May 20, 2018, Holy Spirit: Personal Trainer? or Pillar of Fire? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000081
Today, the Feast of Pentecost, is one of the Big Holy Days of the Church year – not quite as big as Easter and Christmas, but certainly ranking very high in the Holy Day hierarchy. You can tell just walking into the Church this morning that it is an important day, because we’ve changed the colors of our hangings, and we have incredibly beautiful flowers on the altar. And we have special traditions for the day, like wearing red, and bringing red flowers to plant. When we were members of Trinity Church in Potsdam, the gospel reading on the Day of Pentecost was read in as many different languages as we could find people to read them, all at once, to give us a little taste of that outpouring of tongues on the first Pentecost. We mark this day with all these things, which are signs and symbols of the work of the Spirit, because it was on the first Pentecost, that the Holy Spirit came to dwell with us, and the Church of Jesus Christ was officially born.
When Jesus returned to the Father, which we call the Ascension, and which we celebrated last week, his followers were a fairly small group – the eleven remaining apostles, and the women, including Jesus’ mother Mary, who had traveled with Jesus and the disciples. And then there were those of the faithful who came together after the traumatic events of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion – probably including quite a few of those tax collectors and sinners that had scandalized the respectable members of the Jewish community. All in all, the entire gathering of the faithful on the day of Pentecost consisted of a ragtag group of about 120 Jews. And then, kind of like the Big Bang that some scientists say was the catalyst for the formation of all the life in the universe – kind of like that, the Holy Spirit arrived with wind and fire and weird, unexpected languages. And all at once, the Church burst into life.
I think pretty much all Christians know that on the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church in an entirely new way. And we know that ever since that day, being a Christian means receiving the Holy Spirit. When you were baptized, the priest spoke your name, and declared “you are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” And later, when you were confirmed or received, the Bishop said this prayer, or something like it: “Strengthen, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit; empower him (or her) for your service; and sustain him all the days
of his life. Amen.” So we know that being Christian means that the Spirit of Jesus Christ lives in us. But I think we don’t always have a very clear idea of what it really means to be a person and a Church indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And so Pentecost is a really good day to try to gain a better understanding of that very thing.
We live in a nation and at a time in history when people tend to think of themselves in individualistic terms. We are less apt than people in other times and places to think of ourselves first as members of our community or nation or family, and much more likely to think of ourselves as individuals. We consider that each person is responsible for his or her own actions. We make decisions based on our own judgments and priorities rather than the judgments and priorities of the community – we get to decide whom we’ll marry. We get to decide what career we’ll pursue. We get to decide where we’ll live. We get to decide what church we’ll join. That all seems normal to us, I think, but the extent to which we see ourselves as individuals is actually unique to our culture. And for that reason, modern Christians, and especially modern American Christians, by and large, have come to think of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in very individualistic terms. The Holy Spirit is often seen as a kind of Holy Personal Trainer, teaching and guiding and correcting and empowering us in our personal spiritual life so that we can grow into a strong, mature faith, and so edify the Church with the particular gifts we have received. And that is true, but it isn’t the whole truth.
I think that is a very limited understanding of what really happened on the Day of Pentecost, and of what the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit really means to the Church. I think the coming of the Holy Spirit is a much, much bigger thing than we have yet realized. First of all, we need to realize how important it is that the Holy Spirit came to the Church as a community, a whole gathering of believers. When the crowds in Jerusalem heard the crazy babbling of the disciples on that day, and then, one by one, began to recognize their own language in among all the noise – that wasn’t just Peter, star performer, wowing the crowds with his charismatic preaching. It was the whole gathering of the faithful, so intoxicated with the Holy Spirit that a lot of people thought they’d had a little too much to drink – all of them suddenly speaking words they didn’t even know. Thousands of ears heard God speaking to them in their own language. Thousands of hearts were cut to the quick; all at once, in thousands of minds, the light of God’s wisdom and grace shone out. A really Big Holy Bang.
And one of the most important things to recognize in all that wonderful chaos is the the Holy Spirit came, not primarily to make individual super-Christians out of those early believers, but to carry out the agenda of the Father, which was to bring his love out into the world. Remember that Jesus told his disciples, before he left them, that he was sending them into the world just as the Father had sent him into the world. That means that the agenda of the Church is the agenda of the Son. And the agenda of the Son was first and always the agenda of the Father. And the agenda of the Father, put simply, is this: “God so loved the world…”
Jesus told his disciples, more than once, “I don’t do anything on my own. My work is only to do the will of my Father in heaven.” Every single thing that Jesus did in his earthly ministry was following the loving agenda of the Father, whose purpose from the beginning was to make his beloved Creation fully and completely well and whole and alive. If we understand that, then we begin to see that the purpose of the Church, is the same as the purpose of her Lord – to pursue the agenda of the Father. We exist, then – we, as the community of all the faithful – we, like Jesus before us, exist for the sole purpose of bringing the love of God to the world. Paul describes us as being ambassadors, sent to bring reconciliation and healing between God and the children he loves. And the Holy Spirit, who was sent to make his home in our midst, is our guide and our teacher and our strength to carry out the Father’s agenda.
I think the big difference that makes in the way we go about being Christians is that we need to learn to watch for what the Holy Spirit is doing, rather than just asking for him to help us carry out our own agendas. It is always a good and right thing to ask the Holy Spirit to help us in our daily individual lives. We can and should ask for healing, for ourselves and others, for patience, for strength, for wisdom, for grace, for forgiveness. But as the Body of Christ, as a community, we need to learn to watch for the movement of the Holy Spirit as he pursues the Father’s agenda in the world, and then we need to follow. We the Church need to recognize the Holy Spirit as our head and our heart, and not just our battery.
It’s always a lot easier to see what the Holy Spirit is doing in hindsight. Looking back, we can recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit through his Church in crucial moments in history. The Church in England in the nineteenth century experienced the Oxford movement, that brought a renewed dedication to Scripture as well as ministry to the poor in the slums of the cities. The Church, led by the Spirit, was a major force in the abolition of slavery, first in England, and then in the United States. The Church, primarily the Black Church, led by the Spirit, was at the center of the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s. These were the leadings of the Holy Spirit guiding his Church and empowering them to bring about the Father’s loving agenda: to deliver his children from the oppression of this world, to right wrongs, to expose lies and corruption.
As the Church today, here, in this place, we have to practice watching for the movement of the Holy Spirit. In our local community, it seems to me, in the few years I’ve been here, we have seen the Spirit at work strengthening the bonds between the different congregations of Norwood so that we can better minister the love of the Father in a united way – through the food pantries, the Snack Pack program, the Lunch Program for Kids, the Thrift Shop, Community Dinners, Neighbors Helping Neighbors, The Gabriel Project, St. Vincent de Paul, Helping Hands. And I think there is more happening than we can even see. As the Churches of Norwood, set in the North Country where there is so much poverty and unemployment, and with so many neighbors who are elderly and alone, we can see the Holy Spirit has been leading us, not as separate congregations, but as the Church of Jesus Christ working together on the Father’s agenda. We are here for love of the world, just as Jesus was. And his Spirit is our guide. We don’t always see the whole picture all at once, but as we have been obedient to follow the Spirit’s leading, we can look back and begin to see what he is accomplishing through us. God so loves the world that he gave – us. And that might seem arrogant, if we didn’t know that we have the wisdom and power of the Spirit of Christ to guide us, and that all that we do is his work.
It is a much harder thing, it seems to me, to see what the Spirit is doing on a larger scale, on a national scale. But we, as a church, and as individuals, need to be diligently seeking to recognize the agenda of the Father in the midst of the hostility and chaos and violence and uncertainty all around us. Surely now, more than ever, the Father wants us to make his love known in this hurting world. Every day, religion is being used as a political weapon, seeds of division are being sown, and truth is being undermined. As the Church of Jesus Christ, it is our duty, not to take sides, not to use the world’s system for our own ends, but to watch and wait for the movement of the Holy Spirit who is our guide, and to follow him only, pursuing the Father’s agenda, speaking his love to a world that is in desperate need of it.
Yesterday, something like 40 or 50 million people, or maybe more, worldwide, watched the royal wedding. All those millions of people heard the words of our own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, as he preached the gospel in probably the most evangelistic wedding sermon ever. He said – on national television – “[Jesus] died to save us all. He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He wasn’t getting anything out of it. He gave up his life, he sacrificed his life, for the good of others, for the good of the other, for the well-being of the world, for us. That’s what love is. Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.”
The royal wedding was a moment of increased openness between two countries who have been at odds with one another politically this past year. It was a moment of at least a little increased openness between races and classes. It was a moment for the open proclamation for the love of Jesus Christ, not just to the people seated in the Cathedral, but to millions of people in their homes and in restaurants, on TV and on their computers. That was the Holy Spirit leading us, through the words of Bishop Curry.
And our part is to follow that leading. Following that shining moment of global openness yesterday, what will the Church, what will we, do and say to bring those words of hope into people’s real lived experience and not just one glorious passing moment on their TV screens? Because we are the love of God on the ground. We are the love of God with hands and feet and voices. We are the love of God in Norwood and on our own streets and in our own families. And we have the wisdom and the power of the Holy Spirit going before us, to carry out the agenda of the Father.