I have experienced times in my ministry when I struggle with writing a sermon for the week, or I feel overwhelmed by a big project. In talking with a friend about the challenges I am facing, he’ll say, I’ll be praying for you! And my response is typically, I can use all the help I can get!
I imagine many of you have uttered those same words at one time or another. Jesus’ disciples probably felt the same sentiment as He spoke to them in the Upper Room about the challenges that lay ahead. He was basically telling them, You are going to take some hits for me. Earlier He had told them the student is not above the master. If they hated me and rejected me, they will respond to you in the same way as my disciples, for you belong to me instead of the world. You throw your loyalty and identity to me instead of the beliefs and values of those who are opposed to your heavenly Father.
Jesus knew what He was talking about. Those disciples were arrested and stood in courts before the powers that be. They were persecuted for their faith, thrown out of communities, stoned to death, tortured, fed to the lions, and executed as the stories in the book of Acts tell us. They all died as martyrs.
It hasn’t stopped throughout history. We still see the truth of Jesus’ words in our modern world today. I regularly get an enewsletter from a group called “Voice of the Martyrs.” Their stories are so tragic! Anti-Christian hatred is expressed and Christians are openly attacked for their belief in Jesus Christ in places like North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, Laos, and China. The list goes on and on.
Persecution also happens in the West, but in more muted ways. It might be expressed in the form of disapproval, ridicule, pressures to conform, shunning, harassment, lost opportunities, a condescending attitude, intolerance, name-calling. I remember reading a story years ago that was written by a child’s mother. It said, “My child was at an overnight party one time. He was just a little elementary school kid. They were watching some things on TV and he said, “I wonder if Jesus would watch this stuff.” Of course, the host was horrified that this child pointed this out and apologized to the mom and dad. However, the child was never invited to another party.
I’ve had friends who, when I tell them I am a Christian, respond, “You’re kidding me. I thought you were more intelligent than that!” We are oftentimes referred to as intolerant or narrow because of our belief of Jesus being the Way, the Truth, and the life. We believe no one comes to the Father but by Him. Those disciples had to have been feeling, This is too much for me to put my head around. I’m going to need some help, all the help I can get.
First Jesus gave them some reassuring words. He told them, “Some will reject me, but you will have some wins along the way. Some will believe in the midst of these negative statements. Some will respond positively, put their belief in me, and follow my teachings.”
But notice, in the last two verses of our text for today, Jesus gives us some powerful assurance. I’m sending you help. Help is on the way. “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.” Jesus promised them a Helper, and He kept His promise. Today is Pentecost in the church year. We remember the day that Help arrived, just as Jesus promised. He testified to Jesus on that first Pentecost. There were wind and flames, tongues of fire, different languages. Three thousand people converted to the Christian faith and received a changed life. All this happened in a very hostile environment, the city where Jesus was crucified. And it was the work of the Holy Spirit testifying, convicting, converting through those disciples as they testified about God’s mighty deeds in Jesus Christ.
I imagine that evening Peter probably said to Andrew as they were sitting around a campfire, Wow! Jesus wasn’t kidding about this “Helper.” Look at what happened today in the very city where He was killed.
Guess what? That same Helper – the Holy Spirit – is available today! If you are feeling like I need all the help I can get in order to follow Jesus and serve Him in the world, you have help. He is good news for you and me. You are not alone. Jesus is not abandoning you to take on life by yourself. It is true that we need all the help we can get, but you and I have a terrific Helper – the Holy Spirit.
What do you know about the Holy Spirit? He doesn’t really get much attention in the church. As one looks at history, we find there are always a fear and uneasiness about the Spirit. We find division in the church concerning spiritual gifts in the book of Corinthians. I remember even in my own congregation growing up when the charismatic renewal movement was really taking off. Our congregation experienced a lot of division over it. Some looked down on others who didn’t have the gift of tongues. In the old days, we called Him the Holy Ghost, which gave me the willies as a kid. He is known for change, which can make Christians a bit nervous. Our famous seven last words – We’ve always done it this way before.
The supernatural can scare us a bit. I heard a story about a church in Great Britain. It was very formal and didn’t give much place to the Holy Spirit. It was also pretty much a dying congregation. One Sunday a woman attended who had just become a Christian. She was born again and very excited about her experience through the Holy Spirit on a retreat. In the middle of the service after a hymn she shouted “Hallelujah!” One of the ushers standing in the back came in, tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Shh. Ma’am, you mustn’t say that here.”
She whispered back, “But I’m so excited! I got Jesus. I got religion!”
He said, “Well, you didn’t get it here, Madame.”
So, who is the Holy Spirit actually? He not a “force” like in Star Wars – May the force be with you. He’s not an “it” as I sometimes Him referred to as – it. The Holy Spirit is a who. He has a will. He calls. He guides. He chooses. He loves. He gifts people. He changes us with His fruit. He shapes and teaches and brings to remembrance the teachings of Jesus. He’s the third person of the Trinity, oftentimes described as the shy one of the Trinity because He doesn’t really want to bring attention to Himself but to Jesus. He is always pointing us to Jesus. He’s present in the whole biblical story, from Genesis on (when the Spirit of God hovered over the waters) all the way to Jesus’ baptism (as He descended upon Him in the form of a dove).
Now we see Him coming to the disciples, being poured out just as Jesus promised. He knew we needed Help. So the Spirit comes, and the Word Jesus uses to describe Him is Paraclete, which means helper, advocate, comforter, counselor. Basically He is one who comes alongside to help us, encourage us, comfort us, strengthen and guide us. He empowers. He is mighty. He changes us, and He draws us closer to the heavenly Father.
I came across a story about a little ship. When it would get in trouble on the Mediterranean Sea, a large ship would go out to it. Then it would come alongside and bring it to the safety of the harbor. Do you know the name of the large ship? It was called the Parakletos (Paraclete), the one who comes alongside and helps. You see, God in His grace has not left us alone to fend for ourselves. He has given us someone to come alongside of us. Jesus says He even dwells in us and empowers us.
Why is He here? Jesus tells us in this passage – to come alongside as we serve Jesus in a world that needs Him and doesn’t even know it. He comes to testify to the truth of Christ and His teachings. He comes to glorify Jesus as He did on that first Pentecost when He made His appearance, which we read about Acts two. He is here to keep pointing us to Jesus and the truth about Him – He is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and Lord of Lords. And we need His encouragement and strength.
It can be so tempting to quit on the faith, to give up trying to serve Jesus, to give up trying to share Him with others when you’re taking it on the chin again and again or when life gets hard and seems unfair. The Holy Spirit comes alongside and points us to Jesus again and again and again. He reaffirms for us the truthfulness of the revelation of God in Christ. He reassures us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Don’t let that one go! He helps us understand Jesus more and more and grow in our personal knowledge of Him and in Him.
G. Campbell Morgan, a great preacher, wrote in his commentary on Acts, “Thirty minutes after Pentecost, the disciples knew more of Christ than they had learned through three years of following Him as Jesus of Nazareth. What’s the difference? The Holy Spirit!”
He is our confidence builder. He’s powerful and makes us new. So when we step out in mission, we know – we know for a fact – we’re not alone in this mission. The Spirit is at work, even in our most feeble attempts – and I know about feeble attempts.
I’ve been in situations where I’ve shared the gospel with people and thought they were never going to buy into this. Then they come back to me later and say, I want to hear more. Eventually many of them ask Christ into their lives. It’s not because of anything special that I did. I know it’s the working of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus tells us the Spirit is here to help us point others to Him. He empowers those words of ours with the good news of what Christ has done when He went to the cross for our sins and paid the penalty. The separation between God and ourselves was there taken care of. Jesus took God’s wrath for our sins upon Himself. God raised Him up from the grave on the third day. Everyone who comes to Christ is saved and has a new relationship with God.
One commentary says the coupling of the witness of the Spirit with that of the disciples’ defines their reciprocal relationship. Without the witness of the Spirit, the disciples’ witness would be powerful, but without the disciples’ witness, the Spirit would be restricted in His means of expression. That’s why Jesus went on to say, You must be my witnesses. You’re a team! The apostle Paul tells us in Scripture that no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
I love what Martin Luther said in his meaning of the third article in the small catechism. “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel and enlightened me with his gifts.”
So, how can I have the Holy Spirit working in my life, helping me? There is a story about a boy. One day, as they were out on his grandpa’s sailboat on the lake, he asked, “Grandpa, explain to me: What is the wind?”
The wise old grandpa said, “I can’t explain the wind to you, but I can teach you how to raise your sail.” This is a good description of our need to raise our sail to the wind of the Holy Spirit, as we sometimes describe the breath of God that gives new life and power.
The first way to raise your sail is simply to open up the Word of God itself. Read it daily, study it, be a student of the Word, and put it to work in your life. (It doesn’t do much good if you are not willing to apply it into your daily living.) You will soon find that the Holy Spirit uses it as His tool. The Word is the sword of the Spirit, He will come to fill you up as you involve yourself in the community of faith, the church, your brothers and sisters in Christ. As you confess together and hear the absolution in the message from the Word, in the Lord’s Supper, and the fellowship of small groups with others who are in the same boat as you, as you study the Word of God and seeking to be faithful to God as you are, the Holy Spirit shows up. Remember those disciples on Pentecost were together when the Spirit arrived, and they were finally praying. So we ask in prayer for Him to come to us and help us, to fill us, lead us, and give us a fresh indwelling of His power and wisdom, peace and joy.
When new members join our church, we pray in the liturgy near the end of the service that God would continue to strengthen them with the Holy Spirit and daily increase in them His gifts of grace, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear the Lord, the Spirit of joy in God’s presence.
So this is my prayer for you today. Since Help has arrived and is available to you as a follower of Jesus Christ, He is here to help you stand up for Jesus and live out your faith in a dynamic and joyful way in a world that sometimes isn’t very open to the Gospel of Christ. It’s simply a matter of asking Him in today, saying, Come Holy Spirit. I need your help. I need your help. He will come today and every day. You will have strength and the Spirit of wisdom, the Spirit of counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord as you live out your life in God’s presence. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer