John 14:16 “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”
On the first day of school in kindergarten classes all around the country, teachers read the book The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. This picture book tells of a young raccoon who is apprehensive about leaving his mother for the first day of school. He would rather stay in the comfort of his mother’s presence forever. She kisses his hand and explains she will always be with him, and that kiss acts to remind the raccoon of the gift of his mother, helping him feel her presence even when he is physically away from her. This book is read by teachers to their students on the first day of school to help encourage and give them strength as they go out in the world to begin their formal learning journey.
The readings for Pentecost remind all Christians that we have the gift of the Holy Spirit with us forever. In the Gospel reading from John, the disciple named Philip tells Jesus that he wants to see the Father because he doesn’t fully grasp the divinity of Christ himself. Jesus goes on to explain that he will be leaving to be with the Father, and that God will provide an Advocate to be with us forever. Jesus reminds them to keep the commandments and do even greater works for the glorification of God and with the Holy Spirit abiding within them and therefore in us all.
What does it mean to have an advocate in the Holy Spirit? Another way to translate the word advocate is as a companion or helper, making the Holy Spirit an ever present guide in our lives. As followers of Christ, this means that we are not alone as we go about our daily lives. Philip didn’t really understand God when he asked Jesus to show him the Father, and the same is true for us today. How can we fully comprehend that which is divine when we are only humans? Although our revelation may be limited by our humanity, we can see the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. As we face the challenges that come our way, our faith in God can give us strength that can only be understood as divine, since we would never be able to overcome those challenges on our own. That evidence points to God’s promise to be with us as Jesus said to the disciples that day.
This text also speaks of the great works we will do, with Jesus using his own works as a model for us and as a way to show his divinity with God. Imagine if our own works showed our creaturely relationship with God as well! With the companionship and help from the indwelling Holy Spirit, our helping actions toward our neighbors, the poor, the marginalized, the neediest among us, will point directly to our God. The restoration of the Kingdom of God demands these works from us, and the Holy Spirit is in our midst to make it happen. We just have to seize the opportunity.
The words of the first verse of Hymn 516 in our Hymnal say it best:
Come down, O love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.
May we know God’s presence in our lives as more than just a kiss on the hand, and may we call upon the Holy Spirit to work in us to serve God in the world. Kindle in us the fire of your love!
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus the Cause of Division
49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Interpreting the Time
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Every time our high school daughter leaves our house to go to a new setting, I try to remind her that she represents our family out in the world. If she meets someone, they learn about our family and the things we value through her words and actions. As a teenager, I can assure you she has an eyeroll and a sigh for every time she has heard that speech, but hopefully she has learned that she teaches others about our family with her every interaction.
I think all of us parents want our children to represent our beliefs and make us proud as they make their way in the world. I can only imagine how God must feel about how we represent our faith in the world as well. Today’s Gospel reading is a tough one and seems to contradict the Jesus who we all look to as a model of unconditional love. What do you mean, “No peace on earth?” Jesus as a uniter, not a divider – that is our usual thinking about Christianity and loving our neighbors as ourselves, right?
Although this passage throws a ringer in the non-messy version of Christianity that we like to believe is the outcome of our love for God, if we really are reflective, we have all experienced exactly what Jesus may mean about division. I have a very distinct memory from high school that stands out. Three of us – my two best buds and me – were like a joke that starts with “three girls walk into a bar; a Baptist, a Catholic and an Episcopalian.” We didn’t yet go to bars, but we did have many deep debates about our Christian beliefs through the lens of our family traditions of worship and teaching. We didn’t agree on many things, and even faced a hard conversation about the fact that our Baptist friend believed our Catholic friend wouldn’t make it to heaven because of her faith (awkward!!!). We were inseparable – but divided on many fundamental issues.
As an adult, especially as a school leader, I spend a lot of time talking to our staff about building strong relationships with our students. Every relationship starts with love, but sometimes there are students who sure make it hard to love them. And they need it more than anyone – but it’s hard for teachers to not take their gruff exterior and problem behaviors personally. We all fail to truly love others at times and this passage shines a light on our failings. We judge others – not our job to do. We ignore injustices, neglect our faith, covet our friends’ possessions and give permission for others to speak gossip and untruths by standing by and doing nothing; or worse still – joining in. We just try to get along in the world without being the ‘squeaky wheel.’ Jesus knows this about is and calls us out in this inflammatory passage. As I read it through several times, I realized that my response to the words was one of guilt. I think I know everything and am busy trying to live the life I think I should be living, while Jesus himself points out the stress he was under to get the words of faith spread throughout the land in the limited time he had here on earth. I’m pretty self-righteous when it gets right down to it – I think I have things figured out while I drive right past a homeless family on the road without much of a thought at all.
But it’s so hard to be that person God wants us to be, and I can think of many examples in our church and within my family and friends where we allow wrongs to stay wrongs because it just easier. I believe Jesus is saying that it is okay if it’s hard – in fact, that is the very divisiveness that he EXPECTS to have happen when we wrestle with the truth. Polite conversation is what we are all taught to have, but what if Jesus really wants us to be assertive about his will for the world? What if the bad things that happen all around us were confronted by us and the world was a changed place? I think we might make some enemies in the process, and it sounds to me if God is okay with that.
I’ve learned something about myself as an adult – that change only happens when I am uncomfortable enough to start adjusting my behaviors. This passage makes me uncomfortable on so many levels – hopefully enough to challenge the status quo.
God of love, help me to reflect on my place in your world and your will for me to be the change you desire. Give me courage and strength to stand for the right things and confront the wrongs I see. With your love and never ending grace, I know that I can spread your word in all I say and do. Thank you for your many gifts, even the ones that make me uncomfortable. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Coming of the Holy Spirit
2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
The image of fire invokes strong responses from people. Being warmed by a fire on a cold winter’s night is a comforting feeling; seeing a fire burn through a hillside during fire season strikes fear in our hearts. The heat of a fire can keep you alive and it can take away your life in a flash. Vivid images, both positive and negative, come from just hearing about the word fire.
The Bible is full of stories about fire and the way God uses it to get our attention. Moses and the burning bush, where God makes a very clear point about what he wants Moses to go and do for the people of Israel. The story in Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego coming out of a furnace completely unscathed after Nebuchadnezzar attempts to get all to worship him, only to find himself declaring to the people that all should worship God alone. And the story above from Luke’s writings in Acts, describing a confusing and maybe quite terrifying day when the Lord sent the Holy Spirit to live among the people, with each person present receiving tongues of fire on them.
We can’t begin to understand the power of God and when we try, we always will fall short because our human minds just can’t comprehend the power and glory of our Father. But I would venture to say that he uses fire in those three examples to get our attention. Quite successfully, don’t you think? I’m sure that God can create any sort of imagery possible, but these three examples were transformative to those who witnessed them.
On the day of Pentecost, seven weeks (about 50 days) after Jesus’ resurrection, over 100 of his disciples were gathered together to pray. Jesus was already gone to be with the Father and a loud rush of wind entered the place where they were. Were they scared? I bet they were! Wind…then fire? Then everyone speaking in different languages and onlookers (who were those folks, I wonder???) thinking they were drunk at 9 in the morning! Then Peter addressed the crowd, reminding everyone of the prophet Joel’s words about God sending his Spirit to help spread the knowledge of God to all. I am pretty sure that quieted down the doubters!
All the different languages, the rush of wind and the fire – pretty hefty imagery. And for good reason – those 120 folks were to go out and evangelize to the world and that legacy continues today to Christians everywhere. It does little good in furthering God’s kingdom to rest on our faith while others wander through life without knowing the love of God. Evangelism is a pretty scary word for many Christians (especially us Episcopalians), but it really is pretty simple. Live God’s word in your life. Love your neighbor. Tell how Jesus has changed your life. Pray for others. No need to yell and scream, to judge or condemn; just love.
I may not have a visible tongue of flame visible around me, but I am called to do the same things as those folks on the day of Pentecost over 2000 years ago. Go out in the world and share the Good News.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit, we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. AMEN