‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says,
‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
And your young men shall see visions,
And your old men shall dream dreams;
18 Even on My bondslaves, both men and women,
I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit
And they shall prophesy.
19 ‘And I will grant wonders in the sky above
And signs on the earth below,
Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke.
20 ‘The sun will be turned into darkness
And the moon into blood,
Before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come.
21 ‘And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (from Joel 2)
In our time, culture and country, we tend to think of sexual intimacy as the deepest level of union and connection that people can experience. Hopefully, the love that brought us all into the world is indeed an experience and expression of true intimacy and union in a marriage. But as the Country Western song puts it, “Jus’ Makin’ Love Don’t Make It Love.” Celibate monks and nuns would say that they also experience great, deep intimacy with God and with each other in prayer, fellowship and worship, that they are even family for each other. St. Francis and his first disciple, Brother Bernard, could sit together silently for hours, enjoying God’s company and each other’s, communing with God and each other at a level deeper than words.
Today, now and in this gathering, we are celebrating two kinds of intimacy that are the most deep and long-lasting, even eternal. And they are available to everyone, whether single or married.
One kind of intimacy available to all of us is the gift which we celebrate this day, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit to the church, and to each Christian. The Pentecost outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit is God’s gift of himself to us. Therefore, I speak of the Holy Spirit as a person, as God, as God giving us not just power, not just spiritual gifts for ministry, but himself, personally, deeply, intimately. The Holy Spirit is who and how God lives with us, within us and among us in a union and intimacy deeper than our minds can fathom.
We can argue about the experience of speaking in other tongues, and whether that is supposed to happen still, today. But if that’s all that Pentecost is about, then it has little meaning for us now. Nor would Peter’s words to the pilgrim crowds make any sense. If the gift of Pentecost to the church were only a one-time event of speaking in unknown languages, then how can Peter use these fiery, apocalyptic words of the Prophet Joel, about “wonders in the sky above” and “signs on the earth below?” They’d be overblown and way too dramatic.
And how could Peter speak of the Last Days before the great and terrible Day of the Lord, when two thousand years have passed since he spoke them, and the world and the church continue to muddle along as they did then? What does the normal life of normal, struggling Christians have to do with the end times apocalyptic signs and wonders which Peter quoted from Joel?
But such questions overlook a Pentecost miracle more grand, glorious and apocalyptic than speaking in unknown languages. They discount and overlook the miracles, signs and wonders happening right here and now in this very sanctuary, in our homes, and in our hearts. They constitute the apocalyptic signpost of God fulfilling his promises and purposes for a new Creation, right here before us, within us and among us. Those miraculous signs and wonders, and the most dramatic apocalyptic end time events in fulfillment of ancient biblical prophecy, are our faith, hope and love, in Christ. Just as we have five physical senses by which to experience the world– taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell—and just as they are given by God, so do we have three senses by which we know and experience God: faith, hope and love. They too are gifts of God, and evidences of the work of God’s Holy Spirit.
Too often we take these gifts of faith, hope and love for granted. As though we had faith only because we were smart enough to figure out God, or virtuous enough on our own to generate hope and love. But I am increasingly convinced that whatever Christian faith, hope and love are in us are gifts of God, miraculous works of the Holy Spirit, signs and wonders of God engaged in our lives from before our births, even. When you consider all our struggles, failings and sufferings in this life, and how often the world does not make sense, Christian faith, hope and love appear every bit as miraculous, game-changing, earth-shaking and dramatic as the tongues of fire and the testifying in unknown languages that happened on that Pentecost Sunday.
Here’s what those astounding Pentecost Day signs said at the time: the tongues of fire hovering over the heads of the 120 tell us that the glowing, fiery cloud of God’s glory is back in his temple, after the prophet Ezekiel had seen the fiery glow of God’s glory leave the Holy of Holies, over the ark of the covenant, and head east toward Babylon, where the Hebrews would follow in exile. That fire never returned with the first exiles to the second temple.
But the Pentecost tongues of fire say that God is gathering the exiles home, to a new temple in which God will dwell, a temple of flesh and blood, a temple made of people, not of stone. His fiery power and presence now dwell in us and among us in the warmth and glow of Christian faith, hope and love. This glorious glow, this pillar of fire, is now dispersed within the church and within every disciple, wherever and whoever they may be. That’s also what the speaking in other tongues symbolizes: this temple will draw in the exiles, worshipers of every tribe, tongue and nation under heaven.
As for Joel and Peter’s language about signs in the sun and the moon, those are Old Testament symbols for worldly governments and empires. That they turn dark or blood red says that the old order of power in the world is being shaken and passing away, to be replaced by a new sun, moon and stars, that is, a new kingdom. But don’t look to marching armies and sailing warship for this emerging new world government. Again, look at the Christ-like faith, hope and love taking root in our own hearts, where dwells God’s Spirit, in the meek who will inherit the earth.
This emerging new world government, taking shape already in the hearts of all who call upon the Lord, is so radically different from the conventional sun, stars and moon of conventional worldly power because God shares His Spirit, himself, with, “your sons and your daughters”…. young And old, Even on My bondslaves, both men and women.”
Does that leave anybody out?
No. This intimate sharing of God with us, and of God with each other, will not distinguish nor discriminate by age, sex, race, status nor ethnicity. “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
So, don’t bother with end times charts and calculations and speculations as to whether this or that president, this or that alliance of nations, this or that war or act of terrorism, shows that we are in the “end times.” The “end times” of Bible prophecy started on the Pentecost Sunday that we celebrate today. God’s giving of himself through his Spirit to all who call upon his name, and his sending us forth to testify in every tribe, tongue and nation, are the most earth-shaking end-times signs and wonders. So are the faith, hope and love which God’s Holy Spirit cultivates and grows in us, and in every disciple, everywhere in this world. That makes Pentecost the opening act of the apocalypse, the kick-off of the end-times of ingathering, the beginning of the harvest of the angels, bringing the fruit of God’s Word, the saints, from the four corners of the earth, into God’s New Creation.
God’s Pentecost Day gift of himself, the Holy Spirit, is an offer of the deepest intimacy between ourselves and God, and with each other. It is an intimacy of the spirit. That is an intimacy and a union deeper than even the union of body, or of mind, or thought or opinion. People can think alike and still be distant or divided from each other, while people can differ and still know a deeper, more intimate communion of heart, soul and spirit. Such union with God and each other is what the Holy Spirit offers and gives. So, let’s look at our brothers and sisters in Christ, and consider just how much we share, and how deeply we connect with God and each other. We’re each like multiple points atop one iceberg, or separate peaks atop one mountain range. That’s true in each congregation, but also for the worldwide church. We are intimately, deeply connected with God and with others who whom we have not ever even met, yet, through the intimate union of the Holy Spirit. We may not be able to understand their language, but through the intimacy of God’s Spirit with the spirits of all believers, we can communicate the language of faith, hope and love.
Such intimacy of spirit, with God and each other, is like a second kind of intimacy that we observe today, which is also available to everyone. It’s called eating. As the saying goes, “You are what you eat.” Because what we eat becomes us, down to the tiniest part of the tiniest cell in our bodies. Through eating, nutrients from the soil, and energy from the sun not only become ours, they even become us. That’s why eating together can be such a relationship-building exercise: because we’re doing something so intimate together.
That’s the power of the communion service: the transformation of bread and juice, and the energy and elements in them, into our very selves is a parable of how Christ can live in us and through us at least as intimately through his Holy Spirit. That’s why Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
Now, a few notes about the communion service to come. The Mennonite Confession of Faith says that taking communion is for baptized believers, because to be baptized is to say, publicly, that we want and have such a relationship with Christ, a relationship in which his Spirit is intimately mingled with ours, and his life and love become ours, just as intimately as bread and wine become us through eating and drinking. If you have not been baptized because you don’t believe that about Jesus, nor about the communion service, we’re still glad you’re here. And no one is pressuring anyone to take and share the bread and the cup if they don’t share that belief. If anything, if we even notice it, we respect those who would show their respect for this ceremony by not participating, if they do not believe what it says about Jesus. If so, we still hope you stick around so that we can include you in other ways more generous than a little piece of bread and a tiny cup of juice, like around our tables, in our worship and Christian Education, our fellowship, our ministries, and more.
If, however, anyone here should say, “That’s what I believe about Jesus, and that’s what I want from Jesus, and I want to share the bread and the cup with Christ and every other believer here as a sign of that, but I haven’t stated it in baptism yet,” we celebrate that you have this belief and desire. Come talk personally with Jana or myself about how and when you can testify to it, and seal it, in baptism. And soon. That, I think, is the more important thing to address, and testifying to it and sealing it in baptism. As for taking the bread and the cup, No one is checking baptismal certificates before they can take a piece of bread or the cup. Let your convictions be your guide.
For anyone in faith, hope and love in Christ is already deeply, eternally and intimately connected with God through His Holy Spirit. You are also deeply, eternally and intimately connected with everyone else who shares these Holy Spirit gifts of faith, hope and love. At levels deeper than words, deeper than the ideas we hold in common or disagree about, is God’s Spirit, connecting our spirits to our Savior and Creator and to each other. And so Christ’s life becomes our lives, just as the bread we eat and the wine we drink become us, through his gift of his Holy Spirit.