Posted on May 31st, 2009
Note: Linden Katherine Hemingway was baptized during the Divine Service at which this sermon was preached.
Spirit – it seems impossible to grab hold of what that really is. Spirit is something shapeless and ephemeral, usually synonymous with enthusiasm or excitement: like team spirit or school spirit. Precisely because you can’t nail “spirit” down, it’s become popular to reject “religion” in favor of “spirituality.” What does it mean to be “spiritual”? It is an embracing of mysticism and experience, while rejecting the certainty of doctrine and revealed truth. Ultimately being “spiritual but not religious” means rejecting the Word of God.
But it was not so from the beginning. In the beginning, God breathed into man the breath of life—the Spirit—and He gave man His Word. The Holy Spirit and the Word always go together, and so the life that God gives likewise is present wherever God’s Spirit and Word are. Our first parents rejected the Word of God, and so lost life – not their own life, but the life of God. For man has no life in himself – he lives by the life that God gives. Rejecting the Word of God, man lost the Spirit of God. So what God began in giving His Spirit, His Word, His life to man, man turned into the worst disaster. He fell. He died.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent His Word, and the Word was made Man. The Word became flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit. There, in the God-Man Jesus, the Spirit again dwelled in Man. In Him was life, and He came not only to give His life for mankind but also to mankind. On the cross, when our Lord JESUS breathed His last, He handed over His Spirit to His mother and to the beloved disciple, anticipating the gift of the Spirit to all the Church. And then: Death could not hold Him, for He was and is life. So when He rose, He came into the midst of the disciples, breathed again the breath of life that had once graced our first father Adam, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And He charged them to forgive sins.
And so today, Pentecost, is not just another day on the calendar. It gathers together Christmas, the Baptism of Jesus, Good Friday, and Easter, and says, “All that is now for you! The life that is in Jesus; the Holy Spirit; communion with God; forgiveness; the love of God—everything that Christ Jesus was and is and gave to His disciples—all that is now given to you.” And that is what Jesus means by that great comforting word “peace”: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.”
But then we hear those horrible words that bring such shame: Jesus says, “If you loved Me.” Those words told the disciples that they were not loving Jesus as they should. And when you examine your life according to the Ten Commandments, you must realize the same thing. You have not loved Christ, you have not kept His words; you have not loved your neighbor as yourself, but you have measured everything by what pleases you. You have promoted and exulted yourself, and lived as if God’s Word did not apply in every circumstance.
That is precisely the sin we find among the builders of the Tower of Babel. They were disregarding God, seeking to decide their own destiny apart from Him. They wanted to make a name for themselves, and live autonomously. Mankind was united, but it was a united rebellion against their Creator. And so, in order to prevent the horror of a humanity united in will and purpose against Him, God confused their languages.
We suffer for that to this day. It is difficult to learn another language, but it is also difficult simply to communicate clearly in our own tongue. How many arguments arise just from misunderstanding what someone else said or wrote? In politics, in our homes, and certainly in the church, we wage wars over words.
The miraculous event of Pentecost, where the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection was preached in many languages– that was the Holy Spirit’s call to a divided and confused humanity to gather together and unite under the banner of the Crucified One, our Lord Jesus Christ. “In Him,” said that voice ringing out to every nation, “the ancient sin is pardoned; in Him the ancient curse is lifted; you violent world, receive peace from your God!” Every language of man is used so that every race of man, however far off, might know that Christ’s incarnation was for them, Christ’s words and promises were for them, Christ’s death was for them, Christ’s resurrection was for them – and if for them, then for you, every one of you. No one, from the youngest child (such as Mark and Mollie’s daughter Linden) to the person whose life has become a disaster—no one is excluded from that invitation to receive God’s forgiveness.
So now, for Linden and for all the Baptized, we are charged by our Lord JESUS today to keep His Word. What does that mean? It means we guard, treasure, hold onto, meditate upon, pray, believe, seek to live by the words of JESUS. He gave the Apostles a promise that the Holy Spirit would help them remember His words. That special gift means that their writings in the New Testament are true and without error. Those inspired words are the final authority in the Church.
But the Holy Spirit also works in us to remember the words of Jesus. What kind of remembering do we need? What we need is not just being able to recite Bible passages for a test, but something more: it is in the time of trial when we need the Holy Spirit’s help of remembering, holding onto, keeping and treasuring the Word. When you are tempted to sin—especially those habitual, besetting sins that you struggle against and have trouble stopping—that’s when we need to remember the Word and apply it to our trial. In those moments, we are faced with choices: should I say words that will be hurtful? Should I indulge the desire for sexual immorality? Should I take what does not belong to me? Should I tell a lie or conceal the truth? Should I give in to anger, resentment, the temptation for self-destructive behavior?
And then there is the hour of despair, an hour when we face depression or thoughts of suicide; an hour when we are tempted to throw away our faith; an hour when death visits us – what then will be our trust and hope? In that hour, remember: the Holy Spirit is for good reason called the Helper, which also means Advocate and Comforter. He is your Advocate before the Father: He prays for you, and also inspires you to pray, to call on the name of JESUS for your help. And the Holy Spirit is called the Comforter because He consoles you with the knowledge of pardon for your sins.
Rejoice then, O children of Adam! God has breathed out His Spirit once more! God has brought you, His fallen creatures, back into communion with Himself. In Him is life, and He first breathed that life into you by washing you as He did Linden; and He keeps on giving you that life by forgiving you, by nourishing you at His Table. The Spirit you have breathed in, you breathe out in your prayers and when you live in peace and love and forgiveness with your neighbors. And so that life of being Spirit-filled Christians goes on and on as we grow up in all things into Him who is our Head, Jesus Christ. In Him is your peace. In Him will you live, in Him will you die, and His shall you be forever.