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Sermon – “Holy Spirit” – May 19, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, May 19, 2013

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Holy Spirit Acts 2: 1-21; Romans 8: 14 – 17; John 14: 8-17, 25-27

I was thinking about this Sunday, which celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit, and I thought about the hymns. There are hymns that are about the Holy Spirit, and at least one or two are hymns I enjoy. Thatʼs what I usually choose for this Sunday, for the same reason we sing Christmas carols from Christmas through Epiphany, because they fit the season.

But hereʼs the thing: precisely because hymns about the Holy Spirit can get limited to seasonal use, they are less familiar than some other hymns, and as a consequence there may be more people in a given congregation who donʼt know them well. What kind of spirit does it put in a person to be singing a song which he or she isnʼt certain how to sing? If we want to have a service in which Godʼs spirit is evident, instead of a service n which the Holy Spirit is talked about, wouldnʼt it make more sense to use the hymns which people most love to sing? the hymns which are most likely to raise their spirits?

That may sound artificial, deliberately to sing hymns– perhaps peppy or maybe sentimental hymns– hymns which may be exhilarating because of their meter, or moving because of their message– in order to get worshipers to feel more intensely. I didnʼt grow up in a demonstratively emotional church tradition. In fact, I grew up in a church tradition which recognized emotional spiritual enthusiasm as probably a passing thing and potentially misleading–as something which could, contrary to Godʼs will for Godʼs children, lead one to personal presumption or pride or, on the chance that one could be manipulated through it, becoming a patsy to another. We had it on the authority of Paul the apostle that it was better to hear a message thoughtfully expounded than to witness charismatic gifts, and we hoped that our efforts to apply our reason to the substance of our faith would make us more useful to God.

Still, though, thereʼd be times when something said, or something sung, would touch more than our minds. The small hairs on the back of our necks would tingle, or a tear brim at the boundary of an eye. We might feel good– not just be content with, for instance, the fact that “Christ Arose!” when we sang that old Robert Lowry hymn, but glad of it. Religion didnʼt aim for those responses, unlike some approaches, but they came, because there is more to God than what is rationally intelligible, and there is more to us than awareness and analysis. Things go deeper on both sides, on the part of the divine and on the part of the human being.

In our lifetime a couple of things have happened which have to do with religion. One is that religion which appeals to reasoning has faltered, while emotional approaches–in everything from mild feel-goodism in the church, like successors to the “Positive Thinking” gospel all the way to the sort of zeal which is either the cause or result of militant confrontation–have found adherents. The other thing is that the more secularized society in general pays a lot of attention to what it calls “spirituality.” There is something in people which craves a convincing awareness of something larger than themselves, and an instinct that there are powers or realities which correspond to intuitions and every aspect of life which exists alongside the analytical mind. To give just one example, look what a career Leo Buscaglia made out of talking about how wonderful love is. Everyone from the Pope to poets has been saying itʼs the great power in the cosmos for centuries, but people got alienated enough from ordinary recognition of its wonder and its worth that someone enthusiastic about it recovered its meaning for many.

I donʼt want to say that the Holy Spirit only is experienced emotionally, or with that intuition of either mystery or immensity which is part of religion. Itʼs not only about how quickly or how serenely we find ourselves breathing. Itʼs an article of faith that the possession of faith itself is due to Godʼs Spirit imparting something to our own. The Church figures that our using what might seem like ordinary virtues–patience, or self-control, for instance– always relies on help from the Holy Spirit. Even the coldest fish among believers is endowed with the Holy Spirit, merely as a believer, and the most skeptical of us about Godʼs intersecting in any perceptible way with our own lives also harbors the Spirit of God, though realization of that may not have happened yet.

Itʼs always been the case, however, that what we might characterize as emotional or even psychologically unusual behavior has been credited to the spiritʼs influence. In the Old Testament even what was acknowledged as the Spirit of God was identified sometimes with kooky behavior. In the New Testament we see in the gospels people suffering from possession by bad spirits, and being enabled to do marvelous things by Godʼs spirit. The thing is that both “dis-ease” and a “marvel” are beyond the bounds of what is ordinary.

That used to seem quaint and pre-modern, but the human appetite for spiritual significance is still with us. In its worst form, it contributes to the evil of religious fanaticism and hateful deeds committed against oneʼs fellow human beings. In its more benign guises, it is the energy behind many humane and charitable efforts.

What Christians like us have to do is get over our resistance to spiritual manifestations that we find unpersuasive, like snake handling or perhaps even singing or praying with a hand in the air, and seek ways to work with the way Godʼs Spirit works for us. Do we believe that Godʼs spirit is behind the impulse to be kind? We should surround more of our social interactions and efforts to do good with prayer, and notice when there is a godly spirit present in work or in conversation. We shouldnʼt be too quick to think we are sentimental or silly when we feel moved by something connected with our relationship with God. We should pray about our feelings as well as our circumstances, and we should, trusting Jesusʼ promise about Godʼs desire to provide us the Spirit, pray for it.

Iʼve already said we all have it, and now Iʼm saying we all should pray for it. Both are true. Itʼs part of the faith of the community that each of us has Godʼs spirit in us, and it is our individual recognition of requiring more peace, patience, joy, kindness, self-control that reminds us to ask God to bless us more fully with the Spirit. Desire itself is a spiritual power, and it is a blessing to desire more of God. If that sounds selfish itʼs because it is easy to forget that Godʼs power is shared with us not only for our own benefit, but also in order to do good to others.

The Pentecost story shows us that. What was the miracle accomplished by the power from on high, as Jesus had promised it, arriving among the disciples? It was that strangers to them, passersby, aliens, in the national sense which so often divides people, were given the good news of Jesus Christ. Who knows what it sounded like to the disciples themselves? What benefit does the noise of rushing wind impart? It was those who overheard, each in his or her own language, to whom God was speaking clearly.

They, in turn, gave birth to the first worldwide converts to the new insight into the nature of God and the right way to live. They were the community brought into being by having Christ in common. We are an individualistic culture so we harmonize more with the way the Spirit is described in Paulʼs letter, when we read its mention of Godʼs Spirit joining in our prayer with “sighs too deep for words.” That can be read individually as well as collectively. Pentecost–which is both the Jewish festival of “first fruits” and celebrates Godʼs giving his people the Law–is the occasion for this variety of “first fruits”–a society based on belief and trust, a people of the law of love exemplified by the self-sacrifice of Christ.

Weʼre not going to be holy rollers. We wouldnʼt be here together if that were our temperament. We ought, however, seek to have a vital sense of Godʼs spirit moving in our midst, not neglect noticing when it occurs, and rejoice when it produces its fruits in our collective life and in the lives of each. Pentecostals donʼt own Pentecost any more than Baptists own baptism– traditions get named for distinguishing emphases or different practices. No Christianity can ignore Godʼs subtle wooing of the heart, or Godʼs abrupt invasion of events, which are ways the Spirit comes to us. Our place is to pray for God to send power from on high to us, not only or primarily to equip us to lead good lives for Godʼs sake as individuals, but particularly to bless us to be a blessing to our world as a body of believers.

So in your life of prayer, let God know that your church wants to be faithful, and knows that in order to be faithful–and to be useful for God and true to our calling–that we need Godʼs Spirit to influence us. We need Godʼs spirit to encourage us, strengthen us, show us the work we must do and provide us the power to do it. Pray for God to repeat the pattern we know from the story of the first disciples, and for each of us to have the conviction and patience required to trust God to work through us, that we be the body of Christ in this time and place, showing Godʼs love to the world.

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