Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sermon: "Holy Spirit 101", Acts 2:1-21 (May 24, 2015)

5/24/15

One of the primary reasons that I love getting to work with kids and youth is that it gives me the opportunity to learn new things all the time. Well, not necessarily “new” as in “I’ve never thought of that before”; I mean new as in completely reexamining old ideas that I’d long assumed I understand. This is one of the coolest things about being a Pastor. Lifelong spiritual formation is so central to who we need to be as Christians, and kids have a way of reminding you that there’s always more to learn. I suspect that this is why so many people are nervous about teaching Church School for the first time, and also why so many people, once they’ve actually overcome these fears, are profoundly glad that they did. Anyway, I am deeply grateful for the young people—both here and at the churches I’ve worked at in the past—who have helped me remember that my role as rabbi, teacher, begins with the posture of a student.



The reason I bring this up is because as our Confirmation Class draws closer to its conclusion this year, I’ve been pushing the youth to delve deeper, past what the historical Church has believed, past what the Episcopal Church believes, past what we’re “supposed” to believe (in air quotes), to unpack what it is that they actually believe right now, what they’re thinking about at this point in their faith journey. This has involved, most recently, discussing their personal questions about God as well as constructing their own individual faith statements. Surrounded by their insightful queries and thought-provoking assertions, I’ve rediscovered something that may not come as a surprise to you, but I seem to have largely forgotten: the concept of the Holy Spirit is really bizarre.

As the youth have reminded me, we seem to have very little trouble wrapping our collective mind around the other two persons of the Trinity: the Father and the Son. We generally (and simplistically) understand them as the primary actors of the Old and New Testament, respectively. But we don’t talk much about where we find the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. This obviously isn’t a struggle that’s unique to youth—many full-grown adults avoid talking about the Holy Spirit because we don’t know what to do with it, either. So I figure, it being Pentecost and all, what better time to examine this deficit in our continuous spiritual formation than today?

Now, I’m not setting out to blow anyone’s mind with earth-shattering new insights about the Holy Spirit, here. I’m not sure I even have anything new to say about it, anyway. What I am hoping to accomplish is to take some time on this holy and joyful day to remember exactly what this gift of the Holy Spirit is, what it means, and why it’s important to the life of the Church. Is everyone on board with that?

Okay, so first of all, it’s important for us to understand what the Holy Spirit is NOT. The Holy Spirit is NOT a characteristic of God. It’s not a particular role that God plays or a phase that God went through at one point, like some sort of adolescent deity. According to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is God, co-equal and co-eternal. Just as Jesus is not a separate being from God the Father, neither is the Holy Spirit. (This, incidentally, is why many theologians choose to refer to the Holy Spirit using the personal pronoun “she” rather than the impersonal “it”, which reflects the grammatical femininity of the Hebrew word for Spirit, “ruach”.)

Once we establish what the Holy Spirit isn’t, we can try to begin to figure out what it is more specifically. Of course, it’s difficult to put words to the ineffable nature of the divine, so, as usual, our best option is to draw comparisons using metaphors. The passage in Acts recounting the day of Pentecost touches on three of the most common metaphors for the Holy Spirit. It begins by describing “a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” goes on to depict “divided tongues, as of fire”—which is, of course, the reason so many of us wear red today—and finally recalls God’s promise through Joel to “pour out the Spirit” like water. The Holy Spirit is LIKE all of these things, but is NOT these things. Yet these images are still useful to help us widen our understanding of the Holy Spirit.

So then what do these descriptions tell us? What can we know about the Holy Spirit? Based on these comparisons, we can intuit that the Holy Spirit is strong and powerful. It can be a force for creation or destruction. It can be gentle or fierce. It’s pervasive and omnipresent—it’s everywhere in our lives! In the same vein, and perhaps most significantly, these metaphors remind us that, as ubiquitous as the Holy Spirit is, we are remarkably talented at overlooking it. We might scoff at those onlookers who assume inebriation when they see the Apostles infused with the Holy Spirit, but are we really that much better at recognizing it when we see it? Are we capable of reconciling the Holy Spirit’s overwhelming awesomeness and might with its sheer familiarity? I mean, think back to our metaphors. How often have you encountered a rushing wind, a blazing fire, or a winding river, so powerful and yet so common in everyday life, and even thought twice about it? How often do you consider these entities beyond how they’re meeting your immediate needs? Have you ever, for example, given the altar candles more than a cursory glance? Have you ever considered how the heat of one candle affects the movement of the air around the flame? How the fire can multiply effortlessly with no more than the simple touch of another wick? How one moment the flame can be stock-still and the next it can be dancing wildly and unpredictably?

My bet is that you haven’t. It’s a fairly safe bet because when I asked myself these same questions, I wasn’t able to say that I spend many of my waking hours contemplating the inner workings of a flame. And yet we encounter these candles every week. How often do we treat the Holy Spirit—which we encounter far more frequently than once a week—the same way?

Because make no mistake; the Holy Spirit is not a once-in-a-while visitor. The Holy Spirit is not an occasional deity, nor is it just showing up to the party now. Our understanding of the Trinity again tells us that, just as Jesus, the logos, the Word, was with God in the very beginning, so too is the ruach, God’s Spirit, an active participant in creation. From the very beginning of time up to this very second, the Holy Spirit has been—and is—active in and among us. In today’s Gospel reading from John, Jesus tells us that he’s sending the Holy Spirit directly to the people—all the people—to empower them to teach and testify to the world. You see, the Holy Spirit has been around and acting in the world all along, but at Pentecost, it wasn’t just working on or around us, but through us to accomplish God’s ends. THIS is why Pentecost is such a big deal! THIS is why we call it “the birthday of the Church”, not because it’s the debut of the Holy Spirit, but because it’s the point at which all of humankind is united—symbolically by language, and literally by the Holy Spirit—as God’s family.

But all of this, the Church’s history with the Holy Spirit, our understanding of the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Holy Spirit, our personal relationship with the Holy Spirit, is meaningless unless we claim it all in response to God’s claim on us. The gift of the Holy Spirit is central to who we are both as individuals and as a whole people. This is why we baptize our children as infants. While God chooses each of us even before we are born, we initiate one another into our community during the earliest days of our lives as a testament to the Holy Spirit’s claim on us. Did you know that the Greek word for “to baptize”, baptizw, means to immerse or submerge? The obvious reference is to the water that an individual was traditionally submerged in during baptism, but remembering all of our beautiful imagery for the Holy Spirit, isn’t it reasonable to understand the water as merely a symbol for our immersion in the Holy Spirit? The physical action itself, while important, isn’t the thing that binds us to one another. It’s a sign pointing to the Holy Spirit’s movement in and among us.

Just as the Holy Spirit claims us at baptism, we claim the Holy Spirit at Confirmation. In just a few weeks, we will be privileged to watch seven young people affirm the claim that Holy Spirit had made on them at their baptisms. Whether they realize it or not, they’ve spent the last year examining the Holy Spirit’s movement in their lives. They still might not quite be able to see right now where it’s moving from day to day or to understand its role in their lives, but as long as they’re earnest in their desire to know God better and to pursue lifelong spiritual formation, they will.

For those of you out there who have already laid your claim to the Holy Spirit’s role in your life, whether recently or years ago, consider how YOU keep aware of its movement. Do you? Or, as with the candles that accompany our worship each week, do you push it out of your mind? It’s an ongoing struggle. My own favorite story about ignoring the Holy Spirit, if one can be said to have such a thing, happened when I was fresh out of seminary—when you’d think I’d be MOST attuned to God’s movement in my life. It was two years ago, and as I was trying to figure out what came next, I was presented with the opportunity to work at a church in Rochester, NY…St. Thomas’, perhaps you’ve heard of it? The problem was, I had grown up in Rochester and had no intention of moving back after carefully spending six years building a life in Boston.

I hemmed and hawed, created pros and cons lists, tried to create alternative plans that would allow me to stay in Massachusetts even without any job prospects…until a candle caught my eye. It wasn’t anything special, just one of those scented candles used to spruce up your living space, but the movement of the flame reminded me that in all of my planning and scheming, I had forgotten to pray about this decision. Without exaggeration, the very moment I sat down and began to center myself, the Holy Spirit bowled me over with the message that I needed to go home. God wanted me in Rochester. I didn’t hear ethereal words or see a vision; I just knew. And I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t taken the time to open my heart and listen. That was how, in THAT moment, I reaffirmed my claim to the Holy Spirit’s movement in MY life.

In the Church, we are fairly comfortable with Christ’s claim on us, but less so with the Holy Spirit. After all, we understand what Jesus has done for us. We celebrate Easter with bells and Alleluias and bright colors, and we anticipate it practically the entire year. In fact, Sunday is sometimes called “Little Easter” because every worship service is meant to be a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Less frequently, though, do we recognize the “Little Pentecost” that we experience each week. We should be continuously celebrating the ongoing outpouring of the Holy Spirit and equally recognizing its claim on our lives. Through the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—three in one—the Church is reconstituted anew every week when we physically join together for worship, to share the Eucharist and join our voices together in the Lord’s Prayer, just as it was so many years ago at Pentecost. All over again, the Holy Spirit empowers us to testify to one another through our words and deeds. All over again, it invites us to open our hearts and hear what it is telling us. All over again, it claims us and asks us to stake our claim in return.

Will you?

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