Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Pentecost

Here is the transcription of my sermon for Pentecost on May 31, 2020.

Pentecost

Readings:

• Acts 2.1-21
• 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13
• John 7.37-39a

Sermon:

We are celebrating the Feast of Pentecost.  The day when, as Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit came on the disciples to give them the power they needed to be his witnesses.  Immediately before he ascended to heaven to return to his Father, Jesus told them that they should wait in Jerusalem for the ‘promise of the Father’, which they had heard about from him (Acts 1:4).

The Feast of Pentecost was one of the big three feasts of Judaism.  These were pilgrimage feasts, that is, when Jews from all over Palestine and the world came to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple.  It is at another of these three feasts that Jesus, in John’s Gospel, first promises to give the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him.  It is this promise that we read about in our Gospel reading for this week.

Significantly, this promise is made at the Feast of Tabernacles.  The Feast of Tabernacles, also known as the Feast of Booths, was a popular feast and one that was full of joy and celebration.  It still is amongst Jews today.  It lasted for seven days with an eighth day added at the end to bring things to a conclusion.  This year, the Feast of Tabernacles begins on October 2.

The Feast of Tabernacles marked the end of the harvest, and, like our Harvest Festival today, which is held at about the same time, it was a time of thanksgiving.  It also remembered Israel’s time in the wilderness when the people of Israel lived in temporary accommodation such as tents.  Jews, at the time of Jesus, as they do now, built ‘booths’ outdoors, which they lived in during the Feast to reenact this time in the wilderness.  As they celebrated the harvest of the year just past, they also looked forward to the year ahead and prayed for rain, something particularly important in a hot, dry climate.

It was not just physical water to renew the ground that they looked forward to, however, but the living water that God would provide when he visited and renewed his people as the prophets had promised.  The book of Zechariah was popular at this Feast.  Not least these verses from Zechariah chapter 14:

‘On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter.  And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.’ (Zechariah 14:8-9)

For the Jews, Jerusalem was the ‘belly’, that is, the navel or centre of the world, and it would be from Jerusalem that God’s Spirit would flow out to all the world.  The ceremonies that took place during the Feast were full of symbolism.  Each day, for example, the priests would process down from the Temple to the Pool of Siloam and fill a golden pitcher with water from it.  They would then process back to the Temple to the sound of music and the singing of the ‘Hallel’ Psalms, Psalms 113-118.

At the Temple, they would circle the altar and the water would be poured over the it, symbolizing the day when the Spirit would flow from the Temple and as a prayer for rain in the months ahead.  They were reminded of how God had provided water for his people from the rock in the desert, and they looked forward to the day when he would do so again.  As it said in Psalm 118, God is the God:

‘who turns the rock into a pool of water,
the flint into a spring of water.’ (Psalm 114:8)

On the last day, instead of circling the altar just once, the priests circled it seven times. This was the ‘last great day of the feast’. It was on this day that Jesus ‘cried out’:

‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let him drink.’ (John 7:37)

Jesus continued his cry with the words:

‘…the one who believes in me just as the scripture said, ‘Out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.’ (John 7:38)

Grammatically, this verse may mean either that rivers of living water will flow out of the one who believes in Jesus or out of Jesus himself.  This ambiguity is reflected in the different translations.  Whichever way it is translated, on their own, it is not clear exactly what Jesus means.  So, St John adds an explanation for us:

‘Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive …’ (John 7:39)

St John’s explanation helps, I think, to decide which translation we should prefer of Jesus’ words.  Jesus is telling those at the Feast that the water that they looked forward to flowing from the belly of Jerusalem would now flow out from Jesus himself to all who believed in him.  God’s promises, remembered so vividly at the Feast, would be fulfilled in the person of Jesus himself.

While St John’s explanation helps us to understand the words of Jesus, his full explanation of Jesus’ words is quite shocking.  This is, perhaps, why it has been left out of the Gospel reading for today by those who selected the readings.  St John, however, continues his explanation with the words, which when translated literally are:

‘ … for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ (John 7:39)

It is worth reading St John’s explanation again in full:

‘Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ (John 7:39)

This is so shocking that the translators of some versions translate the final part of St John’s explanation as: ‘for as yet the Holy Spirit had not been given’.  This may be what Jesus meant, it is not, however, what he says!  What Jesus is saying is that the difference that the Holy Spirit is going to make to believers when they receive him is going to be so great that it is as if the Holy Spirit didn’t exist beforehand.

What is so shocking for us today is that, for many present-day believers, the Holy Spirit may as well not exist for all the difference he seems to make in their lives.  What would be different if the Holy Spirit did not exist?  How would it change how believers thought about God and Jesus and lived their lives?  Not a lot is the answer.

The obvious question then is: what difference should it make?

The reason that St John gives for the Holy Spirit not existing for the disciples was that Jesus had not yet been glorified.  It is when our Lord knows that the hour for him to be glorified has arrived that he tells the disciples in more detail what difference the Holy Spirit will make. 

It is in his Farewell Discourse in the Upper Room during the Last Supper that Jesus speaks to them about the ‘promise of the Father’.  And this is what Jesus is referring to when he tells them to wait in Jerusalem before he ascends to his Father.

In the past few weeks, we have been thinking about some of what Jesus said to his disciples during this Last Meal with them (John 13:33).  He told them that he was going away and that they could not follow him.  This, understandably, troubled them.  Jesus comforted them by promising he wouldn’t be leaving them for long, but would come again to them in a ‘little while’ with his Father to make his and the Father’s home in them (John 14:19).  They were to be one with him and the Father as he and the Father were one (John 14:21).

Although this would bring comfort and peace, it would not be an end to their trouble and suffering.  The world, Jesus told them, would hate them as it had hated him (John 15:18), and they could expect persecution as a result.  The world would be their enemy, and in the same way that it had refused to believe Jesus, so too it would not believe them (John 15:20).  Jesus is telling them in advance to prepare them for when it happens (John 16:1).  Real though their trouble and suffering will be Jesus gives them peace that the world cannot give (John 14:27).  The world will oppose them and do all it can to destroy them, but they are to be courageous, for Jesus has conquered the world (John 16:33).

But what has all this to do with the Holy Spirit and the difference he makes?

Jesus makes it plain that the way he is going to come and make his home with those who believe in him and be with them in all the trouble and suffering they face in the world is through the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus is returning to the Father, but, he tells them, he will ask the Father and the Father will give them the ‘Spirit of truth’ (John 14:15-17).  The world cannot receive the Spirit; only those who believe in him are able to receive the Spirit.  The Spirit is already ‘with them’, but now he shall be ‘in them’ (John 14:18).  Later, in his final words to them, Jesus tells them that it is he himself who sends the Spirit of truth to them (John 15:26; 16:7), although, Jesus says, it is from the Father that the Spirit comes (John 15:26).  Jesus can say that both he and the Father send the Spirit because he and the Father are one (John 17:22). 

We have, I am sorry to say, a rather ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to these words of Jesus, and we don’t take them very seriously.  Just how seriously Jesus took them, however, can be seen from how Jesus says that it is good for them that he is going away, otherwise the Holy Spirit would not come to them (John 16:7).  If they loved him, they would rejoice at this news (John 14:28).

So, let me ask as we celebrate Pentecost, are we rejoicing?  Do we think it is good that Jesus has gone?  Not really, I think is the honest answer.  Most of us, if we were honest, would much prefer for Jesus to be physically here on earth; anywhere on earth.  What Jesus is saying is that by sending the Spirit to them, he can be in everyone who believes in him, who loves him and keeps his commandments, and not just be confined to one physical location.  We, however, would much prefer him to be somewhere in this world, perhaps conducting YouTube interviews and sending out tweets and pictures on social media.  That would be infinitely preferable to all this vague talk about the Spirit.

So, did Jesus get it wrong?  We would never say that, of course, but deep down it is what we think.  The reason we think like this is that, for most Christians, either Jesus is physically with us or he is not.  Clearly, he is not with us physically, so, by definition, he is not with us.  We may be able to pray to him, read his words, and look forward to being with him one day, but, in the meantime, we have to cope without his actual presence. 

The whole point of the Farewell Discourse, however, is that Jesus is trying to convince his followers, who thought exactly like us, that there is another way.  Yes, he is going to the Father, but he isn’t leaving them.  He is just changing his mode of being with them by being in them and by making his home in and with them.

This helps us to understand something that continues to puzzle commentators on John’s Gospel.  In the Farewell Discourse, Jesus uses a word to describe the Holy Spirit that translators find hard to translate.  Jesus uses the Greek word, parakletos, which is usually rendered into English as ‘paraclete’.  This word occurs 4 times in St John’s Gospel (John 14:16; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7).

It has been variously translated as: advocate, comforter, companion, counsellor, friend, helper, intercessor, and patron.  Despairing of ever finding the right way of translating it, some just leave it as ‘paraclete’.  This may be honest, but it doesn’t really mean very much!  To make matters worse, the Greek word is only used one other time in the New Testament and that is by St John himself in his first letter.  So, we really don’t have a lot to go on.  The problem isn’t just finding the right word to translate ‘paraclete’; it is also understanding what Jesus is seeking to convey by it.

The word itself is used in Greek outside the New Testament with a variety of meanings, hence the problem in discovering its meaning here.  Its basic meaning is: ‘one who speaks for someone in the presence of another’. 

For example, ‘paraclete’ can be used of an advocate speaking on behalf of someone in a court of law.  This is why ‘advocate’ is one of the more popular translations.  St John often uses legal imagery, so ‘advocate’ as a translation fits, but it feels inadequate.  It doesn’t seem to capture all that Jesus is saying about the Spirit in his words to the disciples.

The word ‘paraclete’ can also be used of someone who offers help and assistance, and this explains why some translations use the word ‘helper’.  After all, elsewhere in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is certainly said to help us, but is that all he does and is that what Jesus is saying here in John’s Gospel?

Jesus, I think, gives us a clue as to how he is using the word, a clue that is often missed by those seeking to understand what Jesus is saying.  In John 14:16, in his first use of the word, Jesus says:

‘And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete …’ (John 14:26

For the Spirit to be another Paraclete, there must be an original Paraclete.  Who, then, is the original Paraclete?  Obviously, it is Jesus himself.  In fact, in the only other use in the New Testament of the word, it is used by St John of Jesus.  He writes:

‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have a Paraclete with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous …’ (1 John 2:1)

Jesus was the Paraclete on earth before he became our Paraclete in heaven.  But, and this is a very important question, whose Paraclete was he when he was on earth?  If we take the basic meaning of the word as ‘one who speaks for someone in the presence of another’, then the answer is clear.  Jesus was the Father’s Paraclete: Jesus spoke for the Father in presence of the world and his disciples.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Jesus tells people, including his disciples, that this is what he is often enough, even if he doesn’t use the word ‘paraclete’ itself.

Jesus was sent by the Father (John 7:28-29; 8:42; 12:44-45; 13:20; 16:5; 17:3).  The words he speaks are the words the Father who sent him gave him to speak (John 8:28; 8:40; 12:49-50; 14:24; 17:8).  The works he does, he does for the Father (John 5:19; 5:36; 10:37; 14:10).  His overriding concern with his disciples before he leaves them is that they should believe that the Father sent him and that he came from God (John 16:29-30; 17:8).  Jesus has come to speak and to do what the Father sent him to do.  He is his Father’s representative.  Anyone who believes in him is believing in the Father who sent him (John 12:44).  He is the Father’s Paraclete in the fullest sense of the word.  In the same way as he now speaks to the Father on our behalf, so while on earth he spoke to the disciples on the Father’s behalf.

The Holy Spirit is now ‘another paraclete’ in that he takes over the role that Jesus had while he was physically with the disciples.  His primary role is not to comfort, counsel, help, speak on our behalf, or even act as our advocate.  He is sent by the Father and the Son to work for the Father and the Son and be their authorised representative.  He is given to us in their place, to be them for us.

In this role, Jesus tells the disciples, the Spirit will teach us everything that the Father wants us to know and remind us of all Jesus said (John 14:25-26).  He will testify on Jesus’ behalf (John 15:26-27).  We often take this to mean that he will testify through the disciples, but Jesus says they also will testify.  The Spirit’s testifying is something else apart from this.  Who does the Spirit testify of on Jesus’ behalf?  Why the Father, of course, and not to the world but first to the disciples, and then through the disciples to the world.  The Spirit will expose how wrong the world is in not believing in Jesus, in its thinking about Jesus, and in siding with the devil (John 16:7-11).

The Spirit will guide the disciples into all truth, for he will not speak on his own account, but only what he hears (John 15:12-15).  In other words, he will be a ‘paraclete’ in its most basic meaning!  He acts as both the Father and the Son’s spokesperson.  They will communicate with us through him.  The Holy Spirit is their mouthpiece.

Once we see that the Spirit is acting on behalf of Jesus in the way that Jesus was acting on behalf of the Father, it all becomes much clearer.  Even though we may still struggle for a precise word to describe what he does.  At least, we now know what it is we are talking about!

In his prayer to the Father, Jesus says:

‘ … for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.’ (John 17:8)

Now the Father and the Son have given the role that Jesus had to another, and it is now His job to reveal the Father and Son to us in the way that Jesus revealed the Father.  The disciples had to wait in Jerusalem for the ‘promise of the Father’ before getting on with the work that Jesus had given them because it is impossible for anyone who believes in him to live for him unless he first lives in us through the Spirit.

We began Lent with the words:

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

But how are we, who are weak sinful creatures of dust, to be faithful to Christ?  How are we to be his witnesses in a world of darkness that hates us as it hated him?

In telling them to wait for the ‘Promise of the Father’, Jesus said:

‘This is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ (Acts 1:4-5)

We too are called today to be Pentecost people.  People baptized in the Spirit, full of the Spirit, living in the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, lead by the Spirit, and used by the Spirit.  Used, that is, to do the work that Jesus has given us to do: to testify to the world of him.

Pentecost is not a PS, an after-thought of a Festival, added at the end to round off this part of the Church’s year.  In celebrating the giving of the Holy Spirit, we are celebrating the beginning of what Jesus came to make possible.  The living waters are flowing.  Eternal life is now offered to those who believe in him.  Even now, here in this world, we can know the Father through the Son by the Spirit.  The Father and the Son can live in us and not just with us.

And so, on this Feast of Pentecost, we pray:

Veni, Sancte Spiritus
Come, Holy Spirit.

Amen.

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