Living in the Spirit

Living in the Spirit – A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

As I have mentioned before, the Feast of Pentecost is our third biggest event in the liturgical year after Christmas and Easter. And, as I also mentioned, it is the only one of the big three that our culture has not taken over and secularized in a commercial way. This is entirely our feast as the church. You won’t hear any mention of it in popular culture. And perhaps that is the way it should be.

Pentecost Sunday has also been characterized as the birthday of the church. And in one sense, it is both a completion and a beginning. For Luke the gospel writer, it is the conclusion of the miraculous events of the gospel accounts. It really is the end of his first of two books. It is as if the God is now saying to that small group of disciples and believers, “All right – now the rest of the story is up to you.” Get out there into the world – spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and transform the Kingdom of God.

And just to make sure you stay on track and remember what you have been chosen to do, I will send you my Spirit – the Spirit of the presence of God active in the world and walking beside you all the way. And that is literally what one of the names given to the Holy Spirit actually means: A term we don’t use much any more but one with meaning: Paraclete. Paracletos in Biblical Greek and originally used to describe someone who speaks on one’s behalf in in a court of law. An advocate. A lawyer.

But Jesus uses it in John’s gospel in the 14th chapter as one who is a helper, one who is always there for you (to use modern jargon) “I’m here for you, man”

Someone who walks beside you on the journey of life and urges you to go a certain way and to do certain things. A comforter – an ever present friend and counsellor. It is a term that is hard to pin down to just one function.

And to go back to the 14th chapter of John’s gospel for another look, we find Jesus speaking to his followers in the days before he is arrested and put to death and he is attempting to comfort them. And he says: “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate (a paracletos) and he will be with you forever. This is the Spirit of Truth whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him, but you know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

And a little further on, Jesus goes on to say, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” And then these wonderful comforting words

“I will not leave you orphaned.”
And in all of this, Jesus is speaking in the future tense. This is something that is going to happen. It has not yet happened. And it cannot happen until he has finished his earthly journey and has gone to be with the Father.

Which is why we celebrate Pentecost Sunday exactly 50 days after Easter Day. Why 50 days? Because it was originally a Jewish feast called Shavuot – a celebration in Israel of the first spring wheat harvest about 50 days after planting. And it was also a Jewish feast commemorating the giving of the Law to Moses by God.

So naturally, Luke records, “When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place.” Still Jews in so many ways, this was a natural thing for them to do – to gather together probably for a common meal, perhaps to go to the temple and make a sacrifice and to remember to give thanks for God’s gift to Moses.

But God has a surprise for them. “A sound like the rush of a violent wind, tongues of fire resting above the heads of each one of them, and the whole community babbling in all sorts of foreign languages. And the most amazing thing is that even though they are all speaking different languages, miraculously, they all understand each other perfectly.

No wonder people looking on thought they were drunk. And I love the Apostle Peter’s objection to this slander – “How can we be drunk at nine o’clock in the morning?” Well, I know a few alcoholics who might disagree with that conclusion.

So what is going on here?

Well, like many of these amazing events in the gospels and elsewhere. There is a lot of symbolism and metaphor in Luke’s description of the Pentecost experience.

And that description should have reminded you of an equally amazing event in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Remember the tower of Babel. How God punishes the people for daring to reach heaven by building a gigantic tower – all on their own. The Bible records that, at this time, all the people of the earth only spoke one language and so God punishes them for their pride and daring by cursing them with all different languages and their inability to understand each other and then get along. The story was meant not only as an explanation for all the different languages in the world but also for the tribal violence and warfare which resulted when they could no longer understand each other.

So what is going on at the Pentecost experience? It is the reversal of the curse of humankind. The Spirit allows us to understand each other in spite of our differences. The church is being born not only for the Jews but for the whole world. This is God’s gift to humanity, a gospel that transcends our petty differences and binds us together as one. Christ’s teachings and his gospel are for the whole world.

And the Spirit is saying, “Get out and spread the news.”

The Spirit said that to the small group of believers at Pentecost and is still saying it several thousand years later. The work is not done – not by a long shot. Our world is still a very divided place – we all speak different languages on so many different levels. And it sometimes seems as if it is getting worse rather than better.

But our job is to live not only in unity and love with each other but with all the rest of our brothers and sisters. Because the way we live out the gospel on a daily basis will speak far louder and get far more attention than any words we speak. Words are great but actions speak far louder.

And I believe that God’s Spirit is constantly working in our world to bring about the Kingdom. Even when we sit down and try to hammer out a peace treaty or a cease fire to stop the killing. Even when we send food and supplies to various parts of the world to help those in distress. Even when we recognize those rare people in our world who work tirelessly to bring peace.

Many may not see the hand of God – the hand of the Spirit – working in those human efforts but I believe that is how the Spirit works.

A wise Bishop once told me, “It is easier and clearer to see the work of the Spirit when one looks back rather when one looks ahead”. He said, “It may seem as if we don’t know where we are going in the church much of the time, but when one looks back, the pattern and the direction are there. That’s the Holy Spirit”

For many of us, the Holy Spirit is that still small voice in our heads, giving us advice, helping us find a direction, encouraging us when things look grim, just like a constant friend who may not say very much out loud or very obviously but who is always there for us. Even when we don’t even know it. Even when we think we are the only ones in charge – even when we think we know how to get to heaven all on our own.

I have been aware in my own life, those choices I have made and paths I have taken have not been entirely of my own doing. One can be a sceptic and call it chance or coincidence – one can even rationalize it all – but when one looks back, as the Bishop said, one can see the pattern and the design. And faith tells us that it is not of our own doing. God’s hand is there. The Holy Spirit was probably walking beside us all the way.

Where do we really find Jesus?

Sermon – May 24, 2020 – Ascension A – Acts 1: 1-11, Ephesians 1: 11-23, Luke 24: 44-53
Where do we really find Jesus? Where did he go?

A mother was dreading telling her little girl that her beloved Grandma had died. This would be her 6 year old daughter’s first experience with death and she did not know how to break the news. So she said, “Grandma won’t be coming to visit us anymore.” The little girl said, “Why not?” The mother replied “Well she has gone to heaven.” The little girl said, “She won’t be coming back?” “No, I’m afraid not.”

The little girl thought about it for a while and then said, “Where is heaven?” The mother took a deep breath and, without thinking much about it, pointed upwards and said, “Far away up there.”
The little thought about that one for a while and then said, “Above the ceiling?” Fearing that she might think Grandma was in the attic, the mother explained that heaven was way up above the house, in the sky and even above the clouds and the sky.

And you can imagine what questions and responses that led to. And many of you may have had that kind of deep theological discussion with a 6 –year old. No parent is ever completely ready for that one.

And if we are honest about it, how would each one of us answer the question, “Where is heaven?” “Where did Jesus really go?”

And for many of us, in our language, in our imagery, all though various aspects of our culture, heaven is still “up there” Somewhere beyond the ceiling, beyond the earth, beyond the skies. In many ways, we still live in the three-story universe understood by the people of the New Testament. There is heaven – There is earth – and there is hell. And no one even today ever speaks of heaven as being beneath our feet, and no one even today speaks of hell as being up there somewhere. Even if they don’t even believe in those places.

It still is convenient imagery – but it may stand in the way of a deeper understanding of the reality that some of us believe in that is beyond this present world and our mortal lives.
Where did Jesus go? We have two versions of the ascension in our readings today.

The Book of Acts says this: “As the Apostles were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
Luke’s gospel says this: “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”

For Luke and for the writers of our scriptures, heaven is very much up there. Moses went up to the top of the sacred mountain to die at the end of his life. Elijah was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. For the Hebrews and for many other nations and traditions, heaven is up there, beyond the clouds, beyond the firmament. The watery chaos.

How do we remain true to the faith understanding of our ancestors and our tradition and yet understand the ascension and what we mean by heaven – but in our own terms and in our own time?
I suspect that if the mother had answered her daughter’s question with the answer – “Grandma has gone to be with God.” She might have got a response something like this: “And where is God?” Where does he live? Can I go there and visit?

Where indeed? Profound theological question. “Where is God?
And where is heaven if it truly is union with God? Maybe a question that asks where heaven and God are in purely space-time words is the wrong question. Or at best, phrased the wrong way.

Jesus gave us a clue, I think, in one of his most important statements to the disciples: “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18: 20)
Those are encouraging words for small congregations or communities of faith. We live in an age that is obsessed with numbers – events are judged by many how many people they attract – the larger an audience or the more participants the better. Manufacturers judge their success by the number of units sold. The size of a crowd matters to the press reporting the event. And to some extent, we have been infected by the numbers game even in the church. But Jesus was no more impressed by a huge crowd than he was by one important encounter with one person. Jesus is present when any number are gathered in his name, when any number tell his story, when any number gather in prayer, when any one person reaches out to another with love and compassion.

In one profound sense, Jesus has not gone anywhere. He is here among us today. He is in our towns and our countryside and our cities. He is in back alleys with junkies. He is with all who suffer and cry out in pain and despair. He is with any who, in faith, seek for meaning or just help in dealing with all of life’s problems. But he is also with us in times of deep joy and happiness. He is with us during the good and the bad. Even when it may not seem like it.

And that really means that Jesus, in one sense, is not up there and that heaven, in another sense, is not up there. It is right here and he is right here.
Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God as both now and yet to come. He lived both in the present and yet was eternal. He is both here with us and yet also with God.

Paradoxes – statements that appear to contradict each other but yet are true in a larger sense – they drive us crazy. Especially if we have a tendency to take things literally. But the Christian faith lives with paradox – and words can only take us so far.
There are countless numbers of Christians who, for centuries, have attested to the presence of Christ in their lives. Jesus is present for them in the faces of others, in those rare moments of prayer of meditation when they sense that they are not alone, in those moments of transcendent beauty and happiness. And for many it is an intimate and deep relationship.

Many people who have lost loved ones will attest to the experience afterwards of being still aware of their loving presence even when no longer physically there. For some, it is as real as feeling those arms still around you, of knowing that they are close by.

And it may be that by thinking of heaven and the presence of God as somewhere out there beyond the blue, beyond the skies, we have missed the more important idea that heaven and the presence of God are right here among us. Right now. In one sense, Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s always been here and always will be.

Listen to what the two heavenly figures say to the apostles in the last part of the Acts reading:
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.”

Many people read that line as a prediction of the second coming of Christ at the end of time. And certainly, the descriptions of that event in scripture talk about Jesus’ return in those images, but Luke follows this statement in the next chapter of Acts with the description of the coming of the Holy Spirit from above with tongues of fire, a passage which we will hear in this place in two weeks’ time. What if Luke meant that kind of coming of Jesus into our lives and hearts?

So, even if we no longer see Jesus in his physical earthly form, I am absolutely convinced that he is here present among us, every time we meet in this place, every time we tell his story, every time we sing his praises, every time we reach out to each other in love and support, every time we leave this place, to share that love and support with others, then we truly become the body of Christ present in the world today.

Yes, he may have physically gone up out of sight, but in a more profound way, he is still right here, walking along beside us, just as he walked the roads of Galilee with his disciples and followers.