During the last ten days of the Church year, we’ve been living in liturgical limbo, existing between two realities. We’ve celebrated our Lord’s ascension into heaven. But since the Ascension, we’ve been waiting. We’ve been waiting for this day. Like the Apostles of old, we’ve been listening to our Lord’s instructions to “wait in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high” The Apostle John writes: 23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. 25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
So, the Apostles waited. They waited because the Lord Jesus told them to wait. But there was more to this waiting than that, much more. Something powerful was to happen to them when their wait was finally over on Pentecost day. The Holy Spirit would change them. Fear would be turned into a martyr’s boldness, fishermen would become the world’s teachers, and doubt would be replaced by mountain-moving faith–all because of Pentecost!
Sometimes we don’t realize how much we need Pentecost. Pentecost is the birthday of the New Testament Church. Pentecost is God giving His Holy Spirit to all believers, not just a few. No longer was the Holy Spirit to dwell in a building, the Temple, like in the Old Testament. There, God in the form of His Shekinah, the cloud, revealed Himself to His people above the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. No longer was the Holy Spirit only given to people in positions of leadership, to do the tasks God had given them to do. Because of Pentecost, all Christians have been brought into the Royal Priesthood, and each Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost also shows that Christianity isn’t some human-created religion. If Christianity were simply of human design, even if it were the best and most beautiful religion, the disciples wouldn’t have needed to wait in Jerusalem for Pentecost. Why would they need to?
Jesus’ disciples had lived with Him for several years, a most intense and personal seminary training. They could’ve begun writing, teaching, and passing on what they had learned without a Pentecost. Jesus had fully trained them. Now it was time for them to start training others, right? That’s how it is with other religions.
Not so with Christianity. For Christianity isn’t just about ideas, moral guidance, or ethical norms. Christianity, of course, has these things, but that’s not what the Christian faith is about. If it were, Christianity would be but another form of Pharisees. No, Christianity is about the Holy Spirit calling someone through the Gospel, enlightening him with His gifts, and sanctifying and keeping him in the true faith. There is no New Testament Christianity without Pentecost.
Pentecost is what Jesus promised when He said He would send another Helper, a Counselor, a Guide, a Comforter. As God breathed into Adam and he became a living being, so Christ breathes the Holy Spirit of life into His people, and His people come alive. That’s what Pentecost is all about. The Spirit gives living breath. And filled with the Spirit, God’s people become alive, unable to be silent, confessing and proclaiming Jesus Christ.
But sadly, so sadly, many Christians live as if they are stuck between Ascension and Pentecost, as if Pentecost never happened. We live our lives as if the Christian faith were only a set of ideas. We think we are Christian, or Lutheran, because we intellectually agree to certain facts in our heads, like the Small Catechism, which many of you studied long ago and haven’t looked at since.
If the Apostles had remained in that state of limbo, the state they were in between Ascension and Pentecost, they would’ve never brought the Gospel to the world. They would’ve never lived out the faith as they did. They would’ve never died for the faith as they did. And they certainly would’ve never preached as they did. Their faith-life was what it was because God the Holy Spirit was blowing, moving, and breathing within them.
Sometimes we show little proof that we are living as post-Pentecost Christians (and I don’t mean all the ridiculous nonsense that today passes for being filled with the Spirit). I mean that our faith is weak, and that’s acceptable. I mean that sin still controls our lives, and that’s acceptable. I mean that we have little Christian joy, and that’s acceptable.
Today, we are often more like the fearful and doubting disciples before Pentecost. Christianity without Pentecost is but an empty form! If the Holy Spirit doesn’t permeate our lives with His presence, then our faith-life is but empty motion! If God’s Word does not have its way with us, then our Christian life is one without power!
Consider how the life of the Church depends on the Holy Spirit. Baptism saves us because we aren’t born only of water, but of water and Spirit (John 3:3-5). Without the Holy Spirit, there would be no forgiveness in absolution. That’s why our Lord gathered His Apostles together and breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain them, they are retained” (Jn 20:23).
Think of why the Church still ordains pastors. Jesus never commanded it. But ordination is a special giving of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands for men to be pastors. As the Apostle Paul told Pastor Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift in you . . . by the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 4:14). And Paul also told him to “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God has not given us [that is, Paul and Timothy] a Spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment” (2 Timothy 1:6-7).
Now think of the Mystery of Mysteries: the core of Christ’s New Covenant with His people, His Supper. The existence of Christ’s body and blood in His Supper depends on the Holy Spirit working through the Word. It’s the Holy Spirit working through the words the pastor speaks over the bread and wine, which makes the Lord’s Supper the Lord’s Supper.
Everything Christ has commanded His Church to do would be but an empty form without the Holy Spirit. And we can say that is true in all matters of faith and practice. There is no prayer without the Holy Spirit praying in us. Fasting is simply dieting if it is not done in a way to help curb the sinful flesh. It’s no coincidence that our Lord went into the desert to fast for 40 days, “led by the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1). We can’t overcome sin in our life without the Holy Spirit. He is One who enables us to “put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13).
Now some of you might be thinking, “How do I experience this Pentecost Christianity? I feel as if I’m stuck between Ascension and Pentecost!” Perhaps you are, or maybe you aren’t.
Ask yourself this: “Can God raise the dead? Can He breathe life into the lifeless? Can He revive, renew, and recreate His people, His saints on earth?” Of course, He can! He can, and He does, and He will by His Spirit, His breath, and His words.
The danger is that we try to recreate Pentecost for ourselves, as if we can create within us what only God the Holy Spirit can do. This is one of the great sins of our age: we think we can by our own work and effort do what the Holy Spirit does–individually, and as a congregation by manipulating external factors.
But what would happen after a few months of trying to manufacture a Holy Spirit-like effect in your life? Your life would again become ordinary, mundane, and even boring–the same-old wind, the same-old fire, and the same-old speaking in tongues. And then you’d be looking for something new to replace the old. You can’t create a Pentecost in your life–only God the Holy Spirit can do that!
But thanks be to God that Christ is living and breathing from the right hand of God the Father. And He sends the Spirit like a fresh wind across the face of His people, igniting Pentecost when and where He chooses. For the Holy Spirit produces faith when and where He wills, in those who hear the Gospel.
The danger about letting Pentecost enchant us for the wrong reasons is that we take our eyes off Jesus. That’s where the Spirit wants us to look, to Jesus, instead of being bedazzled by all the Pentecostal pyrotechnics. For the Holy Spirit wants to bring glory to Jesus, not Himself. The Holy Spirit is like a spotlight shining on Christ. And as with all spotlights, you focus on where the beam is shining, not on the beam itself. So, it is with the Spirit.
Our confidence in the Spirit’s presence and working is not in the wind, the fire, or the tongues. No, it’s in the preaching of Jesus, in the hearing of His forgiveness, in holy baptism, in His body and blood, and in the Word. That’s where the Spirit is active, that’s where Pentecost is happening today, here, and now, for you. And that’s where you go looking for it!
Your baptism is your Pentecost day. Every time you hear the Word of Christ coming to you in your own language, that’s also your Pentecost. Whenever you eat of the bread that is Christ’s body, whenever drink of the cup that is His blood, and whenever proclaim the Lord’s death, that is Pentecost for you. Getting more Spirit into you is to be where the Holy Spirit is doing His work–and that work is done through Word and Sacrament.
The continuing work and life of Pentecost is not in the fire and the flaming tongues–even as enthralling as that is. The continuing work and life of Pentecost is in the Word that brings repentance and faith in Jesus to all people.
The true miracle of Pentecost was the 3,000 brought to faith that day. The speaking in tongues was the way God the Holy Spirit enabled the proclaimed Word to be understood by all that day. And there hasn’t been a day since then when the Holy Spirit hasn’t been doing His work.
Today, the Spirit of God still breathes life into His people. The Spirit of God puts breath into your lungs and words into your mouth and ears. The Spirit of God opens your lips, that your mouth may declare the praise of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. The Spirit of God continues to call you through the Gospel, enlightening you with His gifts, and sanctifying and keeping you in the true faith.
Yes, you are part of that great breath and wind of Pentecost. That’s why your spiritually lifeless body now lives. How do you know? Because you believe in Jesus–and you can only do that by the Holy Spirit working in your life. That’s why Jesus’ death is yours. That’s why His life is yours. That’s why His Spirit is yours. And whenever that is true, you are living in Pentecost. Amen.