Betty gave us a scare in worship! She had told me she was upset about forgetting to wear red, but really….
Haha. We are deeply grateful that she seems to be fine. And having to move church outside and then back to the fellowship hall gave everything a pleasant, spontaneous air, I thought–appropriate for Pentecost. But I didn’t quite finish the sermon. So for those who wanted to see how it ended…
1 Corinthians 12:4-11 (Call to Worship)
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21
We brought our Easter series to a close with the gift of the truth. Among many other gifts, the risen Christ has left us with his Word of truth. This truth that we received and continue to receive is well-grounded in the story of Jesus, yet also fluid and flexible and continually new in the Spirit. And that’s exactly the shape of truth that our world needs today. We seem to be torn between rigid, black-and-white truth (according to the stereotype of conservatives) and a loss of faith in any truth beyond our personal opinion (the stereotype of liberals). It’s no wonder that we can have difficulty having good conversations, when our very idea of truth is in shambles.
Truth might be a mess in our world, but it’s not all the world’s fault. Christianity must shoulder much blame for this state of affairs. From long ago the church put itself in God’s place, claiming God’s gift of truth as our own possession and the basis for our absolute authority. We must take responsibility for our culture’s resulting cynicism and loss of belief in the truth, so that for many there is no longer anything beyond my own opinion to which I am responsible. Another word for “taking responsibility” is “repenting.” That is the first step in Jesus’ formula for seeking the truth: repent and believe in the good news. The unique shape of Christian truth that we must reclaim begins with repenting: admitting that I am wrong, I am seeking my way, I do not have all the answers. It’s just the opposite of defensively asserting, I’m entitled to my opinion. We confess our own emptiness, and we can do that only because we believe that God alone is all fullness, and in Christ Jesus risen from the dead we have caught sight of that fullness.
But today we move on to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now, I will resist my almost unquenchable desire to get into the theory of the Holy Spirit. I’d love to deal with questions like, what is the Spirit, and how does it differ from Jesus, the Son or the Word. I could talk about the Trinity every week. But I won’t; because next week is Trinity Sunday. I can afford to be a little patient.
And today is not a day for theory, for being in our heads, because the Spirit is about action, about doing, about power. If you have the Spirit, you don’t sit around contemplating it, asking lots of abstruse and refined questions about it in a self-reflective mode. When the disciples received the Spirit, they ran out and started proclaiming; and then they started living a new form of community, so that at the end of Acts 2 we see them freely sharing their goods with each other. The Spirit makes you reach out beyond your own boundaries, makes you get together with new folk and create community and be in it. The Spirit won’t let you retire to your room to write and think. (Which, I admit repentantly, is often where I’d rather be.)
So I suppose we could stop there, toss out the rest of the sermon, and just start doing the Spirit. We could rush out those doors together and start proclaiming and healing and loving. I hope we will do that, soon enough. But unfortunately we still have much to learn and think about when it comes to just the Spirit. Because, I think, there are some misguided ideas about the Spirit out there that are holding us back. We’ve done the same thing to the Spirit that we’ve done to truth: we’ve made it individual. We’ve made it subjective. We think of God’s spirit working only in my life, and perhaps in yours, ‘but that’s none of my business.’ Now don’t get me wrong, God’s Spirit is deeply personal, as we saw last week that the truth of Christ is very personal. You aren’t in the Spirit if only your head is involved, or only your heart—it’s got to be all of you. But there is no private Holy Spirit that is all your own, just as there is no private truth. Consider how we use the word “spirit” in a secular way. School spirit, team spirit, the spirit of a nation. Spirit is what makes a collection of people into a powerful unity. And isn’t that the great question of our day? What is going to unite our town of Granby in its next 250 years? What is going to unite our sorely divided nation? What unites the nations of the world—the spirit of democracy, the spirit of capitalism—or will we all just go our own way?
The question of where and how to find spirit, to find unity amid our freedom, is perhaps the most pressing question of our day. And I want to show you today that we Christians, we the Church of Christ Congregational in Granby, have the answer to this most pressing question. The true answer to this question is right here at hand; it lies in the bones that make us up as a church: this Bible, these sacraments, this building, these leaders and people, this music, this liturgy, this pastor, God willing, and above all this rich Christian language we speak, a language of sin and Christ and redemption, that binds all these bones together like ligaments. I believe the truth is in these bones. The truth is in this Body, this stuff of which our community is composed.
But it can still all be a pile of dead bones. We often feel dry and spent, like our time is past, and even that we have been left for dead. But God can make these bones live. Indeed, we are God’s people; we are Israel. God’s Spirit will make us stand up straight and strong again, as God raised the dead body of Jesus. But notice in Ezekiel that God’s Spirit does this only at the instigation of the prophet’s speaking. God yokes his Spirit to the Word, and it is above all through our sharing and attending to the Word that we will live again. We will all stand alive, together as one; for God’s Spirit doesn’t just change individual lives, it makes a people live as one. We have the true way of life here, at our disposal; and the world needs the truth that we have. We just need to speak it to life, and God’s spirit will empower us to live it.
And this is what happens at Pentecost, according to Acts. Notice first that the disciples were “all together in one place,” apparently sitting. They weren’t each wondering alone by himself or herself, contemplating or whatever. The Spirit doesn’t come to them individually. Neither did Jesus teach them individually; Jesus didn’t have private therapy sessions with each disciple; he taught them together, forging them into a people.
“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard that sound in my ear when something intense is going on, when I’m in a dramatic atmosphere where something is happening or about to happen. (Truthfully it was the first time I made out with a girl.) It must be caused by blood coursing through the ear canal, or something. And I don’t know if that’s what the disciples heard. But regardless, let’s pause on that “violent wind.” Now in Greek and Hebrew, the word for Spirit can also mean breath, or sometimes wind. So this wind they heard is definitely the divine spirit. And it is violent-sounding. Acts is conveying to us something of the raw power that comes with divine presence, like the awesome, even terrible presence of God upon Mt. Sinai, making the whole mountain shake and burn. We think of the Spirit as gentle and quiet but she is also mighty and terrible.
Now, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit works on all, on the whole gathering. It doesn’t just pick out some of them to speak for everyone, although Peter later does that. It fills us and unites all of us in the same power. But we don’t completely lose our individuality. You can tell the false spirit of community whenever individuals lose their voice to the collective; the worst examples being fascist collectives where everyone becomes embodied in the single Führer like Hitler. Instead: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” Each spoke in other languages, “as the Spirit gave them ability.”
We see the same emphasis on individual gifts in our call to worship, in which Paul describes how the Spirit “allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses,” “for the common good.” The Spirit works collectively but in a way that preserves individual dignity and agency. It fills and takes over a place where people gather, and then works from the outside in, from the collective to the individual. The Word, incidentally, works the same way but from the opposite direction. It works from the individual’s ear and mind and heart and leads us to declare our membership in the group. (Sorry, that’s the Trinity. Next week!)
Back to Acts: Peter then quotes the prophet Joel to show the same quality of God’s Spirit at work. God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh, and then sons and daughters prophesy, young and old have visions, slaves and free people receive the Spirit and speak God’s word. This is radical; women and slaves were the last people expected to prophesy. The Spirit is the great equalizer, bringing power and dignity to those who have been excluded. And so it’s no surprise that at the end of Acts 2 we find the disciples sharing all their possessions and giving to whoever had need.
This is the way community should be—perfected community. Each is respected as an agent with equal dignity. There are a variety of gifts; we don’t all do the same thing. But the variety of gifts will be respected, and the needs of all will be attended to. This is the answer to the question we asked earlier, the question all of human history has been trying to figure out: where and how do we find spirit? Where and how do we find unity amid our freedom? Acts is showing us what real community looks like. It is a shared and equal collective, but one that preserves the role of the individual.
Now we get that last part. Our culture harps on about the freedom and dignity of the individual; we are free to do as we please (if we have the means). But to what end? There doesn’t always seem to be a point to freedom beyond choosing for its own sake. I don’t find choosing among 12 brands of toothpaste deeply fulfilling. Real community respects the freedom of the individual, while directing us beyond ourselves and our freedom and toward God.
And real community unites the people in the room while also reaching out to others from different walks of life. The Spirit empowers us to go out and invite others, speaking their language. This wouldn’t work if we went out proclaiming ourselves—what a fine and upstanding group of folks we are, and wouldn’t you like to be with people as cool as us. That wouldn’t work even if we could say it in multiple languages. The truth we have is not ours, nor is it about us. No, the disciples went out proclaiming God; they declared “about God’s deeds of power.” And people were drawn to them from all walks of life. So then: they found their unity in God; they sought fellowship with all who would join them; and they respected the role of each individual in the group. What we see in Acts is the perfection of human community; individuals coming together exactly as God intended.
And I guess that’s why Peter quotes the weird, apocalyptic stuff from Joel too. Weren’t you wondering what the “blood, fire, and smoky mist” were all about? What is this business about the “sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.” This is the weird sounding but actually stock language of apocalyptic, the Bible’s symbolic description of the final coming of God. Peter is using Joel’s fancy, apocalyptic language to say that what is happening with the Spirit and the disciples is history reaching its goal. The Holy Spirit coming in fullness upon the disciples of Jesus is the fulfillment of history, of what creation was put here for, of what human destiny is all about. The Coming of the Holy Spirit is the Day of the Lord, now opening to all nations. God, through the perfect communion of the disciples, is reaching out to all nations to include them in one repentance and one grace. Could it be that this coming of the Spirit on the disciples, history reaching its fulfillment, is indeed the Second Coming that Jesus himself predicted? That seems to be what Peter is saying. Maybe we can dispense with all the predictions of the Second Coming of Jesus, which have always been wrong, and confess that whenever we are in the Holy Spirit as a community, history is over.
Are you ready to be the community living the end of history? Others, and perhaps we ourselves, will have a hard time believing that is what we are. We look like old fashioned, low tech, 250 year-old news. (But we have wi-fi in the sanctuary now, thanks Dave!) Well, dazzling signs have always impressed the world, whether it’s blood-red moons or the latest technological wonder. All of that is beside the point. God’s plan for history is about all of us being united by a common commitment to God’s deeds of power, and all of us being individually respected for our gifts within that unity.
The Church of Christ Congregational is not right now that Acts community in its fullness and power. If we are to speak truthfully, and thus beginning with repentance, then we must admit that we are not full of the Holy Spirit as was the Acts community. But that perfect community is within our reach. It is in our bones. Let us pray, one and all, for that animating power of God’s Spirit to make us into the united, living presence of Christ this day.