Listen to the sermon from Sunday, June 4, 2017 titled “The spirit of the Spirit” by the Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
Pentecost! The birthday of the church! It all started in an upper room, not so different from this room where we gather today. We hear two stories of how the church received the Spirit in that room. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples he is sending them out as agents of God’s grace. Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Spirit.” The scene is quiet, profound, reverent.
In Acts, the Spirit comes dramatically as fire and wind and propels them out to preach the Gospel. The scene is noisy, chaotic, dynamic. The disciples, including Mary, mother of Jesus, are praying together. Suddenly, tongues of fire, a mighty wind, xenolalia (speaking in foreign tongues), men and women preaching, 3,000 new members – quite a spectacle!
And some in the church follow that model nowadays as the only true God-centered worship – ecstatic chaos, everybody talking on impulse, speaking in tongues, crying, shouting, dancing, out of your head but into your heart. Worship is embodied. You can lose control because God is in control.
This “Pentecostal” style of worship is uncomfortable to most Baptists because we prefer a cognitive and self-controlled way. Our worship is more internal than external, our form of preaching more like Jesus’ gentle breath while theirs takes more the form of Acts’ “mighty wind.” Most Baptists keep their emotion in check and want an orderly service with an intelligent sermon and spirited music. Well, the Bible suggests the Spirit can be quiet and gentle or noisy and explosive.
I don’t mean to suggest Pentecostal worship is devoid of intellectual content nor lacking any control. I don’t mean to suggest Baptist worship is devoid of emotion or lacking any capital “S” Spirit. No, it’s more a matter of degree, a difference in habit, a variance of style.
In all the various expressions of Christian worship people connect with God. In all the different styles of praise and preaching there are benefits that can be blessed and flaws that can be critiqued. You have to discover which style best helps you connect with God.
But the question of style begs the question of our Pentecost story today: What is the spirit of the Spirit? What are the signs that God is truly among us, that we are not subverting God’s agenda and self-deceived? Is God with us or not?
Truth be told, just as the Bible offers different visions of the coming of the Spirit, it supports different styles of worship from liturgical and ritualistic to informal and impulsive, and God blesses them all.
It’s not the style, but the content that matters. It’s not the style, but the result that shows whether our worship is Spirit-led or just another religious way to take God’s name in vain. We are prone to focus on the spectacular outward features of the Pentecost story in Acts and miss the miracle of what the Spirit does in this story.
It begins with a small group of disciples praying together. Prayer is putting ourselves into God’s presence. Prayer is opening ourselves to what God may do, which may be the same comfort and calling God has regularly provided before or may be something surprising and entirely new.
The disciples are hiding out in that upper room for fear of reprisal, wondering about the last fifty days, the appearance and then disappearance of the risen Christ. They have worshipped as Jews all their lives, in the Temple, with prayers and liturgies, hymns and rituals of sacrifice.
The last thing they want to do is leave the safety of their upper room and risk public exposure of their identity by public proclamation of their experience. But the Spirit pushes them beyond their comfort zone. They move beyond their fears to connect with each other, to communicate the gospel, to create a new community of care.
The miracle of Pentecost is how the Spirit enables them to understand each other and come together. You know how hard it is to get people to let go of their fears, let go of their insecurities, let go of their pretense, let go of their agendas, let go of their high control needs in order to listen and respond to each other in love? Only God can make that happen!
The miracle of Pentecost is not in the outward signs at the beginning of the story, but in the miraculous result at the end of the chapter:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
The “community of the beloved” – joy, sharing, caring, generosity, awe, devotion, teaching, learning, outreach – these are the signs of the Spirit! These were religious people just like us, competing for resources, asserting their agendas, jockeying for position, wrestling for blessing. But the Spirit shifted their thinking from focus on self to loving one another.
The Spirit led them to go out and reach out, to include strangers from around the world who had different languages, different ethnicities, different diets, different practices, different ideas, different dress, different cultures. We all say we believe in that diversity but practicing that diversity is hard. It takes God’s help! They were so filled with God’s Spirit they embodied God’s love like Jesus did. That’s what the Spirit of God does.
The Bible tells us the risen Christ is present where two or three gather in his name. Catholic, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Baptist, high church, low church, cathedral in the city center, or clapboard shack on the edge of town – Christ is present in all of them. And all of them – even us – have a tendency to domesticate the powerful and free wind of the Spirit into regular, predictable, and manageable styles that make us feel safe.
Fred Craddock was with a group of professors touring the Holy Land. At the traditional site of the Upper Room their guide explained “This room did not exist at the time of Christ. It is Byzantine in architecture and is less than a thousand years old.” He rambled on with an accurate, though not inspiring, history of the veneration of the site.
Meanwhile, a Pentecostal group came in and with deep emotion their preacher told his flock, “This is very room where Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples, where he appeared to them after his resurrection, where he urged doubting Thomas to touch his hands and side, where the Spirit came upon them at Pentecost!” They shared communion, prayed, wept, and some even shouted. As their guide droned on, a woman in Craddock’s group leaned over to him and whispered, “I wish I were in that group!”
Sometimes, what heart-over-head Pentecostals need most is a good dose of intelligent teaching to open their minds to let the Spirit in. Sometimes, what head-over-heart Baptists – like us – need most is a good dose of passionate emotional expression to open our hearts to new winds of the Spirit. (Can I get an “amen?” I suspect y’all need to practice that!) In both cases, the Spirit pushes us beyond our comfort zone to discover new ways of engaging God in the world.
So be open to the new. Look for God within it. Look for God, not just in the spectacular occasional events but in the normal daily “Wow” of meeting God in each other – children having fun at the church picnic, a catch-up conversation with an old friend, meeting a new friend who is instantly like a brother or sister, an usher or greeter quietly serving us all on Sunday, a volunteer dishing King Ranch Chicken on a tray to feed a hungry neighbor, a pastor or deacon confidentially carrying your burdens with you so you are not alone.
If you are looking, you will see so many signs that the spirit of the Spirit is in this place, within this people, working to move us beyond ourselves to care for each other. If you are looking, you will see so much evidence of God’s presence, you will rejoice and be filled with gratitude that you are included. If you are open, God will comfort you with the familiar and surprise you with new ways of experiencing the sacred presence.
If you trust in God, you need not be afraid or lock yourself in this upper room. God’s Spirit is still with us and moving us to a new day. God’s Spirit is still with us and moving us out of our safe places to reach out to those whose place is not safe. Catch the spirit of the Spirit, and Pentecost will happen here for you again and again and again. Pray for it. Open yourself to it. Receive the Spirit, in the name of Christ. Amen. May we pray?
Abiding Spirit, move among us again today and move us beyond ourselves. Let us see you in the souls around us – in their life, in their love, in their being and in their doing. Fill us with love for one another the way you love us. Send us into this community where you have planted us with an embodies Gospel, our proclamation evidenced by our occupation in connecting and caring. The changes ahead make us anxious with uncertainty. But help us trust in you as you move us beyond our comfort zone so we can feel the fresh wind of your Spirit moving us ever closer to the new creation you dream for us as we rise with Christ into a new day. We pray – together – in his name. Amen.