Sermon 10  

Receive the Holy Spirit

John 15:26

May 27, 2007


Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father , Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.  

Today is the third great holiday of the church – the Feast of Pentecost – the fiftieth day after Christ’s resurrection. Pentecost, or the fiftieth day, is a simple transliteration of the Greek word, πεντηκοστη, from Acts 2:1. On this day we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us mortals after Christ was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven.

God Himself

So this holy day is filled with wonder and might. No human achievement marks this day. Instead it’s about the power of God breaking through to us. So the Holy Spirit that we celebrate “is not a mere spirit,… something apart from God and yet given to man by Him,… but a Spirit who Himself is God in essence” (Luther’s Works, 24:297). So on this day we celebrate God himself in the miraculous and the revolutionary – befitting features of divinity.

The same happened at our first great holiday – Christmas, or the Nativity of Our Lord – on which God’s blessed Incarnation is celebrated. There too the impossible happened – God became man! The infinite, eternal, invisible One became finite, temporal and visible. And it took a miracle for that to happen. But this miracle was also revolutionary. It put all the fullness of God right in Jesus of Nazareth so we might be saved (Colossians 2:9). And this salvation couldn’t happen any other way (Acts 4:12).

And Good Friday and Easter are equally amazing. On that Holy Week holiday we give thanks for the forgiveness of sins that saves us from hell through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 4:25). No other divine act can bring such forgiveness. Miraculously God receives the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as a “fragrant offering” for our sins (Ephesians 5:2). Keeping the Law can’t do this (Romans 3:28). Neither can sacrifices rendered to God in the temple (Hebrews 9:25-26). No wonder such revolutionary exclusivity offends people again and again [Matthew 11:6; The Book of Concord, ed. T. Tappert (1580, 1959) p. 139; Emil Brunner, The Scandal of Christianity (1951) p. 115].


The Miracle of Pentecost

And on this day the miracle is equally revolutionary. Pentecost is as grand as Christmas and Easter. Even though our culture doesn’t recognize today with any clearance sales or special candies or carols, Pentecost is of the same magnitude as Christmas and Easter.

For on this day power is given that we might believe in, trust, obey and love the Holy One celebrated on Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. John 15:26 says the Holy Spirit will bear witness to us that we might believe. So the preached Word can reach our ears – but if it’s to change our hearts, the Holy Spirit must do that (LW 51:76). And if we do not have faith in Christ Jesus, then what he has done for us doesn’t help (Romans 3:26, 10:9; John 3:5; Hebrews 11:6). Without faith, the treasure of salvation “lies in a heap” – unused and of no value [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. Lenker (1909, 1988) 7:333]. Only by faith can the Word then “reform, rule and teach” us (LW 24:294). For this to happen “the Holy Spirit carries on his work unceasingly” (BC, p. 419).


We Can’t Believe on Our Own

But note well that in this miracle a huge attack is leveled against us – making Pentecost every bit as revolutionary as Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. For what it says is that we are not free or able to believe as we wish.

Now this flies in the face of the American way and our national religious sensibilities. First it attacks the American way which is grounded in freedom, individualism, and personal achievement. Pentecost says we are not free to make Jesus our personal lord and savior. We cannot believe in him on our own. We cannot even decide to love him. In fact we cannot choose him.

So if we’re going to believe, Jesus must first make us his own (Philippians 3:12). And he does so, saying: “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16). This is because salvation does not depend on our will or exertion, but solely on the mercy of God (Romans 9:16). He saves some and hardens others (Romans 9:18). This enrages those who say, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul” [W. E. Henley (1849-1903) “Invictus”].

Against this sentiment we stand with Martin Luther’s blessed Small Catechism (1529, BC, p. 345) which famously teaches:


I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith.


This is because we’re sinners. And as such we go against God, for we’re slaves to sin (John 8:34; Romans 6:16). We’re children of wrath, accursed creatures, children of the devil (Ephesians 2:3; 2 Peter 2:14; John 8:44). So when it comes to believing in God we have as many resources and capacities as a “corpse” would have – which is less than zero (BC, p. 470)! So faith indeed is “contrary to nature” (Romans 11:24). No wonder then that faith takes a miracle to happen (LW 33:98). We couldn’t ever bring it about.

            So we should pray to the Holy Spirit: “Come Holy Tenacity, refuse to let us go. If we shut the door in your face, go to the back door. If we slam the back door, come in through the cracks” [Edna H. Hong, Box 66 , Sumac Lane : A Lively Correspondence on Sin and Sanctity (1989) p. 76]. This prayer is based on Kierkegaard’s 1838 insight: “If Christ is to come and live in me, it will have to be according to [John 20:19, 26 where] Christ enters through closed doors” (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, §5:5313).


The Sawdust Trail

Now the church in American hasn’t either helped much in furthering this profound truth of Christianity. It instead has mostly argued for the exact opposite in graphic and compelling ways.

For from the early days of America , down to our present, revivalism has controlled how the church talks about of faith. And what revivalism says is this: Decide for yourself. Choose Jesus, it beckons. Evangelists with their tents and sawdust trails have crisscrossed our land peddling this aberrant message [Marshall W. Fishwick, Great Awakenings (1995) pp. 9-58]. And that's because it’s all based on a lie! For it shoves aside Jesus’ revolutionary words: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). As a result the church has failed as well to celebrate the Holy Spirit properly – saying that belief in Jesus is simply there for the taking.


Grieving the Holy Spirit

As if that were not enough, we also malign the Holy Spirit by making too much of him. This has been going on since the beginning. Sabellianism, as it is called, heretically taught in the early 3rd century that the Holy Trinity was three divine persons, but not in quantity but only “in sequence” [Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 5 volumes (1971-1989) 1:179]. This meant that when the Holy Spirit was sent the Father and the Son collapsed into him, leaving no God but the Holy Spirit all by himself. As such the Holy Spirit no longer comes to reinforce Christ’s Word and instill faith in him (contra John 14:26, 15:26, 16:15). Instead the Holy Spirit takes us into new directions and arenas, becoming, finally, an “unrestricted” deity [Peter C. Hodgson, Winds of the Spirit (1994) p. 36]. As such we’re encouraged to violate doctrinal boundaries and revise Christianity any way we see fit.

All this “grieves” the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30; Hebrews 10:29) for it disrupts the coherence of the Holy Trinity by diminishing the priority of God’s Word which dictates who the Holy Spirit is and what he does. No longer is the Holy Spirit our “school-master who…. goes no further than the Word goes” (SML, 3:329). Now he’s a majestic free agent who sends us off on wild goose chases – supposing that “a man with a doctrine doesn’t stand a chance against a man with an experience” [Harvey Cox, Fire From Heaven (1995) p. 312]. But this “fluttering toward heaven” (LW 24:362) is nothing but a waste of time.

Even so we go on making too much of the Holy Spirit. By so doing we think we can justify our deep but sinful yearning to be “free in regard to righteousness” (Romans 6:20). More than anything else we want to liberate ourselves from obedience to God while still being able to maintain a semblance of belief in him. And for this skullduggery we recruit the Holy Spirit – imagining that now God will do or “blow” (contra John 3:8) what and where we want him to. As a consequence we think we’re holier than we possibly could ever be – having recklessly swallowed the Holy Spirit “feathers and all” (LW 40:83)!


Receiving the Holy Spirit

So how shall we celebrate this holiday properly – avoiding the two ditches of unworthy exaltation or diminishment? Well, first we must quit trying to have Christianity our own way. We must quit thinking Christianity is for the taking. We must quit thinking it’s there for us to choose.

All this hinges on Jesus’ words that it’s to our “advantage” that the Holy Spirit shows up (John 16:7). While this Spirit speaks against our freedom and ability to believe in Christ Jesus, this attack on us is still good for us. For this attack doesn’t leave us hopeless. No, it takes away with one hand and then gives with the other. But how does this work?

We are told that our hearts are “desperately corrupt” (Jeremiah 17:9). As such we cannot depend on them to come to Christ. For that to happen, our natural, stony-hard hearts must be ripped from us and replaced with believing ones (Ezekiel 11:19). Otherwise we’ll keep on walking away from Christ like the young rich man (Matthew 19:16-22). Only an “honest and good” heart (Luke 8:15) can love Jesus with a “love undying” (Ephesians 6:23). And this is what the Holy Spirit provides. Without him we cannot believe.

So when we know how bad off we are – that “all men are spiritual lepers” (SML, 1:152) – then we, in desperation, will embrace the work of the Holy Spirit. As long as we think we can go it alone (Deuteronomy 8:17; Revelation 3:17), we will denigrate the Holy Spirit for attacking us and blessing us. Neither of these will we ever accept – neither the attacking nor the blessing.


Deus Reconciliatus

So rejoice in your advantage and know that it is rooted in another one. John 18:14 says that it is “expedient,” or to our advantage, that Christ should die for many. Indeed it is so. For without his sacrificial death on the cross, God’s wrath would never be shielded from us (Romans 5:9; John 3:36). Salvation, redemption and forgiveness only come if that wrath is overcome. And Jesus does this, bearing the punishment for our sin in himself on the cross (Isaiah 53:4-5; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 2:2).

By so doing, Jesus moves God to mercy. He’s the Lamb of God “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). By so doing, God’s love is manifest to us (1 John 4:10). Now our God is deus reconciliatus per Christum, or “the God reconciled through Christ” (LW 12:377). No longer do we have a simple deus who frightenes us with his periodic wrath, but now the enriched, complex deus reconciliatus. Clearly it’s to our advantage to have such a God revealed in Christ Jesus.

And this is what the Holy Spirit does for us – opening our minds and softening our hearts so that we can believe in the deus reconciliatus per Christum. For even in the face of such loving, forgiving light, we still favor the darkness over the light (John 3:19). That’s why faith is so rare, happening only 1/4 of the time (Luke 8:15) or 1/10 of the time (Luke 17:18) or 1/1000 of the time (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

So faith is rightly called a battle or fight (1 Timothy 6:12). Believing in Jesus is not as simple or easy as “pulling on one’s socks” (Kierkegaard’s Writings, 20:35). And so we need help if this advantageous God is to be ours. Clearly we can’t do without our double advantage – Christ and his Holy Spirit. Therefore sing out boldly [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) Hymn 459]:


O Holy Spirit, enter in,

And in our hearts your work begin,

And make our hearts your dwelling….

Left to ourselves, we surely stray;

Oh, lead us on the narrow way,

With wisest counsel guide us….


Thanksgiving & Prayer

Yes, sing out and rejoice in the Holy Spirit and in the gift of faith. Give thanks to God always for his mercy (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Continue to pray for the Holy Spirit that you may grow in faith and love (Luke 11:13) and that Christ’s Church may flourish.

And know that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2:21). Some say they’ve tried that and God has rejected them. But they are the cocky ones who only want to undercut the Holy Scriptures and its promises. Calling on the name of the Lord assumes humility and desperation – neither of which are in the hearts of the defiant. So if we call on the Lord in our sinfulness and need (Romans 7:24), he will save us.


Building on God’s Gifts

But then know too that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). So act on your faith and appreciate this gift. See to it that you “supplement your faith” (2 Peter 1:5-7). Make sure it displays virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love. For indeed it’s wrong to imagine that we don’t have to do anything or show any “evidence of faith” (LW 25:287).

            Of these seven supplementations, dwell on these four: knowledge, self-control, steadfastness and love. So for starters, add knowledge to faith. God doesn’t want stupid, ignorant Christians (1 Peter 2:15). Know God’s Word – taking in its “whole counsel” and not just your favorite verses (Acts 20:27). Understand a right account [λογια] for the truth of Christianity and be able to present it well (1 Peter 3:15). Know the ways of the world and the evil seeping throughout it (Matthew 12:39; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 John 5:19). “For this world is nothing but sheer thorns” (LW 15:67). And don’t be gullible or naïve (Proverbs 7:6-22; Ecclesiastes 7:25-26). Trust no one (Jeremiah 17:5). “Be innocent as doves” but also “wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16). And know yourself too (2 Corinthians 13:5). Know your weaknesses and strengths so that you may maximize your effectiveness (2 Peter 2:8).


Practice Self-Control

Next include self-control in your life of faith. Know that faith isn’t about self-expression, self-release or self-fulfillment. Rather it’s about self-denial (Luke 9:23). And this self-denial is even to be intensified into an appropriate self-hatred (Luke 14:26; John 12:25; 2 Timothy 3:2-4). This no doubt infuriates the worldly!

            So the joys and freedom of Christian faith (Philippians 4:4; Galatians 5:1) don’t imply, in any way at all, that you’re free to do whatever you like. That’s because we remain a mixed bag until the day we die. Christ doesn’t live in us fully so that the law of God no longer has to curtail our sinful yearnings (LW 45:90-91). Sin still clings to us like “devil’s yeast” (LW 7:233) – even though we’re baptized and believe in Christ. So on any given day we are both against God and for God, simultaneously – being simul iustus et peccator, as Luther famously put it (LW 25:434; 26:232).


Being Steadfast

And the faithful are also expected to be steadfast. Being spiritually experimental is a blind alley. Theoretical innovations are not a hallmark of Christianity. In their place the New Testament inserts obedience to the Word of God (Luke 11:28).

            Some regard such steadfastness as hidebound and boring. But they miss the drama of the Christian life. Even though theoretically Christianity is all sewed up, existentially it isn’t. That means we are forever looking for new ways to fight off the devil and remain true to the Word of God. On this score there can be innovative ploys, maneuvers and spiritual exercises. For fasting, praying, repenting, caring and training can be practiced in various ways.

            But we must remember that the teachings of Christianity are set – those that were once delivered to the saints of old (Jude 1:3). Christ is the same as he ever was (Hebrews 13:8). Salvation needs no fine-tuning, corrections or revisions (Galatians 1:6-9).


Affection & Love

The faithful must also live up to the love and mercy shown them by God (Ephesians 4:32). It’s impossible to be a mean Christian and remain true to the faith. So if you’re mean anyway, it’s because your Christian faith has slipped away. Our cry should be: “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

            So if we come home from church and beat our wives, Sunday after Sunday, our faith is dead. This is because love and affection must supplement faith.

            This being said, we must add that love cannot make us soft-headed, without any backbone. Our love must have principles which are followed when helping others lovingly. For “stupid affection” is no love at all (LW 13:153). Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)