Monday, May 25, 2015

By the Power of the Holy Spirit

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Acts 2:1-21:

On May 24, 1738, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had a remarkable experience.  John had been struggling with his faith, and in particular with the claim made by some that after accepting Christ into his life, he should have been filled with continual joy, never experiencing any doubts about his faith, which is not what was happening in his life.  And so listening to those same people he believed that he had not actually been saved.  And so on May 24, , and let me remind you that today is May 24, John wrote in his journal, “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”  This event, known as the Aldersgate experience, was preceded three days earlier by a similar experience of his brother Charles, who on the one year anniversary wrote a poem, the 7th verse of which begins “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise,” which became a hymn of the same name and has been traditionally the first hymn found in any Methodist hymnal, from the first to the present day.

Although John and Charles had already really put into place many of the pieces that would lead to the formation of the Methodist movement, many people consider John Wesley’s heart being strangely warmed to be the date when the Methodist church was really begun, that without that event, we would not be sitting here today.  John himself in writing a letter to his much older brother Samuel said that before this event he was never a Christian.  To give some perspective, Wesley was already an ordained minister, spent more than two hours in prayer every day, plus private devotion, he fasted a minimum of two times a week, received communion 4-5 times a week, and engaged in service to those in need, so if Wesley wasn’t a Christian prior to this, then I would say none of us are Christian, and Wesley himself would later back off that claim.  He came to believe that people could have instantaneous conversion experiences, but for many, if not most, it was an experience that happened over time, and our faith continued to deepen and grow throughout our lives.  Now personally, as a church historian who studies Methodism, I think the Aldersgate experience is a little overdone in importance.  Not to say it’s not important, but I’m not sure we can claim that today, or this moment, are really the birthday of the Methodist movement.  Why Aldersgate is important, however, was because the transformative effect it had in John’s life and because of the power of the Holy Spirit which became present for him in that moment.

Which then leads us into the passage we just heard from Acts which tells the story of Pentecost, which is also said to represent the birth of the church.  Even I have made that claim before, but I’m in agreement with Rev. Richard Lischer who said, “When Jesus came out of the tomb; the church came out with him.” Easter, not Pentecost, is the true birth of the church because it represents the first decisive evidence of God’s reign entering the world.  But that new reign was confirmed and moved forward with the gift and power of the Holy Spirit given on the day of Pentecost.  Pentecost is the culmination of the 50 days of Easter, because Easter isn’t just one day, which means we should have access to jelly beans, marshmallow and Cadbury eggs until today.  Pentecost represents the reality that God is still present in our lives not only because Christ lives, but because the Holy Spirit, the advocate as the Gospel of John says, was sent to be with us after Christ ascended into heaven.  And yet most of us don’t really know about or understand who or what the Holy Spirit is or what it does.  Next week our Disciple class will complete their 34 week journey reading through the Bible, and one of the recurrent questions they had once we were into the New Testament was about the Holy Spirit.  And since today is the day we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit the idea of the Holy Spirit.

There are lots of reasons why we don’t really know about the Holy Spirit, and the first is because we don’t really talk about it much.  In many churches, the only time the Holy Spirit is mentioned is at baptism, or maybe whenever a Trinitarian statement is made, that of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or on Pentecost.  Hopefully I do a little more than that, but it’s not a lot more.  There are of course some churches, such as the Pentecostal churches, that do talk more about the Holy Spirit, but even then they are only talking about one specific gift given by the Holy Spirit, and that is speaking in tongues, or sometimes healing.  They still don’t really give a complete picture of the Holy Spirit.  But an even bigger part is the fact that within the tradition of the church, there has not been a good explanation given of the Spirit.

So for example, in the Nicene Creed, which was the church’s original formalization of Trinitarian theology, in which we say that there is only one God, but God has three parts, it originally said “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”   That is what is still contained in the Apostle’s Creed, but that doesn’t really give us any information. Later at the Council of Constantinople in 381, the statement was changed to say “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the father and the son, who with the father and son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.”  More information, but not necessarily a clarification. (SLIDE 4) In the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church, we state that we believe in “The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.”  Those are a little fuller statement, but does anyone want to say what they actually mean?  Didn’t think so.  So what can we say?

Well first I can say that we cannot cover everything here today about the Holy Spirit.  I have been asked to lead a Bible study on the Holy Spirit and I will be doing so sometime in the near future, I’m working on finding the right curriculum.  But let’s start with what the creedal statements do say, and that is that the Holy Spirit is the third part of the trinity, which then consists of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  So that means that we can address the Holy Spirit in our prayers.  It’s not something we often hear, but you can pray to, or through the Holy Spirit.  But what the Holy Spirit’s role as part of the Trinity represents, and what we find in scripture, is that it is through the Holy Spirit that God’s presence continues to remain in the world.  So sometimes this is really a matter of semantics.  For example, people might pray to Jesus to be present, or to walk them through something, to be with them, and say “I really felt Christ’s presence.”  Technically that is the Holy Spirit’s presence.  When we say something was a God moment, or we felt God’s presence, it’s the Holy Spirit.  That’s why when I pray every week I ask for the Holy Spirit to be present amongst us, to move and work in our lives.  Now can you keep saying it was God, or it was Jesus?  Yes, of course, because, and maybe this is heresy, I don’t think it’s as important to be able to say correctly what part of the trinity was active, as much as it’s important to simply be able to name those moments and to be able to say how God was present and working in your life today or this week.

So how do we receive the Holy Spirit, which is what happens at Pentecost, and what does that mean?  First is to know that the Holy Spirit is a gift, given to the disciples at Pentecost and continuing to be given to us.  The first gift of the Holy Spirit the church has always said occurs at baptism.  Just as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends upon Jesus at his baptism, so to do we believe that we receive the Holy Spirit at our baptism, and we see this later in Acts.  Peter encounters a group and he asks them if they have been baptized into the Holy Spirit, and they say they were only baptized into John’s baptism as a baptism of repentance, and so Peter tells them that’s not enough and rebaptizes them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  So we receive the Holy Spirit at baptism, but we also receive the Holy Spirit every time that we pray.  That’s what Jesus tells us.  He says that every pray is answered, not with yes, no or maybe, but that every time we pray we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  What we also heard from that passage we heard from Romans today, is that the Spirit also intercedes for us in prayers, especially when our sighs are too deep for words.

Now the problem that we often have with the Holy Spirit, besides for being able to name when it’s working in our lives, is based on the fact that we often expect only big dramatic things to come from the Holy Spirit.  That is true for several reasons.  The first is because what do we get when we receive the Holy Spirit?  Power.  And so we expect some amazing things.  The fact that the Greek word for power there is actually dynamus, from which we get words like dynamic and dynamite, only heightens this sense of expecting powerful things, and yet must of us probably don’t feel all that powerful, or at least not necessarily more powerful than normal.  The second reason we expect did dramatic things is because when we think of people who talk about the Holy Spirit a lot, we think of speaking in tongues or those churches that say they are filled with the spirit and are jumping up and down or rolling around, and we have two responses.  The first is probably to say that if that’s what having the Holy Spirit looks like, we’ll skip it.  Or we think that because we don’t do that, that it must mean we don’t have the Holy Spirit at all and wondering what we are missing.

The problem is that we have given a preference to, and seemingly only talk about, those experiences that are remarkable or ecstatic.  As a result, we then completely overlook the ordinary ways that the Spirit is working in our lives.  Because what Jesus is talking about when he says we will receive the power of the Holy Spirit is about being his witnesses to the end of the world.  Indeed, Jesus tells us that the only way we can proclaim that Jesus is Lord is by the Holy Spirit.  Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not about the ecstatic or euphoria or spectacular gifts, instead it’s about the ordinary, and most importantly it leads not to a puffing up of the self, but instead it should lead to humility and the building up of community.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul is trying to counsel members of the Corinthian church who want to preference the speaking in tongues above all other gifts, but he actually says that it’s not as important as other gifts.  Why? Because speaking in tongues is all about the individual and doesn’t build up the community. Instead, Paul says, speaking in tongues is not nearly as important as prophecy, which is also what Peter says in the passage we heard that the people are going to see visions and dream dreams, something we should pay attention to as we imagine a new future for this congregation.  And then in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23)  And notice that is not what the gifts are, but what the gifts bring, the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  None of those are about the individual.  They are all about being in relationship with others, about being in community.  If the gifts we receive are not about others, not about being transformative, then either they are not gifts of the Spirit or we are not using them correctly.

Jesus, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, says that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, and it’s not just to make some proclamation, but to actually do something, to transform the world and people’s lives.  When followers of John the Baptist ask if Jesus is the one, he says “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Lk 7:22)  The Spirit is about being transformed and being transformative, about realizing God’s power in the world and claiming that power to make our testimony public.  When we have received the Spirit, we cannot contain or control it, it’s about living it out and living differently as a result.

Aldersgate is important because of the transformation that took place in John Wesley’s life.  He moved beyond simply saying something about faith and how we are to live.  He began to actually live into that faith, to begin to generate those fruits of the Spirits.  Pentecost is important because of the transformation that takes place amongst the disciples.  Go back and read the gospels and what the disciples do, and really don’t do, and then move into the book of Acts and you’ll see that it’s like there are two different groups of people before and after Pentecost.  The gift of the Holy Spirit changes and transforms their lives, and they take that power to begin to proclaim the gospel message, as Jesus says, even saying Jesus is Lord comes from the Holy Spirit, and they bring 3000 into the faith that day.

We too have been given the Holy Spirit, and we have received some gifts of the Spirit, and that gift is different for all of us.  It is also different from our talents.  We are all born with talents, but the gifts, which include prophecy, teaching, exhortation, healing, leadership, mercy, knowledge, wisdom, service and giving, among others, are all given to us by the Spirit.  And most importantly what do we get when we receive the Spirit? Power.  The power to spread the message, which most importantly includes knowing that it’s not really up to us because the Spirit is the one going before us, the Spirit is the one doing the work, the Spirit is the one giving us the gifts to carry out what God has called for us to do, and the Spirit is God’s presence in the world.  We have been given the Holy Spirit, and so it’s up to us to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit so that we can go forward to proclaim the gospel message and transform the world.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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