Homily, Pentecost 2023

So we’ve had TWO stories today: first the one with Moses and Eldad and Medad, from a book in the Old Testament called the Book of Numbers – that’s a funny name, isn’t it? It’s because there’s a lot of counting in that book, actually! – and then we had the Pentecost story, from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which is a fancy way of saying, The Book of Stuff the Apostles Did. 

Did anybody notice something similar between those two stories? … 

That second story, the Pentecost story, is the story of this day, the feast of Pentecost. Our calendar of readings gives us that other story, from the wilderness time when Moses was leading God’s people, to help us notice what’s the same in those stories.

There are a lot of differences too! But in both stories we see God’s Spirit coming to people and making them act in surprising ways! Shouting and dancing, preaching and prophesying. 

Now, here’s an important thing to know: Sometimes the Bible argues with itself. 

Which isn’t that surprising when you realize that the Bible is really only barely one thing. There are all different kinds of texts in the Bible, from different times and places, talking about different things in different ways. And sometimes they disagree. 

Today, our short Gospel lesson – so short you could almost miss it – says that when Jesus was saying goodbye to his friends, before he was arrested and crucified, there wasn’t a Holy Spirit yet. 

John thinks that the Holy Spirit didn’t show up until Jesus had gone to be with God. That you can either have Jesus around, or the Holy Spirit, but you’ll never see them both at the same party.

There was actually a big split in Christianity about this! 

Christians understand God as being three different people (or Persons) who are also somehow all one Person. We call that the Trinity and we celebrate it next Sunday. 

Note:  I am about to make some very complicated things, very simple…!

The first Person of the Trinity is God the Creator and Source; the God whom Jesus calls Father. The God in whom we live and move and have our being, as we heard Paul say a couple of weeks ago. The God who is always making the universe, and holding all things together.

The second person is Jesus, God come to dwell among us as a friend, teacher and helper.

And the third Person is the Holy Spirit, God who comes close like a wind, like breath, like the warmth of the sun, like waves washing over your feet at the beach. She helps us discover our gifts and find our way and feel God’s presence. 

In the first years of Christianity, people were trying to understand how God could be all one God, but also be these different Persons. How those three aspects of God related to each other. 

And the understanding they came to was that the three Persons of the Trinity are different, but they are equal in glory, equally eternal, equally holy. 

But later on, some Christians started to think that the Holy Spirit was sort of secondary to Jesus. The technical language is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father – God the Creator – and the Son, Jesus Christ. That God and Jesus get together and send out the Holy Spirit. (Actually, the way John’s Gospel talks about the Holy Spirit is pretty central for this view.) 

Now, that difference really mattered to people, because it was about the importance they gave to either the Holy Spirit or Jesus.

So there was a big split, about 800 years ago! The church in western Europe said, We know the church has always said it was THIS way, but now we think it’s really THIS way. So we’re going to change the Nicene Creed, this ancient statement of the church’s faith, and add this thing called the Filioque clause. That means “and the son” – as in, The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the son. 

And the Eastern church said no thank you, that doesn’t seem right to us! We are not going to change! 

Back in 1994, the Episcopal Church, our parent church, decided that maybe we in the Western church got it wrong and shouldn’t have made that change – or at least that it wasn’t important enough to split over! So we are authorized to use a version of the Creed without the Filioque – which I know sometime surprises visitors or newcomers from other churches. 

Our story from the Book of Numbers today is just one example of something that sure sounds like the Holy Spirit doing her thing in the world, a long before the time of Jesus!

Let’s imagine a little timeline with a couple of other examples. 

First, we start with the creation story the very beginning of the book of Genesis. The very first words in the Bible say, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

A wind from God, stirring up the waters, before there was land or light or living things! We just heard about the mighty wind of Pentecost – we know that the Holy Spirit can feel like wind! 

We know this is a holy story that is different from what science says about how the world began. But life on earth did begin in water, in ancient, ancient oceans and lakes! 

Now, a long, LONG time later, like 3.7 billion years after life began on earth, we have our story from Numbers, when God’s spirit empowers some people to share leadership with Moses. 

Now let’s add another example I really like. There are a couple of places in the Bible before Jesus that talk about Lady Wisdom. In Proverbs, which is from maybe a thousand years before Jesus, and in the Wisdom of Solomon, which is maybe a hundred years before Jesus. 

The Wisdom of Solomon describes Wisdom as a Spirit that is intelligent, holy, active, generous, kind, and peaceful. She is a breath of God’s power, and an emanation of the glory of the Almighty and a reflection of the eternal light! And in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets.

That sure sounds like what we know about the Holy Spirit! 

Continuing our timeline, we get to the time of Jesus’ life… and then there’s the first Pentecost, from the Book of Acts, fifty days after the first Easter! 

And then a couple of thousand years later there’s us, here, at St. Dunstan’s. Still honoring and calling on the Holy Spirit!

(Zoom: wave red things) 

So that’s a timeline of sorts. There are probably other examples we could have filled in here. But it sure seems to me like God’s people have always experienced God’s presence and guidance and power, in ways that sound a whole lot like what the Church calls the Holy Spirit. 

The Jewish people, the people of God’s first and continuing covenant, don’t talk about a Holy Spirit. But they see this too and they have their own ways of talking about God’s Presence in the world. 

So when John says there was no Holy Spirit before Jesus, I don’t know if he’s just wrong or if he’s not being careful with his words. 

People sometimes say that Pentecost is the church’s birthday, but it’s not the Holy Spirit’s birthday. She was already around! 

She just came to the first Christians in a new way, that day, and gave them new powers and a new mission. 

But I think it’s really really cool to look back over all these holy stories and many more, all the ways the Holy Spirit has given people wisdom and courage and creativity and comfort and hope and vision and joy, and stirred up God’s people to join God’s work. 

That’s why we celebrate the Holy Spirit today and I hope that’s why we look and listen for the presence of the Holy Spirit often!