May 19, 2013

Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:14-17
John 14:8-17, 25-27

“A Spirit of Adoption”

Pentecost is sometimes called “the birthday of the church.” We gather to remember and celebrate what happened on the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection – how the Holy Spirit was poured out in power on the gathered disciples… making them one, sending them out in mission, empowering them to proclaim the gospel to all the people of the world.

It seems fitting on this day, to begin by remembering what Pentecost is all about. And it seems fitting to share part of a reflection that was published online for Pentecost this week. It’s a message from the Presidents of the World Council of Churches. They write:

“We have celebrated with joy the feast of Easter. We have remembered Jesus’ departure from his disciples, those he loved and those who loved him at his Ascension into heaven. Now, today, we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the day of God’s priceless gift to the world, the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are called in the power of that Spirit to turn again to God, to give ourselves to Jesus Christ joyfully and to serve our brothers and sisters who do not yet know the good news that Jesus loves them.

“Long before the birth of Jesus, the people of Israel who gave our festival its name were celebrating Pentecost. At Pentecost the Israelites gave thanks for the harvest and offered the first fruits. They remembered how God had saved them from slavery in Egypt and gave them the Ten Commandments. In the book of Deuteronomy we read: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt” (Deut. 16:12).

“Many years have now passed since the days when Israel first celebrated the feast of Pentecost, recalling to mind God’s saving acts for God’s people. Today, Pentecost has taken on a new significance for us. We are no longer required to give to God the first fruits of the harvest. It is, rather, God who gives to us a gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit, to rekindle the flame of divine infinite love shown in the dying and rising of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the whole world.”

At Christmas-time many people celebrate by giving gifts to one another. As we remember the Magi presenting gifts to the Christ-child, and as we celebrate God’s precious gift to the world – the birth of the child himself – it seems very fitting to give gifts to one another. So why don’t we give each other gifts at Pentecost? God sent the gift of the Son into the world for a short, but precious time. But at Jesus’ request, God sent the Spirit into the world once and for all time.

Today we remember the day that the Spirit of God came rushing into the house where Jesus’ first disciples were gathered in Jerusalem. We remember the way it transformed them from people who were scared and confused and unsure, into bold and brave apostles who went out to proclaim the love of God in word and deed. But we do not just remember something that happened two thousand years ago to people in a faraway land… we celebrate today because the Spirit of God is with us now as it was with them. The Holy Spirit is with us, and in us, and between us.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Christian community at Rome, writes about the Spirit of God that they too have received as a gift. He tells them, “you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”

I think sometimes when people think of religion, they think about a set of traditions and practices that individuals decide to adopt. They think of demands being put on our lives and decision-making. They think of all the rules and commandments that we must adhere to. Religions are portrayed as setting limits and stifling possibilities.

But Paul describes the Christian faith in a very different way. He reminds the Roman Christians that they have received the Spirit of God as a gift. And it isn’t a spirit of slavery. It’s not a spirit of rules, and laws, and punishments for not obeying God perfectly. They have no reason to be afraid. Fear is not what our faith is about.

Paul says, “you have received a spirit of adoption.” The Spirit has indeed blown into their lives and transformed them. The Spirit has come to dwell with them and in them because they now belong to God. But they don’t belong to God like a slave belongs to a master. They belong to God like a child belongs to her adoptive parent. And that’s how we belong to God too.

If you want to be reminded of how much God loves you in Jesus Christ, the Gospel of John is an excellent book of the Bible to read. There are several chapters in the middle (14, 15, 16, 17) in which Jesus is talking to his disciples, teaching them, encouraging them, reassuring them, praying for them, and praying for us.

The tragic part of the story, of course, is that Jesus is about to die. Jesus knows it. His friends know it. These are Jesus’ final words to them, and they’re all struggling to make sense of this terrible thing that is about to happen.

I imagine that, as Jesus approached the time of his death, he must have felt very much like a parent. He must have felt like a parent who knows he’s dying and is trying to prepare his children. At one point he even says, “I will not leave you orphaned.”

The fact is, though, that Jesus is going to die and he will no longer be physically present with his disciples. They’re going to be on their own, and he’s preparing them for that reality. But they’re going to have each other, and they’re going to have an even more precious gift – the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God will come and live within them, and the Spirit will never leave them, and the Spirit will remind them of who they are and whose they are – that they belong to God.

There are many titles and names used for the Holy Spirit in the Bible, and quite a few of them come from the Gospel of John. And I like the one from this morning’s passage. Here, the Spirit of God is described as an advocate who will be with us forever. Advocate is a funny word for the Spirit of God, isn’t it? But maybe you can think of a situation when you really need an advocate… someone is threatening to sue you, or someone is falsely accusing you of a crime, someone is taking advantage of you, or someone is neglecting you, someone is refusing to listen to your concerns… and you need someone to stick up for you. You need someone to argue your case. You need someone on your side to help you, to guide you, to advise you.

It’s just the kind of situation that a parents worries about when their child goes out on his own. If I’m not there, who will watch out for him? If I can’t protect her, how will I know that she will be okay?

Jesus was like that protective parent, making sure that even when he was gone his children would not be orphaned or left to fend for themselves. Jesus asks the Father to send an advocate – the Holy Spirit – to be with us and help us. No, the Holy Spirit isn’t a lawyer, but the Spirit is an advocate… an advocate from God who will teach us everything, and remind us of all that Jesus has said.

I asked the children this morning what scares them, and now I’m asking you the same question. No, you don’t have to tell me your answers, but I want you to think about it. What scares you?

Maybe it’s praying out loud or finding the words to share your faith with your neighbour. Maybe it’s making a change in your life like a new career, or going back to school, or getting married, or down-sizing your home. Maybe it’s speaking up with your opinion or your ideas when you don’t know how they’ll be received. Maybe it’s asking for help when you’re not sure if you should really need it. Maybe it’s carrying on and living your life after a loss, or a disappointment, or a failure. What scares you?

You have good reason to be scared. I know you do. I understand. But I want to remind you today that you have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. You belong to God. And the Spirit of God is with you and in you to remind you of that fact, and to help you and guide you in all that you must do.

Think of that first group of disciples gathered together in Jerusalem after Jesus had gone up into heaven. They waited, and they wondered, and they probably worried about what was going to happen next. And then the Spirit of God rushed in from heaven: “There came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Think of the power of that Holy Spirit to fill them, and inspire them, and equip them to do all that God was calling them to do. And the Spirit of God will help us to do the same.

Both as individuals and as a church, we have received the precious gift of the Holy Spirit. May the Spirit remind us today of who and whose we are, and may we be filled with a spirit of courage and confidence to proclaim the love of God in word and deed. Amen.