Welcome to the Family
It’s Pentecost Sunday, which in many ways is a “get to work” day. Having been told on the day of Ascension, that they should wait until the coming of the Spirit before venturing out into the world, filled with the Holy Spirit, and bear witness to the person and message of Jesus (Acts 1:8), with Pentecost that day has come. The commission has been given, the Spirit provided, so it’s time to get to work.
When we gather to worship on Pentecost Sunday it’s important to remember that Pentecost wasn’t a one-time affair, which we commemorate each year with special songs and clothing with some shade of red to it. As David Lose helpfully reminds us at the Working Preacher, the Book of Acts recounts multiple Pentecosts. Consider just the stories the Samaritan mission and the visit to Cornelius. But these are only a few of the expressions of the outpouring of the Spirit upon the church. It is a reminder that the church is more than an institution or a building. Rather, the church is a Spirit-empowered missional community that welcomes the stranger into the family of God. What begins that day continues on through history, for the Spirit remains hard at work in our midst.
The Pentecostal blessing carries with it the message of inclusion. Families can be exclusive/tribal in nature, but the family born on Pentecost is welcoming and inclusive. In large part that’s due to the fact that we’re all adopted sons and daughters. Jesus alone among the children of God is not adopted. But, as the true heir of the father, he shares the blessings of God with us as our elder brother in the family of God. Thus, our identity is formed by our status as our relationship to Christ, with whom we are joint heirs. And as Acts 2 reminds us, this family into which we’ve been adopted is quite diverse in ethnicity and language, gender and age. If we embrace this adoption, then we receive as our companion and guide the Spirit of God, who is sent by Jesus to travel with us on the journey of faith.
Being Pentecostal in background (one of my many religious expressions), I have great appreciation for the Acts 2 story. A community that is still hiding behind closed doors is born anew of the Spirit, which falls on the community as the city of Jerusalem celebrates the feast of Pentecost. It’s a festival that celebrates the harvest that the Spirit takes in that day as the community is empowered to speak the message of Jesus in ways that transcend differences and invites whoever would come to join with the community through baptism. It’s been observed by many that Pentecost seems to overturn Babel. The separation of peoples according to language and dialect disempowers, but in the Spirit, through the gift of languages, the separation of people ends and the diversity of the human community is drawn together by God. In baptism, this diverse non-monochromatic, non-monolinguistic community is drawn together as the family of God. Many are surprised then and now that the family of God could be so diverse. How can this be? Peter answers by pointing to the promise of the Spirit, which is poured out upon young and old, male and female, so that they might see visions and dream dreams. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved – and of course that word has its own nuances that need to be unpacked.
Acts 2 doesn’t speak directly to the idea of family, but in Romans 8 Paul makes explicit the notion of a familial relationship into which we’ve been invited. Everyone who is led by the Spirit of God is a son or daughter of God. This is an important statement for Paul, because he wants to contrast our identity as a child of God with our former status as slaves. “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to leads you back again to fear,” Paul writes. This is an important world for our day because so many people, even in Middle America, live in fear. We buy guns, huddle behind walls, seek passage of laws that will exclude the stranger – whether the immigrant, the person with disabilities, or persons with mental illness.
Are you in bondage to fear? Such was our former state, according to Paul. But there is another possibility. We have received a different Spirit, a Spirit that enables our adoption as God’s children. And as God’s children we can cry out to God: “Abba, Father.” When we do this, God’s Spirit is bearing witness to our spirit that we are now God’s children, and as children of God we are also heirs of God – together with Jesus, our elder brother. As Amos Yong puts it,
“the Spirit who is the love of the Father for the Son is now the Spirit that is the love of the Father for all who are in the Son. Put another way, the Father who loves the Son in the Spirit now also loves all those who are in the Son by the same Spirit. Thus are the gift of Christ and the gift of the Spirit two sides of the one coin of divine love, the former reflecting and the latter expressing God’s salvific passion for the world” [Yong, Spirit of Love: A Trinitarian Theology of Grace, p. 126].
We need not fear, for we are children of God. And as children we receive the blessings of God’s love; for even as a parent loves a child, so God loves the children of God.
Even though we go through suffering, we do so with Jesus. What he experiences, we experience. So, even as we suffer with Jesus, and he with us, so we share with him the glory he receives from God. Our own experiences of suffering and pain are expressions of our finiteness. But, as Karl Barth puts it:
“In the Spirit, we are enabled to know the meaning of our life, as it is manifested in suffering. In the Spirit, suffering, endured and apprehended, can become our advance to the glory of God. This revelation of the secret, this apprehension of God in suffering, is God’s action in us. Such comprehension is the witness of the Spirit by which the truth is permitted to be the Truth, and is also the guarantee that we are children of God, and, as such, heirs of His glory” [Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 301].
We may not have all the answers to why there is suffering in the world, but surely God is not the cause. Therefore, as we go through suffering, we can draw close to the one who has adopted us as children, and find both freedom and courage to go forward in life.
The third witness to the action of the Spirit in our midst comes from the Gospel of John. Philip wants to see the Father. Jesus responds by telling him that because they have seen him, they have seen the father. Jesus is, according to John’s testimony, the revelation of God. While we don’t have an explicit word about being welcomed into the family here, Jesus reveals the presence of the Father – and promises a companion who will be present within them and go with them -- surely this makes one part of God’s family. One of the messages of Pentecost is that the people of God are empowered by the Spirit to do the words of God. We don’t “do” to impress God. We “do” because God is present with us. The focus isn’t on works, but on letting the Spirit be free to work through us in the world. And the promise here is that those who are indwelt by the Spirit will do greater works than those done by Jesus. What these are and how they should be experienced isn’t revealed. It’s just a promise, but do we not trust the promise of the one who sends the Companion, the Paraclete, who is the Spirit of Truth, who lives within us and is with us. There is much work to be done in the world. There is that spirit of fear that is loose in our world. Injustice is rampant. Violence, assault, exclusion – the Spirit is ready to guide us into the world to address these great needs. Love can be the antidote to the fear that seeks to reign. The promise is there of the Companion, but there is also a request – to pray. I struggle with my own prayers, but Jesus reminds us that the power of the Spirit comes to us through the ministry of intercession: “When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it” (vs. 14 CEB). John McClure writes that “the community’s ‘greater works’ of love begin in intercession – in becoming a community of people who go between the world and God through prayer.” He continues: “We are intercessory people – a community of go-betweens, fellow-advocates with the Holy Spirit, bringing the suffering of the world to God, and bringing God’s healing balm to the world” [Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, p. 252].
Welcome to the family of God, filled with and empowered by the Spirit, we are adopted children of God, filled with the love of God, and therefore sent out into the world doing the works of God, serving as intercessors, go-betweens, with God and world, bringing to the world the saving grace of God.