Nothing and Everything – Pentecost (2015)

This is the ‘Sunday of the Spirit’ – Pentecost –
a word that means nothing and everything to us.

Nothing, because Pentecost is too often associated (in popular culture particularly)
with a style of Christian worship that has become a stereotype;
hand-waving, tongue-speaking, hallelujah-ing worship.
‘Pentecostal’ conjures images of charismatic preachers
and congregations of enthusiastic ‘born-again’ folk.
Some of us are curious about this phenomenon,
and others are frightened by it –
but mostly, we recognize that as a ‘preference’ in worship style,
and leave it at that.

But Pentecost also means everything to us,
for we are a Christian church,
and we collectively remember one particular celebration of this Jewish festival
as a turning point in our early development.
We may be (as I’ll continue to insist) an Easter people,
but the church of Christ is also an institution of the Holy Spirit,
without whom we are just another social club.
And since we are Presbyterians –
ordered and deliberate; reasonable and rooted in Scripture –
we need this annual reminder of the gift that keeps on giving;
the Spirit of the Most High.
As a moment in time it is significant – certainly memorable.
A good starting point for this new adventure
that puts the life and work, the death and resurrection, of Jesus Christ at its centre.

But if we are to be, in this time and place, a church fully ‘in the Spirit’,
what should that look like?

We don’t typically speak in other languages –
though I occasionally make reference to Greek or Hebrew.
There has been no rushing wind to sweep us off our collective feet;
no spectacular moments of conviction where
(as happen towards the end of Acts chapter 2)
“…some three thousand were added to their number [in one day!]”

Where is the Spirit working among us?
Where are the signs?
How can we tell that we are still covered by Jesus’ promise of this comforter –
this Advocate – who will support us in our witness to the truth?
Jesus extended farewell speech (in John’s gospel)
makes some points about the Spirit’s task among us.
The Spirit only comes because Jesus made room (by leaving):
“if I do not go, your Advocate will not come,
whereas if I go, I will send him to you”
That suggests that the Spirit can be crowded out by people (or things)
that would otherwise seem good for us.
Jesus departure was a troubling issue for the disciples,
yet the promise is that in this trouble,
they will find help that they would not otherwise receive.
So our search for the Spirit must include the quiet places:
those times of trouble when all seems lost;
the dark night of the soul that helps us imagine we are alone;
in these times and places, empty of all but our fears,
there is ample room for the Spirit to work.

Jesus is also confident that the Spirit (Advocate as John’s gospel names it)
will be a powerfully persuasive force in and of itself.
The power of God’s Spirit alone will convince the world of right and wrong,
where Jesus is concerned.
Only the conviction of faith (a fruit of the Spirit)
can move a person to accept the claims made by Jesus about God and the Kingdom
(and, as time goes by, claims made by Jesus’ friends about Jesus)
And while the history of the church is filled
with wonderfully powerful and persuasive speakers
none of them are any use unless the Spirit brings their words to life.
The disciples were only making noise enough to draw a crowd,
it was the Spirit’s gift of free and instant translation
that helped the crowds hear the great things God has done
uttered in their native tongues.
I have been preaching in various places now for nearly 18 years
and I can tell you, that while my presentation has improved
and my approach to the text has changed since I first stepped into a pulpit, what I say doesn’t matter unless you can hear it.
There are plenty of barriers to hearing –
your mood; my mood; circumstances in our lives; distractions in the sanctuary –
but the Spirit can overwhelm them all, whenever it chooses.

So it happens that, from time to time,
individuals in the same congregation
hear different things from the same sermon.
One hears encouragement – another hears blame.
In all likelihood, I intended neither,
but the Spirit gets the final word in every circumstance
and that is something that still catches me by surprise.

Jesus finally pronounces the Spirit as a guide to all truth,
and this may seem the hardest to believe –
for there have been more battles within and among the faithful over “truth”
than anything else in the history of the church.
It would first appear that, as a guide, the Spirit is an abject failure,
for the surest way to argument even now
is to propose something as “True” for the purposes of religious observance.

Scholars have sought the “historical Jesus”;
others have lobbied for forms of worship
that were “true”to the earliest practice of the followers of Jesus.
There is a perpetual search for true meaning in Scripture
that only seems to be satisfied by those who are relentlessly extremist
in their understanding of what Scripture is and of who God must be.

But the truth is more resilient that that (and more deliberately elusive)
and I believe that the Spirit is still the most trustworthy guide
through the minefield of fact, myth, tradition and experience
that we call life.

It could only be the gentle company of God’s Spirit that brought the churches,
one by one, to the point of recognizing the need
to offer apology to First Nations peoples (in Canada)
for the horror that was the Residential School system.

It was only in the company of the Spirit that churches,
some more reluctantly than others,
came to value the gifts of women for Ordained Ministry in the church.

It is the Spirit whose gentle prompting moved,
not one, but twenty-three overtures (many identical)
to this year’s General Assembly, each asking questions
about the churches policies with regard to ordination and sexuality.
We pray that the Spirit’s presence guides those conversations –
not with rushing wind, or exuberant, multi-lingual displays,
but in a respectful sharing of stories
and a genuine desire to be led; to hear and be heard.

Yes, the signs of the Spirit are there to be seen –
and they are not always alarming, or spectacular –
but it is the Spirit that brings us from hopelessness to hope.
It is by the Spirit’s hand we are drawn together, week after week,
to offer praise and to be encouraged in worship.
It is the Spirit of God – still in the act of urging creation towards completion –
that brings life to us and breath to us.

Come Holy Spirit, is the ancient prayer,
but we need not call the Spirit out of hiding –
we need only open our eyes to a power that is always present –
waiting to be re-discovered.


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