I am very mindful this morning that following three weeks of the production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” the appetite for any kind of sermon may be at an all-time low. It is fair to say that an inspiring and challenging Biblical story presented dramatically normally surpasses even the most convincing and eloquent spoken words. And so today the sermon assignment is a challenge to say the least.
Over the years when arriving at Pentecost Sunday I am reminded of my days in seminary and specifically the required course in what was called “History and Doctrinal studies.” I recall that the class was very early on a Monday morning and was not the most electrifying subject to commence the week. Our professor Dr. Gordon MacDermid was the very best. Gordon possessed a tremendous grasp and usage of the English language matched with a refreshing sense of humour. These attributes served to compensate for what would otherwise be a rather dull subject. On one particular morning a fellow student named Bob asked Gordon a very complex question. Bob was known as one who wanted to impress the faculty. I don’t remember the exact nature of his question but following it there was a long pause as Gordon stroked his beard and looked upwards . . . perhaps for divine intervention! He then responded very deliberately: “Bob, if I had the wisdom to respond to your question, then I could no doubt explain perfectly the mystery of the Holy Trinity.” That statement, although offered in jest, has stayed with me because as newly minted ordinands we would go out to our various church appointments and endeavor to expound on this subject . . . naively thinking that we had a command of it.
This brings me to today. . . Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit as was predicted by John the Baptist: “I baptize you with water but the One who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16). For just a moment let me focus on how scriptures describe this mysterious yet real gift. Dr. Brian Peterson is Professor of New Testament at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. I find that his precise summary is most helpful for the purposes of brevity and understanding: He says: “The New Testament authors bring to us distinct definitions of the Holy Spirit: (1) For John the Spirit is the Advocate, that is the continuing presence of Jesus with the church, and the source of peace. (2) For Paul, the Spirit is that which unites us to Christ, makes us into his body, and gives particular gifts to each person for the sake of the community. (3) For Luke in the Book of Acts, the Spirit is the power of God, the mighty burning wind that blows the church into new and unexpected places of ministry.” Keep that last definition in mind for a moment as I will return to it.
We could draw a great deal from Peterson’s summary in that any of these definitions of Spirit: advocate, a community of differing gifts seen as Christ’s body, and the power of God are all extensive subjects on which to expand.
To preach on the subject of the Holy Spirit and its coming, in a few designated minutes on a Sunday morning, does a great disservice to a subject that is large in content and interpretation. And so, I would ask you to accept my thoughts as simply scratching the surface of what I recognize as a mysterious yet real concept . . . the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives in whatever way we attempt to define or explain it. The Holy Spirit is an indispensable gift and dynamic of the Christian life. Yes, New Testament authors have given us their take on it but it is a very individual gift and so it will be experienced and manifested in numerous ways.
Today we gather to celebrate this Pentecost event…the Birth-Day of the church. The model of which we have to admit has changed dramatically over the centuries and the need for more change has become critical if the church is to survive. The need for relevancy, meaning, and authenticity in all our worship and programming has become central to the future. We are not alone as a congregation in focusing on initiatives that will potentially reach out to persons seeking meaning and spiritual nurture in their lives through sharing in community. On this point I was challenged by the words of the Polish-born American rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: He says: “It is customary to blame secularism for the eclipse of religion in modern society. But it would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive and insipid. When faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain, when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with a voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.” There is an urgency in Heschel’s words that we need to take seriously. I interpret his reference to compassion as the Way of Jesus Christ, the raison d’etre for which we gather here this morning. The one non-negotiable tenet of our life of faith.
The well-known account of the Pentecost event in Acts chapter 2 continues to raise questions and gives rise to various interpretations. We grapple with the imagery of wind and fire, used by the writer to explain the otherwise indefinable experience. And yet these are powerful metaphors used throughout scripture. The references to the large number of persons assembled suggests a universal crowd from East to West. Many voices speaking in other languages, sometimes referred to as other tongues, has given rise to some skepticism. Regretfully in some charismatic circles within Christendom, it has produced another distinction between Christians…those who can speak in tongues and those who cannot, as if the latter are lesser Christians. Not unlike the similar classification or labels we encounter of Christians and born again Christians, where the latter may be led to feel more authentic and superior. Such elitism creates a great disservice to Christendom.
I do not profess to know any more than anyone else as to the happenings on that Pentecost Day. But let me suggest that whatever took place caused all those present to experience the same reaction. Something happened to them that they could not explain… but they felt it. Their exclamations, their sacred joy, whatever the words or sounds or languages or babble, were all reactions to that wonderful, never before experienced, indefinable moment. As such they all understood a uniform emotion that didn't require any translation. They were truly of one accord at that precise moment. And to be of one accord was precisely Jesus’ hope for us as a community of faith.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Galatia speaks of the fruits of the Spirit and I quote: "But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives, this Spirit will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." Yes, the Spirit-filled life is hard work and demands a high level of personal integrity. If indeed these are the ingredients of the gift of the Spirit and are practiced in our lives together then we can indeed be of one accord. These gifts, these attributes will always moderate where there is division, differing opinions, and tension. Yes, we can agree to disagree but with integrity and respect.
God's Spirit has always been present in the world. The same spirit which has been described as the counsellor, the advocate, the empowerer, or the enabler. It is the same spirit which called Moses, Isaiah and other Prophets to assume unimaginable tasks; the same spirit which was able to work within and encourage a people in bondage and in exile; the same spirit that has called and enabled men and women in modern times to achieve for the sake and good of humankind, far beyond their imagination, understanding and especially their sense of preparedness for the task.
The presence and work of the spirit is manifested all around us when we are in tune with our own life experiences and those of others. How often have you said or heard others express words such as "I just don't know how I got through it all!" Underlying this statement is the recognition that something beyond the scope of personal coping or endurance has enabled the person to get through an ordeal The statement doesn't attempt to explain or define what that something was, but at the same time it indirectly acknowledges a resource that we have learned to identify as that of the Spirit. In our encounter with many of life’s challenging circumstances we need an extra measure of grace and strength beyond our own resources. Let me say from a personal perspective that if there is anything that convinces me of an enabling Spirit beyond my own resources, it is precisely when navigating through these otherwise overwhelming situations.
In all of this, and I am referring to everything that I have offered this morning, there is one important point to make. We must never conclude that the only kind of enabling spirit is of the Holy variety. I believe that spirit with a small “s” is part of our very make up, our soul, our identity, part of our DNA. The Canadian Oxford dictionary provides a most meaningful definition of this ingredient of life: spirit is the vital animating essence of a person. However, having made a distinction between spirit and the Holy Spirit, then that vital animating essence may well be the divine within us.
This spirit is a reality. Not only can we experience it ourselves but our lives are enriched when we see it working in other people's lives…in a family coming to grips with bereavement or other kinds of loss; in the attitude of a person determined to try again following discouragement; in the courage of a person dealing with prolonged illness or infirmity; or in the smile and laughter of a differently abled child.
It doesn't have to be defined, touched or totally understood, but it is felt . . . The Spirit is here this morning. We need not look any further or seek some deep theological explanation. The mystery remains … and you and I are part of it.
Throughout the service today the theme of Spirit has been very evident. The Choir got us off to a lively start with its introit: “I’m going to sing when the Spirit says sing, pray, and shout.” Not unlike what was happening in the crowd on that Day of Pentecost. My sermon title this morning “Catch the Spirit” was not intended as a call to some evangelical reawakening but rather as a nudge to rekindle the Spirit within us that will stir the imagination and encourage us to embrace a future as the church. That may well be dramatically different in expression and content, but not in purpose, than the church whose birth we celebrate today.