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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 05/20/2018

The icon for Pentecost is on the cover of your bulletin. Officially the title is The Descent of the Holy Spirit and I had it put it on the cover in part because I like icons but another reason is that icons always include symbolism and as we celebrate the rite of confirmation today, our confirmation students have gotten pretty good at noticing and interpreting symbols after watching a rather strange, but highly acclaimed set of movies on the Ten Commandments. The movies were made in Poland back in the 80’s and they are kind of weird; when I first previewed them last summer Kathy said, “You can’t show those,” but I decided to give it a shot and the kids did really well with them. Anyway, symbolism is another reason for using the icon. Even more importantly, I think that the icon, along with the texts for today, might help all of us to better experience the presence of the Holy Spirit as we celebrate this Pentecost/Confirmation Sunday.

Note that I say experience the Holy Spirit rather than understand the Holy Spirit, because while we talk about it as if we knew, the Holy Spirit is hard to understand and always has been. For example, the third article of the first version of the Nicene Creed back in the year 325 simply said, “And we believe in the Holy Spirit,” with no further elaboration. More was added later, but initially, that was it. I think that’s why we Lutherans tend to have trouble with the Holy Spirit, being as we are, people who like to think about things and figure them out; we want to understand. The trouble is, there’s a lot about any religion that isn’t totally rational and understandable, but instead has to be experienced.

This is also perhaps part of the reason that Pentecost has never caught on as a major festival of the church. It doesn’t have the same draw as Christmas and Easter which is some respects is good because that means it hasn’t been co-opted by commercial and secular interests. Still, it is a major festival but there were a lot more people here last week for Mothers’ Day than there are today; mothers are easier to understand than the Holy Spirit.

If you look at the icon though, what is quite noticeable is that there is little or no sense of activity, but rather the twelve seated figures reflect a sense of calmness and quiet. It’s very much in contrast with the Pentecost story from Acts which is a story of chaos with the piling up of one uncontrollable element after another as the house is filled with noise and wind and fire. Having been filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in strange languages, words like bewildered, amazed, astonished and perplexed are used to describe those gathered. With the sarcastic comment, “They are filled with new wine,” observers suspect them of being not inspired but intoxicated.

None of that comes across in the icon. No sounds, no words, no speaking disciples, no excited crowd, no skeptical observers, not even tongues of fire. As opposed to the chaos of the story, what you get in the icon is tranquility, harmony and order.

As is the case with most icons that depict events, they aren’t intended so much as illustrations of a particular story but are more about the theological truth of the story. What Pentecost is about is making God’s divine presence available to us through the descent of the Spirit. As Jesus says to his disciples in the gospel today, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you and he will guide you into all the truth.” The Spirit, the Advocate though, needs a place to dwell and one way to look at the icon is to see the open space in the icon as symbolizing that dwelling place. Jesus is no longer physically present but his absence doesn’t represent divine emptiness, but instead he has created space where his followers can receive the Spirit thereby making the divine not less available, but more available for the purpose of revealing the truth.

The twelve rays at the top of the icon represent the fullness of the Spirit, the fullness of the gift that has been received. Another part of the interpretation of this icon then, is that it shows that the time of confusion described in the Acts account is over. The Spirit of the Risen Christ now lives within his disciples, filling them with courage, hope, confidence and…peace.

For Abbi and Abby being confirmed today, I kind of doubt that the time of confusion is over. I don’t think either of them would claim to have things all figured out plus the way we do confirmation these days, it more closely resembles the chaos and confusion of the Acts story than it does the peace and tranquility of the icon. There isn’t always a lot of order to it. We still loosely follow the structure of Luther’s Small Catechism, but several years ago I gave up trying to follow any set curriculum and I’ll unashamedly confess that year to year and really, week to week, along with Mrs. Perry, we pretty much make it up as we go along, trying different things, like the Polish movies, things that sometimes crash and burn, but strangely enough, on the whole, it kind of works. The Holy Spirit sneaks in there and for most of our kids these days, I think a space is created within them for the Spirit to dwell and guide them and lead them to truth and I think that’s the case for these two today. The confusion may not be over, but that’s OK. With the Holy Spirit, it is more about experience than it is about total understanding.

Besides being about the descent of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost is also understood as the birth of the community known as the church. That too is symbolized in the icon. The twelve seated figures represent the church as they wait and listen for the Holy Spirit to guide them. All appears to harmonious among them; on the left you have Peter in the center, then Matthew, Luke, Andrew, Bartholomew and Thomas. On the right there’s Paul, John, Mark, Simon, James and Philip.

You’ll have to take my word for it that that’s who they are but people who know more about icons than I do are able to identify the characters and it’s significant that while there is the magic number of twelve, it’s not the twelve disciples. The group represents individuals who were significant in the early life of the church, people like Paul and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, rather than those who might actually have been present on that first Pentecost. It is a diverse group and according to the gospel stories and other stories about them, it is not a group that would have been totally compatible. What unites them is the Spirit and the word of God; it’s hard to see on your bulletin, but they all are holding either a book or a scroll that represents God’s word.

What the group demonstrates is unity in diversity and that is a good way to think about the church. We are not a group who marches in lock step, in agreement on all points of doctrine or agreement on anything else for that matter. Like the group in the icon, we are united by the Holy Spirit and the word of God as we hear it proclaimed and…as we sometimes struggle with it. Other than that, we’re different but…there’s room for everyone. As it says in the lower left hand corner of the ELCA website’s homepage, “There is a place for you here.”

For Abbi and for Abby and for all of us, that’s an important thing to remember because while pretty much every church would make that claim, there’s a place for you here, it’s not always true. But as a church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, again as it says on the website, “Liberated by our faith, we embrace you as a whole person, questions, complexities and all.” That’s comforting news that says, for us it’s about God’s grace, grace being a word and concept that we do emphasize throughout the confirmation process, grace that tells us that trusting in what Jesus has done for us in his life, death and resurrection, we are acceptable to God. As the keynote speaker at Synod Assembly said, according to our theology God comes to us not to take away sinfulness, but to wrap us in grace.

That grace is a free gift but it comes with a calling and that too is important to remember. That calling is also reflected in the icon with the strange figure at the bottom center. As a whole the icon represents the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the church so it might seem that it could be rendered without that figure standing in darkness. What the figure is said to symbolize though is the world in darkness, all those who live in darkness and who wait for the light of the word of God.

Again, it’s hard to see on the bulletin but what the figure is holding is twelve scrolls representing the divine word preached by the twelve seated figures. The scrolls and books they hold in that outer circle are not just for their own enlightenment and meditation. From that calm and peace they and we are called to bring light into the world’s darkness. There is a calling; there is a mission. None of us can do it alone, Abbi and Abby can’t do it alone, but together, as the church, with each of us playing a role, in our time and place, we continue the work of those who gathered and received the gift of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost.

Rev. Warren Geier


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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