Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Fire of the Spirit (Acts 2:1-21; 1 Cor. 12:4-13) - A sermon for Pentecost Sunday

A common theme in both the passage in Acts and the one in 1 Corinthians is the togetherness and unity of the church that coalesces around the gift of the Spirit.

Luke tells us that the disciples who experienced the Spirit in such a dramatic way on the day of Pentecost “were all together in one place.”

Paul explains to the Corinthians that while there’s a diversity of gifts and though members have different capacities and abilities, there is one body and one Spirit. This oneness extends beyond social status and nationality: Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – all are made to drink of the one and same Spirit, says Paul.

In a society infused with the Spirit there is no patriarchal dominance or favoritism. The Spirit is given to all – sons and daughters, slaves and free, Jews or Greeks – all get baptized in the Spirit.

The Spirit breaks down social and cultural barriers and divisions commonly upheld in one’s culture. The Spirit creates a different kind of community. And we know from Paul’s authentic letters that the first Messianic communities, the first churches he planted were egalitarian and charismatic.

You may remember from the text we read last week in John 17 that Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one, so that we might communicate to the world the grace and truth Jesus embodied.

What is this oneness that the Spirit creates – that breaks down divisions and long standing cultural pecking orders? Surely it is not a oneness of doctrine.

At one time it was fairly popular among Baptists who believed firmly in the autonomy of the local church and the priesthood of the believer to say: “You get four Baptists together, and you get five viewpoints.” But that was not said disparaging; it was said proudly. We took some healthy pride, I think, in being able to agree to disagree, because we prized a free church and free priesthood.

That saying is not so popular anymore, at least not with Southern Baptists, who have basically, as a denomination, become creedal and patriarchal and intolerant toward dissenting views and perspectives.

Surely the kind of oneness the Spirit creates takes us beyond any sort of uniformity of doctrine or uniformity of ecclesiastical rituals or traditions. Nor does this oneness come about by trying to please everyone in the faith community.

I heard about a church that called a new pastor. He was kind of young and a little green. The day after the truck unloaded all their stuff he and his family were invited over to the home of the chairperson of the search committee for a barbecue along with the other search committee members. The young pastor said, “You can’t imagine what a delight to come to a church and know you have been elected by a unanimous vote.”

The fellow flipping the hamburgers said, “Well, it was practically unanimous.” The preacher said, “What do you mean, ‘practically unanimous’?” “Well, it was practically unanimous.” “Well, what do you mean ‘practically unanimous’?” “Well, let’s just say that it was unanimous.” The preacher wouldn’t let it go, “What was it really? “Well, it was 131 to 2.”

And the preacher thought, “I wonder who the two are?” So the next six months that young pastor tried to find out who the two were. And then the following six months he spent trying to please those two. And at the end of the year, he was fired — 2 in favor of him, 131 against. 

This is not that kind of oneness. This is a oneness that is generated by a passion for a new world, a new creation, for the kingdom of God on earth.

In Acts 1 the disciples were still looking for the Christ to restore the kingdom to Israel. They had a very narrow view, a limited vision;  they still had not relinquished there Jewish exceptionalism, just like so many Christians today who have not relinquished their  Christian excepionalism, or Americans who have not relinquished their American exceptionalism.

Jesus directed them away from notions of a kingdom limited to Israel. He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will by my witnesses – in Jerusalem – you will begin in Jerusalem, but then you will move out into Judea and even Samaria – imagine that, Samaria, and then into all parts of the earth.”

Witnesses – that’s what we are called to be says Luke. We are given the power of the Spirit to be witnesses. What kind of witnesses?

Witnesses to the gospel of Jesus, the gospel of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is not just for Israel, but for the whole world. Not just for Christians, but the whole world. Not just for Americans, but the whole world. It’s the gospel of the new creation. And in Acts 2 and in the first egalitarian and charismatic communities formed “in Christ” we get a taste of what that’s about.

God’s vindication of Jesus by raising him up was not just intended for Israel, it was intended for all humankind, for here is where the Jewish  Jesus becomes the cosmic Christ. This is what Peter says at the end of his sermon in Acts 2: this Jesus who was crucified, God raised up, and made/or appointed both Jewish Messiah and cosmic Lord.

The resurrection of Jesus meant that Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom was still in play. The worldly powers killed Jesus, but God still has it in mind to redeem those worldly powers. God hasn’t abandoned the world. The very world that crucified Jesus, God wants to reconcile to God’s self.

In Acts 2, all the disciples (with the emphasis on all) are filled with the Spirit and each one is empowered to proclaim the good news. Luke, with a bit of hyperbole says that “Jews from every nation under heaven” heard the message in their native language. They were there in Jerusalem for the observance of the feast of Pentecost.

Peter interprets what happened at Pentecost in terms of the end-time prophecy of Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” Peter apparently believed that what happened to them would happen to all people when the kingdom of God is realized on earth. I suspect he, like many of the early disciples, believed that this was the beginning of the realization of that fulfillment.

And what unfolded through the power of the Spirit was a foretaste, a foreshadowing of things to come and a demonstration of God’s intent to usher in a new creation for the whole earth, involving a pouring out of the Spirit upon “all flesh” as the prophet Joel says.

Do you know what we are called to be as a church, as a Spirit infused and empowered people? We are called to be a kind of mini demonstration, a mini outpost of what the kingdom of God is going to be like, of what God wants to do in the larger world.

And what does God want to do? Well, God wants to create a just world, a world where all God’s children have enough to flourish and where there is mutual care and love. Where we each say boldly, “Yes, I am my brother’s/sister’s keeper.” Where the law of love is written on our minds and hearts and is translated into acts of mercy and works of social justice.

I think Paul nails it down in 1 Cor. 12 when he says in v. 7: To each person is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Paul is, of course, talking to the Corinthian Christians about the common good of the Corinthian church — their health and wholeness. But the church is called, I believe, to be a microcosm of God’s macrocosm. What I mean is that the church – a local church - is called to realize in a particular place within a particular community in and through a particular people what God wants to do globally and universally. God wants to heal the nations and redeem this planet. That’s what Acts 2 is about.

We offer a witness to the world when we – the church - care for one another with the love of Christ and work for the common good of all people. This is why church is important. We are not a business. We are not a club. We are not a mere religious organization. We are the family of God in a particular place living out the life Christ called us to live in order to show the world what it means to be the family of God.

I know we don’t do this perfectly, we have our share of failures. We don’t love each other with all the love we are able. And sometimes we have to confess to each other what failures we have been as instruments of God’s grace and forgiveness. So no, we don’t live out our calling perfectly, but we better be doing it to some degree, because if we are not loving one another with the love of Christ and expressing compassion and working for justice in our society, then we have no right to call ourselves a church.  

Fred Craddock tells about the time when he was a kid, and the family lost their farm and they had to move into town. The kids dressed in what was given to them by charitable organizations. The first day of school the teacher said, “Let’s get acquainted and start our school year by everyone telling what you did on vacation.”

Fred felt so out of place and embarrassed. One girl reported that she spent a week in Florida. Another had gone to Niagara Falls. Another kid said their family went to Washington and seen all the historical sites and all that. Fred was worried, all choked up; he didn’t know what to say. Time ran out and the teacher said, “We’ll continue tomorrow.” 

Fred didn’t want to go back to school. His father asked him why and he told him, and his father said, “She asked you what? What you did on vacation? Obviously your teacher is asking you for a lie, so give her one?” So Fred gave her one. When it was his turn, he told the class, “We went up to New York and Washington and on an on.” Somewhere this side of Niagara Falls the teacher called him out of the room. She said, “You didn’t do all that.” Fred said, “No ma’am.”

She asked, “Well, why then did you say that?” He said, “Because I was embarrassed.” “Why were you embarrassed?” He said, “Because I worked on the farm all summer before we lost it and had to move here.” That put an end to all stories.

Fred goes on to tell about how a group of women from a church brought the family clothes for the kids. There was a pair of Buster Brown shoes just his size. His mother said, “Good, you will go to church on Sunday.” Fred didn’t want to go because he figured it would be just like the school. Someone would ask what he did on his vacation. But they didn’t ask.

Fred says that he was never embarrassed in church. He couldn’t ever remember feeling any less, or any more, or any different from anybody else in church. Fred says that from the age of nine he has had this little jubilee going on in his mind: There is no place in the world like church.

As the body of Christ we are called to “flesh out,” to incarnate the values and virtues of Jesus so those who observe us can take notice. We are called to be an outpost for the kingdom of God – to be a living witness to the household of God. Think of the kingdom as kin-dom - God's household. 

God has given us God’s Spirit – God’s self – in order that we might be church, that we might be Christ’s body in the world. The fire of the Spirit is in each of us. Maybe we have become negligent or indifferent or preoccupied – the fire is still there; it just needs to be stoked and fanned into a flame.

What would it take for the fire of the Spirit to burn hot, to burn passionately in our lives today?

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Gracious God, help us to realize what a high and noble calling it is to be the church, to be an outpost for your kingdom on earth, to provide a witness to society how your family is meant to live. Give us the grace to recognize and admit all the times we have failed to be the church. Help us to recapture the love and passion that compelled those first disciples to stand up to all challenges and defy all authorities in order to share your love with the world. 

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