05/28/23 (Pentecost) “The Gift of the Spirit”

John 7:37-39; 14:15-27

The season of festivals and fairs is upon us. Cherry Fest begins in less than two weeks, with its rides and food and music. One calendar that lists upcoming festivals in northwest Ohio, and it showed seventy events between Cherry Fest and Cassie’s favorite, the Grand Rapids Apple Butter Fest in October. And that doesn’t even include a dozen or so county fairs! The season ahead promises plenty of opportunities for fun and celebration.

Today we celebrate the Day of Pentecost—a festival day for the Church. The story of that day is found in the book of Acts, chapter two. The events of our Scripture passage for today occur during different festivals—Sukkot and Passover. But all of them point us toward the Holy Spirit, and how the Spirit lives and moves in us, as individuals and as a community of Jesus’s disciples.

The events of our first passage, from the seventh chapter of John, occur during Sukkot. Sukkot, also known as the “Festival of Tabernacles” and the “Feast of Booths.” It’s a fall festival that celebrates the ingathering of the harvest and commemorates the forty years that the Jewish people spent living in temporary shelters in the wilderness.

It also came to be a time of giving thanks for water, and for praying that God would bless them with sufficient water for the next growing season. Water was the focus of a daily event called “The Drawing of Water.” Far from being simply a time of solemn prayer and petition, the Drawing of Water was a joyous, fun-filled event. It began with the priests going to the pool of Siloam to fill a golden flask with its water. When they arrived at the Temple’s Water Gate, they were greeted by blasts from the ram’s horn. They then went up to the Temple and poured the water over the altar simultaneously with the usual offering of wine.

When the priest was ready to pour the water, the people would shout, “Raise your hand!” This was to remember the time when a high priest showed contempt for the water ritual by spilling the water at his feet. The witnesses didn’t take kindly to his action, so they began throwing their traditional Sukkot citrus fruits at him!

The Jewish people who gathered in Jerusalem for this festival would have anticipated the same kind of festival fun that we do. Remembering Isaiah’s promise that “With joy shall you draw water out of the wells of salvation,” the people began celebrating. A giant candelabrum in the Temple courtyard was lit, with each lamp holding gallons of oil and wicks made from priests’ worn‑out vestments. It was said that it made such an intense light that it illuminated every courtyard in the city.

There were processions by torchlight, with the crowds waving branches, accompanied by a priestly orchestra of flutes, trumpets, harps, and cymbals. At the head of the parades were men whose purity, character, and scholarship had earned them true spiritual joy, and they danced ecstatically as the crowds around them clapped, stomped, and sang. Rabbis offered shows of acrobatics and juggled collections of eight—eight lighted torches, eight knives, eight glasses of wine, or eight eggs. The rejoicing would continue through the night until the priests went down the steps to the Women’s Court, marched to the Eastern Gate, turned to face the Temple in the west, and proclaimed, “Our fathers who were in this place stood with their backs to the Temple and their faces eastward and worshipped the sun, but our eyes are unto the Lord.”

This was the festival that Jesus had quietly gone to Jerusalem for. Earlier, John reports, Jesus had told his brothers that he wasn’t going, which might seem surprising given that Jesus was a faithful Jew, and Sukkot was one of the pilgrimages required by Jewish law. But, beneath the joyful surface of the festival, a dark current was running. Opposition to Jesus was heating up. Jesus knew that the authorities in Judea wanted to kill him.

But, Jesus does go into Jerusalem during the festival—quietly, secretly, John tells us. “The Jews” (as John calls Jesus’ opponents) were looking for him. There was a great deal of disagreement about him: some people were complaining about him and thought he was deceiving the crowd. Others thought he was a good man but were reluctant to say so publicly, for fear of reprisals.

During the middle days of the festival, Jesus began teaching in the temple, right there where the joyful celebration of water was taking place. His words astonished the Jews who heard him. The religious authorities continue to challenge him, and Jesus takes them on, point by point. The crowds are confused: the authorities want to kill him, but they don’t stop him, even while he teaches openly. Do they actually know that he’s the Messiah? Twice the authorities try to arrest him, twice they fail, and many begin to believe in him.

Then we come to the last day of this festival that celebrates the gift of water and honors the God who gives it—a festival that acknowledges that life itself depends on water, given at the right time and in the right quantities, a festival which (it was believed) was the time when God would decide who would be blessed with water in the form of rain in the year to come. On the last day of this water-drenched festival, Jesus speaks the words in our passage today: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.”

These are astonishing words. God alone gives the rain. God alone gives the dew. God alone fills the seas and the rivers and the wells. But, here is Jesus, inviting everyone to come to him to slake their thirst for life-sustaining water. Everyone who believes in him may drink from this well. In his words, Jesus equates himself with source and giver of the water upon which every living thing depends for survival.

This isn’t the first time Jesus has spoken of himself as the source of life-giving water. He told the Samaritan woman at the well that he would give living water, promising that the living water he gives would become in those who drank of it a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. Now, at the end of a festival that celebrates God’s gift of water, Jesus makes another promise: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” This living water of eternal life, given by Jesus, will not only sustain the one who drinks, but it will also flow out into the world that is dying of thirst.

Then, John adds a curious editorial note to explain Jesus’ words. John explains, “Jesus was talking about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” What an odd comment! The Spirit certainly existed prior to Jesus’ glorification in his death, resurrection, and ascension, as John well knows. John himself described the Spirit descending and resting upon Jesus. Clearly, John knew that the Spirit existed.

But what didn’t yet exist was the indwelling of the Spirit in believers, which they would receive after Jesus’ resurrection. The Spirit, a person of the eternal Triune God, had always existed and had been active in the world at large and in the lives of individuals. But, the presence of the Spirit, dwelling in the heart of every believer, uniting all believers within the bond of Jesus’ love, would be given only after Jesus was no longer physically present.

John’s aside is the last we hear of the Spirit until some six months have passed. Hannukah had come and gone, and the time of the Passover was near. During all that time, the disciples had observed the hostility toward their beloved friend, and they had lived with the uncertainty that Jesus’ own words had caused—words about his leaving without them and, more specifically, about his coming death. It’s not until his final meal with his disciples, after he’s washed their feet, and Judas has left the room, and Peter’s denials have been foretold, that Jesus speaks of the One who will come to them after he is gone—the Holy Spirit.

In Acts, the Spirit arrives with motion and noise like a violent wind, and the heat and light like tongues of fire. It’s dramatic, and exciting, powerful and inspiring. This is what the disciples, gathered in Jerusalem fifty days after the resurrection, need as they begin their mission of making disciples of all nations. They need the power of a strong wind behind them. They need fiery heat to weld them together as a community in mission.

But here, Jesus gives us a very different description of the Spirit than the one we find in Acts. Here, Jesus is speaking to his anxious and uncertain disciples about how the Spirit will fill the place that he leaves empty when he is physically gone. What they need is reassurance that they will not be alone. They need to know that they will not be left without direction or counsel or instruction. They need to know that they needn’t worry about forgetting all that he has taught them.

More than that, they need answers to a theological crisis of seismic dimensions. The incarnation of God in Jesus was the fullest revelation of God. What will it mean when Jesus dies and the incarnation comes to an end, when God is no longer physically present in the human form of Jesus? Was the revelation of God just for those people who witnessed Jesus’ life? Did it have a future beyond his death? How would that revelation live on without Jesus physically present with them? These are questions that would have kept the disciples tossing on their beds at night.

And so, Jesus tells them how their questions will be answered, how these gaping holes will be filled, and how future generations will be able to know God through Jesus as the disciples did. He tells them about the one who is coming. In our translation, he says that at his own request, God will send them another Advocate—someone who will fill the place and the role that he has occupied.

The Greek word for this Advocate is “Paraclete.” A paraclete is one who “walks alongside,” much like a paralegal works alongside an attorney or a classroom paraprofessional works alongside a teacher. A paraclete is one who walks alongside someone, serving as a counselor and teacher, helper and comforter, intercessor, encourager, and guide. God will give and send the Paraclete, just as God gave and sent Jesus. The anticipated crisis of Jesus’ absence is erased by the promised presence of another one who will abide in those who love and believe in and abide in Jesus. Those who believe in Jesus will never be left alone.

In the midst of the disciples’ turmoil about the future, Jesus offers them the thing most valued in the gospel of John: peace—peace with God. This is the peace of those who have rightly understood who Jesus is and who have made peace with God by accepting the Son. It is the peace of belonging to a community with a shared vision. It is the peace of knowing that Jesus is with us always, abiding in us as individuals and in believers as a community.

We celebrate the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit’s presence was made known in windy, fiery fashion. That is the story that seized Luke’s attention, as he told the story in Acts. That was the kick-off event for the expansion of the church with new believers and new ministries in new places. It is an exciting story to read, and one that can inspire us to open ourselves to the same kind of passion that was created in Peter and the others. But, in John, the Spirit is given in much quieter fashion, on the day of the resurrection itself.

Jesus appeared in room where the disciples had locked the doors in fear. His first words were, “Peace be with you”—the very peace he had promised he would give them. And then gives them the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. In that locked room, heavy with fear, he breathed into the gathered believers the same life-giving breath that God breathed into Adam and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Although John’s accounts don’t take place on Pentecost, it’s appropriate for us to reflect on them today. The Spirit described in John is the same Spirit described in Acts, and this tells us something very important about the Spirit. Because the Spirit abides in us, the Spirit meets our needs in every time and place and circumstance—both as individuals and as a community of faith. Sometimes we need passion and strength and creativity to undertake something new in the world. But sometimes we face difficult choices, and we need the Spirit to direct us. Sometimes we are tempted by the world’s expectations, and we need the Spirit to remind us of Jesus’ teachings. When we are anxious or fearful, we need the Spirit to comfort us. As we live each day in a changing world, we need the Spirit to teach us new ways of being faithful followers of Jesus. And we know, from the events of Sukkot and Passover and Pentecost, that Jesus kept his promise to give us his Spirit to walk alongside us always.

The Day of Pentecost is a day of celebration for us. The decorations in the sanctuary remind us of the power and passion of the Spirit that launched the disciples’ mission to the world and continues to fuel ours today. But the Spirit is also the source of comfort and direction. The Spirit is also the teacher of truth and the giver of peace with God. Pentecost is a festival day for celebrating—not with funnel cake and parades and Ferris wheels, but with thanksgiving for gift of the Holy Spirit. For it is through the Spirit’s presence that Jesus pours into us the rivers of living water, to overflow into a thirsty world. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young