If you are hungry for good news this morning, you’ve come to the right place! Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, recalling the coming of the Holy Spirit in power upon the early Church and rejoicing in the power of that same Spirit’s presence in our lives today. There is so much good news here it’s hard to know where to begin!
The book of The Acts of the Apostles tells the story: Following the ascension of Jesus, the still cautious and uncertain followers of Jesus were gathered in one place, praying and waiting for the promise of God to be fulfilled, as Jesus had instructed them. “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” which filled the house in which they were gathered, and “tongues, as of fire, appeared among them…and rested on each of them,” and “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2, 1-4).
What were these signs – “the rush of a violent wind” and “tongues of fire” – but symbols of power! And this power, the power of the Holy Spirit, so filled them and emboldened Jesus’ disciples that they emerged from their hidden place into the streets of the city, proclaiming to one and to all – in their own languages – the wonderful deeds and power of God!
Never before had anything like this been seen! “All were amazed and perplexed,” the writer tells us, “[They were] saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?”
What does this mean, indeed! What does this mean? What was this power that came down so unmistakably on the followers of Jesus that day in Jerusalem? What is this power that is promised to us as well?
How, and for what, does the Spirit empower us? Our lessons today suggest at least three things the Spirit’s power enables us to be or to do:
First, the Spirit empowers us to become children of God. “To all who received [Jesus], who believed in his name,” John’s gospel tells us, “he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). In Christ we have been given a new identity: We are sons and daughters of the Most High God, children deeply cherished and unconditionally loved by our heavenly Father. Our status and significance in life derives not from our performance, but from our position in Christ. Who we are and what we are, is grounded in the truth that we now belong to God. We are God’s children by adoption and heirs of God’s promises. This new identity offers us a sense of value that does not come from anything that we have done for God, but rather from what God has done for us. No longer are we preoccupied with the way others see us. Our worth comes from how God sees us. No longer are we seeking the approval of others. We are seeking only to comprehend and embrace the wonder of being children of God!
When the Enemy depreciates us, recalling to us the failures and deficiencies of the old self, we have only to assert the truth about our new self:
I have been given power to become a child of God! (Jn 1:12)
I am no longer a slave, but a friend of Christ! (Jn 15:15)
I have bought with a price. I belong to God! (I Cor 6:20)
I am a child of God by adoption! (Rom 8:15)
I am no longer under condemnation! (Rom 8:1)
I have been redeemed and forgiven! (Col 1:14)
I know that nothing can separate me from the love of God! (Rom 8:28)
I am a brand new person in Christ Jesus! (II Cor 5:17)
I am a citizen of heaven! (Phil 3:20)
This is the first gift of the Spirit that is given to us: a new identity that is undeniable and that can never be taken away from us. We are God’s children by adoption, joint heirs with Christ! This is who and what we are now, and will be forevermore. “See what love the Father has given us,” the author of I John exclaims, “that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are!” (I Jn 3:1)
This is the first gift of the Spirit: The Spirit empowers us to become the children of God!
Second, and closely related to the first, the Spirit empowers us to approach God as “Abba.” “When the fullness of time had come,” the apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Galatians, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” “And because [we] are children,” he reminds us, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Gal.4:4-7).
“Abba.” “Papa.” When God claims us as his own and adopts us as his children, he welcomes us into a relationship of the deepest intimacy and union with himself. Our status as adopted children means that God loves us just as he loves his only-begotten Son. It means that God has made us joint-heirs with Christ of all that he possesses and promises. It means that the glory that has been given to Christ is given to us as well.
The Spirit draws us into this intimate union with God and with his Son, Jesus Christ, by giving us the gift of prayer. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul tells the Christians in Rome, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). In prayer God offers us the gift of divine love. In prayer God carries us out of the place of fear and shame and into the place of freedom and joy. In prayer God teaches us to call him “Abba,” and to bring to him our every need.
Finally, the Spirit empowers us to live and speak the truth boldly. When we were adopted into God’s family, Paul tells us, we “did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear”; but we “received a spirit of adoption” (Rom 8:15) that sets us free from all fear and anxiety. We are God’s children, and we are encouraged to live with the freedom and joy of children who know they are forever loved, and who trust that they will receive all the care and provision that they need. Such is the freedom of the children of God!
The power that God gives us, writes Henri Nouwen, “is not the power that controls, dictates, and commands; (rather) It is the power that heals, reconciles, and unites.”[i] We receive this power – the power to heal, reconcile and unite – through our union with God. The Spirit empowers us to be healing presences in the world, to be channels of God’s compassion and blessing and peace to all whom we meet.
The Spirit that Jesus gives empowers us to speak the truth, and to speak it boldly. Witness the fearlessness of the disciples after they receive the power of the Spirit. They cannot be shut up! They cannot be intimidated by threats of punishment or death. Their hearts are burning within them and they cannot keep silent. They know that, no matter how intimidating their audience, they need not fear, for Jesus has given them his promise: “When they bring you before… the authorities,” he told them, “do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say: for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say” (Lk 12:11-12).
Have you understood these things? Have you understood that it is your great privilege to be numbered among the children of God? Have you grasped that it is your right to approach God with confidence and boldness, asking your “Abba” for all that you need? Have you realized the power that is available to you as a child of God? – power to heal, reconcile and unite; power to fully embrace and live out of the new identity that is yours in Christ; power to speak the truth boldly and unapologetically; power to be transformed and to transform others.
There is a well-known desert story that illustrates the point: “Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said, ‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said, ‘Why not be totally changed into fire?!”[ii]
Receive the Holy Spirit! Claim the power! Let it rush through you like a wild wind! Let it set you aflame with love for God and for others! Let it fill you and take you and use you!
[i] Nouwen, Henri; Bread for the Journey;(San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997); entry for June 7.
[ii] Merton, Thomas; The Wisdom of the Desert; (Sheldon Press, 1974); p.50.
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