Gospel: John 20:19-23
The risen Jesus appears to his disciples, offering them a benediction, a commission, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Pastors have this subconscious desire to be all things to all people. Blame the Apostle Paul. Like I’ll preach a sermon that will touch every person in the room, and they’ll all know where I’m coming from, and catch the nuance, and my message is going to be relevant to all times and all places and all people.
But I’m a native English speaker, with just enough Spanish to be dangerous. I’m a white 40-year-old cis-gender woman with a daughter and a husband. I’m a life-long Lutheran with a college education and two parents who are still together. I can be as relevant as I want, and will still miss the mark, because I can only speak and preach from what I know and what I’ve learned.
Pentecost originates as an explicitly diverse, inclusive harvest celebration, from the book of Deuteronomy (16:9-11) You shall count seven weeks; begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall keep the Festival of Weeks to the Lord your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the Lord your God. Rejoice before the Lord your God—you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, the Levites resident in your towns, as well as the strangers, the orphans, and the widows who are among you.
This holiday, Shavuot, or Pentecost (meaning 50 in Greek) is celebrated 50 days after Passover. It’s the weeklong one where the Jewish people would travel from all over the place to set up a temporary tent (booth) to live in for one week. The streets surrounding the temple in Jerusalem would be packed with these temporary shelters as the people of God remembered the way that God provided for them while they were wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Over time, it also came to mark the reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai. For Christians, Pentecost celebrates the reception of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. This wild day of wind and fire and intentional diversity.
But Brite Divinity School Professor Jeremy L. Williams reminds us in his commentary that “Acts 2:5 debunks a major trope of anti-Jewish readings of Acts that suggests that ancient Jewishness was particular while Christianity was universal and open to everyone.”
We are from Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, Iran and Iraq, Israel and Palestine and many parts of Turkey, including near Istanbul and Ankara; some of us are from Egypt and northern Libya, or visiting from Rome in Italy, from the island of Crete or from Saudi Arabia. But still we all hear the apostles speaking about God’s deeds of power in our own languages!”
Not remembering exactly where the Medes or Elamites are from, I found this modern translation of the geographic areas. These are people from all over, that have nothing in common other than their religion – suddenly hearing about Jesus in their own language. And it’s nothing new – This is what the prophet Joel knew would happen. And is what happens over and over again with God’s people. The spirit expands the situation, breathing new life, new experiences, and new connections among God’s people. The Spirit is not something in us, of us, from us – but something that comes to us from outside.
When Jesus breathes on his disciples, he’s not just giving them proof of his resurrection, but sharing that new life with them. Even into closed and locked rooms, even into a small group of fearful disciples, Jesus gives the power of the Holy Spirit. And what is this power? Martin Luther reminds us in the small catechism of the work that the Holy Spirit does among us.
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.
It is the Holy Spirit that powers the church, not our power, not our commitment, not our personal desires or drives. The Holy Spirit expands and grows not just our own faith – but the connections among us that are the kingdom of God.
The church is not a building, nor is it a particular membership or group of people — nor is it a gathering of people together in one place. Rather, at its heart, the church is a mission, God’s mission, loving and protecting our neighbors as we would love and protect ourselves. The Holy Spirit is a force – a power – a verb – a movement and a burning flame. It pushes us, pulls us, refines us, encourages us, challenges us, and empowers us – so that we keep moving, keep expanding, and keep connecting.
As God’s power is revealed in the third person of the Trinity, it is not a new God or a new plan, but a continuation of the same love and power of Christ now given to Christ’s body on earth. To each believer, to every member of the body. Because we need each member, every voice, representing the fullness of all people on this good earth, each color of the rainbow, and each spectrum of diversity.
In an age of distrust, fear, and fragmentation, the church’s mission — the essence of Pentecost — has never been more pressing. The church must be intentional about our inclusion of all people. Simply saying all are welcome won’t cut it, when historically so many marginalized people have been intentionally hurt by the church. The church must show inclusion not just with our words but our actions. When our young people dream dreams and have visions of what the church will be, we must listen. The unity that the Spirit draws us into goes above and beyond both our comfort level and causes us to see the face of Christ in all people.
“That’s the gift of the Spirit. It’s the love that allows us to be our fullest selves and acknowledge others in their unique beauty. It’s not a love that erases diversity, but one that brings diversity in all its intricate detail to the forefront.” (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithfulpeacemaking/2022/06/pride-and-pentecost/)
Pastor Erin Evans