Center Stage

May 23rd 2021 homily on John 16:7-15 by Pastor Galen Zook. Pentecost Sunday.

One of my favorite actors is Hugh Grant, the British movie actor who has appeared in such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), About a Boy (2002), and  Love Actually (2003). I love Hugh Grant’s British accent and his sort of bumbling nature which he uses to make his acting seem spontaneous and his characters feel relatable. 

When we watch a film or movie, typically we’re not thinking about the actors or actresses themselves though, but more so the character they represent. A good movie with good actors allows us to lose ourselves in the story. We get so wrapped up in the narrative and the events that are being portrayed that we sort of forget about the people who are playing the roles, as well as all of the people that it took to produce the film itself. 

It’s only at the end of the movie, when the credits begin to roll, that we’re sort of brought back to reality, and we’re reminded of the actors who played the characters, as well as all of the producers, and directors, set designers, gaffers, and even the caterers who fed the actors while they were on set. It takes a LOT of people to produce a film – many more than we ever see on screen.

Pentecost Sunday

Today is Pentecost Sunday, often called “the birthday of the church,” when we commemorate the day that the Holy Spirit fell upon the early believers, giving birth, or at least dramatically expanding the early Church. The scene that we find here in Acts chapter 2 is a rather dramatic story, to say the least. Jesus’s disciples had been huddled together in the “upper room” ever since Jesus had been crucified and resurrected, hiding out of fear that the same people who crucified Jesus might be looking for them as well.

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he instructed his disciples to stay in Jerusalem, and told them that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Acts chapter 2 tells us that all the believers (there were about 120 followers of Christ at the time) were “together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2:1b-3). Young and old, men and women, all the followers of Jesus alike received the power of the Holy Spirit. They began to speak in other languages – languages that they had never learned or been taught. 

Now there happened to be crowds of Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem at that time from all over the known world for the Jewish festival of Pentecost — the commemoration of when God gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The pilgrims were shocked to hear the disciples speaking in their own native languages, and they gathered around, wondering aloud what was going on. 

Peter, who only a month prior had denied that he even knew Jesus, stood up and boldly proclaimed that the prediction of the Hebrew prophet Joel was being fulfilled right then and there in their midst. Joel has said that in the last days God would pour out God’s Spirit on all flesh, and sons and daughters would prophesy, and young men would see visions, and old men would dream dreams (Acts 2:17, Joel 2:28). Peter proceeded to preach the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to the multitudes who were gathered in Jerusalem, encouraging them to repent and be baptized. And that day 3,000 people were added to the number of the disciples.

Talk about an incredible, drama-filled story! People huddled together in fear, but then rushing wind, tongues of fire, people begin speaking in other languages. 3,000 people being baptized and joining this church — what an epic scene.

Actor, Producer, and Director

But although Peter gets a lot of speaking parts in this story, and indeed all of the disciples had a large part to play, the character who stands out most prominently in this story is the Holy Spirit – the member of the godhead that author and pastor Francis Chan has referred to as the “Forgotten God,” since the Holy Spirit is the member of the Trinity that most believers typically think about (let alone pray to) the least often.

But here in the story of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is not only the main character, but also the director and producer and author of this story. It was the Holy Spirit who empowered the believers to speak in other languages, the Holy Spirit that emboldened them to proclaim the Gospel, the Holy Spirit that gave Peter the words to articulate the significance of what was happening to the people around them.

In fact it was the Holy Spirit that had inspired the prophet Joel to pen those words some 500 years prior, and that had prompted the Jewish people to preserve and promulgate the writings of the Hebrew prophets. It was no doubt the Holy Spirit that had drawn those pilgrims to Jerusalem on that Pentecost to commemorate the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, and the Holy Spirit that opened their hearts to receive the Word that they heard that day. It was the Holy Spirit that moved those first converts to repent and be baptized, and it was the Holy Spirit that gave form and shape to the early Church, as the over 3,000 new disciples learned what it meant to live together as members of an incredibly diverse, global and cross-cultural multiethnic Body of Christ. 

Spirit of God throughout the Old Testament

This was not the first time that the Holy Spirit showed up in the Scriptures, but it is the first time that we see the Holy Spirit take such center stage, and fill and empower a multitude of people in this way.

Indeed the Holy Spirit had been at work throughout human history, but was often seen as more of an extension of God’s presence or activity in the world. In Genesis chapter 1 we see that even before there was light and even before the earth had shape and form, “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2b). 

Occasionally God’s spirit did come upon individuals for a particular time or season or activity. We are told in Judges 14:6 “The Spirit of the LORD came powerfully upon [Samson] and gave him strength.” In Exodus 31:3 God’s spirit gave “ability, intelligence, and knowledge” to the craftsman who was in charge of the construction and design of the Ark of the Covenant.

The spirit of God came upon King Saul and gave him the ability to prophesy for a period of time (1 Sam. 10), but then seemed to leave King Saul and came upon King David instead when he was anointed King (1 Sam. 16:13). Sometimes the Holy Spirit is described as the “hand of the Lord,” as when the “hand of the Lord” came upon the prophet Ezekiel and led him to the valley of dry bones, giving him a vision of the nation of Israel’s restoration and renewal (Ezekiel 37). In the Wisdom literature in the Bible, the Holy Spirit is often thought to be synonymous with “Lady Wisdom” – most notably in Proverbs 8:22-31, where Wisdom is personified as a divine figure who plays a role in the creation of the world.

But here in Acts chapter 2, we see the Holy Spirit for the first time filling a multitude of people, empowering them with boldness and courage to proclaim God’s Word through word and through deed. The presence and activity of the Holy Spirit rocked the world, and indeed the Holy Spirit continues to be at work in our world to this present day, moving upon the hearts and minds of people, drawing people to God, empowering Christ’s followers to do God’s work in the world. 

When the Spirit Moves

Over these next few weeks we’re going to be focusing in on the person and activity of the Holy Spirit in Scriptures and the significance of the Holy Spirit for our lives today. But for today, I just want to draw out just a few points and thoughts from our Gospel lesson for today from John chapter 16.

  1. Jesus said in verse 7, that it is to our advantage that Jesus ascended into heaven, for he said, “for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

At first glance, this verse is difficult to comprehend. Who doesn’t wish that Jesus was still here, walking in our midst, and that we could see him in the flesh?

But 19th century Scottish evangelist, biologist, and writer Henry Drummond said it this way:

What if [Christ’s ascension into heaven] didn’t happen? Suppose Jesus had not gone away. Suppose he were here on earth NOW. Suppose he were still in the Holy Land–Jerusalem. Every ship that started for the East would be crowded with Christian pilgrims. Every train flying through Europe would be thronged with people going to see Jesus. Supposing YOU are in one of those ships. The port when you arrive after the long voyage is blocked with vessels of every flag. With much difficulty you land and join one of the long trains starting for Jerusalem. As far as the eye can reach the caravans move over the desert in an endless stream. As you approach the Holy City you see a dark mass stretching for (miles and miles) between you and its glittering spires. You’ve come to see Jesus, but you will NEVER see him.

If Jesus had never ascended into heaven, Drummond points out that most of us would never get to see him. But because Christ ascended into Heaven and gave us the Holy Spirit, each and every one of us can experience the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. So it really is true that Christ’s ascension into heaven, and the granting to us of the Holy Spirit really is to our advantage. 

  1. Jesus said in verses 8-11 that the Holy Spirit “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16:8-11).

If it weren’t for the power of the Holy Spirit falling upon the early believers, the Church would never have expanded into the global, worldwide movement that it is today. The disciples probably never would have ventured out of that Upper Room, never would have had the courage to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. We are here today because of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. 

  1. And lastly, Jesus told his followers that the “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13a).

The Holy Spirit is still present and active and at work even to this day, leading and guiding us into the truth, if we will only stop to listen. 

The Spirit of God does not always come with the sound of a mighty rushing wind, or with tongues of fire, but often in much less dramatic ways. Often we experience the Holy Spirit through the gentle nudging of our conscience, the still small voice that guides us in the way we should go. The incremental transformation of our lives that often takes place when we experience trials and temptations, that conforms us more and more into the image of Christ, and helps us grow the fruits of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, gentleness, and self control.

But it’s the same power, the same Holy Spirit. The same actor, producer, director. Whether the Holy Spirit takes center stage, or whether the Holy Spirit is quietly at work in the background, we have access to the same Holy Spirit that the early church experienced on that day of Pentecost. 

And so let us open ourselves up to whatever it is that the Holy Spirit may want to do in our midst today. Let us receive the power and presence of God’s Spirit that is available to us, so that we too may proclaim the Good news to those around us, and even to the ends of the earth, through word and through deed.

Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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