On Our Greatest Gift

On Our Greatest Gift

On Our Greatest Gift
May 19, 2024
Traceymay Kalvaitis

Psalm 104: 1-4: Bless the Lord, O my soul. Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.

Acts 2: 1-12: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
Today’s sermon is titled On Our Greatest Gift.
Frederich Hoffman was a Boy Scout in Germany in 1936. He was working towards his Eagle badge when his Boy Scout Troop was disbanded under orders from Adloph Hitler. Hitler had a different plan for young Germans. In his book Mein Kampf, written in the 1920s, Hitler said, “Whoever has the youth has the future.” In an effort to seize the future through controlling the youth, Hitler disbanded all other youth organizations in 1936 and the only alternative offered were the Hitler Youth Organizations. Children 7 years and older were required to join a local chapter. Within 3 years, 90% of German youth were taking part in the Youth Organizations which grew more and more militaristic in nature.* In these groups, children were separated from their families for extended periods of time to go on camping trips and training expeditions. The children were taught that they were superior and that others were inferior. In these groups, children were taught to hate and they were taught to fight. Frederich Hoffman never received his Eagle badge; instead he learned warcraft and he learned to be suspicious of his neighbors. Jews were suspect, as were gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Blacks, disabled people, trade unionists and anyone who were of Roma, Sinti, and Slavic descent. Hitler found an effective way to brainwash the German youth and he did not stop there. As a means to influence parents and other older family members, Hitler brought in the church. Children in his youth organizations were strongly encouraged to ask their families to go to church because the church had become the mouthpiece of the Third Reich. “Church attendance skyrocketed and pastors were thrilled. Eventually, Germany’s government rule and religion became one and the same.”** The churches’ role in propagating the superiority of one nation and one race led to the horrors of the holocaust.

I remind us of this German history because the story we are offered for Pentecost carries an antithetical, or opposite, message. In our reading from Acts, we learn that the gift of the Holy Spirit is not conferred upon one nation or one group. We learn that the gift of the Holy Spirit is available to all people, with no exceptions.

This is especially relevant today as we are seeing a sharp rise in Christian Nationalism rhetoric. I want to be very clear about this, Friends, lest it be misunderstood. Christian Nationalism is not aligned with the Biblical scriptures. The very term “Christian Nationalism” is an oxymoron. A Friend shared a recent article that was reprinted in the Keene Sentinel titled, “Christian Nationalism is a Grave Threat to America.” The article was written by a retired Presbyterian minister by the name of Rev. Cathy Young. She writes, “The movement [towards Christian Nationalism] is dangerous in its assertion that God has a special bond with the United States. It is unwise, undemocratic, unconstitutional, and destructive. Christian nationalism does not reflect what Jesus taught and how he lived his life. The Bible’s arching theme is God’s love for all of us, whether we’re rich, poor, gay, straight, Black, White, Brown, of any culture, of any creed and of any language.”

In our reading today from the book of Acts, we heard how the gift of the Holy Spirit came into the world with a miracle of communication. So many Jews, gathered from all across the Roman Empire, understood Jesus’s teaching in their own language as the Apostles spoke. I propose that this gift of the Holy Spirit was one of the greatest gifts to humankind; it was a gift that Jesus promised. Before his arrest and execution, (John, chapter 14) Jesus says, “Soon I will leave you, but the Father is sending an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to teach you everything and to remind you of all I have said to you.”

And so the story goes that Jesus was betrayed, arrested, questioned, beaten, imprisoned and nailed to a cross to die as a criminal for proclaiming to be the Son of God. After his death and burial, he reappeared in various places over the following 50 days. In the book of Acts, the risen Christ appears to 120 of his followers, among them were his mother, Mary, other unnamed women, and Jesus’s brothers. Jesus says, in Acts chapter 1, “As I taught you, that just as John ritually cleansed people with water, so you will be washed with the Holy Spirit. You will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and you will be my witnesses to the farthest places on earth.”

After hearing these words from the risen Christ, his large band of followers travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Shavuot (shuh·voo·owt). It was the harvest season for wheat and also a day to remember Moses receiving the Torah, the written word from God that also makes up the first five books of the First Testament. It was a busy time in Jerusalem. This was not a year like any other, however. Jesus had been crucified shortly after Passover, just seven weeks prior. There had been earthquakes, a full eclipse of the sun, and the curtain in the Temple that separated the Most Holy from the throngs of commoners had literally, and unexplainably, been torn in two. It had been seven weeks, about 50 days, and no doubt people were still talking, still wondering what to believe. Were the stories true? Could that have been the promised Messiah that was crucified? People are saying they have seen him, that Jesus of Nazareth.

In the midst of all this, these followers of Jesus return to Jerusalem for Shavuot. Part of the festival involves staying up all night, reading from the Torah. It will be a night like no other, for, as promised, they receive a great gift. The gift of the Holy Spirit is manifested in three ways. Listen again to these words from our scriptures today: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” After this, all doubts were dispelled. After this, there was no turning back. The story of Jesus of Nazareth would be carried forward, against all odds. His story would be shared in every language.

Today we celebrate Pentecost as the most rudimentary beginnings of the Christian church. Pentecost is a Greek word. The suffix “pente” means fifty, marking the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot. Keep in mind that the followers of Christ were predominantly Jewish, so they were still observing Jewish law and custom. There was no such thing as the Christian church. In fact, the word “church” would be a new term, derived from the Greek word kuriakos, that means “belonging to the Lord.” Dig a little deeper and we find that kuriakos comes from an even older Proto-Indo-European word, kewH, that means “to swell, spread out, be strong, prevail.” Powerful roots for the word, CHURCH, and one that originally was not used to describe a place, but rather to describe qualities of a people…people belonging to the Lord.

In our best moments we are people belonging to the Lord. There have been unspeakable atrocities in our church history, however. Wars fought over religion, violent disregards of life and liberties because of misguided religious fervor and flagrant misuses of power, the very power that was meant to be our Teacher, our Helper, our Advocate…the Holy Spirit, the critical member of the sacred trinity: God the All-Knowing, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit that forever moves us closer to God within.

How do we know if we are being led by the Holy Spirit or if we are being led by our own self-serving interests? In one of my favorite pieces of scripture, 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-23, we read, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.” Particularly useful is the advice to “test prophecies and hold on to what is good.” If guidance leads us to unity, peace, and understanding, we can be confident that it is of the Spirit. If guidance leads us to conflict, judgment and division, we should beware and revisit our motives.

Nearly one hundred years ago, the minds and hearts of young Germans were turned against their neighbors while sitting in the pews of churches. Young Frederich Hoffman, instead of becoming an Eagle scout, became a cog in the works of the war machine that exterminated 6 million Jews and 5 million others. We should never forget, Friends, the damage of a church co-opted by the state. As we prepare to recognize those who lost their lives in military service next week, I pray we heed the warnings of retired Presbyterian minister, Rev. Cathy Young, warning us about the rise of Christian Nationalism.

In closing, on this Pentecost Sunday, I want to pray for us. I want to pray for us as a nation. I want to pray for us as a church, as people belonging to God, and as people who have received a great gift in the presence of the Holy Spirit. May we recognize our own truth, brought to us from God, by the Holy Spirit, and may our truth make us fearless and strong, strong enough to not be threatened by religious diversity, and strong enough to love one another with all our differences. So be it. Amen.


Pastoral Prayer Beloved God, we are here together with all our complexities…our mix of hope and fear, trust and worry, health and illness, acceptance and resistance. Help us, Lord, to bring the disparities of our emotions ever closer together, so that we may move through the joys and challenges of our lives with equanimity, balance, and serenity. We pray your healing presence be with us and with all those in need. May we be ever attune to the ways we can serve, with sensitivity and effectiveness and in the spirit of Christ. Amen.

Benediction I leave you with these words from the Apostle Paul in the book of second Corinthians, chapter 13: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Amen.