Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15)
There’s something absolutely unique about those few verses from Romans that constitute our New Testament reading for this morning: they are the only place in Scripture where words for “groaning” occur 3 times in only 5 verses. And while we often focus on only the third of the groanings mentioned, the one that refers to the unspoken or even inarticulate intercessory groanings of the Holy Spirit, the first two groanings are clearly our own. If we look at the only other times Paul uses the same form of this Greek word, we discover that they, too, have to do with our desire to depart this life and to be with Christ in our resurrection bodies (I Corinthians 5:2, 4).
It struck me in fresh ways that so often we are occupied with groanings over the threats to our lives and the lives of our loved ones, when in fact the only times our own groaning is mentioned by Paul, he has nearly the exact opposite focus: a groaning or longing for the life hereafter. Our own focus tends to be deeply rooted in this life, yet that very focus is so contrary to the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament in general.
The New Testament Christians assumed that their time on earth would not be very long, and they had Jesus Himself for their example. Perhaps one difference in our case is that so many spectacular developments in the medical profession have made it possible for our life expectancy to be extended well beyond that of past generations. Now we cling to this life more than ever before.
Obviously there’s nothing wrong with that, at least in one sense. The average age in our congregation is a bit older than the national average, and it’s my own hope that all of us will carry on well past the projections of the actuarial tables. I dread the thought of losing a single one of you!
But there’s another sense in which our focus on this life, while physically healthy, may be spiritually unhealthy at the very same time. At least some of the strong emphasis on evangelism in the early church sprang from their presumption that this life was transitory and that the life of the world to come was infinitely more desirable. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “For to me, to live is Christ but to die is gain.” Why did he say that? Did he really mean it? I think he did, and his other writings tend to support that thought.
But Paul also recognized the self-centeredness of such a wish, and immediately added, 22 “if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and so I do not know which to choose. 23 I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” (Philippians 1: 21-24).
Do you follow Paul’s thought here? His only reason for wishing to live longer was that he might have an extended opportunity to minister to others in the Name of Christ.
Is that why we wish to live longer? Is it any part at all of our wish for longevity? Or are we more obsessed with what we call our “bucket lists,” the self-satisfying pleasures of this life that occupy far more of our time, focus, energies and resources than worshiping God, sharing the Gospel and serving the needs of others? We stand condemned by Paul’s example and by the example of the early church. According to the book of Acts, the early Christians gathered together daily; they prayed together, studied together and broke bread together daily; they shared everything they possessed in common; they took care of the needs of the poor.
Most of you probably heard the sermon yesterday from the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church in which he said that if we were harnessing the redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus, poverty would be eliminated. Remember that? That is the way it was in the early church. They took up collections in Macedonia for poor Christians in Jerusalem that they had never met and never would meet. Why did they do it? They were harnessing the redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus.
They occupied themselves with proclaiming the Gospel message even at the cost of their lives. We read not a single word in Acts about what they did in the way of entertainment. Not a word. Did they go to the Olympic games, did they go to the colosseum to watch the gladiators, did they go have a vacation at the Mediterranean seashore? We don’t read a word about what they did for entertainment. But we read that daily they prayed, studied, broke bread and shared everything that they had in common and took care of the poor. That is not how we live. Our lives are crammed with ways that we entertain ourselves. Again, why is it that we would like to prolong our lives? To what end?
Today is a major festival in the Church year. It celebrates the giving of the Holy Spirit and often is called “the Birthday of the Church.” In the churches where I grew up, an occasional sermon would be preached about the spectacular occurrences on the Day of Pentecost; but we certainly never set aside a Sunday each year to focus on it and we had little notion of why it was even called Pentecost. Only relatively late in my life did I learn that Pentecost was first of all a Jewish holiday of the same name.
What is the Jewish Feast of Pentecost? Did you know that it’s today and tomorrow? It celebrates the firstfruits of the harvest that were to be set aside for God. It was to show symbolically that all we have is first of all God’s, as we say every Sunday when we receive the gifts of the people. The Hebrew name of the festival is Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. Traditionally it celebrates the giving of the Torah, the Jewish law, to Moses on Mt. Sinai 49 days plus 1 after Passover (Leviticus 23:16). It also is thought to be the birthday of King David. Put those things together and Shavuot is actually a rather big deal, a great event in the annual cycle for Jewish persons, though not quite on the same level as Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur or Pesach.
So we ask again, what does that have to do with us and our observance of Pentecost as 50 days after the Resurrection of Jesus, that is, 50 days after Easter? Far more than you might think. We heard in our familiar Pentecost reading from Acts 2 that there were Jewish persons from all over the Western world gathered in Jerusalem on the very day that the Holy Spirit descended and enabled Christians to speak simultaneously in multiple languages. What were all those people doing in Jerusalem, such a concentration of devoutly observant Jews that 3,000 of them came to acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah and were converted to the Christian faith? They were celebrating Shavuot, Jewish Pentecost, and their Pentecost became our Pentecost!
Their devout offering of the firstfruits from their harvest mirrors God’s giving His only Son as the firstfruit of our resurrection, as Paul tells us in I Corinthians 15 (verse 20). And according to the letter of James, the Church as the body of Christ on earth becomes the firstfruit of all creation (James 1:18). All this was in accordance with God’s great overarching plan from eternity past to eternity future, one grand continuum that unfolds bit by bit according to God’s inscrutable yet perfect timetable. One Pentecost joins with another Pentecost, and today they occur simultaneously. Firstfruits of grain foreshadow the firstfruits of Christ and His Church, uniting us in one never-ending celebration.
Is this what made the apostle Paul groan? He wrote that “we ourselves, having the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” In fact, he wrote, “we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth” while, “with perseverance, we wait eagerly” for the fulfillment of everything that the firstfruit of the Holy Spirit promises us, for our transforming vision of Christ in His glory, for the great final harvest.
That’s the Christian message of Pentecost and Shavuot. What we experience in this age and in this life is a tantalizing foretaste of what we will experience in all eternity, minus the inevitable pain and suffering that are part of our earthly existence. And how do we maximize our use of the firstfruits that anticipate an eternal harvest? We do it according to the example of the early Church, occupying ourselves with worship, evangelism, missions, witness, ministry and fellowship. Are those things at the center of our lives? They ought to be, if we are to be living today with a view towards eternity. The pleasures of this life are supposed to be growing strangely dim in the light of Christ’s glory and grace.
Sometimes it takes personal tragedy or loss or disappointment to shake us out of our comfort zones and to give us a perspective that is more like that of those for whom Pentecost was far more than a one-off event that happened on Shavuot. It transformed the followers of Jesus in permanent ways. It inspired the intense refocusing of their lives. Suddenly the central identifying characteristic of their lives came to be living together as the true body of Christ, in regular fellowship with each other and in outreach to those outside their own faith communities.
No wonder they were so greatly hated by unbelievers and so severely persecuted by both the religious and the secular hierarchy. When we’re doing God’s work in God’s way we can expect hatred, opposition, resistance and even persecution. It should be enough to make us groan within ourselves and rely on the intercessory groaning of the Holy Spirit on our behalf.
But that’s not all that Pentecost should mean to us today. Jesus, in our Gospel reading from John, comforted His disciples with these words about the Holy Spirit’s coming: “When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come” (John 16:13).
And what is it that “is to come?” It’s the harvest. Now we have the firstfruits of resurrection in Christ Jesus. Now, as His Church, we ourselves have become “the firstfruits of all creation.” And now we have the firstfruits of the Holy Spirit, sent to us at Pentecost so that we are able to live in eager anticipation of “our adoption as sons” and “the redemption of our body.” May we learn to live in that expectation, and may that expectation truly govern both our priorities and our activities in the time that remains to us on earth as Christ’s one holy catholic and apostolic Church and as witnesses in this needy world.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen