A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday (23/05/21): The Holy Spirit and Hope for the Future

The Holy Spirit and Hope for the Future
Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27

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.
The Holy Spirit does “flashy”stuff. It does rushing wind and tongues of fire. It does speaking and hearing in other languages. It propels surprised and unwilling people into the street to proclaim the gospel. What we see in the first Pentecost is what we continue to expect from the Spirit. That’s what we would expect when a church gathering calls itself Pentecostal, or uses the adjective “Charismatic.” “Flashy” stuff. Which is why we mostly resist it! What we’re expecting is something out of the ordinary. And more to the point: out of control. Something people just wouldn’t do, if they were left to themselves. Something that creates surprise, excitement, energy, and perhaps not a little fear. That’s what the Spirit is for, right?

But haters are gonna hate, and doubters are gonna doubt! Pah! That’s nothing more than emotionalism! No substance, it’s just a shared hysteria, foie de famille. It could just be drunkenness even.
All were amazed and perplexed. . . But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
There will always be those who dismiss the work of the Holy Spirit. Especially the more extraordinary things the Spirit does, the flashy stuff. There will always be those who will dismiss such Spiritual phenomena as being too irrational, too emotional to be acceptable or useful. They want something more solid. They want something reasonable, practical, manageable. Something reliable, that is, something they something they can control and make use of. Outside and inside the church there are plenty who don’t want to know anything about the Spirit. And they are certainly not prepared to experience it!

Then Peter gets up to talk:
Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.
The haters and the doubters are mistaken. This is not drunkenness, anymore than it is a shared hysteria or empty emotionalism. Peter quotes the prophet Joel:
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
Peter interprets for the crowd of sceptics, for the haters and the doubters, just what is happening. This is nothing other than the breaking in of God’s power. As the prophet had anticipated and as Jesus had promised. This is a sign that the “last days” have come. That the time is now. The time when God is going to make creation new. All that we had ever hoped for. All that we long for is going to be fulfilled. The time is now – God’s reign has begun!

Which leaves us with the problem that Christians have always had, ever since that day, and following every occasion when the Holy Spirit breaks in like that. The gift of the Spirit is a sign that the new age has begun. But where is it? The new creation is made. The kingdom of God is established. Jesus is Lord. Our God reigns.
But where is it? We can’t see it. We look around and we can see anything but a new creation. We see instead that same old world. And it’s not a pretty sight. We still see suffering and sorrow, pain and injustice. We look around and what we see, in between too few flashes of hope, what we see is not a world made new, not God’s reign here and now, but world in agony. The tension which Christians have lived with ever since the day of Pentecost is the tension between “now” and “not yet” Now: Jesus is risen and ascended – acclaimed as Lord. The Holy Spirit is poured out – as in the last day.. The reign of God is established – the kingdom is here.
But not yet: The full reality of those things is still to be established. They remain ahead of us, unfulfilled, unrealised. We live in an “in between” time
Where those things are certain – but to be fully realised still only in the future. Those things are certain – but visibly – in our immediate experience – the world continues much as it did before, in agony

Paul is the first one to take up this problem. Paul above all is the one who tries to think through what and how it is to live in between times. Paul takes up the theme of the world as we actually see it and experience it:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now.
Which is a curious metaphor for the world in pain for a man, and as far as we know an unmarried man who was not a father, a curious metaphor for someone like Paul to pick up. The mothers in the room might be tempted to say to Paul: “What do you know?” Is the agony of childbirth, unrelieved by modern painkillers, is that the picture of what the world is like now, in the meantime? Judge for yourselves but I think Paul may not be far off the mark. But what is it about that picture which makes it appropriate. Are we meant to focus on the pain as just about the worst pain we can think of
and say: That’s how bad things in the world are. Or is Paul pointing to what that pain leads to? Despite being a man with no direct experience what he uses as a metaphor. Paul might actually be on to something. The agony of childbirth, while it is being endured, probably seems like it will never end. Whilst in reality it above all pain is a pain that has a definite certain end. The pain that a woman might suffer in childbirth is a good metaphor for the pain of the world. But more than just the pain itself, also the certainty of it coming to an end. And at its end also there being new life. Labour pain brings new life into the world, a new life that has continuity with the old. New life that at the same time, in some way, is the mother’s own life. A life which delights her, despite the pain of labour. The world is in agony – but it is a pain that will end in a new creation

So in the meantime, living between the time, during the pain of labour. We groan: groan inwardly while we wait. We offer that wordless prayer with and for a world in agony. This too is what the Holy Spirit does! The Spirit does flashy stuff – tongues of flame, rushing wind, speaking and hearing in other languages But Spirit does other, less flashy, more persistent stuff as well. Paul defines who we are. He defines who and what the church is. And he does it for all of us in a “Pentecostal” and “charismatic” way. Despite what we might think about ourselves, every church, every gathering of believers is a Pentecostal, charismatic phenomenon. Paul says:
We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit
When we hear him say that, I don’t know, maybe we say to ourselves: Who? Us? Fruits of the Spirit? We look at ourselves – and mostly we don’t see the flashy stuff We very seldom speaking in other languages. And never witness tongues of flame or rushing wind. And maybe we worry that we don’t. Or we suspect we’re in the crowd with the doubters and even the haters. But Paul goes on to to point us to the first of the first fruits of the Spirit: Hope! The first gift of the Spirit is to look at the world and hope. That is we see the world as it is and do not to despair, but know that it can and it will be all better. We see the agony that the world is in now and know that that it will come to an end. We see suffering and know that it will be replace by comfort. We see sorrow and know that it will be replaced by joy. We see pain and know that it will be replaced by relief. We see injustice and know that it will be replaced by the peace and righteousness that God’s kingdom ushers in. We trust in the certainty of the kingdom of God. We hope on things that we do not yet see. After faith, hope is the foundation of Christian living. Hope is the very definition of what it is to be a Christian – to live with the assurance of all those things which we don’t yet see. When we look around in the world and see the agony that is there and recognise it as the birth pains of the future we long for and pray for. Hope is how we live in between the times. Hope is the gift of the Holy Spirit

The truth is the excitement, flashy stuff, of the first Pentecost, and the settled hope that we live with are the same thing. The Holy Spirit does one thing. The Holy Spirit makes God’s future a present reality for believers. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit takes hold of people from widely different backgrounds and joins them together in a single united people, one humanity made by God. With peace and understanding among them. That is the future which God intends for all of us. But the Spirit also place that hope in our hearts that the world will be made new. A reality which we cannot see, but is no less real to us, what we strain forward to. So the Spirit does essentially one thing: The Holy Spirit forms the link between us in our present to the future that God is making for us. Living our lives in hope, straining toward that future, our lives are being filled with the Spirit – just as surely as the Apostles at Pentecost.


The Holy Spirit and Hope for the Future by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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