Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 05/31/2020

Pentecost is about the sending of the Holy Spirit; as the Prayer of the Day puts it, “On this day you open the hearts of your faithful people by sending into us your Holy Spirit.” You get the idea though, that discussion of the Holy Spirit has always presented challenges as such discussion moves more fully into the realm of mystery, the mystery of how the God we proclaim, the God revealed in Jesus, continues to be present and at work in the world. Evidence that this challenge has been around forever includes the fact that the first version of the Nicene Creed, written in the year 325 simply ended with “And we believe in the Holy Spirit;” that was it, the rest was added later.

The Bible itself uses images to get at the Holy Spirit. Most notably, in the classic story from Acts 2 that is read every year on Pentecost you get the images of wind, the sound of the rush of a violent wind and then fire with tongues of fire over the heads of all those gathered. In today’s gospel from John there’s the image of breath as Jesus breathes on the disciples saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” and remember that in both Greek and Hebrew, the original biblical languages, the word for spirit, wind and breath is the same which in a sense, adds to the mystery. Adding the image of fire to wind and breath you have something else that can have great power but which also can be elusive and hard to control.

The images are compelling and mysterious, but this is the kind of mystery that isn’t intended to be solved and explained, it’s a mystery concerning the God in whose presence we live, a mystery in which we abide, to use one of John’s favorite words. It does make the Holy Spirit hard to talk about though, except in vague terms. That’s at least part of the reason why this Sunday is often used for Confirmation or Graduation Recognition or a celebration of the birthday of the church, all of which provide something of a diversion, but they’re legitimate diversions as they all do relate to what we understand as the work of the Holy Spirit.

The work of the Holy Spirit is what most concerned Martin Luther. For me, a positive aspect of the coronavirus quarantine has been the opportunity to read more, especially to revisit some books on Lutheran theology and some of Luther’s writings that I haven’t paid much attention to since seminary. What I’ve found is that as is the case with reading the Bible, there are always new insights to be found, sometimes new questions raised. I should add though, that in our ELCA expression of the Lutheran Church we don’t have to, nor should we agree with everything Luther says as some of it is pretty bad, but a lot is very good and after 500 years he continues to engage and challenge us.

Luther’s broad understanding of the Apostles’ Creed as a whole is that it tells us what God has done for us so it makes sense that he would approach the Third Article of the creed, the Holy Spirit part, wanting to describe what the Spirit does for us. One of his best known writings on this is his explanation of the Third Article in the Small Catechism, something many of you, like me, probably had to memorize back in your confirmation days: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith just as he calls, gathers, enlightens and makes holy the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.” Sound familiar? I bet for some of you it does, perhaps buried somewhere in the deep recesses of your brain.

My new insight on this is that in some ways, what this is, is a class in Lutheranism 101 as Luther’s first role of the Holy Spirit is to call us through the gospel. The more one reads Luther, the more one notices his emphasis on the role the proclamation of the gospel has in creating faith. For him, the gospel is about Jesus and what, by grace alone, Jesus has done for us in forgiving sins and making us right with God.

For him, first and foremost, the Holy Spirit is the agent by which faith is created through the proclamation of the word, that proclamation being the primary way we encounter Christ himself. The Word is also at the center of Luther’s sacramental theology that emphasizes that it’s the Word of God in the water of baptism and the Word of God in the bread and wine of Holy Communion that brings about forgiveness of sins.

Ben Stewart, who is the worship professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, did an online presentation for our synod last week and he said that, according to Luther, while the use of the sacraments was vitally important in revealing God’s grace and while the connection between the Word and the elements used in the sacraments was important, Luther also said that if you had to choose between the Word and the elements, the Word itself was greater. I found that helpful to hear in our present coronavirus worship situation. I can’t distribute the bread and wine of Holy Communion through a screen but what we still have, even from a distance is the Word, which is the presence of Christ himself mediated by the Holy Spirit.

Luther focused on the Holy Spirit’s work in calling, gathering, enlightening, making holy and keeping us in the faith. He was quite adamant in emphasizing that this was all work that we couldn’t do for ourselves. While in his explanation of the Third Article Luther doesn’t talk about what the Holy Spirit empowers us to do, in other places he does and today’s Bible readings take us in that direction as well.

In my Bible, the heading over the reading from First Corinthians is Spiritual Gifts and it includes some classic Paul, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” He then moves into one of his lists of spiritual gifts and he uses the one body with many members metaphor.

The implication of course is that we all have a role to play, that we all have been given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. What we’re empowered to do varies greatly and it changes, it involves a discernment process that is pretty much ongoing throughout life. Today though I think especially about our high school seniors, DJ, Jackson, Garrett, Hope, Kayla and Mackenzie, whose graduation ceremonies would have taken place this week. As they graduate, they’re at one point of discernment but it won’t be the last one especially with so much uncertainty these days about pretty much everything.

For them and for all of us, the common good aspect of what Paul said is important to keep in mind. We’re living in what should be a “We’re all in this together” time, but even with that reality we can’t get past the divisiveness the pervades so much of our society. Somewhere we lost the notion of the common good and I think all of us, rather than pointing fingers and blaming others for it, all of us should humbly reflect on our part in that and what we can do about it.

In today’s Acts 2 Pentecost reading, Peter was empowered to preach about “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you.” He proclaimed the gospel. In his speech though, Peter invoked words from the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy,” and keep in mind here that prophesy isn’t about predicting the future, it’s more about proclaiming religious truth.

These are verses that have become important for me because my take on it is that it explains the work of the Holy Spirit in inspiring those who wrote the Bible. They were blessed to be able to see deeper truth in events and people that most of us wouldn’t have noticed or paid much attention to…or we would have explained things differently, most likely more logically and rationally. But they were able to see the truth of God at work and with their dreams and visions were able to proclaim that truth.

Most of us don’t have the gift that those prophets and poets had but we have been given the gift of faith that enables us to share in their vision and come to believe. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are invited into the realm of divine truth that enables us to live in knowledge of the life and forgiveness we’ve been given through Jesus Christ our Lord. By the power of the Holy Spirit we have been called; we have been enlightened; we have been made holy and we are kept in the true faith that holds us in fellowship with the God revealed in Jesus.

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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