How many of you are preparing to celebrate Pentecost this Sunday on May 23rd? Or, has Pentecost become a forgotten holiday for Christians and the last thing on many of our minds? After all, understanding the Holy Spirit is not easy. Many of us ask, who is the Holy Spirit? Where does the Holy Spirit live or operate? Why doesn’t he come out from the shadows and make himself more known, visible, and comprehendible? Yet, without the Holy Spirit there would be no Church – throughout all these years. Without the Holy Spirit, we would not have the power or gifts to love our families, friends, and neighbors as ourselves as Jesus commanded. Perhaps this year, especially after months of isolation and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, we should take greater time to contemplate and know the Holy Spirit. As a world we are like butterflies emerging from our chrysalises, some of us ready to fly again. May we fly this time with God and his Holy Spirit living inside us.
As you know, I have been blessed with many wonderful Muslim friends in the Chicago area. This spring I arranged Zoom conferences among my Muslim and Christian friends for both communities of faith to understand and explain the traditions of Easter and Ramadan to each other. In that process, my Christian friends and I learned a lot about a special day during Ramadan that Muslims call the Night of Power, which takes place on the 27th day of their 30-day fasting period. On that special night, which this year was May 8, Muslims are encouraged to spend the entire evening in prayer and reading the Quran, preferably in a mosque. According to their faith, the Night of Power recalls the evening in the Seventh Century when Muhammad began receiving the initial verses of the Quran from the angel Gabriel, who revealed this perfect revelation to humanity. Each Ramadan, Muslims believe that during the Night of Power they are more apt to gain God’s forgiveness and mercy for their sins compared to any other day of the year. In addition, they believe that any act of charity or generosity they offer during the Night of Power will be multiplied a hundred-fold and earn more points of favor with God compared to any other night of the year. It is a night no Muslim wants to miss if they are at all concerned about their eternal destination.
Christians, on the other hand, believe in a different kind of “night of power;” called Pentecost. Jesus never said anything about a point system in regard to pleasing God. He never said that observing one day in the calendar would earn greater favor and more points with God than another. For that matter, he never said that one place on earth is more important than another; his kingdom was greater than any earthly geography. He never instructed his disciples to make pilgrimages, as Muslims do, seeking to practice Hajj in Saudi Arabia during their lifetime. Instead, Jesus instructed his disciples, moments before he ascended into heaven, to go to Jerusalem, find an upper room, and wait for the promised Holy Spirit to enter their lives. In effect, he was telling them not to worry about coming to him; he and the Father would come to them instead. Their job was simply to wait with humble faith and do nothing more. He said, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4b,5)
The key word in this passage is “gift.” We can never earn enough points with God to please him. He does not keep score with us. He knows we all are sinners who will always fall short of his righteous requirements for our lives. That is why God chose to provide the means of salvation for us because he knew we could never provide it for ourselves through our own acts or deeds, no matter how observant we try to be. At Christmas, we celebrate the gift of God’s incarnation entering our world. At Easter, we celebrate the gift of his son’s sacrifice on the cross, his resurrection and the forgiveness of our sins. And, at Pentecost, we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit – God living inside us, giving us a power of love beyond our own.
The Christian life is not about performance or earning favor. Rather, it is about receiving and accepting God’s love and spiritual gifts. Rather than performing in our efforts to please God, we are asked to be humble and honest about how much we need God’s help to obey his commands. You could say that performance and good deeds are easier because they are something we can control – acts of charity, attendance at church, and reciting rituals to name a few “good deeds.” Having faith to wait, receive and to surrender to God’s love is harder because we are not in control, and we are required to be humble and willing to follow the Master, Jesus, wherever he leads us in our lives.
Muslims believe that the greatest revelation of God in history is the Quran. It is something that was written long ago by God, or Allah, in heaven, and then delivered to humanity through the visions of the prophet Muhammad as he prayed alone in the caves of the Arabian desert in the Seventh Century. According to Islamic tradition, the original and only true Quran was written in Arabic. All translations of the Quran into other languages are considered corrupt, having been altered from the original perfect revelation Muhammad received in Arabia. Christians, on the other hand, believe that Jesus himself is the greatest revelation of God; in fact, he is God. The book of Hebrews tells us, “The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command.” (Hebrews 1:3a) For these reasons, Christians worship Jesus as Lord, the one who came to earth to save humanity from their sins. However, when the time came for Jesus to finally ascend into heaven, he knew his followers would still need the special presence of God in their lives to remind them of everything he had taught them and to comfort and guide them as well. He did not want them to be left alone. He wanted them to have a counselor and an advocate, who is the Holy Spirit.
The Night of Power for Muslims is an opportunity to reflect on past events and earn greater favor from God. During that evening, they are urged to strive harder, pray more deeply and longer, and act more generously so they can please God and earn his forgiveness. The effort and power are with the worshipper. For Christians, the power is not with the worshipper, it is with God. When the Pentecost experience took place for the waiting and expectant followers of Jesus in the Upper Room of Jerusalem, God’s power and enormous love almost knocked them over. He was coming to them on his own initiative, not asking his followers to come to him with their good deeds and extra efforts. The only requirement Jesus asked of his disciples was to have faith and surrender their hearts to God’s will for their lives. The book of Acts tells us, “On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit….” (Acts 2:1-4a)
We all need a counselor and a friend. When we feel lost, confused, down, or simply in need of direction, there is nothing better than talking to someone who can give us love and wise counsel. Pentecost is celebrating the fact that God has given us a counselor to live inside us to give us peace of mind, comfort, and joy if we choose to believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. The Holy Spirit is always there and available to us – if only we will recognize him. This springtime, during Pentecost, consider initiating a relationship with the Holy Spirit for the first time, or deepening the one you already have. Take time to talk to him and meet with him on a regular or daily basis if you can. He does not want you to feel abandoned or alone. He is with you all the time. He wants to give you guidance, assurance, and a power beyond your own to love others. On the night before Jesus was arrested, he said to his disciples, “If you love me, obey my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth.” (John 14:15-17a)
Most of us this spring are a bit beleaguered after months of enduring the pandemic. Many of us have emotional, mental, financial, or physical scars that are the result of the havoc COVID-19 brought us. During these past months, some people turned more heavily to alcohol use in the home or drug use on the street. Drug related deaths in 2020 were even higher than the worst months of the opioid crisis in recent years. Our society is filled with numerous ways to soothe or entertain our anxious souls, and many were pursued during the pandemic. Only the Holy Spirit can give us what we are really looking for. Getting high on whatever substance is often a tragic substitute and deadly masquerade for what God has for us through the gift of the Holy Spirit – namely, clarity of thought, peace of mind, passion in our souls, truth for our hearts, and fullness for our lives. We are never alone if we are walking with the Holy Spirit – no matter what challenges or trials may come.
Sometimes the biggest gifts in life are the most hidden. Our God is a humble God. He does not boast or force himself on us. He gives us the freedom to find him. The Bible tells us that if we search for him, he will shower us with his love. Celebrating Pentecost is just one more opportunity to know and find him. All we need is an open, honest, and seeking heart. The Apostle James put it beautifully when he said, “Come close to God, and God will come close to you.” (James 4:8a) He is our Counselor.