Pentecost Sermon, June 8, 2003| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| Acts 2:1-13
Not long after the great flood that destroyed the world by water, the leaders of the world gathered together at a place called Babel. They planned to build a tower that would reach into the heavens. They wanted to make a name for themselves. They did not want to submit to God. Like humanists of every generation, they thought that the answer to all human troubles lies within human capabilities. If there is a problem, we can solve it! God punished them in their pride by confusing their languages so that they couldn’t understand each other. The building project had to be abandoned because of the language barrier.
When God urged ancient Israel to repent of their idolatry and to listen to His prophets, He also threatened them by warning of an invasion of their land by foreigners whose languages they wouldn’t be able to understand. If they wouldn’t listen to the word of God when it was preached plainly, they’d have to listen to the judgment of God by hearing languages they couldn’t understand.
Pentecost is an historical event that is often called the birthday of the Christian Church. The Acts of the Apostles is part two of St. Luke’s Gospel. It describes the early church and in chapter two St. Luke describes the first Christian Pentecost. As Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit descended miraculously upon the apostles. They were given the supernatural gift of being able to speak in foreign languages that they had never learned. Pentecost was the reversal of Babel. Whereas at the tower of Babel, God confused the languages so as to divide the people, at Pentecost God spoke the same gospel message in a variety of languages to unify the people. At Babel God confused the languages in mercy, because those people were trusting in humanity to save humanity and their common language gave them a false hope. At Pentecost God overcame the confusion of languages. The gospel is intended for all people of every tribe, nation, people, and tongue. The good news of Christ is for the whole world. Pentecost teaches this. God gave the apostles the ability to speak in all of the languages of the Roman Empire to illustrate that no one was left out of Christ’s commission to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
The Spirit of Pentecost has never left the church He created on that first Pentecost. The Father sent Him in Jesus’ name. Jesus sent Him from the Father. He came specifically to the men whom Jesus had taught. Jesus had ascended into heaven to fill all things, but Jesus would no longer be visible, as He had been before His ascension. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit. On Pentecost, He fulfilled His promise.
Listen to what Jesus says in St. John’s Gospel, chapters 14 through 16. “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever; the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17) “These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (John 14:25-26) “But when the Comforter comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” (John 15:26-27) “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.” (John 16:7) “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12-14)
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. He comforts us. He makes His home within us. He makes us holy. He makes us holy by means of the truth. He teaches us the truth about Jesus. In teaching Christ to us He enables us to accept, to rely upon, and to find comfort in Jesus. The Holy Spirit joins us in communion with the truth by His almighty and gracious power. When He joins each one of us individually in communion with the truth, He joins us all together as the Communion of Saints. The Communion of Saints is invisible to the naked eye. We cannot see our holy fellowship. But when we kneel before the altar and we eat and drink the body and the blood of Jesus that is given to us in the Lord’s Supper, the unity of Christ’s holy Church is most clearly expressed.
The people at Babel believed that human unity was a human achievement. That’s always the claim championed by the disciples of humanism. And it’s always a lie. True unity is always a divine achievement. It is achieved at the cross. It is achieved when the Holy Spirit brings the fruit of Christ’s suffering into our lives at the font, from the pulpit, and at the altar.
Sin divides us. The blood of Jesus washes away our sin. The Holy Spirit unites us by applying the blood of Jesus to us. The Holy Spirit does not do this by lying to us. He does this by telling us the truth. He is the Spirit of truth. False doctrine comes from the father of lies. False doctrine divides the flock by giving false hope. All false doctrine leads us to trust in human ability and trusting in the flesh is the surest road to destruction. The truth is revealed in the written word, the Bible. The truth is revealed in the incarnate Word, Jesus. The truth is revealed by the Holy Spirit.
Sin divides us. We need the blood of Jesus to wash the sin away. Otherwise we will be at war with each other. People who don’t receive the forgiveness of sins from God through faith cannot forgive one another. The wonderful works of God that were preached on Pentecost were the works of Jesus. Peter didn’t preach a message of religious self-improvement. He preached the law with the full thunder of God’s judgment. And he preached Christ: His crucifixion and His resurrection. The man who just a few weeks earlier had cowered in fear as he denied his Lord was now filled with the Holy Ghost. He showed no fear as he preached to the crowd saying:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know; Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. Acts 2:22-24
He accused them of deicide. He didn’t shy away from preaching it with perfect clarify and bluntness. He concluded his sermon with these words: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36) You would have thought that he was out of his mind to preach that way. Who did he think he was to accuse thousands of people of murdering God? Did Peter know nothing of tact or diplomacy? Couldn’t he have found a friendlier way of saying the same thing? But it was the Holy Spirit who spoke through Peter. We read in the next verses,
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:37-39
St. Luke records for us that three thousand people were baptized that day and that they continued in communion with the gospel the apostles preached as they received the Lord’s Supper together and prayed together. The Holy Spirit created and sustained the church through the same gospel and sacraments that we have yet today.
The Spirit of Pentecost has never left the church because if He did the church would surely die. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be the Lord and giver of life, and He gives that life through the voices of fallible men like Peter. God’s word is infallible and God’s word is almighty, but fallible and erring men preach it. The Holy Spirit cannot be found by looking for holy people. Our holiness is hidden under sin and weakness. The Holy Spirit cannot be found by looking for miraculous signs. Pentecost was a miraculous display that God did not intend to repeat throughout the history of the church. The Holy Spirit is to be found wherever the preaching of Christ – His crucifixion and resurrection – is heard. The Holy Spirit is to be found wherever the washing of Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood are administered in Jesus’ name. And wherever the Holy Spirit is, there is peace, there is comfort, and there is unity.
Our faith is so weak and we are so foolish. We think we know better than God how we may gain spiritual strength. But whenever we rely on ourselves we are overcome by our own weaknesses and we become hopelessly confused. Whenever churches set aside the pure gospel and sacraments of Jesus for something they think is more effective or more powerful they end up divided in their own confusion, just as at Babel. The true unity of the church is always God’s gracious work and it is always the Holy Spirit who does this work by bringing Jesus to us by means of the purely preached gospel and the rightly administered sacraments of Christ. Those who despise these humble means of grace despise God. For God will not deal with us in any other way. He will not bring us the forgiveness of sins, peace, and faith except through these means of grace. The church is not free to choose for herself how she will receive the power of the Holy Spirit. Her Lord has already made this choice for her.
Perhaps we wish there were something a bit more exciting than hearing the same old gospel, kneeling at the same old altar, and hearing the same old words again and again and again. But these words are never old. They make everything new. Every time we come to church hearing and singing and confessing the familiar liturgy, the Spirit of truth comes into our lives and washes away the deceit that lives within us and rises up in every kind of sin of thought, word, and deed. We come in weakness, confusion, and sin for which we can do nothing but confess to God that we are sorry. Here the Holy Spirit makes us holy. He imputes to us the righteousness of Jesus and He pours divine love into our hearts. He fills us with hope and He makes us the Communion of Saints. How could we want anything more? How could we be satisfied with anything less?