May 15, 2016, It’s Lovely, Dear, but What Is It For? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: 120922_001
There is a movie called “Babe”, from about twenty years ago, about a pig who wants to be a sheepdog. It was filmed in Australia, and the farm – home of Farmer Hoggett and his wife – has a wonderful story-book charm, lovely and cozy and old-fashioned. If you’ve seen the movie, you may remember but there is a scene where the Hoggetts are celebrating Christmas with their daughter and her husband and their truly awful children. When Mrs. Hoggett unwraps the gift from her daughter, which is a fax machine, she clearly has no idea what it is. “It’s lovely, darling,” she says, “but what is it for?” The gift was well-meant, but poor Farmer Hoggett and his wife can’t see that it has anything at all to offer them, nothing to do with life as they know it.
Today we celebrate the receiving of a gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out on all the disciples of Jesus Christ gathered together in Jerusalem. It was a spectacular moment – there was a sound like a violent wind, and each person gathered there saw, over the heads of the men and women around them, what looked like little flames, tongues of fire. And then, suddenly, they all began to speak at once – but not babbling in their usual local dialects of Greek or Aramaic or even Hebrew, as they might have expected. One person began to speak in Parthian, another in Medean, another in Akkadian, and somebody in Arabic, and somebody else in Latin. It must have sounded like the busiest shopping mall in the most cosmopolitan city on Black Friday, an absolute Babel of voices – only instead of people being confused like at the Tower of Babel, everybody heard the message of the gospel as if it were being spoken to them personally, in their own native tongue. That day three thousand people heard the gospel, and there were three thousand baptisms – how, I wonder, did they perform three thousand baptisms? – and the newborn church gained three thousand new members. Wow.
We celebrate the Day of Pentecost because it was the birthing moment of the Church of Jesus Christ, the very instant his followers drew their first breath of real, eternal life. It makes an exciting story, but what does it have to do with life as we know it in our quiet, respectable little Episcopal Church. It’s lovely – but what is it for? We know that the Holy Spirit belongs in there with the Father and the Son in all the Trinitarian places like blessings and baptisms. But people that get really excited about the Holy Spirit mostly go to churches where the music is peppier and people get more emotional and are just generally more bouncy. Because here’s the thing: all too often Christians – all kinds of Christians – think the Holy Spirit is just for the fancy stuff. We often behave as if the Holy Spirit is something we need a shot of to do the really spectacular stuff, like speaking in tongues and healing and prophesying. In fact, sometimes people treat the Holy Spirit like a kind of spiritual Viagra, something that gives them a moment of potency when they need it – sort of a jolt of superpower for those superChristian moments.
And truthfully, in Old Testament times, before the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church on the Day of Pentecost, that is how people experienced the Holy Spirit. There is a story about Samson, who was one of the Judges in the time before there were any kings in Israel. Samson was an incredibly powerful man whose weakness for pretty girls eventually got him captured by the Philistines. They blinded him, and chained him up like an animal for entertainment at a big dinner party. Samson prayed to God for one last burst of strength to defeat his enemies. And suddenly, filled with the power of the Spirit, Samson pushed against the stone pillars of the room and the whole house collapsed, killing Samson along with 3,000 Philistines.
But the pouring out of the Spirit on the Church was not a little “essence of God” to animate our lifeless humanity for a brief moment – the pouring out of the Holy Spirit was – is – a life-giving infusion, something that transforms us from the inside, something our life depends on.
Karen has been sending out prayer requests for a young woman named Stephanie McKeel over the last several weeks. Stephanie is a 12th grader from Massena with Cystic Fibrosis, who just received a double lung transplant. She has a long and dangerous journey ahead of her, and right now she is dealing with some setbacks that are scary and frustrating. But just think what it means for her to receive new lungs. First of all, a lung transplant isn’t like a kidney transplant. People don’t have a couple of extra lungs they might decide to share with someone. There could be no lung transplant unless there had been a great sacrifice: first of all, the loss of a person’s life, and also the willingness of that person and of the people who loved them to offer these organs to save the life of another person.
But when that gift has been given, if all goes well, instead of the constant battle of cystic fibrosis, fighting to breathe against the thickening fluids that are blocking the air passages, the new lungs will finally take in fresh air freely and easily, bringing life and health and strength with every breath she takes, breath to speak, breath to sing, breath to bring oxygen to every cell in her body, breath to sustain life. I pray that Stephanie will know that joy, and be restored to full health, soon.
And in a very real way, the gift of the indwelling Spirit is like a lung transplant for us, our Lord through his sacrifice making a way for us to take in – not the air of this world – but the breath of new and everlasting life. The words for Spirit in Hebrew and in Greek even mean breath, both of them. The Holy Spirit isn’t just a cool thing we can choose add to our spirituality. The Holy Spirit is the source of our very life and health and strength. He is our Comforter, our Teacher, our Advocate and Helper. He is our Counselor, reminding us of all that Jesus taught us. He is the Spirit of Adoption by whom we draw near to the Father with all confidence. He is the source of our fruitfulness, growing in us, day by day, all the fruit of life in the kingdom – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control. The Holy Spirit is our constant companion. He is our life.
The pouring out of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost wasn’t an afterthought or an optional add-on to Christ’s death and Resurrection. It was the essential fulfillment of the whole thing. “Stay in Jerusalem,” Jesus told his disciples before he ascended to the right hand of the Father, “and wait for the promise of the Father that I told you about. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses – in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – even as far as Norwood, New York, and even farther than that.
We know that for Stephanie,without those new lungs there is no life. But for us, it is equally true – without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we could never share the abundant life that Jesus came to give us. We can ask for a fresh breath of the Spirit whenever we are in need – and we should absolutely do that. But for those who have been baptized into the life of the kingdom, we should know there is not a single day or hour or minute in which we are truly alive apart from the life-giving breath of the Spirit.
The Church – and that’s us – the church was born into the kingdom of God on the day of Pentecost, when she took her first deep breath of the unquenchable, life-giving Spirit of Jesus Christ. There is nothing that the children of God do apart from the breath that sustains us – every word we speak, everything we do to care for the people around us, everything we create – everything we cook or sew or plant or weld or write or paint: our waking and our sleeping, our rejoicing and our grieving and our searching and our praying – the Holy Spirit is the one who breathes life into every single thing that we do.
There is a worship song that goes:
You give life, You are love / You bring light to the darkness
You give hope, You restore / Every heart that is broken
Great are you Lord
cause It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise, we pour out our praise
It’s Your breath in our lungs / So we pour out our praise to You only
Let us pray:
Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.