Sheepscott Community Church May 16, 2010
Acts 1: 1-11
Ephesians 1: 15-23
Luke 24: 44-53
Filling the Hungry Soul to Overflowing
Today is the feast of the Ascension of Jesus to what is commonly called heaven, a post mortem place or state of mind where the soul and spirit of a person continue on after the death of the body. I believe wherever Jesus went, we will one day follow, as he said to his disciples, “Did I not say I was going before you to make a place for you?”
But if he is gone from our sight as he was from the apostles’ sight––and he is gone–– how can we claim that he is with us? It’s a simple answer, really. Ascension, he disappears from sight; Pentecost, he returns, by way of his Spirit, as he promised he would. In the gospel of John, he says to the disciples that it is much better that he goes so he can send his Spirit to guide them––and us––to all truth.
At the time I came to Sheepscott Community Church, Clara Fagan’s son-in-law, Topher Belknap, had just finished working on her house in Jefferson and she was planning a housewarming. Clara invited Susan Winter, the minister who preceded me in this position, to bless the beautiful new house. I don’t know how many of you have had your house blessed, but what it entails is the minister, or priest, or rabbi or imam or well-disposed friend going from room to room in the house and in suitable language invoking the blessing of God in and upon each room. Sometimes there is prayer for cleansing, if needs be, and prayer for the descent of peace and God’s protection over the house and its in habitants. You can see that this is a good thing.
Consider this: Just as Clara invited Susan into her house, honoring the tradition of house blessing, and honoring Susan’s position as a practitioner of that tradition, I propose that next Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, you invite the Spirit of Jesus into your house in just the same way. I am talking about the house that is your self, your being, your soul. If you do issue such an invitation, God will send the Spirit of Jesus to enlighten, to render you joyful or peaceful, whichever you need, to open doors of understanding and other doors of all the rooms of your inner house. To air them out, to clean them out, to shine the inextinguishable healing light of God into them.
No more secrets. Fears looked at head on. A depth of understanding of the meaning of God’s presence with us moves in, but not just understanding, God himself. True thing. What a relief to know, not just to believe, but know that there is a God who knows all about us, specks that we are, and loves us completely, just as we are. Hear this, if you hear nothing else I say this morning: We do not have to change for God to love us. His love for us is constant, complete, and eternal and it is what enables us to desire the good, to seek the light rather than the darkness, to love others in our turn as that One loves us.
Today and next Sunday, I am making you an offer you can refuse. As with all things of God, we are free to choose them or to reject them. What I am offering you over these next two weeks is information and nothing less than a way to receive the fullness of the Spirit of Jesus, the living Christ. Not the dead Christ, whom we can picture in our mind’s eye so recently stretched out on a cross on Golgotha, but the living Christ no longer visible to the naked eye, but able to be present to us as surely as he was present to the apostles in those first years of spreading the gospel in obedience to his command.
The feast of Christmas has its joys in the returning light of Christ in the deepest dark of the year, in its family-centered customs and pleasures. The Easter time also has its gamut of emotions from the profound sorrow of Good Friday to the exaltation two days later of the resurrection of the so recently crucified Christ. It is something of a spiritual and emotional roller coaster for those who invest themselves in the mysteries of the Christian religion.
So what about Pentecost? Where does that fit in with this panorama of religious holidays? For my money, without the Spirit, whose coming we invoke, acknowledge, and recognize at Pentecost, Christmas and Easter are little more than believed religious observances with attendant joys, sorrows and pageantry. The Spirit of God charges these religious holidays with meaning we cannot manufacture or buy.
In the creeds many of us grew up with and subscribed to, there is mention of this Spirit whom Jesus promised to his disciples before he ascended to heaven. The Nicene Creed, expanded in 381 The Common Era to include the lines, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life who proceeds from the Father and the Son” etc. The inclusion of those lines about the Spirit codifies belief based at least partly on verse 49 of this morning’s gospel, which has Jesus say, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” And they did as he commanded them, and indeed they were later clothed with that power, but that is next week’s gospel. In Acts 1, verse 8, which Cyndi read this morning, the author of Acts has Jesus similarly say, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”
And if that event of the coming of the Spirit was codified in the Nicene Creed, it was also ritualized in the sacrament that came to be known as confirmation, which continues under that name in the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Anglican traditions. The United Church of Christ Congregational and the United Methodist Church also administer that sacrament, which can be seen as a ritualization of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religious phenomenon known as sanctification.
One man who experienced that phenomenon was John Wesley, the father of Methodism. In spite of what he felt was his calling to be a missionary and preacher, Wesley was completely ineffective in both areas. The turning point came in a famous experience at a mission in 1738. As he listened to someone reading Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans,” ––a text concerning the change God works in the heart through faith in Christ––he wrote that “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.” In this experience, Wesley was infused with the love of God. This literally heartwarming assurance brought a new dimension to his faith and his preaching that enabled him in turn to warm the hearts of countless others.
Wesley’s and the apostles’ experience of the Spirit was distinct from baptism by water. According to Christian belief, that first baptism, by water, joins the one baptized with the family of God, related through the life and death, and teachings of Jesus as the Christ. Christ himself gave the example when he received John’s baptism of repentance in the Jordan River. Some believe that that water baptism also washes one clean of so-called original sin, which is an innate tendency toward evil, which some believe we are born with, and also of our own chosen sins, for which we are undeniably responsible. The step of sanctification goes beyond this ritual washing and cleansing. It is a baptism by fire, whereby we are joined more deeply to God, a God whom we are seeking at a level that God knows and which we ourselves are not even necessarily conscious of. That is the baptism of the Spirit, the one whom Jesus told his apostles at the ascension that the Father had promised to send, and whom, Jesus himself promised as power from on high. That power, which is the presence of God “satisfies the longing soul and fills the hungry soul with good things.” Psalm 107, verse 9.
A legitimate question arises from what I said about the sacrament of confirmation. If we have already received that sacrament, why would we need this further action, this infilling, infusion, sanctification, or quickening of the Holy Spirit? This is all history anyway, is it not? Yes, it is history, as we read about it in the scripture, but the Good News is that it is living history. The coming of the Holy Spirit in power is as much for us now as it was for the apostles and new believers in the first century. Most who receive the sacrament of confirmation are usually from 13-16 years of age. The rite of passage it represents is like the bar or bat mitzvah in Judaism: the young person is inducted into the church or the synagogue and is expected to take his or her place as a responsible member of that worshipping body.
Realistically speaking––but with exceptions; always there are exceptions––the rite of confirmation has become just that: a rite, without any observable changes in the one inducted. Where is the fire? Where is the excitement that we might expect to attend a visitation by the personified power of love in the Trinity? I think what’s missing is knowledge about Pentecost and what really happened, and it’s all there in Scripture, in the Acts of the Apostles. Think about reading that this week before next Sunday. It’s found in your bible after the gospel of John. Expect. Believe in the activity of the Spirit of God in the world now. In people’s lives now.
Another thing about the sacrament of confirmation and where it falls developmentally for kids that age, between about 13 and 16 is that they are just embarking on their adolescent search for their own identity and meaning. No doubt there is transmission of the Spirit in the rite and ceremonies of confirmation, and that Spirit will help those confirmed in their search for identity and meaning. But in fact it is usually some ways down the road, maybe late 20s, maybe the 30s, even the 40s, and later for some, before life has made it clear that there must be more meaning in that life than simply searching out our selves in the adolescent manner. It may be a death in the family, a divorce, a job loss, an unresolved argument between old friends, life-changing sickness––the possibilities are as numerous as the people whose lives are affected.
Then do we come with longing and hunger for God. And then does God satisfy that longing and hunger as only God can with this same Spirit, whom we only then begin to know as we ourselves have been known right along. How many times have I talked about us surrendering our lives more deeply to God? It seems to me it’s every week. You must tire of that, as in, What do you want? What do you expect? I’m doing all I can with what I have right now, time wise and resources-wise. Back off. Give me a break from this surrender talk.
No. I won’t back off because I don’t think there is anything more important I can say to you than that it is not all up to you. By that I mean making your life work as it is, which seems difficult and exhausting sometimes, and unrewarding, as in, How can I get up one more day and go to work? What is it all for? When work and family issues and civic and social responsibilities seem about to overwhelm us, it is into just that scenario that the Spirit of God, as that One came on Pentecost, can come and change everything. Well, not everything. The circumstances themselves may not change, but the Spirit changes how we view them and lets us know that God knows and we are not alone in them. That is almost everything.
Others of us are quite content with our lives as they are. Perhaps retired or working part-time, we feel pretty well set, as involved as we want to be with family, volunteering occasionally for a cause we are interested in, continuing with study in some area. These are all good things that constitute the good life. What more can there be? I can only say that with God there is always more. Every day is an adventure with Christ, when the Spirit is the moving force.
And when you have a whole community whose members know they are not alone, who are becoming increasingly enlightened, who are sharing a Spirit of concern and caring, there is the kingdom on earth, there is heaven on earth, the Body of Christ recognizing its own image in the mirror of another soul. That is life being lived to its fullest, not for itself, but indeed with and for others in a healthy way. I believe this is what Pentecost makes possible. If you are so inclined, prepare prayerfully for the feast of Pentecost next Sunday. I recommend that you search out in your own prayer time, your own way, what the Spirit of God wants for you. To be open and humble before God, asking for the fullness of his Spirit, for the fullness of life and how God would have you live it.
Next week I will talk about the life and gifts of the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit. Cyndi Brinkler, who has been a friend for 35 years and who has experienced this long walk in the footsteps of Christ with me, will share a bit about her walk, so you can have a sense of the hands-on application of the Spirit of God and what that one can do in a life. What you were not ready for all those years ago when you were confirmed, you may be ready for and desirous of now.
Next Sunday the Board is having a second planning meeting with Ted from 4-6 p.m.
Before that planning meeting, from 2 to 4, Cyndi Brinkler and I will be available here in the church to pray with anyone who wants the release of the Spirit of God in his or her life, who wants more of the life of God. Anyone who has that kind of spiritual and existential courage to dare to ask God for his Spirit will only receive a yes. I can’t predict how that will manifest, but it will be entirely personalized because God knows who you are and what you need.
I’d like to conclude with a quotation from this morning’s reading from Ephesians. “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” Amen.