The Readings (New Revised Standard Version) and Psalm (ELW) for the Day: Numbers 11:24–30
Psalm 104:24–34, 35b Send forth your Spirit and renew the face of the earth. (Ps. 104:30)
1 Corinthians 12:3b–13
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today the church sets aside a day in order that we might celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. We don’t know what calendar date that the Holy Spirit descended anymore than we know on day Jesus was born. But we are still going to celebrate Christmas and today we celebrate the gift of the Spirit which is the birth of the church. “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church.”
Our Pentecost festival is marked by great joy as we consider the transformation of that which comes in every authentic moment when Creator and creature are discovered to be in proper relationship with one another. The psalmist knows about this relationship in speaking about the manifold creatures in the earth:
All of them look to you to give them their food in due season.
You give it to them; they gather it;
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are terrified;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
You send forth your Spirit, and they are created;
and so you renew the face of the earth. (Psalm 104:27-30)
These are no “Polly Anna” kind of words. they recognize the terror of human existence. “When you hide your face, they are terrified. When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.” These words led the earliest Christians to a way of interpreting life, history, and ultimate things. The stories of the crucifixion of Jesus resulted in a terrified group of disciples who were despondent at the brutal death of their master. They thought they really knew Jesus. Surely he had some strange teachings, but his charisma and miraculous effect on them had led them to a naïve belief that Jesus was offering to them the right team to join. He would give them power. He would give them riches. He would give them honor.
In the face of such evil the disciples had little within them to find any meaning in the catastrophe in which they had participated. Only in retrospect with aid from the Jewish scriptures could they understand the divine pattern in those events and the subsequent events of their lives. After the terror of crucifixion and the perceived absence of God, they could find no strength in themselves, no life that made sense. But the psalmist promised, “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30). The hope of new life was met in the Spirit’s touch.
We have only to think on the great sculpture by Giuseppe Maraniello in the cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. There above the high altar the lifeless, cruciform body of Christ is receiving the slightest touch of the dove, being God’s Holy Spirit.
I was in Chicago with a gathering of very interesting persons from around our denomination as we considered how it is that we should observe the upcoming 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. One spouse there was a professor of German. As he talked about his work with a contemporary novelist, he commented about the militant atheism expressed by the novelist in his works. My acquaintance expressed his frustration with the wall that was set up by the peculiar “evangelistic” zeal of his colleague’s atheism.
I finally averred that his friend might do fine in the Lutheran tradition, for there is always an atheistic phase in the life of faith within the Lutheran tradition. It is not easily perceived in the American context, but just go back to the old country. Think of the Dane, Kierkegaard. Or in the Swedish context go to a Bergman film. There is always a crisis of faith in the god of culture versus the biblical God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. There is a necessary atheism regarding the gods of culture.
I think about what every campus pastor must encounter in their ministry. A sophomoric student proclaims that he or she no longer believes in God. The patient pastor inquires, “Tell me about the god you do not believe in.” After hours of conversation the pastor wipes her brow and gives a sigh of relieve, as she says, “Thank the Lord! I don’t believe in that god either.”
Back in Chicago after he got over the shock my suggestion, he asked me to explain. It was then I could suggest to him what I had learned from the German Lutheran Paul Tillich in his classic work, The Courage to Be. There Tillich addresses the major forms of anxiety that have gripped humanity over the millennia: fate and death in the late Roman period; guilt and condemnation in Medieval period, and now in our own epoch, the anxiety of emptiness and meaningless that runs roughshod over our civilization.
Tillich does not offer in his philosophical theology a formula of how we can believe in God. We cannot turn God into an object which we can measure, control, or even judge. That god is the one whom we have created in our own image, and that God necessarily must die. It is then, and only then, that the God behind god will be revealed. This God cannot be grasped, but this God is capable of grasping us. This God cannot be comprehended, but this God can comprehend us. The best we can do under the circumstances is to confess that we believe that we cannot believe.
Yes, there is an atheistic bent to the Christian faith that demands that the gods of our civilizations crumble like so many idols in order that the God behind those gods might be manifest. In the cross of Jesus Christ the gods die. And in the resurrection of Christ the God behind god is revealed as the life-giving Spirit who renews the face of the earth.
Dear brothers and sisters, today we baptize two infants into the disturbing and quickening faith in the Triune God. When we bring them to the waters of baptism, they will experience the life-shaping power of water in which we are drowned and all our gods with us. For you see, in our celebration of baptism we bring the realization that we are not the author of life, nor are we the author of faith. The words of Luther ring in Lutheran ears when we go our catechism and confirm what it means to believe in God, the Holy Spirit. We also confess that we have become atheists unable to believe.
I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept in the true faith. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 1162)
Our confession that God is Spirit, is our confession that we wait patiently for the power of God. It was the same power that raised Jesus from the dead that will raise us also from our deadness and show us the path of life. Amen.