the Holy Spirit
Brothers and sisters in
Christ, grace and peace to
you in the name of God the Father , Son (X)
and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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”].
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,
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.
from the early days of
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.
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.
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
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
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?
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
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.
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).
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.
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
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]:
Holy Spirit, enter in,
in our hearts your work begin,
make our hearts your dwelling….
to ourselves, we surely stray;
lead us on the narrow way,
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.
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
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).
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
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
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
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)