The Holy Spirit makes us the Church
Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, May 23, 2021
The Feast of Pentecost, Acts 2:1-11; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Acts 2:1-11 (NRSV): When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs– in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15: Jesus said to his disciples, ”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: 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 when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
After Jesus’ death, and even after seeing Jesus again, risen from the dead, the disciples were afraid, uncertain of what was next. They hid from the Jewish authorities who had arrested Jesus. Yet in a matter of days, they became joyful and confident and they boldly proclaimed the Good News of Jesus. What happened to them?
Today is the feast of Pentecost. Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on the church. When they were together, the Holy Spirit filled the disciples with great signs and wonders: the sound of rushing wind and a vision of tongues of fire resting on each of them. There were Jews from all over the Mediterranean who had come to Jerusalem to worship God. And here these Galilean followers of Jesus were speaking to them in their various native languages. People were amazed, and what the disciples were telling them was all the great and powerful things that God had done.
So how did such a sudden change happen? Jesus had promised them that they would receive power from on high. And this is what happened on Pentecost. As Jesus describes in the Gospel reading today, his ascension to heaven makes room for God the Holy Spirit to come and dwell with Christian believers. Now the presence and power of God lived with them—in a more
special way than the general way in which God is present in the world. Now, God’s presence empowered them for ministry and empowered them to be the church.
The Holy Spirit made them the church, and empowered them to speak, to act, to see God’s hand at work and to trust in God’s power and grace as greater than anything in this world. This is not the reorganization of the disciples, this is the work of God the Holy Spirit, who made them the church.
We are so used to seeing the church as an institution and organization. We are used to church buildings, especially those with grand structure and enduring sacred art. We see the leadership and staff and institutional structure that makes decisions and proclaims the message. So it is easy for us to think of the church in this way: another business with a sacred mission, or a non-profit organization with its own special style.
Especially if this is the way we think of the church and our place in it, we often struggle in our faith. We find it hard to see ourselves as part of a system like that. An institution feels like a strange place in which to tackle the challenges of walking with God in a flawed and broken world. This is especially true as we become aware of the flaws and brokenness of the humans that make up the church and its leadership.
This is a common experience. If you’ve been in church long enough, it should sound familiar. In fact, many clergy and church leaders struggle in ministry until they come to realize that they are trying to achieve something by their own power and abilities. But when we step back and start to pray and study scripture and discern together, things change.
Rather than focusing on what we are doing, when we start looking for what God is doing, then we begin to see the Holy Spirit at work ahead of us and in spite of us. And the more we get on board with where God is calling us, the more our ministries bear fruit.
Many of you know Frank Balz, a retired priest of this diocese and friend to this parish. Frank tells the story of being raised in the church and serving as a young priest in the church. And he tells of how he discovered the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. He began to see the church less as institutionally driven, and more Spirit-led.
Now this doesn’t mean that anything goes. Frank teaches seminary classes on congregational development, and he knows the value of well-organized ministry and basing our discernment of the Holy Spirit on Holy Scriptures. But there is a difference between being driven by our own personal goals and seeking the leading of the Holy Spirit. And when we follow God’s direction, amazing things happen, and the church thrives.
What can the Holy Spirit do in us? Paul writes about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and about the fruit of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit empowers us for ministry sometimes beyond our own capabilities. Through us, when we are open to the Holy Spirit, God can heal. God can reconcile. God can bring understanding and wisdom when we need it.
Remember that the Holy Spirit is given not just to individuals, but to the whole church. When we gather together to worship God, to pray together, and study the Bible together, the Holy Spirit helps us hear God’s voice, gives us direction and guidance. The Holy Spirit gives us insight to act, clarity to speak and joy to discover.
Often the Holy Spirit surprises us. Sometimes we get so preoccupied with what we are doing that we forget that God might have other things going on. I can think of times when I could only see part of what was going on in a person’s life. But God was doing far more than I could see. I had a part of it—God was at work through me, but I was unaware of what God was doing through others. When I was a teenager, I learned long after the fact that just my presence and my smile was a small part of God’s encouragement to someone I knew.
That same power and presence of God is available to you and to us together. God pours out his Holy Spirit on us, strengthening us to be the church. The institution and organization is there to help and support what God is doing in us, the Christian Community, and to help us hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Bible. God empowers us with his Holy Spirit just as he did those first disciples. And filled with the Holy Spirit, we can be bold in sharing the Good News of Jesus, in caring for others, in bringing God’s presence and truth to those around us.
Pentecost is known as the birthday of the church. The Holy Spirit makes us the church. Open yourselves to the Holy Spirit so that God may reveal more and more of himself and his blessings to you. Ask God for the gifts of the Holy Spirit so that together we can be, not those frightened disciples, but those joyful disciples whose lives were changed and who helped change the lives of others.