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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 5/31

          Jewish people have been celebrating a Pentecost festival much longer than Christians have.  Did you know that?  You know that Jews celebrate Passover around the time that we celebrate Easter, that Jesus’ Maundy Thursday last supper meal with his disciples was part of a Passover observance and that Passover celebrates the release of the Jews from slavery to Pharaoh, which is really the defining story for Jews, the primary story from which they understand themselves to be the chosen people of God. 

Fifty days later though, they celebrate Shavuot, their version of Pentecost, which marks the time that Moses received the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Torah from the Lord on Mt. Sinai.  So on Passover Jewish people were freed from slavery to Pharaoh; on Shavuot they were given the instruction that would make them a nation dedicated to serving the God who provided freedom.  The two celebrations are linked; one follows from the other.

In parallel fashion, we as Christians understand Easter to be the foundational celebration of our identity.  We are people raised to new life with Jesus who has overcome all that separates us from life with God, so  Easter is our defining moment.  Fifty days later we celebrate our version of Pentecost which marks the coming of the Holy Spirit who will lead us in living as a community dedicated to the grace filled way of life Jesus lived and taught, a community that we call the church.  Whether Jew or Christian then, you have two celebrations that are closely connected, one about an identity being given, the other about a way of life that follows from that identity. 

          A major focus of Pentecost Sunday then is to celebrate the birth of the church, the church which is led by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit whose presence was made known in wind and fire as told in the wonderful story that we hear read every year.  Like many of the other foundational stories of our faith, the Pentecost story is a great and memorable story all by itself, but looking at it more deeply, it also has a lot to say about just what it means to be a Spirit led community and that’s not always clear because we do struggle a little bit or maybe a lot, with the Holy Spirit. 

          Not that the Father and the Son are necessarily easy to understand and make sense of, but the Holy Spirit has always been the most difficult person of the Trinity to put words to or wrap our minds around.  The third article of the first version of the Nicene Creed from the year 325 ended with the simple statement, “And we believe in the Holy Spirit.”  They either didn’t have enough time or energy or imagination to say any more so it wasn’t until the Council of Constantinople fifty six years later that they added words to the third article that make it more like what we say today.  So Christians have always professed belief in the Holy Spirit but we quickly become uncomfortable with the mystery of it and the elusiveness of it.

          In the Pentecost story itself, the symbols of wind and fire right away introduce the mystery and the elusiveness.  Both wind and fire are things that are hard to nail down.  Both can be very powerful; both can be very useful and beneficial but both also have the potential to be very destructive; the two in combination can be even more powerfully destructive as we saw first hand in the fires here last week.  Neither wind nor fire can easily be contained and I don’t think that it’s an accident that these are symbols of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit which represents our best efforts to talk about the energy and presence of Jesus still alive and active in the world today. 

There is an unpredictability about wind and fire and so there is an unpredictability about the Holy Spirit and we don’t like that because it creates confusion.  We’d feel better if we could control the Spirit and limit it, and so we try, even if the Pentecost story indicates that the nature of the Spirit is not to be controlled and not to be limited and the nature of a Spirit led church is not to enforce rigid, controlled conformity but to allow for new, unpredictable possibilities.

          Besides the wind and the fire, the other striking feature of this story is the voices.  “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”  More confusion in other words, but the indication is that a Spirit led community is a community of many voices and you know that if there are many voices they are not all saying the same thing.  Yet the history of the church has included many efforts to silence voices that point to new directions and new possibilities, efforts to silence Martin Luther’s voice being but one prominent example. 

A Spirit led church allows for voices to be heard, including voices of dissent, trusting that this is how the Spirit moves and works.  But allowing those voices to be heard can create a degree of fear and confusion and fear and confusion make us want to explain things in more familiar terms just like some who experienced the first Pentecost just assumed that all those who were gathered were drunk even if it was early in the morning.  They were familiar with drunk and that would explain things in a way that made sense to them.

But they weren’t drunk; the Holy Spirit was at work; something new was going on and led by the Spirit those gathered in Jerusalem on that day would have to begin to rethink what it meant to be the people of God.  They would have to imagine the possibility of a church that included Jews and Gentiles existing together as followers of Jesus, a possibility that was controversial and, for a variety of reasons, a possibility previously unimaginable.  But, led by the Spirit, they let the voices be heard and were not bound by rules and limits that were much more acceptable.  They allowed for diversity and united by faith in the saving work of Jesus, the church grew and thrived.

It’s tricky business though.  It was tricky business then and it still is because we are a church of tradition and creeds and doctrines and confessions that we take seriously, but we are also a Spirit led church which means not limiting and confining the Spirit to any one place or time period but allowing it to continue to move like wind and fire in the mysterious ways that it does in all times and places.  It’s another example of the tension involved in being the church, in being faithful followers of Jesus whose Spirit can be a source of questions and ambiguity and unpredictability more than it is a provider of certainty and unchangeable absolutes.

On Pentecost it’s good to think about how the Spirit is at work in the church, but it’s also good to think about how it works in our individual lives.  That was particularly appropriate yesterday when we honored our high school graduates.  They all have plans for the future and that’s good.  But I told them that their plans are kind of like the church with its doctrines and creeds.  You need them, but you also have to be open to the work and the will of the Spirit in your life. 

We all have plans and sometimes life proceeds according to those plans, but we also have to pay attention to the signs of the Spirit at work, and there are signs.  By that I don’t mean signs in the moon and stars, I don’t mean voices and visions.  It’s more like what happened in last week’s first lesson.   

Last week we had the part of Acts that falls between the story of the Ascension and the story of Pentecost.  With Judas out of the picture it was necessary to replace him and the other disciples came up with two choices; Joseph, called Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and Matthias who I guess was just known as Matthias.  They cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias and he became Judas’ replacement. 

Now we never hear another word about either of these characters, but what you could say is that a door opened for Matthias, a door closed for Joseph and a lot of times I think that’s how the Spirit works and moves; those are the signs.  Doors open and doors close and either way it leads to something new.  That something new may or may not be part of our plans, but it may be part of God’s plan for us and so it’s good to be attentive to the signs.

For all of us it’s important to remember that life doesn’t always flow in nice straight lines according to plan.  The Spirit moves in ways that we can’t always figure out, so we follow the signs even what might seem to be bad signs, remembering again that the defining story of our faith, the Easter story is about the Spirit of God as a source of new life and new possibilities.  That’s what the Christian faith is about; that’s what the signs point us to.  On Pentecost then, the invitation is to watch for the signs and to be open to the possibilities of the Spirit.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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