Have you noticed that we don’t spend much time on the Holy Spirit in the historical creeds of the church? The Holy Spirit gets one line in the Apostle’s Creed– “I believe in the Holy Spirit” and it doesn’t even make the Holy Spirit the subject who creates the communion of saints or the forgiveness of sins, and so on. The Nicene Creed gives us a little more, but it also does not detail the work of the Spirit, except to say that the Spirit spoke through the prophets.
What about the Holy Spirit of Pentecost? What about this Spirit that comes in wind and fire, a Spirit that gives the disciples extraordinary and inhuman abilities to spread the good news of God’s love to a culturally and linguistically diverse community and world?
Truth be told, the Holy Spirit makes us uncomfortable—the Spirit is a bit of a loose cannon. The Holy Spirit is not a part of God we can control or understand, or put in box and summarize in a creed. God the Father is the creator of heaven and earth. We can handle that. Jesus was God in human form. We’ve got Christmas and Easter and John 3:16, so we’ve got that figured out. But the Holy Spirit? The Spirit doesn’t lend itself to definitions; there’s no holiday we can create to put a structure around it. We never know when the Spirit is going to act or what it’s going to do.
This is uncomfortable because we like structure and form, constitutions and institutions, mission statements and 5-year ministry plans, liturgies and hymn books, traditions and expectations, Bishops and synods, and well, the Spirit of Pentecost is just too wild and unpredictable! Who can control wind and fire? How do we put that in a creed and a constitution?
At one of the congregations I formerly served, the Worship Team and I were trying some new things in worship—nothing too radical. The organist's husband brought in a drum set and played along on a few of the hymns. On Bread of Life Sunday, we started a bread machine in the sanctuary so we could smell the bread of Holy Communion as well as taste it. We put up a PowerPoint screen and showed images and pictures for the youth service. We tried to make worship more experiential rather than just cognitive, and wanted to give the Holy Spirit a few more openings to touch someone in a new way.
One woman, I’ll call her Fran, came up to me after we started trying a few different things, and she said, “the minute you install screens up there, I’m outa here.” Well, we weren’t even close to doing that, but Fran was voicing an anxiety about whether she mattered. She was locked into thinking that there was only one way to worship that would feed her and that was it. Fran couldn’t imagine that the Holy Spirit could speak to her, or touch her or communicate good news to her in any way that was different from what she was used to. Well, you don’t need the Holy Spirit if you just do it the way we’ve always done it.
Fran was right about one thing – things are bound to change when we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. And in that sense, the Holy Spirit is dangerous and uncomfortable. When we look closely at our Acts passage, we see why.
After Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples along with the women and many others who followed Jesus—about 120 people in all—were gathered in one place. They devoted themselves to prayer, and they picked Matthias to take Judas’ place among the 12 disciples. Jesus told them that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they will be witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” They had been waiting about 9 days.
They didn’t know when this power would come, they didn’t know how this power would come, and they didn’t know in what form this power would come. Would it come in a cloud, like in the book of Numbers? In a dove like at Jesus’ baptism? No one knew. Talk about feeling out of control! Jesus wasn’t even with them and there was no constitution, liturgy, plan, Roberts Rules, order of worship, or anything else they could look to in order to know what was coming next. All they had was each other, prayer, and Jesus’ promise that a power was coming.
“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.” You would think the Holy Spirit would land just on the disciples—they were the special ones, weren't they? They were the ones who spent the most time with Jesus—but no, the Holy Spirit is egalitarian—and lands on all 120 of them! “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
The Holy Spirit is an equal opportunity employer! The first radical act of the uncontainable, uncontrollable, uncomfortable Holy Spirit was to erase all divisions among those whom God calls to serve. It’s men and women, young and old, disciples and non-disciples, educated and uneducated, wealthy and poor, pastors and laypeople. Religious professionals like me, most definitely have not cornered the market on the Holy Spirit, and those who think the Holy Spirit would never work through you, think again!
No wonder the Holy Spirit makes us uncomfortable—everybody gets the Holy Spirit—even people I don’t like, or who I think are undeserving. Perhaps even more startling is the fact that if the Holy Spirit works through anyone and everyone—and that also means you.
The second radical act of the uncontainable, uncontrollable, uncomfortable Holy Spirit was to speak the language of every single ethnicity present. “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia…” and all those other names you hope you don’t have to pronounce as the Reader on Sunday morning! The Holy Spirit makes the good news of God’s love culturally relevant—people hear the good news of God’s love in their own native language.
We may not have Parthians and Medes in Florissant, but do have Millennials—those born between 1983-2003; we do have the largest population of Bosnians in St. Louis outside of Bosnia; we do have the “spiritual but not religious;” we do have young people who wonder if their lives matter—so, Atonement, what does it mean for us to share God’s mighty deeds of power in their native language? How might the Holy Spirit be working through you to communicate God’s love to those who are outside the church? The Apostle Paul struggled with this very question as he preached the Gospel across the Mediterranean world, which is why in 1 Corinthians 9:22 he says, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” He worked to share God's love in culturally relevent ways to reach everyone he possibly could.
That’s what I like to say to the Fran’s of the church who are afraid of too much change and who fear that they don’t matter. You matter more than you can ever realize! The Holy Spirit can speak to you in such a rich variety of ways, and more importantly, the Spirit is using you in this congregation and in the community to touch and help someone else. The Spirit’s wind and fire is on you and working through you, and that’s much bigger than whether I got exactly what I wanted out of one worship service or church event. In fact, many church gurus believe that the 21st century is more like the 1st century than any other time in our history. The 21st century is a Pentecostalcentury where we have to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to reach people with God's love.
Does waiting for and watching for and working with this uncontrollable, uncontainable, uncomfortable Holy Spirit mean that our church structures and institutions, traditions and practices don’t matter or are unnecessary? Of course not. There is so much mission we can do as the church including feeding the hungry, preventing malaria, digging wells, disaster relief, educating children, taking care of seniors, and on and on because we are an institution and work together as the body of Christ.
But today the Holy Spirit rushes in with a mighty wind and tongues of fire to invite us into the discomfort of opening ourselves up to the mission of Holy Spirit who works through every single one of us, opening up a new future that not only comes through our structures, but also beyond them. Luther Seminary professor Dr. Pat Kiefert says it this way:
The Holy Spirit loves structure and form but cannot be contained by any particular structure and form. So the Holy Spirit dwells in and creates many structures and forms but also breaks them open to the release of God’s preferred and promised future. (We Are Here Now, p. 63)
The uncontrollable, uncontainable power of the Holy Spirit is breaking open God’s future here at Atonement and the Spirit is using you to do it! We have each other, we have prayer, and we have the power of the Spirit who comes in breath, in wind and in fire, and that’s all we need to fulfill God’s future in this place and to the ends of the earth.
Image: Art by Veronica Dimae, Australia, "Pentecost," 2010. Media acrylic on stretched canvas, 130 x 100 cm. Found via http://www.iccrs.org/en/pentecost-in-art/.
It is a tough time to be the church. The future is unknown, the next steps are unclear. The activities that have always worked are no longer getting the same results as they once did. New people need to emerge to help grow the church, but how? It is time to trust in God’s power in new ways—things are changing and not always in ways that are welcomed and comfortable. Plus, the needs are tremendous—in order to fulfill its mission, the church needs more resources, more people, and more funding. Is it time to wait and pray? Is it time to step out and try something new?
Wait a second...did you think I was talking about us? Did you think I was talking about THIS church—St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Richardson? O, heavens no! I am describing the early disciples—as the church begins, on that first Pentecost morning! I was talking about the challenge that those first Christians had to face.
Just imagine it, their resurrected Lord has ascended into heaven. An unknown future weighs heavily upon them as memories of the past, and unanswered questions about the present rattle their minds. Decisions about where to go and how to minister that Jesus made every day, would now have to be made by someone else — but by whom? Who would lead this new generation? The church was also small in number — if they were going to fulfill Jesus’ command to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, they were going to need more people, and more capital as well. The future was unknown, the next steps were unclear.
Not surprisingly, the mission of the early Christians does sound a lot like us.
THIS is a tough time to be the church — it is a tough time to be THIS church, and for many of the same reasons that it was challenging 2000 years ago. Our old patterns of being the church, while precious and effective in the past, no longer work the way they once did, and we are they will not get us to God’s new future.
We need to listen to which future God wants us to move into—and we are not yet sure what it will look like and which steps to take to get us there. This was all true before the offer came to purchase the building, but now we have an opportunity to look at the future with deep consideration and prayer. Yet, this in-between space can be disconcerting. No one likes an unknown future when the next steps are not clear.
Regardless of which direction we feel led in the future, the church today, THIS CHURCH, is also challenged by a need for new resources—it is part of the conversation at our meeting today. Whether it is more finances to repair the building, keep our mission going, or more people to share their faith, teach our children, or expand our outreach, we feel our limitations. God has promised that the church of Jesus Christ will grow, but the way the church grew in the past 100 years is very different from the ways it will grow today and in the future. Again, we are confronted with the unknown.
But the Pentecost story does not end with the disciples praying together with questions and no answers, with a church to build and no resources to do it, with a future mission and no way to fulfill it.
God sends the power of the Holy Spirit with the rush of a mighty wind and the fiery breath of power from on high. The church is transformed on that first Pentecost, not because they came up with the right answer, but because God gave the church everything it needed to be the church!
• God gave the church the powerful message of love in Jesus!
• God gave the church courage!
• God gave the church the words to speak with the world that had gathered at its door!
Ultimately, God gave the church more people who, in turn, were given that message, that courage, and those ways to communicate about Jesus’ love.
Notice God gives the power of the Holy Spirit in two important ways: first, God gives the power of the Holy Spirit to the church as a whole. We are bound together. We are given collective courage. We are empowered as a unit. There is a “We” that is baked into the Pentecost story: when the day of Pentecost came they were all gathered one place. The church is more than the sum of its parts — together we are the body of Christ to share the love and justice of Jesus Christ in the world.
And so, on Pentecost, there is an emphasis on the “We” of the church. Today WE meet as a congregation, as whole, and the Spirit works through us collectively together when we gather, discuss, listen, and share in ways that the Spirit does not do when we are alone.
It is no accident that the Pentecost happens when the believers are together in one place! Repeat after me: “Pentecost has a radical WE!”
AND Pentecost is not only about the church as a whole, but also each believer individually. When the tongues of fire appeared, they rested on each one of the disciples. Yes, the church was given power and ability, as a whole, and also, so was each person. And so today, as we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, we declare that spiritual gifts are given to each and every single one of us. While Pentecost has a radical “WE,” it also has a radical “ME!” “Pentecost has a radical ME” Repeat after me:
• I am given the message of Jesus’ love!
• I am given courage!
• I am given ways to share God’s love with others!
• I have gifts to serve in the church!
• I have gifts to share in the world!
Pentecost implicates us collectively and individually. No one can say that their gifts, that their witness is not needed. Look at some of our chronologically gifted members—Betty Kennedy and Shirley Shanahan ---Can you do everything now that you could 40, 30 or 20 years ago? Of course not. But they keep showing up and sharing their spiritual gifts. Betty Kennedy still chairs the Prayer Chain; Shirley Shanahan comes in on Saturday for Altar Guild and sets up Communion! And they keep sharing their faith! And we are a stronger church because of it.
No one can do everything, but everyone can do something, and we cannot move into the next phase of our mission without you contributing your gift. If you cannot get out of your chair, or your home, you can pray, you can call and encourage members, you can send cards to the sick and homebound.
The church needs your ME in our WE—the Holy Spirit and the Church are a WEME organization—we cannot have one without the other. When we all bring our gifts, our voice, our insight, what the Spirit is giving and guiding us to contribute, then together WE will hear and follow the Spirit move us into a new future, just like it did that on that first Pentecost morning when the church had a fiery, multicultural start that has not stopped since.
These may look like tough times, but the Holy Spirit has been doing this for nearly 2,000 years—and I think God’s got our back. The Holy Spirit is upon us together and upon each of us individually, and we will be led into a new future of God’s design—with a message, with courage, with ways to communicate as a WEME community ready to move forward.
Image: Gerd Altmann, pixabay.com
When my son, Jacob was eight years old, he was in the kitchen with me while I was making him a bologna sandwich. He said, If I bought that bologna with my own money, I’d eat it all in one sitting. I responded that this wouldn’t be very good for hi sbody. Without a thought, Jacob quipped, What do I care? The afterlife is right now; the afterlife is the same thing as your first life.
Isaiah says, And a little child shall lead them.
A little child shall lead us because as Jacob demonstrated in that one brief conversation, and as I’m sure you’ve heard from children in your own life, children intuitively understand that all of life is one. They have not yet developed a divided consciousness—an inner self and an outer self, an ego that needs to be defended and preserved, a sense of separation from the physical world and the spiritual world, from this life and eternal life, from us and the “other,” from brown skin and white skin, from humanity and God. The afterlife is right now.
Isaiah holds out for us a vision of complete union in creation—the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr calls this characteristic of children “unitive consciousness with God”—and it begins to diminish around the first grade as individual awareness increases. This is why in the Catholic tradition, says Rohr, they give them their First Communion in first grade—to repair the breach between them and God, to get them back into the Garden of Eden, into oneness with God, when we all knew and understood that all of life, and creation and all of humanity are One with God.
Isaiah’s vision reveals that the divisions in this world—even in creation—between the predator and the prey, in the earthquake and tsunami, and even in death itself—are a result of the brokenness of sin, a sin and brokenness that permeates and manifests itself in human life through divisions and walls of separation more numerous than we count.
Onto this scene comes John the Baptist in our Gospel reading—he’s as One with Creation as anyone can be who lives in the wilderness of the middle east. He wears and eats and lives wilderness—he’s become one with creation and he sees that the separation and divisions of this world are against God’s purpose and God’s will as does Isaiah.
John’s message of fierce judgment in Matthew calls for humanity to repent of its sin—of its divided state—from God, from each other, and from creation in order to prepare for Jesus’ reign, to prepare for the One who will bring humanity back into unity with God, with each other, and with all of creation.
Perhaps this explains why John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers! For aren’t they the very ones who have structured the divisions and strata of society and claimed it to be by God’s will and design: the clean and the unclean, the Jew and the Gentile, the pure and the impure, those who are righteous and those who are not, those who have made their sacrifices and those who have not.
The religious elites proclaim and enforce the belief that division and separation and oppression and privilege are the very nature of God’s purpose, the very character of holiness, the very order of creation—a structure that always leaves them on top, and so many people divided and oppressed and left out.
Even the apostle Paul in in Romans is struggling against these divisions between Jews and Gentiles in the church in Rome. Paul writes to bring unity in the midst of their cultural, historical, and spiritual differences, Welcome each other as Christ has welcomed you.
John the Baptist gets us ready to welcome Jesus and his kingdom which will bridge the gap between God and us, between us and “them,” between humanity and creation. For Jesus entered the biggest chasm we have—that of death itself and conquered it for all time that we might be made One with God again—that our “unitive consciousness” with God might be restored as our sins and all the divide us are redeemed.
For John, our entrance into this new reality, the unitive reign of God in Jesus Christ, is Baptism. "Repent!” announces John! Change your thinking, let go of your divided mentality, and enter into the unity that Jesus brings—a reign where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the Gentile shall eat with the Jew, the outcast shall worship beside the elite.
Then John lays out a three-fold Baptism to bring us into union with this new reign of Jesus. I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire! Why are we baptized with water, the Holy Spirit and fire?
First, we baptize with water as a sign of “cleansing and rebirth” our baptismal service says. This part we get! The waters of baptism wash away our divided thinking, our old ways of doing things—it cleanses, purifies, and scrubs away the old self. Through water, we enter into the whole body of Christ; it’s not just about me, but we’re all together, floating in the same ocean of living water bound together by Christ himself.
But then John says Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit! The very same Holy Spirit Jesus received in his own baptism! Jesus comes up out of the Jordan river, the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. As the Holy Spirit alights on him, God’s voice from heaven announces, This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
Jesus offers us this same gift at our Baptism which we celebrate with two children today. God says to them and us: you are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased! God views you with favor and delight. God loves you unconditionally with total acceptance.
Have you noticed that the most difficult times we have in living in unity with others, is when we feel unlovable and unworthy and insecure? Have you noticed that the bullies you’ve encountered in life push people away and harm others to hide the truth that they do not feel beloved by God or anyone?
But what happens inside of you when you receive this gift of grace? You are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased! God loves you unconditionally with total acceptance. It changes everything, doesn’t it? I don’t need to prove myself, to defend my ego, or denigrate others when I receive and accept this gift of grace in my Baptism. It’s why Martin Luther wants us to remind ourselves every day that we’re baptized—that God’s grace and gift of the Holy Spirit is for for me, Linda, by name, and for you Jeff, and for you, Lisa and all of us by name. Such a daily practice can restore that childlike wonder and love, and bring us back to unitive consciousness with God.
Finally, John talks about Baptism by fire! Once we’re cleansed and grasp a new vision, once we’re loved unconditionally, then the real unity comes. Through love, Jesus burns away like chaff that which is not fit for the kingdom of God. And in this Baptism by fire, John foreshadows the risen Lord sending us the fire of Pentecost after the resurrection–remember? Divided tongues as of fire rest on the disciples so that everyone hears the good news being preached in their own language! The baptism by fire at Pentecost burns away divisions and brings all people, all cultures, all nations together hearing the Gospel of Grace in unity with one another. The baptism by fire enables us to see that God creates and loves all people, that Christ came for all nations. Every moment that we live in the union God intends, we are participating in the unitive vision of God spoken by Isaiah and the body of Christ Paul preaches in Romans.
This is the one thing my son Jacob at age 8 didn’t yet understand. When I told him that eating a whole pack of bologna wouldn’t be very good for him, he said, what do I care if this life and the next life are one? He thought that how he behaved now didn’t matter. A little child shall lead us, but it’s our job as the Church, to teach them that how we live now does make a difference—to other people and to God.
In this season of Advent, we prepare not only for the arrival of the babe in Bethlehem, but for Jesus to come again and to bring to fulfilment, our complete union with God, with creation and with all of humanity. And until that day comes, God calls us to be ready when Christ returns, by living in this beloved and baptismal unity here and now. For the afterlife is right now.