On Sunday the Christian Church will celebrate the third of the three major festivals in the church year: the Feast of Pentecost. This festival has been observed for thousands of years, first by the Jews and then throughout the Christian Church. In the church of the Old Testament, Pentecost was celebrated on the fiftieth day following the day after the Passover Sabbath. This feast, also called the Feast of Weeks, was largely considered a harvest festival, something we have reserved for our nation’s Day of Thanksgiving. Since the days of the first Christian celebration of Pentecost, we have celebrated this day on the fiftieth day of Easter, following the Scriptures as our guide. The culmination of the Old Testament celebration was the people’s offering up loaves of bread to God. In the New Testament era, the main event is the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, enabling them to preach the Gospel in different lands and languages.
We celebrate the fulfillment of the promise our Lord made to His disciples prior to His Passion, the promise He made in John 14: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My Name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26 NKJV). The disciples could only fully believe once the Holy Spirit came upon them, after the risen Savior, Jesus, had opened their minds to the Scriptures. These twelve men, whom the Lord chose (including Matthias, Judas’ successor) to carry out His ministry, were mere mortals, just as you and I are. They too were sinners, just as you and I are. As sinners, they were, and we are, incapable of believing the Gospel (who is Christ) under our own power. Saint Paul writes: “…no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Yet we are surrounded by people who think that the Holy Spirit comes to us without the read and preached Word, through their own preparations and works. And we may even think this ourselves to one extent or another. This is because we do not understand the Holy Spirit as we ought. We tend to tout the Holy Spirit, often over against the One to whom the Spirit points: Jesus Christ, in whom our salvation lies. We can easily fall into another trap, which seeks to turn Christianity into a religion of works instead of grace, of law instead of love, of our own preparations and works instead of God’s Word and Sacraments.
The Apostles were anointed with the Holy Spirit who descended on them with tongues of fire — they were not incinerated. The Holy Spirit worked through these same Apostles who preached the Word that Pentecost day: the people repented, became baptized, and gathered together around Word and Sacrament. That is true church growth. The Mother Church nurtures her children in this manner, through ongoing preaching and teaching, and she feeds her children on the Word and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
Take heart! We need not despair! The Lord has not left us as orphans, for He has sent us His Holy Spirit. We need not be afraid, for the Holy Spirit has come… and is in His Word and Sacraments. The Holy Spirit is with you and is in you now, seeking to create, sustain, and strengthen your faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. This is the Spirit’s primary work, to bring you to and keep you in faith in the Savior, Jesus. He began working in you the first time you heard the Word of God, whether you were inside or outside your mother’s womb. He sealed His promise to generate, sustain, and strengthen your faith in Christ when you became baptized in and into the Name of the Triune God.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit to direct you to Christ for your salvation. We survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, for it was on that cross that Jesus suffered, bled, and died a gory yet glorious death, winning our forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation there. The Holy Spirit moves our focus to the font, lectern, pulpit, and altar, for our Lord gives us the gifts He won on the cross through Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Scripture, and Holy Communion, doing so through the Office of the Holy Ministry. Here the pastor speaks and acts in the stead and by the command of Christ. The pastor is the best man in the wedding we know as Divine Service, the Sunday worship service when the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) is celebrated. The pastor stands in for Christ, tending to Christ’s bride, the Church, giving her His gifts until He comes again to claim His bride for Himself, “…for Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). It is by the Holy Spirit at work in the hearts of the faithful that this shall be done.
Mark Schlamann is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Tooele.