Friday, May 25, 2018

One of three great feasts. . .

Sermon preached on the Thursday after Pentecost, May 24, 2018.

Pentecost was one of the three major festivals in Israel’s calendar – so important that it expected the faithful to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple.  This is why so many were there when the Spirit descended as tongues of fire and the disciples spoke in many languages.  It was one of those days set apart to remember the God who gave the Law on Sinai and thus established a covenant relationship with His people.

This covenant was not simply the commandments and the call to be holy as God is holy but the promise that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had made in Eden that He would become His people’s Savior, delivering them from the end of the law and its punishment of death with the Lamb of God who would take away their sins and the sins of the whole world.  Sinai was this promise.  I will be your God and you will be My people.  This was a promise whose fulfillment was yet to be written in the birth of the Messiah but whose consequences were anticipated with the promise that He would hear their prayers, bestow His Spirit, provide for their needs, place His name upon them, and guide them to the day when the promise was made flesh.

The Church understood this.  The three ancient feasts are Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany, on which it is said on the day itself and through the octave.  This custom reflects the traditional baptismal character of these celebrations, which go back to the very earliest days of the Church.  Pentecost became a festival reborn by the grace of God and transformed by the Savior who keeps the Law and the promises of God and who delivers the Spirit to men, women, young, old, Jew, and Gentile, that everyone who calls upon the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ might be saved. 

In the history of Christendom, Pentecost was, like Easter, an eight day celebration.  It began with a vigil like the Easter vigil in which the focus was upon baptism – the seal of the promise upon those who come through water and the Spirit to be incorporated into the covenant people of God.  It was a holy day to remember the Law fulfilled in Christ and the mercy of God long promised now kept in Christ.  Now Epiphany has been forgotten and Pentecost a shadow of a memory.  Left with only Easter among these three giants of days, we are clearly the poorer.

In this week of Pentecost, those who were baptized and given the chrism of oil at the Pentecost vigil wore the white robes of their baptism through the entire eight days.  The old English name for Pentecost is Whitsunday or white Sunday in remembrance of this.  It was such a holy day that there are still parts of Europe in which Pentecost Monday is a holiday off of work.

Although begun long before the liturgical reforms in the 1970s, Pentecost faded almost from view.  Now we find a feast that must compete with high school graduations, with the wedding season, and, all too often, with Memorial Day and its holiday traditions.  Sadly, now Pentecost is largely a footnote, stripped of its octave and with hardly a vigil celebrated anywhere.  The greater tragedy is that the connection between Christ and the Spirit, between baptism and our life as a people who delight in the Law of the Lord, has also been severed.  To the point where Pentecost is merely the Church’s birthday and the fire of the Spirit no more than candles on its cake.

So why is this loss so terrible?  Because the Spirit has become a phenomenon. 

Instead of the witness to Christ, the Spirit has become His own personality.  People seek the Spirit and His gifts as if He were somehow separate from the gift of Christ and the righteousness of Christ bestowed upon God’s people in their baptism.  We treat the Spirit as if He was the forgotten God who must be rescued from obscurity instead of acknowledging the Spirit as the One who points to Christ and opens the heart of the believer to trust in Christ.  We treat the Spirit as some ghostly force instead of the One who has enlivened the Word with its power to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify a people fit for the Lord by Christ’s own grace and favor.

It is not quite the end of the octave of Pentecost but we are still in its afterglow.  The red is still on the altar and the readings draw us back to what happened when the Father fulfilled His promise and sent through His Son the Spirit of life.  And it all calls us to remember our baptism, to rejoice in the Spirit who taught our fearful hearts to believe, and to live out the new lives in which the Law of God is not some force to deny us happiness but the true and everlasting path of real contentment and peace.

Today we remember that Pentecost is not a phenomenon or simply an event but the fulfillment of a promise.  The Giver of the Law has become its Keeper and we are the beneficiaries.  The Promise of God has been kept and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is Christ our Lord.  The day when water and the Word of God named us as Christ’s own people remains the day of our new birth into a covenant with God that He refuses to renounce ever.  The name of Jesus has become our name of prayer.  The voice of the Lord still speaks in the Word that is power and life.  The fire of the Spirit burns in witness before the world, shining the Light of Christ to those in darkness and burning through the cold emptiness of the sinful human heart to teach us faith.  The work of the Spirit is still sanctifying us, making us holy, so that we may delight in His will and walk in His ways to the glory of His holy Name.

Come, Holy Spirit, shine in our hearts today, that we may know Christ and make Him known, and so fulfill the rich promise of our baptism by being kept faithful until our Lord Jesus comes to finish His new creation and bring to fulfillment a new heavens and a new earth.  Amen.

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