The Pentecost Challenge
How is the Holy Spirit alive today?
*Please excuse all grammar and spelling mistakes*
"If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses"
Much like a lawyer must pass the BAR exam before practicing law, a priest in the Episcopal Church must prove to be proficient in seven canonical areas (theology, scripture, pastoral care, etc.) by completing what is called the General Ordination Exam or GOE’s or as we would sometimes say, “God’s Own Exam.”
While I proved to be proficient in all seven areas, just barely, Bishop Parsley wanted me to do more study on the Holy Spirit. After he gave me a list of books to read on the subject, I went to amazon.com to purchase them. And much to my surprise most of the books were no longer published! I wondered, "Is the bishop playing some kind of Holy Spirit joke on me or something?!"
I remember Bishop Parsley asking me casually at a lunch one day what I thought the verse from Acts 15:28 was all about. (I went to Virginia Theological Seminary--not a Baptist Seminary) Having no idea what Acts 15:28 even said, I redirected the conversation and asked, “That is a great question bishop. What do you think?” He went on to remind me that the verse says, “it seems good to us and the Holy Spirit that we not burden you beyond the following requirements.”
Looking back at it now I wonder if he wasn’t trying to tell me to stop worrying about this special study. Anyway, after he gave his long and interesting answer, I responded, “I think you are on to something, bishop.” Later that day I went home and read the Acts of the Apostles from beginning to end—highlighting those verses that seemed especially important.
The subject of the Holy Spirit is not exactly something that Episcopalians are traditionally proficient at talking about. On some level, we’d prefer to just let the Pentecostals do all the Holy Spirit talk. After all, Holy Spirit talk is kind of strange especially the part about speaking in tongues. We are very ordered as Episcopalians and don’t like going by anything other than the book—not that the Holy Spirit can’t work through a book though.
I believe one of the reasons that the Holy Spirit is difficult to talk about is because it is invisible. Unlike God the Son and God the Father, we don’t have an image to hold onto when thinking about the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Spirit in today’s lesson is described by using images of fire and wind and other parts of scripture describe the Spirit as a dove or as a breath. However, these are simply symbols that point to something we can’t possible imagine in this mortal life. These symbols point to a more powerful force at work in our world.
Even more than symbols, God gives the world the Church as evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in the world today. If you ever needed proof that the Holy Spirit is the force behind the Church, just look at a church history timeline and wonder, “How and the world is the Church still alive today?” In a very tangible way, the Holy Spirit is continuing the ministry of Jesus through the Church. The Church is the outward and visible sign of the Holy Spirit at work in the world today. You might say the Church is the ultimate sacrament.
Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” Like I said last week, Jesus’ ascension and the arrival of the Holy Spirit gives room for the work of God to permeate every language and nation and culture. And we quite literally see this reality come true in today’s lesson from Acts. The Holy Spirit gives the disciples the ability to speak in many different languages so that people from every corner of the earth may hear and understand the good news of Jesus Christ. Talk about room to work…
This is good news because left to our own devices we would never venture outside of our comfort zones. And when we refuse to venture outside of our comfort zones, we stop growing. Think about growing up—going through infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, adolescents, young adulthood, and so on. As we grow up, we are constantly being challenged to look at the world in different ways. We are constantly asked to stretch ourselves. And those who are able to meet new challenges and adapt to the changes and chances of this life turn out to thrive in this world. The alternative is death.
Remember what God did to the people in Babel. They all spoke the same language. They all looked like one another. They basically isolated themselves from the world until God scattered them across the earth and confused their language.
Ultimately, God thought it would be better for them to live outside of their comfort zone rather than to live in a place where everyone thought and spoke alike. God knew that these people would eventually self-implode. God scattered the people not to punish them but to help them survive and hopefully thrive.
Look at what happened to the people of Israel at the height of their power. Israel started to build a great nation of people from the same race and culture. King David saw the height of this regime but it was not long until the kingdom came crashing down.
The people of Israel got arrogant and complacent only to see Babylon sneak up and overthrow their rule. And we see this kind of thing happen again and again in history on the large stage and on small stages—the rise and fall of kingdoms and societies and cultures. We know what this picture looks like in our time and place.
Where is the good news? How does God respond? How does God get us out of this predicament? Well, a part of God’s response includes the work of the Holy Spirit. Some theologians call Pentecost the reversal of Babel. Pentecost gives us the faith and courage to venture outside of our comfort zones and engage in relationships with those who don’t look, act, or speak like us. Pentecost gives the church the confidence to tell the world a different story, a story of new life and growth.
Archbishop Justin Welby describes the church’s story like this, "The Church, when it is visibly united, speaks more powerfully to the world, by the grace of the Spirit of God, than we can ever begin to imagine.” We also know what this picture of the Church’s new story looks like. Just look around this room today.
I’ve gotten to know most of you over the last 9-months and it is amazing how diverse you are in so many ways. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and wonder if this is real life. Sometimes I look around and wonder, “Is this group of people really sitting around one table?”
When friends from Birmingham ask what St. Paul’s is like, I tell them to imagine what it would be like if 10 people from the Advent, 10 people from St. Andrew’s, 10 people from All Saints’, 10 people from Grace, and so on where dropped into one church. If you can imagine that, then you can imagine St. Paul’s Selma. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can assemble a crew like ours.
(St. Paul's 10:30 service on Pentecost Sunday)
Even more, we saw this picture of unity through the power of the Holy Spirit in March when people from all walks of life stood on the bridge holding a banner of unity with a quilt that showcased the beauty and diversity of Selma. And again, a picture of the Holy Spirit’s work was taken on Palm Sunday when members of St. Mark’s Birmingham and St. Paul’s came together to worship one Lord in one faith.
(Palm Sunday Service)
Justin Welby also said, “We cripple our witness when we are not united.” He said that when the church stands together, we release a witness into the world that is impossible to exaggerate. We release a powerful witness to people who are caught up in conflict and destruction. Ultimately, our witness to the work of the Holy Spirit is the way that the world will be brought face to face with Jesus Christ.
Friends, the Holy Spirit is at work here in Selma. The Holy Spirit is bringing healing to those all over the world because of what is going on here in Selma. I have received messages from Australia and Europe and California expressing their thanks for what the churches are doing in our community. We even had someone drive all the way from New England just for the Palm Sunday worship service. Thanks be to God!
Y’all the whole world is ready to live by a different story, a story that is no longer plagued by hate and fear and prejudice. And the Holy Spirit is calling Selma to be a part of this new story. More specifically, the Holy Spirit is calling St. Paul’s to be a part of this new story, a story that you have already begun to live by.
So now I am going to do something very non-Episcopalian-like. Don’t worry. I am not going to speak in tongues (or handle snakes). Instead of finishing the sermon with some kind of vague question or thought to chew on this week. I want to give you something tangible to chew on. I am going to challenge you to grow beyond how you have already grown.
As you know, I have been active in meeting with a group of faith leaders in our community. The ultimate goal of this group is to bring Selma together. This doesn’t mean we are going to fix Selma. This doesn’t mean we are going to solve all the problems. This simply means that the churches and other faith communities are going to stand united in hopes that Selma will one day stand united. After all, we do all believe in a God where all things are possible. We do have faith in a God who can bring us together through the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, I want to have a sister-church. I want to partner with another church in Selma for a defined period of time and develop some kind of relationship with that church. Again, our goal won’t be to fix the other church. Our goal won’t try to change their theology and vice-versa. Our goal will simply be to develop a relationship with this church, acknowledging our differences and similarities, and let the Holy Spirit take care of the rest.
I hope to model our relationship off how the Diocese of Alabama models their companion diocese relationships. As you know, we were recently in relationship with the Diocese of Haiti and now we are entering into a partnership with Alaska and the Virgin Islands. Over the summer, with the help of the Vestry, I want to put together a discernment committee as we seek to reach out to a parish in our community. Please prayerfully consider if you would like to be a part of this conversation.
In the meantime, I invite you to look for the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our community. Look for evidence on how God is challenging you to grow into the full stature of Christ. When you see that work, tell somebody about it. If you feel uncomfortable telling somebody about the work of the Holy Spirit, call me—I won’t think you are crazy—I promise!
And when all this church stuff seems foolish, and it will seem foolish and disappointing at times, always remember that the Holy Spirit is interceding on our behalf with sighs too deep for words. In the end, no matter how far off course we go, no matter how badly we screw things up, the Holy Spirit is making all things right in the name of the one who has completed all things—Jesus Christ. Amen.