"The kind of food our minds devour will determine the kind of person we become." - John Stott, Your Mind Matters

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

When Two Plus Two Equals Five: The Spirit in Community

Well, I got my second chance at a sermon, preached on May 19, 2013 at First Baptist Church in Edmonton, AB. Here it is:


Acts 2:1-4 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

***

Today we conclude our 37-week narrative lectionary with the story of Pentecost – the long-awaited outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the holy Wind which blew new life into the people of God. Over the past few Sundays, we’ve jumped ahead to see what grew out of that first amazing wind-and-fire experience: we’ve watched the clueless disciples grow into spirit-filled leaders of the early church.

And it all started with Pentecost. I wonder what images or ideas come to mind for you with the word “Pentecost?”

Perhaps you or someone you know has had a “Pentecostal” experience – a supernatural outpouring of some kind. Perhaps it brought you joy. Or perhaps it made you uncomfortable. Maybe the word ‘Pentecost’ awakens your own discomfort with anything that feels too mystical or touchy-feely in the spirituality department. For some of us in the Baptist tradition who have trouble knowing just what to do with mystery, perhaps we’ve simply skipped over Pentecost rather quickly to the more tangible aspects of our faith. Or, maybe it’s a word you don’t even really understand.

My strongest association with the word is one of discomfort and it comes from my Bible College years, when I volunteered for a weekend with a Christian prison ministry. What I witnessed that weekend was a manufactured event that used spiritual themes to manipulate broken people. My disillusionment turned to indignation when I received a follow-up letter in the mail, declaring the event a rousing success. In fact, the letter stated: whereas only 3000 people were saved on the day of Pentecost, over 5000 were saved this weekend alone at the Weekend of Champions!!!

Unfortunately, this is what often comes to mind when I hear the word “Pentecost” – the way a Christian organization boiled down this climactic moment in history where God fulfilled his ancient promise to pour out his own Spirit on his people – to a success story about numbers.

And this is how some people think about the Spirit – that “it” is a powerful force which can be harnessed by people to manufacture results – numbers saved, miracles performed, power demonstrated – all of which are more about the product than the people. Or even worse, some have seen such demonstrations and declared the whole business to be phony, a sham.

The Gospel of the Holy Spirit
This is not the Holy Spirit as revealed in the Book of Acts, which has sometimes been referred to as the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. Whereas the traditional four gospels tell the story of Jesus as he walked this earth, this “fifth gospel,” if you will, tells the story of the adventures of the Holy Spirit – arriving on the scene to shape a ragtag band of confused followers into the New People of God. This relationship of Spirit and people would become the means by which God’s purposes in the world were, and are still, being accomplished.

In order to appreciate just how shocking such an idea must have been to the early Jewish believers, keep in mind that all they would have known of the presence of the Holy Spirit was vicarious, through the occasional and individual experiences of the prophets, judges and other leaders. And, at this point in their history, it’s been 400 years since even that happened.

And yet – they had heard the words of the prophet Joel, spoken so long ago, and which --- read earlier in the service:
“I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”
“I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” It must’ve been such a strange and wonderful idea. What would it be like for everyone to be filled with God’s Spirit?

The Disciples Are On Their Own
Eight hundred years after Joel wrote those words of God’s generous and inclusive gifting of his Spirit, we find the disciples at the beginning of the Book of Acts, probably wondering the very same thing. These men and women had walked with Jesus – they prayed and cried and ate with him. And Jesus taught them – about the Father and the kingdom of God, and about the Spirit that was to come. Jesus shared some pretty big dreams with them – bigger than Israel, even! – and they’re routinely left reeling and trying to make sense of it all.

There was a generosity, an expansiveness, to what Jesus was saying – he was constantly and tenderly stretching the disciples’ minds and imaginations about just how big God’s purposes of redemption really are.

And then, he was gone – ascended on the clouds to heaven. Despite the promise that Jesus would indeed come back to complete his mysterious restoration-mission – in the meantime they are left alone. Jesus, the resurrected God-man who is the driving force of this still-fragile movement, has left the planet. How brutal was that?

The disciples are on their own now, 120 men and women, with a pretty fuzzy picture of what happens next. They were inspired to dream big with Jesus, but without him – well, What now?, they wondered, and How?

This is one of the reasons that the book of Acts was written – to address the (failed) expectation of the first Christians that Jesus would return imminently – like, within weeks or months. It’s Luke’s attempt to show the early believers what it meant and what it looked like to be God’s people – to be the Church – in the meantime. And the key to that puzzle is that they were not alone for long – the Holy Spirit would love and lead them every bit as intimately as Jesus had.

And so, as the disciples ponder what they are to do next, they realise there is nothing they can do…except what Jesus told them to do: wait. Wait for the promised Spirit – this wild, untameable Wind which blows wherever it pleases. Wait, for God’s own presence cannot be summoned, contained, controlled or directed.

So these ones who love Jesus wait, and they pray – constantly, Luke tell us. It couldn’t have been easy to wait for God to act. It never is.

The Day of Pentecost
And then, the day of Pentecost comes. This ancient Jewish holiday began as a great celebration of God’s provision, when the firstfruits of the harvest were returned to him with thankfulness. It later expanded to include a commemoration of the giving of the law on Mt Sinai. It was an important day in the life of devout Jews, who gathered in Jerusalem from across the known world.

A perfect storm was gathering, out of which the Church would be birthed. The first followers of Jesus and a great multinational crowd of dispersed Jews were converging in this time and place to celebrate the generous provision of God, when something like a mighty wind swept among them. Something like fire – for metaphors are as close as Luke can get to describing the experience – came and settled upon the heads of the believers. And in the midst of the whirlwind and the tongues of flame, God’s Spirit came to rest, once and for all, upon the people – women and men, young and old, servants and masters. The same Spirit who, in the very beginning, had hovered over the void and filled the earth with divine creativity was now filling the hearts of the people gathered in this place.

And the Spirit’s first work was to create relationships where there had been none. The Spirit spoke words into the mouths of those astonished believers, familiar words in the road-weary travellers’ own languages, words that sounded like home – the language of loved ones left behind. And those familiar words told of something utterly new. They spoke of “the wonders of God” – not only what God had done and was doing, even now. God was on the move!

Despite their common heritage, the local and dispersed Jews were strangers amongst each other. Their languages and adopted cultures had divided them. What they left with was a new sense of community, a shared identity as the New People of God.

And there was more…

In the space of a few moments, Peter, who had not so very long ago denied even knowing Jesus, was now eloquently proclaiming the great God-story to an audience of thousands. He was painting the big picture of God on the move. And all this by God’s Spirit!

And so began the adventures of the Holy Spirit. I like the way Barbara Brown Taylor describes what happened. She says:
“Shy people had become bold, scared people had become gutsy, and lost people had found a sure sense of direction. Disciples who had not believed themselves capable of tying their own sandals without Jesus, discovered abilities within themselves they had not known they had…In short order, they were doing things they had never seen anyone but him do. And there was no explanation for it except that they dared to inhale on the day of Pentecost. They had sucked in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it... The book of Acts is the story of their adventures.”
Gutsy, capable, gifted, transformed: these were the signs of the Spirit in the lives of the first believers. By the Spirit, Stephen the martyr was able to die with grace and with words of forgiveness, even as he fell at the hands of violent men.  By the Spirit, Saul the murderer became Paul the evangelist. And by the Spirit, Peter had a vision that resulted in Jews and Gentiles finding more common ground than they ever thought possible.

Recognizing the Spirit
One thing is clear about this mysterious Third Person of the trinity: The Holy Spirit is full of surprises!

Do we recognize this same Spirit, living and working in us?

My experience of the Holy Spirit seems a lot more mundane than that of the folks in Acts. It’s hazy, subtle – I don’t always know what is the Spirit and what is my own will or wishful thinking, or simple coincidence. I don’t tend to think of my experiences as epic or heroic.

Once again, Barbara Brown Taylor proved helpful to me as I struggled to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in my own life. Here’s what she says:
“Once you get the hang of it, the evidence is easy to find. Whenever 2+2 does not equal 4 but 5, whenever you begin to speak with eloquence you know you do not have, or find yourself offering forgiveness you had not meant to offer, whenever you find yourself taking risks you know you do not have the courage to take, or when you find yourself walking toward someone you meant to walk away from, then you can be pretty sure that you are experiencing the gospel of the Holy Spirit.”
Last week, as Anne described the spiritual practice of clothing ourselves with Christ, she mentioned putting on the “glasses of attentiveness.” What stands out when we peer through these new Spirit-lenses?
  •  Perhaps some of us have experienced our own 2+2=5 phenomenon…
  • Or shocked ourselves and others with unexpected eloquence, or unplanned forgiveness….
  • Maybe we’ve shown courage or kindness when what we really wanted was to run away….
These images offer a window into the Spirit’s work that I can identify with in my own life. They bring to mind another experience from my Bible College years, in which each student was assigned a volunteer placement for each semester. My assignment was to visit AIDS patients and other terminally ill people at a dark and dingy little four-storey nursing home in downtown Chicago. Every week, I dreaded going to this sad and depressing place. Every week, I considered taking one of my few allotted cuts.

But, I went, and sat and visited with these sick and lonely people – most of whom had long since been abandoned or forgotten by family and loved ones. And every single time I went, I was filled with the most incredible sense of joy. I knew God’s Spirit had been there with me. I continued visiting on my own for another year and a half after my assignment was completed, and it never got easier to go, but it also never ceased to bring me great joy when I did. I have since learned to recognize this unexpected and intense joy as one of the clearest signposts of the Holy Spirit’s presence in my life.

What is your signpost? How do you most clearly sense the Spirit’s presence?

Joy, fellowship, forgiveness, or risky, courageous love – what it boils down to is our relationships with each other. The Spirit is most readily seen and experienced in the context of community. It was true on that first day of Pentecost and it is true today.

A Spirit-Filled People
And this is something that we must not miss: there’s an awful lot of togetherness going on in this passage, and indeed, the entire Book of Acts. Luke repeatedly makes a point of telling us that the first believers did what they did together. Though there is most certainly an individual element as well as a communal one to this Pentecost-story, we must not forget that the Holy Spirit was poured out on a people who would not have comprehended the individualism by which we define ourselves today.

This great inaugural Spirit-filling happened in the context of community. Or more precisely, the Spirit was creating – birthing–  a people  through whom God’s purposes would be accomplished in the world. We have been preaching about the NPOG – the New People of God and about God’s great work of providence, transformation and restoration….Here’s where it all starts. On the day of Pentecost, God chose to pour out his Spirit, forever, on a whole community of people.

A Spirit-Filled First Baptist Church
So on Pentecost Sunday, let’s not limit our awareness of what the Spirit is doing to our own personal, interior experiences. Let’s take a look at the bigger picture as well. What is the Spirit doing amongst us as a people at First Baptist Church? What does it look like to experience our own Spirit-filling in relationship with others?

Let’s take a moment to think about that.

How are we enabled to be a community through whom God’s purposes are being accomplished in the world”? How do we live out of this story 2000 years later?

Just like those first believers at Pentecost, we too are empowered by the Spirit with gifts and abilities we did not know we had. By God’s Spirit, we are specially enabled to help transform our world in this time and in this place. The next question is, How?

Well, as a new member here, I can tell you that the diversity of this community is what stands out to me. We are a mixed group, and you know what? – It works. We work. We may disagree, we may argue and hurt each other once in awhile, but we also hear each other. We grow. We love. We press into God’s story and find ourselves there, together. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to journey with each other, in all the richness of our diversity.

We are also a people who care a lot about stories – our own, others’, and most of all, God’s Great Story. Just like those first believers at Pentecost, we too have a Story to tell. We are a community that is actively learning how to live into and out of God’s story, and how to speak that Story into others’ lives. Today, we got to hear a piece of ---’s story, and to celebrate the journey she’s been on to discover her own place within God’s story.

And this, I believe, is what it means to be Jesus’ witnesses: yes, we are to heartily proclaim the risen Christ, but even more so we are to live out the reality that Christ has made for us – that God is breaking down walls, mending relationships and healing our world. By God’s Spirit, we are the gospel made flesh – loving, forgiving, restoring, and building relationships where there were none.

So, today on Pentecost Sunday, and as we enter the season that follows, let’s be attentive to what the Spirit is doing in this place, in and through this people. How is the Spirit inviting us to grow over these next 26 weeks?

Let’s take a moment now to sit with the Spirit, who lives in us, and gives life to this community. Take a deep breath and breathe in of the Spirit, who sets us aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant love (1). Let’s take a moment to put on those Glasses of Attentiveness and take a peek at just what manner of adventures the Spirit is up to in this place. And then I’ll close with a prayer (2).

***

O Holy Spirit, by whose breath
Life rises vibrant out of death;
Come to create, renew, inspire;
Come, kindle in our hearts your fire.

In you God’s energy is shown,
To us your varied gifts make known.
Teach us to speak, teach us to hear;
Yours is the tongue and yours the ear.


***

Benediction
Dearly loved people of God, may you find yourselves swept off your feet and into the adventure to which you have been called by God’s own Spirit – a great journey full of divine surprises and holy intrigue – and may you find here in this place companions for the journey, and encouragement for the path ahead.

***

(1) from a quote by Brennan Manning, which I initially included but had to cut: “The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.” – Brennan Manning
(2) from the hymn, Oh Holy Spirit, By Whose Breath
(3) Please note that I've borrowed the title of this post ("When 2+2=5") from Barbara Brown Taylor, whom I've quoted within this sermon.

2 comments:

  1. Well-written Becky! But you don't need me to tell you that. :)
    We recently finished a bible study on Forgotten God: Reversing our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit. It was a challenging study, as we were reminded of the fact that when Jesus left, the Holy Spirit came to comfort and direct us. When we ignore Him or dismiss Him, we are rejecting our God and saying we don't need his Gift in our lives. It was challenging because...what are we afraid of? It all came down to fears, and wanting to do things man's way and not God's way. Thanks for sharing this!

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  2. Dear Becky:

    As you say, I affirm you all the time and I mean to. Because for good or ill this is a message that much of the church skips or ignores or waters down. Over and over and over. Because we are afraid. Because we are silly. Because we are unadventurous.

    May the wind blow hard thru our ranks and knock us off our steady feet. For the Sprit of God is not a quiet, sweet, easy presence. It will rock the foundations of our lives. And it must. COME HOLY SPIRIT!!! Thanks, Beckster!

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