A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
June 6, 2019
Massive burning of fossil fuels to provide us with power has contributed to a global warming crisis. These fuels’ non-renewability adds to the urgency that other energy sources be utilized and further developed. Our Peacemaking Ministry Team has been studying this crisis, and will be bringing recommendations to the presbytery on how we can use cleaner, renewable energy more fully as an exercise of our stewardship of God’s creation.
The Pentecost story is threaded with three major renewable energy sources: solar (fire), wind, and water. When Jesus speaks to his disciples about the coming Pentecost, he does so in terms of “power supply.” “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” (Acts 1:8) The Greek word translated power is dynamis, the root word of “dynamite.” It is explosive and transformative power, not simply the power to maintain. Pentecost is about the power of the Holy Spirit being unleashed upon and through Jesus’ followers, to motivate them and equip them to be world-changers for Jesus.
Prior to Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples are marked by fear, doubt, and misunderstanding of Jesus’ program. Even on the day of his ascension, they indicate to Jesus that they still expect his mission to be realized in freeing Israel from the iron fist of Rome. (Acts 1:6) The coming of the Holy Spirit upon them on Pentecost radically transforms both their understanding of Jesus’ mission and their capacity to carry it forward.
The flames that descend on the waiting disciples are not the product of human combustion; like the sun in the sky, they are given directly by God as signs of God’s provision of the power they need. The mighty rushing wind likewise is not produced by them, but given by God. The Greek word for Spirit is pneuma, which means literally “wind.” It signifies that God is always on the move, never static. Water comes later in the day, when about three thousand people are baptized in response to Peter’s Pentecost sermon. (Acts 2:41)
Fire, wind, water. Elements of nature that we depend upon yet can rage beyond our control. Most natural disasters involve one or more of these three. We need them, and at the same time we are at their mercy. They provide us infinitely renewable energy, even as they remain beyond our control. Pentecost is likewise impossible for us to manufacture or regulate.
Yet there is embedded in the Pentecost story a promise to those who receive the waters of baptism. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
In Hebrew Scriptures, God’s Spirit is poured out from time to time, but only on select people and singular occasions. What is unprecedented in the Pentecost story is that the transforming Spirit of God is given to all who repent and are baptized in Jesus’ name.
Moses designates seventy elders of Israel to help him carry out the work that has become too heavy for him to bear alone. When he summons them, God’s Spirit is poured out on them and they prophesy, though only once. Two of the appointed elders are not present at the gathering, yet in their own locations they too begin prophesying, causing an uproar among observers who race to Moses asking him to rebuke them. Instead, Moses answers, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29) Hundreds of years later, Moses’ prayer is answered on Pentecost.
And it continues to be answered wherever people repent and are baptized in Jesus’ name. Pentecost was not a once-and-done experience for the disciples; they continued to manifest the power of the Spirit constantly from that day forward. The power never left their witness.
We are as dependent today on the empowerment of God’s Spirit as the disciples were on the day of Pentecost. We can no more fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples and teach his way without the aid of the Spirit than they could. (Matthew 28:19-20) All of our efforts to fulfill the Great Ends of the Church (which includes Jesus’ Great Commission) depend on the empowerment of the Holy Spirit if they are to succeed. Only Jesus can build his church. Only Jesus can usher in the reign of God. The miracle of being Church is that Jesus does this through us, by filling us with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul urges us to keep being filled with the Spirit, using the same language Peter uses on the day of Pentecost. (Ephesians 5:18-19) Once is not enough. This power can be renewed; indeed, it must be renewed. And it will be so as we live in ongoing renewal of our baptismal promises to renounce sin, acknowledge Jesus as our Lord, and walk in his way.
Yours in the power of the Spirit,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister