The Day of Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Last week, the church celebrated the Ascension of Jesus. That story of Jesus, after his resurrection, Jesus is taken up, raised to heaven. Out of reach. It’s a common children’s question—how come if Jesus is still alive, we can’t see him? This is why I’m such a big fan of telling the longer story of the Bible. The answer is, according to the story, that Jesus has ascended. Now, I don’t think the Bible’s point is that he was levitated to the sky and in to outer space. In the words of Graham Ward, who writes on science and religion, “We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed).” But that Jesus was taken up in to the very life of God. That dimension of reality that ultimately remains beyond our ability to see. To measure. To touch. We can’t seen Jesus because he has ascended.
So no longer could they see, feel, or touch Jesus. He died on the cross, they thought that was it. But he was raised from the dead, and stood in their midst. But now, almost as soon as he’s been raised, he’s out of sight. He’s ascended. Jesus promised to send his Spirit to them. But life goes on as usual. Each day passes. Each week passes. Another week, another worship service. Wash the dishes, care for the sick, feed the poor. Punch in, punch out. One day Christ is risen! Everything’s changed! Excitement and electricity in the air. But then he’s gone. The batteries start to drain. Helium slowly starts to leak out of the balloon and it drifts down from the ceiling, bump bump a couple times across the floor. And then it just starts to gather dust in the corner. Party’s over.
One moment, Jesus is there in their midst. There’s joy, excitement, hope and new possibilities. And then the next, he’s gone, and it’s over. One moment life is electric. And the other it’s back to normal. If you’ve been walking the path with Jesus, whether it’s for a life time or whether it’s new for you, pretty soon you realize that there are moments—days, seasons in our lives, even—where our lives feel like they’re shot through with the power and presence of God. Now for some of us, this can be really obvious. Like full blown Holy Ghost explosion. And for others it can be more subtle. Things fall in to place, life clicks together. The heart is strangely warmed, in the words of the great evangelist John Wesley. Either way, the world is a place of joy, excitement, hope and possibility. The world is different—and we can see it, feel it, touch it. Jesus is in the building!
But then there are those other times—moments, days, seasons, or even longer—where there’s none of that. Life can be, well… boring. It can be mundane. It can feel like the same thing day in and day out. Or it can go even further. It can be worse. It can feel like anxiety. Disappointment, depression. Like Jesus has left the building. Or hasn’t even shown up in the first place.
And one of the more dangerous things that can happen in that case, though, is that when we’ve got a taste of that joy, that excitement, that we can spend our lives looking back. Longing, wishing we had that feeling once again. Back in high school. Back when we just started our career, or just had kids. Back before our bodies started to ache. Or when the marriage or relationship was brand new and exciting. Faith communities often experience this, too. A longing for a flourishing past when everything was on the up and up. A friend of mine, though, has a variation on an old saying: rather than “the grass is always greener on the other side that “you always remember the grass being greener than it actually was.” Some of us dwell on those moments and times in our lives that are filled with the Spirit and end up being unable to be present or satisfied here and now.
So maybe we try our best to to recreate that feeling, try to recapture it again. I remember a conversation with someone who struggles with heroin. He had that stereotypical sense of being covered with a warm blanket whenever he used it. He said it was like being a kid again and having his mom just squeeze him in a hug. He said it was like plugging in the Holy Spirit every time he used. It was like that for a moment. But wasn’t that. Or maybe we might long for intimacy, and excitement that’s missing from a relationship. So we seek out another one, trying to recreate that feeling again. Either way, we may get it for a moment. But in the end it doesn’t live up to our expectations. Or we’ve hurt people. And still have that sense of longing. That emptiness inside. Waiting to be filled.
It’s true, we all long for joy. We all long to be filled with electric life. We’ve actually been created for this. For deep joy in communion with our Creator. When we’ve got a taste for it, we want more. It’s natural. But rather than pursuing the Creator, we can become caught pursuing the feeling itself. And we find out that life can just never measure up to our past expectations. And even if we are able to grasp them for a moment, that’s it. I mean, the disciples stood in the same room as Jesus, side by side. Then he’s gone. How could you possibly beat that? How could anything possibly measure up.
Jesus is gone. Out of sight. Life has gone back to that same old pattern. Jesus’ followers could have just given up. Scattered, gone seeking elsewhere. But they stayed together. Lived their lives together in a common life. Still longing for that life, that Holy Power and presence that Jesus brought them. One day they’re gathered like we are today. For worship, prayer, community. Just another day, and suddenly, out of nowhere, it says, the Holy Spirit, enters the room, blowing open the doors like a rush of wind. And the Holy Spirit lands on the heads of everyone in the room. Whether the heads are covered in blonde hair, black hair, red, brown, grey hair or white hair or no hair. The Spirit lands, it says, “as tongues of fire” on each. And the wind blows them off their feet and out the door. And Jesus’ followers are empowered to speak boldly to everyone on the street. They’re able to speak the languages of their listeners. From Mandarin to Swahili, Arabic and even disenchanted Canadian English. The presence of Christ, which was missing. The presence of Christ which they longed for, hoped for. He enters the room again. Not in the same way they knew or expected. But a new way. That life they longed for pours into the room. There’s a spark. The space is lit from the inside outward. And their hearts are on fire once again. But this time with a new vision. A new purpose in the world.
While listening to this text this week I was reminded by the words of the great Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson. Jenson once said that the difference between a Living God—a real God, the God who creates, redeems and sustains all things—and a dead God—an idol. The difference is that a Living God can surprise you. What today, what Pentecost means. What we’re gathered together as a community of faith today to celebrate is this surprise. This surprising, living God.
It may first sound like bad news. Because according to Pentecost, is that with this living God there’s nothing we can do to gain the kind of joy, the kind of life, the kind of power we long for. So much religion is about manipulating the divine into giving us what we want. Bad news is that there’s no sure-fire technique to gain it. Because God works in God’s own time. There was nothing the first church could do to simply plug back in to the presence of Christ. The Spirit blows where she may. There’s no formula.
But the good news is that the Spirit will come. The good news is that the Spirit is promised to us. God may work in God’s own time. But the promise is that God did, God does, and God will come to us. With healing, with grace, with hope, with power. Jesus promises that in the words of the prophet Joel. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” Many of the original hearers of Jesus’ message from his first followers thought they were just drunk on new wine. But as the people of Jesus, this is what nourishes and sustains us We live in faith and the expectation that the life that Jesus’ offers us is promised to us. It will come. In God’s own time. And when it does… nothing will ever be the same again.
So if you live without hope, or without purpose. If your heart is weighted by sadness…
you can expect joy, new life.
If you live in loneliness and isolation…
you can expect the warmth of God’s everlasting arms in beloved community.
If you live shackled by struggles and demons of sin…
you can expect newfound freedom…
And if you live in shame, with pain for the things you’ve done or left undone…
you can expect forgiveness. You can expect abundant life.
Because this is promised to you. If not today, if not tomorrow, one day. God works in God’s own time. But God works, God is at work. And when the flames of grace are lit. When the Spirit finally comes… nothing will ever be the same again.
God, Holy Spirit, come to us, come among us;
come as the wind and cleanse;
come as the fire, and burn;
come as the dew and refresh:
come to us on your own time, on your own terms.
to convict, convert, and consecrate our many hearts and lives
to our great good and to your greater glory.
Revive us again. In Jesus’ name.