Monday, May 28, 2012

I have given you the Helper...

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday (B), preached on Sunday, May 27, 2012.

    We have many ideas about the Spirit and we attribute many things to the work of the Spirit – miraculous power, healing, telling the future, speaking in tongues, conversion, etc...  In our desire to know the Spirit we give to the Spirit the wrong kind of attention.  The Spirit refuses this attention.  He is sent and He is come not to draw attention to Himself but to make known Jesus Christ, who, Himself, has revealed to us the Father.  The Spirit’s work is hidden – He draws us to Christ by working in us faith, faith to acknowledge Jesus and His gifts and trust in Jesus with all our heart, mind, body and strength.
    It is not that we neglect the Spirit by keeping the focus on Christ.  The Spirit is, after all, the Spirit of Christ and of His resurrection.  He is the one whom Jesus has promised.  He is the Comforter, Counselor, Paraclete, and Helper.  He is the one to reveal to us all things in Christ and make known to us all that Jesus said and did for us and for our salvation.  He is the power to opens our hearts and minds to hear, and hearing, to believe in Him whom the Father has sent.
    The greatest work of the Spirit is not some miraculous suspension of the natural order.  We may focus upon healings or speaking in tongues or a mass movement of conversion; the Spirit focuses upon Jesus Christ.  He works to open the closed hearts and minds of the sinner to know Jesus Christ and to know all that He accomplished to forgive us of our sins, to save us from our lost condition, to impart to us life everlasting, and to equip us for the good works of worship, witness, prayer, and mercy to the world.
    St. Paul insists that even our faith is not a work for which we can take credit.  That we believe at all is the work of the Spirit.  This is what we confess in the catechism.  "I believe that I cannot be my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, gathered, enlightened and sanctified me in the one true faith" – all  through the means of grace.  Believing in Jesus is beyond us except for the Spirit’s work in us.
    Once the Spirit has worked faith in us, the Spirit works to keep us in that faith.  We are not of the world, but we live in the world.  As long as we live in the world, we face a myriad of temptations, trials, doubts, persecution, and fears.  We would certainly be lost to faith were it not for the work of the Spirit to keep us in this faith and life in Christ.  He is the glue that keeps us connected to Christ the vine and He is the power to shape our words and our works into the good fruit that glorifies God and fulfills His own purpose.
    How does the Spirit work?  This is perhaps the ultimate question.  We are under great temptation to believe the Spirit works because we prayer for the Spirit and that He works directly upon us.  Both of these tempt us to shaky ground.  The Spirit does not come to us because we bid Him but because Christ has sent Him.  Our Lord has given to us the means of grace.  In these Word and Sacraments He has placed the Spirit so that this Word and these Sacraments may accomplish the purpose for which God intends them – that we believe in Jesus Christ and have life in His name.
    The Spirit is not some side show in God's circus nor is He some strange power or being. The Spirit is the counselor and comforter whom Jesus promised so that we might believe in Him whom the Father has sent and have life in His name.  We are to look for the Spirit not in flash and thunder or sign and wonder but through the ordinary means of grace.
    It is true we Lutherans often do not speak as much of the Spirit as we ought.  Perhaps it is because we do not think we know enough or perhaps it is because we rightly confess that the focus is upon Christ.  But we should be speaking of the Spirit for it is the Spirit whom Jesus has promised and the Spirit whom the Father has sent through Him.  The Spirit works through the Word of God, written, proclaimed, and witnessed.  We do not depend upon technology or church growth marketing plans or our intelligence or even our savvy wisdom.  Our witness has power because wherever the Word of Christ is spoken, the Spirit is at work calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying people to become the people of God by baptism and faith.  To speak of the means of grace is to speak of the Spirit.  To come with faithful hearts to hear and receive the Word and Sacraments is to come under the grace of the Spirit and with the Spirit’s gift of faith to acknowledge, rejoice, and receive His grace for life now and forever.
    The Sacraments are the means of grace not only because Christ has given them to us and attached Himself to this water, bread, and wine.  The Sacraments are the means of grace because the Holy Spirit of God is in them and works through them – just as Jesus has promised.  When we disdain the Word and Sacraments, we disdain Christ and the Spirit.  It is like turning away from the gifts God has given only to ooh and aah over the trite and trivial things of this world, our own accomplishments and glory.  We keep the focus upon the Word and Sacraments because this is where Christ and His Spirit come to us and work in us forgiveness, life, and salvation.
    To be spiritual then is not a matter of right praying or having some outward spiritual manifestation.  To be spiritual is to be attentive to the Word and Sacraments where the Spirit works . . . to make Christ known to us that we might witness this Gospel and make Christ known to the world.  The Spirit works repentance in us and we are saved.  He works faith in us that we might know this and trust this Gospel for all things. 
    What transformed the fearful disciples into the bold voices of witness was nothing less than the Spirit.  These were ordinary and mostly uneducated men and yet their witness turned the world upside down – all because of the Spirit working in them and through them.  Today we are under great temptation to believe that we make our witness attractive and we can build the Church through our own means and methods.  In both cases, we have forgotten the work of the Spirit.  We face today a crisis of faith.  We have lost our full confidence in the Word and the Sacraments, in the Spirit’s working through these means of grace, and in the promise of God that these will not return to Him empty but will accomplish His own purpose in sending them.  Today we come to reclaim this confidence and trust, that the Lord may call and keep us in faith and call the world to repentance by our witness to the Gospel.  That by believing the Word of the Cross we might have life now and forever and that by speaking this Word to the world many may come to faith and have Christ’s life in them, with us... for now and for eternity.  Amen.


Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Peters: Thank you for an edifying sermon. It reflects quite accurately the strong points and weak points of what Lutherans believe about the Holy Spirit.

Laymen probably regard sermons differently from the way pastors do. I suspect that from a pastor’s point of view the question is often, “Have I said the right thing, or did I say it so that my parishioners will benefit from it?” I cannot speak for all laymen, but I think we often think that what is said in a sermon often reflects our own inadequacies, and so we feel guilty (maybe some pastors go through that process even as they write their sermon). Sometimes rightly so, and sometimes not. All this to lead up to what you wrote near the end of your sermon, “What transformed the fearful disciples into the bold voices of witness was nothing less than the Spirit. These were ordinary and mostly uneducated men and yet their witness turned the world upside down – all because of the Spirit working in them and through them.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but we laypeople cannot help but think, “If the same Spirit is in us, why are we not doing what the Apostles did, or why is the Spirit not working through us in the same way as He did in the Apostles?” I know I have heard sermons that spoke disparagingly of our efforts compared to that of the Apostles.

I have come to the conclusion that we need to tell people that Pentecost was a special case. It was not simply the Spirit “working in them and through them,” but the Spirit working in a special, unique way – a way in which He had not worked before or after. The Apostles received the Holy Spirit on Easter Sunday and for the next 50 days they did not seem particularly different from the way they were before. In fact, they did some things we might consider foolish: they asked about when they could start judging the 12 Tribes of Israel; Peter said, “I am going fishing” in a way that might indicate that he was going back to what he was doing before he had met the Lord, since that whole part of his life seemed to have come to an end; and then there was that business about Matthias.

Our Lord told them on two occasions that are recorded, after they had already received the Holy Spirit, that they would receive “power.” (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8). That is what happened on Pentecost.

I cannot penetrate the mind of God to know all of the reasons why there was this 50 day period between our Lord’s resurrection and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Some are obvious, such as the fact that it was the festival of Shavout, the commemoration of the giving of the Law. But I suspect that one tiny reason may be so that God’s people could know that their life in the Kingdom, after they have received the Holy Spirit, will be one of gradual sanctification in which the Spirit works through parents, relatives, friends, supervisors and coworkers, teachers, pastors, Word and Sacrament, without necessarily showing dramatic effects – though there have been many case of this happening. How the Holy Spirit works in each of us is up to Him (1 Corinthians 12: 7), “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

While surely the Pentecost event was unique (except for its repition among the Gentile and the followers of John in the Book of Acts), there is a parallel. The power was not in the disciples so that they were different from us. The power was in the message. In this way, we are in a similar as the disciples. The power lies not in us but in the Word. What has changed is that the Church has spent more time and urging Christians to witness that includes less of Christ's Word and more of the believer. We use gimmicks to get them in the pew, we entertain them instead of worship, and then we wonder why our results are less that stellar. I think Pr Peters has it about right. We have lost confidence in the Word to do what it promises.

Anonymous said...

In his Ascension Day sermon, St. Gregory comments on the signs and wonders that, Jesus says, will accompany those who believe in Mark 16, noting that such works no longer follow us. Is this because we don't believe, he asked. No, he remarked, rather what the early Church did was needed to establish it in its embryonic state. Now, St. Gregory says, we are blessed to do spiritually what the early Church did physically (e.g., "casting out demons" now accomplished through the pronouncement of Holy Absolution; "speaking in new tongues" as the faithful leave off their old manner of speaking and declaring the mighty works of God, etc.).

Lutheran Pastor said...

Without the Word and facing the unique circumstance of Pentecost, God provided a unique event and power. That said, we continue to do what the Disciples did, but, as the later anonymous notes, the spiritual equivalent (absolution, exorcism, making known the witness of Scripture, etc.).

The "power" of Pentecost is both similar and distinct from the power that God has placed in the means of grace.

Jesus promised greater works and that promise was not limited to nor defined by the miraculous events of Pentecost. Those greater works continue where sins are forgiven, lives born again in baptism, and the hungry fed upon the body and blood of Christ.