Last week we reminded ourselves that when we die we move directly from our last breath in this world to finding ourselves with a resurrection body suited for heaven on the other side. For us no time lag is needed. Jesus could also have moved directly from his last breath on the cross to his reign in heaven. But in his special case God arranged to open up each step for us to see and understand. So today we come to the final event of that period of fifty three days from Good Friday to Pentecost.
Ascension Day marked Jesus' triumphal entry to his reign in heaven. And now ten days later we celebrate the first evidence that his reign has begun in the new world-wide Church. Notice all the nations that are represented on the Day of Pentecost. "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 Libya, and visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs - in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's power."
Before looking at Jesus' special reign by the Spirit as Lord of the world-wide Church it is important to distinguish the reign in his churches from his reign as Lord of history. History has been called HISstory. Throughout the Old Testament period we see the interventions of the Son of God in the affairs of nations. He put a stop to the building of the tower of Babel. The Exodus was both a judgment on the nation that had enslaved them and a liberation for the children of Israel. Liberation was called ransoming and redeeming. The bad consequences that he assigned, such as being sent into exile or the destruction of Babylon, were called wrath.
Then for a brief thirty years the Son came among us, and when he ascended he returned to his throne as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. As he warned his disciples, within forty years he would use the Roman legions to topple the temple, destroy the city of Jerusalem, and decimate the Jewish religious establishment of priests and Pharisees and Sadducees.
That was what the Old Testament prophets called a Day of the Lord. Mary the mother of Jesus could see that happening in her day in her part of the world. "He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones" (Luke 1:52-53). And in our generation we have seen the destruction of Hitler's Nazi system, and more recently the sudden end of the Communist control of Eastern Europe. We only get snippets of his reign from the media, but in every part of the world people continue to experience the reign of the Son of God as Lord of the nations in sudden and unexpected ways.
In addition to that continuing reign among the nations, the Day of Pentecost celebrates the beginning of a quite different kind of reign by the Spirit in Jesus' churches. It is his royal priesthood by the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are the many ways in which Jesus' servants are empowered to serve as apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, pastors, exercising gifts of mercy, tongues, ministries of healing, and so on. We leave those for another occasion. Today we will just focus on his reign by the fruit of the Spirit. In the Old Testament Pentecost was called the Feast of the First Fruits. Here in Ontario we are already harvesting our first sticks of rhubarb, and strawberries will soon follow. But they are only the first fruits of the greater harvest in September. Similarly Pentecost is the foretaste of the far greater joys of heaven. That is why God chose the Day of Pentecost to give us the first fruits of the Spirit in this life to assure us of the completed harvest of the Spirit in heaven.
It is important to remember that Jesus' reign goes on everyday in the lives of ordinary Christians. Some people are fascinated by the strange events of the Day of Pentecost. But these are like the signs that God gave to announce the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Or the the shepherds visited by the angels on the first Christmas Day and the magi arriving from the east. There were also unusual manifestations on Good Friday, Easter Day and the Ascension. The signs were given to draw our attention to the special event like fireworks at a coronation.
Similarly the importance of the Day of Pentecost was marked by the rushing mighty wind, the tongues of fire, and instant translation into other languages. From time to time the Holy Spirit breaks into our sleepy churches with such signs, but the main point of the day was to make clear to everyone that the ascended King was now giving the beautiful fruits of the Holy Spirit in his Church.
You can see how quickly some of these fruits began to appear miraculously on the Day of Pentecost. Most of us are prejudiced against people of other nations and other races. On the Day of Pentecost each person heard the language of others. And "Day by day, as they spent much time together, they broke bread from house to house with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people." Already that very first day the fruits of love and joy and peace, kindness and generosity had begun.
So the Day of Pentecost celebrates the firstfruits of the final harvest, and Paul lists for us nine wonderful fruits that we begin to experience now but we will enjoy to the full in heaven. Here they are in Galatians chapter 5. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."
Some commentators have suggested that, when Paul says "The fruit of the Spirit is love," love is meant to include the other eight fruits that he lists. I don't think it makes much difference which way we take it. But what is certain is that without love, and without the other eight fruits of the Spirit, heaven would be a dismal place.
The opposite of love is hating and despising others. Heaven would not be heaven if there was even one person who hated or despised us. The opposite of joy is being miserable. In this life we put up with people who like to tell everybody how miserable life is, but even one of them would spoil heaven for all of us. The opposite of peace is quarreling and party spirit, and who needs that in heaven? Patience means a willingness to wait for God to work things out, and we all know that people who want everything to happen at once and exactly how they please are very hard to live with. I am a very impatient person. I like everything to happen yesterday, so be patient God hasn't finished with me yet.
Kindness is the opposite of the hurtful words that cut into the heart, and it is a beautiful fruit we all need from others. And we certainly don't enjoy the opposite of generosity which is only caring for what one can get for oneself. Faithfulness is making our contribution to the happiness of others. Gentleness is in contrast to the harsh heavy handed treatment we so often get from others in this life. We hear too much every day about people who make the life of others a misery by their total lack of self-control. But happily there will be no vandalism or abusive behaviour in heaven.
So in one way the Day of Pentecost looks forward to the full harvest of the completed work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But we also need the beginning of that harvest now. Each congregation of Jesus' Church needs people who shine with the love of God. We can cope with a few who come sad to church, but our services should encourage them into thanksgiving, joy and enthusiasm. And we certainly don't need quarreling and party spirit. Gardening, and farming, and churches need much patience. And no church can survive without huge amounts of kindness, and generosity, faithfulness to do one's job, and gentleness, and self-control.
So let me read again Paul's list of the beautiful fruits of the Spirit. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." This is what the reign of Christ is. The problem is that none of these fruits can be produced by struggling to change ourselves. They are fruits of the Holy Spirit working in our life.
In his conversation at the Last Supper he explained exactly how the Holy Spirit would produce his fruits in us. Jesus is the Vine and we are the branches. If a branch is separated from the Vine, or it does not allow the sap to do its work, no amount of effort will produce grapes. We are invited to let the Holy Spirit produce the nine kinds of fruit that we need now and will enjoy to the full in heaven. So we say "Holy Spirit I badly lack this or that fruit today. I am looking to you to make it grow in me." That is a prayer which God loves to answer. But we also look forward to when the Holy Spirit will have completed his work in us. In a great chapter about the Holy Spirit in the Epistle to the Romans Paul explains that the whole animal and vegetable creation is waiting for that to happen. He puts it this way. "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God." Which means that the revealing of the children of God is the full harvest of the Holy Spirit and that is a good definition of what heaven is like.