The great sorrow of Jesus’ disciples on the night of his betrayal was that they would no longer be with Him. Jesus says it again and again, “I am going to the Father. I am leaving the world. You will see me no more.” And it breaks their hearts. They have experienced what we look forward to, what we sing about, “And then from death awaken me, that these mine eyes with joy may see, O Son of God, thy glorious face, my Savior and my fount of grace.” They were looking into His face then, and His words were unmistakably clear – He was going away and they wouldn’t see him.
The feeling of despair is the feeling of loneliness. It’s to be alone and to imagine everyone is a stranger to you. The greatest cry of despair ever sounded was the cry of the Son of God from his cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The hell our Lord suffered was not simply physical pain, asphyxiation and nails through hands and feet with thorns digging into his head, no, it was the pain of utter loneliness, of having no one to help, as the Psalmist prophesies, “Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help!”
Loneliness is not simply some sociological or psychological problem. It’s a theological problem. It has to do with God. St. Augustine’s prayer is exactly right, “Lord you have made us for yourself and our souls are restless until they find their rest in you,” they’re lonely until they find their place in You. God created us to be in communion with Him and with one another. In fact, loneliness was an enemy of humanity even before sin entered the world. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” God said, “I will make him a helper fit for him.” And so God gave Adam a wife. He gave him human society, human contact. One of the great ironies of the response to the covid crisis is that in the name of saving human life we took humanity away from humans. We gave them loneliness and told them it was good because they would stay alive. Talk to the men and women quarantined in nursing homes and ask them what they want, what they need, and above bread and water they will tell you in unison, unanimously, they need company, they’re lonely, and it’s killing them. It’s not good for man to be alone.
But even this loneliness, this alienation from other humans, is nothing in comparison to being alienated from God. Think of it. Adam and Eve still had each other after they sinned. But they were ashamed and had no enjoyment. They began to blame one another. They hid from God and they distrusted one another. Their alienation from God alienated them from each other. They used to walk with God in the cool of the day, converse with Him, hear Him teach them wonderful and beautiful things, love Him and be loved by Him. It was pure joy and in this joy they found joy in one another. This is what the devil robbed them of. This is what sin takes away. And there has been a longing in the human heart ever since, a need that cannot be filled unless God comes to us in mercy, exposes our sins, forgives us, and reunites us to Himself.
The problem with the people at the Tower of Babel is that they thought they could reunite themselves with each other and with heaven. This is human religion. Human religion always starts with us, with what we can do or must do, and presumes that we can make it right and reestablish the relationship with one another and with God. This is the history of the world. One big failed experiment. Man trying to exalt himself to heaven. Look at what happened at Babel. They trust in the potential of humanity. They come together. They build a tower to heaven. They make a name for themselves. They think so much of themselves that they say in their hearts, “Nothing we plan will be withheld from us.” And so God shows them this is not the way. He ruins their plans. He leaves them only with failed dreams of what could have been. The same thoughts of human grandeur, of human accomplishment were in the disciples when they gazed at the Temple of Jerusalem and admired the huge stones and the workmanship. And Jesus says to them, “Amen I say to you, not one stone will be left on another.” It’s sobering, but we have to hear it. Man’s work, even the great American experiment, it will fail. The riots in Minneapolis and across the country this week should remind us again, we won’t make a paradise for ourselves on this earth. Human society, our fellowship with one another, will break down, because we were never meant to have fellowship with one another without having fellowship first with God. Rudyard Kipling put it well:
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
So we can’t do it. But Jesus did it. God became a man. Instead of us building up to heaven, heaven came down to us in pure mercy. The eternal Son of the Father took on our flesh and blood and dwelt among us. Man beheld God, conversed with Him again, walked and talked with Him. And so imagine again the sorrow, the loneliness and despair that enter into the disciples when they hear Jesus say, “I am going away. You will see me no longer.” And this is why all of Jesus’ conversation with his disciples that last night was focused on teaching them that it was good for Him to go away. It was good for Him to suffer and die and reconcile them to God by His paying the penalty for their sins. It was good for Him to rise again the third day in triumph over death and hell and the devil. It was good for Him to ascend into heaven, to assume all power in heaven and on earth, a power He had from eternity, but now is given to His human nature too, so that our Brother, the God who wears our human nature, can say and mean, I will be with you always even to the end of the age. This answers loneliness. It’s the only thing that answers loneliness. It is not good for the man to be alone, and in Jesus no man is alone.
So this is the message of Pentecost. Your Jesus preaches against your loneliness. I will not leave you orphans. I will send you my Spirit, the Father’s Spirit, the Spirit of truth, and he will lead you into all truth, he will take what is mine and give it to you.
Another name for Pentecost is Whitsunday. It’s an old Anglo-saxon word. The Whit here in Whitsunday is related to our word wit, that is understanding. And so Pentecost is called Whitsunday because here the first Christians finally got true understanding of God. And this understanding is twofold. First is knowledge of facts, of concrete truths, about what Jesus actually said and did and who Jesus actually is. This is what Jesus promises the apostles. “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” So the Holy Spirit’s job is not to reveal some new truth, some new teaching, but to make the disciples remember what Jesus told them, what Jesus did. And that’s what the disciples got. The very things they witnessed, the very things they saw with their own eyes, and their hands handled, what they heard with their own ears from Jesus, all of it, his teaching, his perfect life, his baptism, his miracles, his suffering, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, what they were eyewitnesses of, these things the Holy Spirit reminds them of and inspires them to preach and write down in the New Testament.
But this is not all it means to know God. No, as St. James says, even the demons know facts about God, even the demons know that Jesus is God. The (you) confirmation students memorize all sorts of facts, truths that happened in our history, the truths of the Bible, creation, the fall into sin, God’s gracious choosing of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, the line of Judah, the virgin birth, the miracles and death of Jesus, His resurrection and ascension into heaven. But you do much more than memorize facts. The Holy Spirit does more than give us facts. To know God, to have an understanding of God, is to trust Him and love Him and be in communion with Him, to have God make His home in you. Never forget this. It’s what Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
This is something better than Adam and Eve had in Paradise. It’s something better than the disciples had when they talked face to face with Jesus. Pentecost is the birth of the Christian Church. I used to not like it when people said that. My dad, who was also my pastor, would say Pentecost was the Church’s birthday. And my mind always objected, because there were Christians far before the day of Pentecost. Adam and Eve were Christians. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were Christians. But that’s quite beside the point, and as usual, my dad was right and I was wrong. (That still happens, even when you’re older and grown up and have kids of your own, your Christian parents still know better most of the time, which is why you should get used to them being right now, because it’ll last all your life, and it’s good for you). The Christian Church began on Pentecost, because here men and women and children received what no Christian had ever received before. The Holy Spirit, and with Him, God the Father and God the Son, the Holy Trinity, dwelling in them, making their home with them, so that these Christians became united to Christ Himself, received a forgiveness that wasn’t just promised, but bought and purchased, paid for in full by the blood of God. They received a peace that was not merely in the future, not simply a hope of things to come, but a reality now, as they became partakers of the divine nature. This is what ends all loneliness, breaks down the dividing wall that separated them from God, so that God rushes in and fills them with true knowledge and love of Him.
And how did they receive it all? I’m not talking about the apostles. They had fire on their heads and received prophecies from on high. You’re not an apostle. But you’re a Christian and I’m talking about the 3000 that day who became Christians. How did it happen? They heard a sermon. Peter condemned their sins. He preached to them Christ-crucified, true God and Lord in human flesh, wounded for their transgressions and bruised for their iniquity. And when they were sorry for their sins and asked what shall we do? He answered, Be baptized every one of you for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And then they all heard more of God’s Word and took the Lord’s Supper and prayed and were filled with joy that didn’t go away; they came to church weekly if not daily and kept receiving communion and hearing God’s word and loving one another. That’s what happened.
And that’s what happens here. Right here, God Himself comes among us. Right here He makes His home with us who love Him because He has first loved us. Right here He claims us as His children, washed clean of all sin in Baptism and united to Christ’s death and resurrection. Right here our Brother and God Jesus Christ puts His true body and precious blood into our mouths, so that we are united to Christ as His Bride, on whom He pours His affection and guarantees His protection. Those were no empty words He spoke, “I am with you always.” And because He is ours and we are His, not only can we say, “O death where is your victory, O grave where is your sting?” Not only can we sing, “Sins disturb my soul no longer, I am baptized into Christ.” More than this, we have peace with God. My peace I leave with you, Jesus says. If God is for us, if our Father has claimed us, if His Son has made His home in us, and we have His Spirit, we are never alone, the despair of loneliness and separation from God the Spirit wipes away by Jesus’ word and body and blood.
And then we have true communion with one another. What a miserable thing not to be a Christian. God save us all from falling away, exchanging life for death and joy for vanity and knowledge for ignorance. Never being forgiven and so not forgiving. Having society with other humans but always only in pieces and stained with jealousy and resentment and the knowledge it will all end. But the communion of the Church, the communion of saints, where we who know the true God and are constantly known by Him learn to love one another, forgive one another, encourage one another, trust one another, with the knowledge that every fault we see in each other has been wiped away by the blood of Jesus that we drink together, and every annoyance we have will be erased forever in the glory of heaven, we are the family of God. We are the body of Christ. Everything that divides us from God and from one another – death, the devil, our flesh, our sins, this foolish, foolish world – Christ has triumphed over it all and we live by His triumph. So to hell with loneliness. Our God is with us. He will never forsake us. He unites us together. And no one will snatch us out of His hands. Amen
You confirmands, make your vows sincerely today, don’t be nervous, we all love you, and realize what you receive today, and thirst for it all your life; come and eat your Lord’s body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, knowing that here you receive what angels desire to look into, what the prophets never saw, what the Holy Spirit gave at Pentecost, that here your God and Brother unites Himself to you with all the church, in a fellowship that will have no end. Amen.