The Present Tense of GodMay 30, 2004, 12:00 am
If you love me, you will keep my commandments." Is there any who hear those words from our Lord, who do not pause, if just for a moment, staggered by their demand. The logic is, of course, quite clear, we almost instinctively seek to please those we love. It is not the love that is the problem, or even the expectation that love should respond with faithful obedience. It is the commands themselves. Love one another,1 forgive one another as often as necessary,2 share your goods with those in need.3 That is not how this world operates. And, you can be sure Jesus knew that. Yet, he says in today's lesson, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." How can we do that?
It has been ninety days since Ash Wednesday when we entered into a special season of spiritual renewal. In a period of time spanning almost a quarter of the year we have engaged in special spiritual disciplines, explored our personal commitments, walked the labyrinth as we made our way to Jerusalem, observed again the events of Christ's passion, and death, and celebrated the festival of his resurrection. For the last seven weeks we have continued to focus upon Christ's resurrection, remembering those times when Jesus presented himself alive to his followers, giving them many convincing proofs, and talking with them about the reign of God.4 As we have just heard, Jesus had promised them that he would not leave them orphaned or desolate. Twice, in Luke's account of Jesus ascension, he promises his followers that they will soon be clothed with power of the Holy Spirit. At the festival of Pentecost that promise was fulfilled.
Pentecost -- the Greek word for fifty -- is the first century name for the Jewish festival which follows fifty days after Passover, also known as the festival of weeks or shavuoth.5 Originally a harvest festival in which the people blessed God for the earth's bounty by offering the season's first fruits, it came to commemorate receiving the covenant at Sinai. Tradition held that God had given the law to Moses seven weeks after that first Passover when their ancestors left Egypt. A pilgrimage festival, Jews from every part of the Roman-Greco world had come to Jerusalem for the celebration. We are told that the disciples were gathered together in one place when suddenly there was the sound of the rush of a mighty wind. Flames of fire appeared above the disciples' heads. Without warning, these Galilean fishermen were speaking languages that every Jew gathered from the diaspora could understand. The list of cities cited in our first lesson is quite literally a map of the places to which Jews had been dispersed by the beginning of the first century. The message they heard, each in their own native tongue, was the good news of God's deeds of power. The skeptics in the crowd believe the disciples to be drunk. But Peter -- remember cowardly Peter, who ran from the servant girl the night of the trial? -- this same Peter stands before the crowd and boldly preaches his first sermon. And some sermon it was. Luke tells us that about 3,000 people responded and were baptized that day.6 What has happened? What has happened to Peter? What has happened to the others? What is going on?
The Spirit of God has descended upon the disciples, changing them. They are no longer simply observers of what God has done in and among them in Jesus Christ. Nor are they simply passive recipients of a promise of eternal life. A change has taken place. Jesus had said that he would not leave them desolate. He had promised that in returning to the Father, he would send another advocate, another counselor, another helper.7 He had been the first advocate, counselor and helper, God enfleshed that we might see who God is for us, and what God is prepared to do for us. When we see Jesus, we see the Father. That is why no one can come to the Father except by him. He and the Father are one. But this new advocate whom the Father has sent in Jesus' name, is not another Messiah, not another redeemer, not another revelation of God. This advocate is the present tense of God, God's Spirit enfleshed in those who welcome him. Jesus has returned to the Father, but now sends the Spirit of God to all who belong to him, to be advocate, counselor and helper. One does not have to have been a first century Galilean fisherman or Palestinian Jew to know Jesus and his power. Now the power of God is sent to all who call upon God in Jesus' name, and look at the change it brings.
Until Pentecost, those gathered around Jesus were simply followers, students of a master rabbi, learners. But at the descent of the Spirit, they are energized and transformed. The disciples now become apostles, people sent forth into the world with a commission. That's the meaning of the word "apostle," to be sent forth with a task.8 Each of these is now sent out to bear witness to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the redeemer of the world, the one in whose name there is not only forgiveness of sins, but also, power for new life. And what is it that has suddenly empowered them to live in this way? The Present Tense of God. God's Spirit has descended upon them. The disciples have now become the bearers of God's Spirit themselves, people who are filled with and driven by God's Spirit.
The word spirit in Greek is pneuma, from which the English word "pneumatics" is derived. Pneumatics, you will remember, is that branch of physics that deals with the mechanical properties of air or gasses. Pentecost is the moment in which God began to fulfill a promise of that covenant. God has poured out his Spirit, not just on one or two prophets, but upon his covenant people, all of them -- women and men, boys and girls. Pneumatic theology will talk about human life being changed and driven by the wind of God, the Spirit of God, the power of God, the present tense of God.
Because of Pentecost Christians are no longer a people who look only to the past as though it all happened back then and there. Indeed, there have been branches of Christianity which come precariously close to falling into that trap suggesting that Jesus did all that needed to be done on the cross, and our task is simply to accept the fact and try to live untainted by the world around us, until he comes again. Pentecost challenges such a notion of God, faith, and the Christian Life. We are sent forth into the world to bear Christ to others, to be Christ in situations of lovelessness, conflict or need.
Nor are we a people in search of enlightenment, as though such knowledge will not only enable us to understand life and its inequities and cruelties, but also enable us to accept them. Christianity is not gnosticism. It is not enough to know this stuff about God and Jesus. It is not enough to believe this stuff about God and Jesus. Pentecost makes the point that from now on you and I are to do something about it -- embody it! To receive the Spirit, is not so much to be enlightened, or to sit in a room and talk about "spiritual things." To receive the Spirit is to bear God into the world, to do God's work, to speak God's word, to keep Jesus' commandments.
This answers the question I asked at the beginning of this sermon. How are you and I to keep Jesus' commandments? By living out of the power of God's Spirit in our lives. We learn to love even the loveless, not out of our own needs, nor affectional preferences, but because we call on the Spirit of God to empower us to love. We are able to forgive one another, not because it is our nature to do so, but because it is God's nature to do so, and call upon God's Spirit to be the driving force in our lives. We learn to share our resources, and do so joyfully, not because that is a natural response to abundance; in case you haven't noticed, it is not. We learn to share our resources because it is God's nature and Spirit to share, to give others what they need for life. As we call upon God's Spirit to drive our lives we begin to recognize that this life is not our own, these talents are not our own, these resources are not our own, not even our time is our own. It all belongs to the One who has invaded our lives. If we open ourselves to that Spirit, we will be driven by it. And a life driven by God's Spirit not only finds itself able to keep Jesus' commandments, but knows itself God's child.
This is the point Paul makes in writing to the Romans. The presence of God's Spirit in your life and mine is a guarantee that we are now God's children. We have been adopted by God, and made heirs of all that belongs to God, especially God's Spirit. But a word of warning: God's Spirit is not our possession to control. God's Spirit is not a religious power tool available for our own manipulation. We do not impart it by gathering around one in prayer and the laying on of hands, nor in washing with water and marking with oil, as we will do shortly. Each of these is an action whereby we not only remember God's promise to us, but claim the promise. It is God's to give. We do not control the gift. We only call upon and receive it in Jesus' name.
And so we come to this font today, to make Christians of two infants. They are too young to know what is happening. But in washing, anointing, and promising to rear them as Christ's sisters, we are claiming the promise of the risen Lord for them. These two are promised that they too will know the power of God in their own lives. In a moment they will be adopted, as in this font they too become children of God. As we witness their baptisms, let us remember our own, and once again claim the power that God has promised to us in Jesus name.
- John 13:34; 15:12; 15:17.
- Matthew 6:14-15; 18:21-22; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37; 17:3-4.
- Matthew 5:40-42, Luke 3:11; 6:38; 12:33.
- Acts 1:3.
- Leviticus 23:15-21.
- Acts 2:41.
- The word paraklatos can be translated in any of these ways.
- The Greek word is apostello.
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