The Gift of the Giving God

I have some news for you today: the first Pentecost was not the first time the Holy Spirit started working in creation for the sake of God’s mission of love and reconciliation. Pentecost is not the birthday of the Holy Spirit. No, no, no. The Spirit is eternally God, and just as God has always been at work in creation, from the very beginning, so the Spirit has always been moving, active, alive in our midst, all along.

The Spirit is present at the very first moment of creation. In Genesis 1 we read that the wind of God, or the Spirit of God—the same word in Hebrew and in Greek can mean wind or spirit or breath—the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of creation. The Spirit broods over creation like a mother hen over her chicks. The Spirit stirs up God’s creation, pouring energy and life and power into the cosmos. And just a few verses later, in Genesis 2, God forms human beings out of the dust of creation, and he breathes life into us—the Spirit, even from the very first moment of our human existence, is present, enlivening us, “quickening” us. This is why, in the Nicene Creed, we confess that the Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life, who with the Father and Son is worshiped and glorified.”

But we might get confused and think—well, alright, the Spirit enters at the beginning of creation to bring us life, but then the Spirit recedes, falls into the background. Not true, not true! The Spirit “has spoken through the prophets,” we say in the Creed, and just a quick glance through the Old Testament shows how much the Spirit is at work, just how much the Spirit continues to do for us and for our salvation. For Jews Pentecost, or Shavuot, originally celebrates the giving of the law to Moses and Israel, and we Christians believe the Spirit gives the law to Moses, that great prophet. The Spirit crackles through the Old Testament, setting hearts aflame for the zeal of the Lord of hosts. Samson, King Saul, Isaiah, and Ezekiel are just a few of the other prophets the Spirit speaks through, sustaining Israel through tribulation and driving Israel to an ever-more faithful relationship with the Lord God.

Even in the New Testament, Pentecost is hardly the Spirit’s debut. Mary, the mother of God, the mother of Jesus Christ, is filled with the Holy Spirit so that she can bear the Word of God, her son Jesus. Mary is the greatest of all prophets. Mary was more filled with the Holy Spirit than anyone else before or since, to this very day, except her son Jesus. And Jesus himself is driven by the Spirit to fulfill his own mission. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he proclaims, and then, in the Spirit, Jesus sets about healing, restoring, and welcoming, all in the Spirit. Through Jesus’ ministry, the Spirit touches and empowers the lives of many, many people, including the disciples. Pentecost is not even the first time the disciples receive the Spirit. No! The disciples receive the Spirit as they receive Jesus’ teaching and power, throughout their time with Christ, before and after his crucifixion and resurrection. In fact, at the end of John’s gospel, Jesus breathes out the Spirit on his disciples—“Receive the Spirit,” he says, so that you may offer the forgiveness of sins in my name.

So if Pentecost is not about the birthday of the Spirit, if it’s not even really about us receiving the Spirit, what is Pentecost about? Well, after two years of hearing me preach and work as your pastor, I hope you won’t be surprised to hear my answer: It’s about God! Pentecost is about a God who keeps giving, a God whose giving knows no end. There is no point, Pentecost proclaims, when God will stop giving us what we need—and so much more. Pentecost is about a God we can never fully receive. There is no point, Pentecost proclaims, when we can say, “we have received enough of God—there is nothing more that we could need from God!” No, Pentecost says: There is always more for God to give; there is always more for us to receive.

At Pentecost, the church takes on a decisive, missional, Spirit-filled character, a character of being open, arms outstretched, to receive the “more” that God has for us. At Pentecost, we do not start to possess the Holy Spirit; the Spirit possesses us. Peter and James and John and the rest of the disciples don’t sit around thinking, “You know, it would be nice if we could start speaking in other languages so that we can proclaim the gospel.” No! The Spirit seizes them, fills them—to outsiders, it’s like they’re drunk, out of their own control. But to the disciples themselves, it’s nothing like that at all. Being possessed by the Spirit doesn’t mean they lose who they are—it means they finally begin to live out who they have become in Jesus Christ: witnesses. The Spirit does not possess to take away: the Spirit possesses to give, to keep on giving.

Of course, it is God’s very Spirit who is most given at Pentecost, but in the gift of the Spirit God provides everything. God opens the disciples to the full truth of Christ: that Christ crosses every boundary we human beings can build; that in Christ and the Spirit different languages are a gift for the mission of God, and not an obstacle, so no one can say, my language is better, or, we only speak one language in this place; that those who are different from us are united with us in Christ by the Spirit, not so that they can become like us, but so that we can all be transformed by living together in the kingdom of God; that everything we have, whether our money or any other earthly possession, is meant to be used for the sake of the church God has given us; and that if we are really being the church together, there will be no one in our midst who has a need that goes unmet.

A decade or so, there was a challenge for churches in our area to become “Acts 2 congregations,” but we aren’t captive to Acts 2, nor to the first Pentecost. There is an Acts 3 and 4 and 5, and there is a Centre United Methodist Church. The Spirit has more to give us, more for us to do, more to empower us to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. But that does not mean we miss out on the gifts of Acts 2. We, too, can share in them—if we will only open our hearts to receive the same Spirit who dwells in Christ Jesus and who sets the world afire for the love of God. Our congregation, too, can help to dismantle human-made barriers of race, language, ethnicity, nationality, and background—if we will remain open to God giving us the Spirit. Centre, too, can learn to speak the languages of those in our community, not just English but Spanish and Arabic and German and Tagalog and Amharic and Swahili and Chinese and French, all languages spoken in Harford County—if we will remain open to God giving us the Spirit. We can share our possessions, take care of our neighbors and those in our church, welcome those who are different, really different, from us—if we will remain open to God giving us the Spirit.

The work of the Holy Spirit does not begin at Pentecost; Pentecost is not the Spirit’s birthday. But the giving of the Spirit doesn’t stop at Pentecost, either. God pours out the Holy Spirit on each generation of the church. God gives the Spirit even to individuals, to all who are open, or need to be opened, to the work of the Spirit. The church depends on the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, on the “more” God has to give us. That’s why we pray “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here” every week in our celebration of Holy Communion. We have been given the Spirit—we need the Spirit yet again!

With the Father and the Son, the Spirit creates, sustains, energizes, speaks, and unites us as the body of Christ. May we become what we are! May our unceasing prayer ever be, “Come, Holy Spirit!”

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