
This is a disturbing thing, and we can discuss it at length, and we should; but this is not the first time in Christian history that it has happened. In fact, it was very much like that at the time of Jesus. Yes, you heard me right. You see, among those people living in the first century, the way that they experienced God's power was in prophecy. Whenever God spoke to people, it was called prophecy; and we are familiar with many of the prophets in the Old Testament – such as Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea and others. But at the time of Jesus there had been no prophecy for 300 years, and it seemed to them that God had forsaken his people. Small wonder then that those people became excited by the preaching of John the Baptist and of Jesus, for it seemed that finally God had again raised up prophets and that God's presence and power were being known. And yet, all too soon, both Jesus and John the Baptist were gone.
But then something new happened. This new thing was the Holy Spirit, and the book of Acts wants us to understand that this was the return of prophecy, and the sermon by Peter in today’s reading was seen as a clear example of this prophecy. So then, the presence of the Spirit is seen in the power to witness effectively to God's work in Jesus Christ. New Testament scholar Robert Tannehill says that "According to this passage, the Spirit is present where God breaks forth into speech, that is, where God manifests his power in human language."
So then, the question for you and me to ask is whether God is “present in and through the words which we speak in his name." Does our language – our speech – become the means by which God's purposes are accomplished? And so, for you and for me and for the church, I think that the challenge of Pentecost is first of all for us to believe that God can and indeed does work through our human speech, yours and mine – through the very words that we say. Even though the evidence may seem to be contrary, when we witness to the meaning of Jesus Christ for our lives and our world, then God is working and communicating through the words we say.
And secondly, let us realise that in addition to Pentecost being something that happened back then, it can also enable us to look to the future in hope and expectation, just as the biblical people did for 300 years. So then, let us hold fast the promise; let us watch and listen with great expectation for the time when God's promises will be completely fulfilled – when God will break forth into speech and our language will reveal 'the mighty works of God in our time," when the good news of Jesus Christ will be proclaimed with evident power across any and all barriers that keep people apart.
Now let us focus briefly on the events of this day here at Trinity, First, today we celebrate the anniversary of our church – the time when three congregations followed the Spirit’s leading and came together so they could more effectively be channels of that Spirit as we have continued in ministry together. Thanks be to God for the ministry of Trinity United Church in Rosemount.
Secondly, in the Confirmation this morning, I said, “Laurie, may the Holy Spirit, Love’s power, guide you, inspire you, and work within you, all the days of your life,” and you all gave your Amen to that. Confirmation is about the Holy Spirit. It is about our opening ourselves to being inspired and guided by God’s Spirit, and for us to open ourselves to the working of that Spirit within us.
And in a few moments we will gather at the Lord’s Table. As we do, we are reminded that the story of Jesus did not stop at the Last Supper. And neither did it not stop with his resurrection from the dead, or with his ascension and return to God. The Table of the Lord also points forward to the coming of the Spirit into the world and into the lives of people. Indeed, we may also experience that spiritual presence of God whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, and that is why we love this sacrament so much – because it brings us so close to God, and it brings God so close to us.
So then, we see that Pentecost can be an occasion for hope. It can be the fulfilment for which we hope, the end toward which we move, and the direction which we take. May the Spirit of God give us that presence and power which enable us to live with confidence and to abide in hope – this day and for evermore. Amen.