The Work of the Spirit

Sermon for the Day of Pentecost
May 19, 2024

Today is the Day of Pentecost. Pentecost is the Greek word for fifty, and it’s the same as a Hebrew holiday called Shavuot, the 50th day after Passover. In the Hebrew tradition, it was originally a celebration of the wheat harvest. But it also came to be a celebration of the giving of the commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.

So there’s a certain symmetry between the descent of the Law in the Old Testament and the descent of the Spirit in the New.

“This is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already.”
—Jer. 31:34-35

The new holiday celebrates the internalization of the old one—a promise that was made, even at the height of the old covenant. But unfortunately our practice of our beloved religion doesn’t emphasize the Holy Spirit. And our celebration of today’s holiday always takes a backseat to whatever else is going on. So on the Day of Pentecost, I’m going to talk about the work of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s start with these familiar words:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
—Gen. 1:1-3

There’s God, and there’s the Word God spoke, and in between there’s the Spirit of God hovering over the chaos. The word for Spirit in Hebrew also means wind or breath. So, though spirit is invisible, the Spirit’s rôle in creation is something we can almost visualize in our minds.

But whether it's a wind of God hovering over the chaos, the breath of God, or the Spirit of God, we see the Spirit’s presence in the beginning, participating in the formation of the universe. And so creation is the work of the Spirit, no less than it is the work of the Father and the Son.

This is something for us to think about in reference to the time before time began. But it’s also something for us to dwell on today, when we think about the troubles, the wars, the conflicts of the world: The Holy Spirit yet hovers over the chaos, and will certainly—in God’s time—bring order and light and stability.

If the Holy Spirit is significant for the whole universe, then the Spirit is also significant for us human creatures. For it’s the Holy Spirit which inspires in us a sense of something beyond the physical.

Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.
—John 3:6

So spirituality is the work of the Spirit—it’s what enables us to realize that what’s important isn’t necessarily something we can see with our eyes or feel with our hands—let alone buy with a credit card. When we long for love and relationship or work for peace and justice, when we pray or meditate or expand our horizons, it’s the Holy Spirit setting priorities that the body by itself knows nothing of.

Though I hope that Christians do these things at least as much as non-Christians, this, I think is the work of the Spirit in all of humanity. It’s what sets us apart from the rest of creation. But disciples of Jesus Christ were promised more. Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus said,

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.
—Acts 1:8

And ten days later, on the fiftieth day after the resurrection, something happened that turned the disciples (followers) into apostles (emissaries or ambassadors). They described it in terms of two of nature’s most powerful forces: wind and fire.

It was the moment when they were filled the Spirit, when they knew God not just as the Creator of the universe, and not just as the longing within us for something more, but as power—which is the work of the Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is the very power of God within us that forces change and gives us the courage to speak and to act on God’s behalf, and the wisdom to know when to speak, what words to use, and what actions are best.

To this end, the early church had gifts that set them apart as a body. Paul specifically described these powerful gifts as gifts of the Spirit—healing and speaking and preaching and faith and knowledge, to name but a few.

Two thousand years later, there’s still some debate about whether all those gifts were meant for the first-generation church or should still be expected among Christians today. But one that is beyond debate is one of the first ones we read about on the Day of Pentecost. When Peter starts talking to the crowds, they all understand him, regardless of their mother tongue.

We hear them speaking in our own native languages.
—Acts 2:8

So understanding is another work of the Holy Spirit. In the early church, the Spirit enabled people to understand foreign languages as though they were hearing their native tongue. In today’s world when we prefer talking past each other to actually listening, we need a lot more of the Holy Spirit.

If the Spirit is understanding, then I think we ought to count it as a requirement that, if you call yourself a Christian, you have to hear people out—even people you already know you disagree with. It doesn’t mean you’ll come to believe as they do. But if understanding is mutual, at least there is a lot less hatred in the world.

And when there’s no hatred, there’s more room for love. When there’s no killing, there’s a lot more life. And when there’s no war, then there’s a very good chance that there’s peace.

God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us; to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
—Romans 8:6

So when the Spirit fills us, and when our minds are set on the Spirit, then there is indeed love and life and peace. This, too, is the work of the Spirit.

But perhaps the most important thing the presence of the Spirit in our lives brings us is mentioned in Paul’s benediction at the very end of his Second Letter to the Corinthians.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
—2 Cor. 13:13

If God is love and if Jesus is the love of God personified, then it is the Spirit which binds us in love to God and to one another. The Spirit is what calls us to church and keeps us here.

The Spirit is what we feel when we are together—even if we can’t explain it. The Holy Spirit is what completes us: When I am doubtful, we have faith; when you are frightened, we have courage; when he is weak, we are strong; and when she is filled with despair, we have hope.

The Spirit may be what brings us closer to perfection, but the Holy Spirit is also the reason we don’t need to be perfect. It is the Holy Spirit that draws us to the Lord’s table, and when we share the bread and the cup, it is the Holy Spirit who helps us remember the cross, the love that led to it, and the love we have for each other. The Spirit is creation; the Spirit is power and understanding; the Spirit is love, life, and peace; the Spirit is communion: the connection between all those things and those of us who believe.
—©2024 Sam Greening