Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sermon for Pentecost

(Emmanuel Church, Champaign)

This is the Day of Pentecost. It is one of the “Big Seven” in our liturgical calendar—those special occasions that are styled “Principal Feasts.” But even within that elite group of seven, there is a sort of unofficial hierarchy, in which Pentecost would occupy the top tier, along with Christmas and Easter. Historically, in the Church of England, you were considered in good standing if you received Holy Communion on at least those three occasions.

But we have to admit, in terms of popular piety, Pentecost is a shrinking violet in comparison with Christmas and Easter. It has nowhere near the emotional appeal and sentimental associations that those holidays have. Nobody tells stories about their recollections of family gatherings on Pentecost. It’s not a time for exchanging gifts,  I’d bet most of us here would be hard pressed to name our favorite Pentecost hymn, and,  this year so far, I have yet to receive one Pentecost card!

No doubt, the main reason why Pentecost, as a feast day, has failed to occupy a very large place in our hearts is that the Holy Spirit, the One whom Pentecost celebrates, is one of the least understood aspects of our Christian belief system. “The Lord,” the God of the Old Testament, is at least somebody we’re familiar with. He’s a “character,” with a lot of outrageously memorable words and deeds to His credit. And in the New Testament, Jesus, of course, is human, so we can identify with him. He eats and sleeps and walks and talks just like we do.

But the Holy Spirit is slippery, difficult to pin down. The Spirit therefore remains, for many, an abstraction, a concept . . . unless, that is, you are one of those who believe they have experienced the Holy Spirit in a dramatic and personal way. Most of the time, such a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit comes by means of witnessing, or being the subject of, a healing miracle. When broken bones and damaged spinal cords heal in ways they’re not supposed to, when cancer cells voluntarily disappear, when nearsightedness corrects itself to 20/20 overnight, it’s suddenly a lot easier to talk about the Holy Spirit.

Or, much of the time, when someone testifies to a close encounter with the Holy Spirit, it’s after receiving the gift of tongues—the ability to pray aloud in speech patterns that one has not learned and does not recognize, but which flood the soul with warmth and a conviction that one is in the very presence of God. People who have had these sorts of experiences sometimes—and I do stress sometimes, because it isn’t always the case—such people sometimes “major” in the Holy Spirit at the expense of a fully balanced Christian walk. Just as it is a mistake to overlook the Holy Spirit, it is equally wrong to dwell on the Holy Spirit, to the exclusion of the Father and the Son—or, for that matter, the church, the sacraments, the scriptures, or a disciplined life of prayer.

But the more dangerous temptation that beckons those who have experienced the Holy Spirit in a powerful way is to become smug and superior, to scorn, belittle, intimidate, and become generally obnoxious toward those Christians who have not had such an experience. This can be as overt as a finger-pointing lecture, or as subtle as a condescending smile. Either way, the implication is that Christians who have not had some obvious powerful experience of the Holy Spirit are somehow inferior, second-class, or maybe not even authentically Christian.

So let’s get back to basics, and see if we can’t begin, at least, to clear up a misunderstanding or two. We’re not doing any baptizing today, but if we had any candidates, this is one of the days which the discipline of our church recommends that baptisms be reserved for.  We do, however, have several candidates for the sacramental rite of Confirmation. We used to talk about Confirmation as the “completion of Baptism.” For a number of good reasons, we don’t do that anymore. Nonetheless, I believe we can still think of Confirmation as an “echo” of Baptism. The candidates will verbally reaffirm the renunciation of evil and the commitment to Christ that was made at their baptism, and, together with the whole assembly, they will profess the faith of the Church and renew their vows and promises. And when I lay hands on each confirmand, I will pray that each one “daily increase in [God’s] Holy Spirit more and more.” This is a sort of shadow of the prayer that is said by the celebrant when a newly-baptized Christian is anointed with the oil of chrism: “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” It’s also a shadow of the prayer that follows, in which we thank God our Father that He has bestowed on these newly-minted Christians the forgiveness of sins and the life of Christ’s resurrection by means of “water and the Holy Spirit.” And then we go on to ask God to “sustain them in [His] Holy Spirit.”

If we indeed believe as we pray, what this means is that all of us who are baptized have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of the Living God, who was already working on our hearts in preparation for the day of baptism, has taken up full-time permanent residence, and become a personal resource more valuable than any mentor or teacher we will ever have. But what’s even more remarkable is that, along with this gift of the Holy Spirit, we also received, through the sacrament of baptism, gifts from the Holy Spirit. Some of these gifts may include items from the list enumerated by St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians: the utterance of wisdom and/or knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, spiritual discernment, tongues, or the interpretation of tongues.

At the time of baptism, we don’t know who’s going to be getting what gifts. Nor is this an exhaustive list—there are other lists elsewhere in the New Testament, and probably these aren’t exhaustive either. The Holy Spirit is an abundant giver. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is not for an elite minority within the church who have had some kind of dramatic experience. The Holy Spirit is for the whole church, and for all her members. If you are baptized, you have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t matter whether you feel it or not, you have it! The Holy Spirit dwells within your soul, ready to fill you with the life of God, ready to unleash His power within you as soon as you give the green light.

Indeed, St Paul says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit...”. However, he doesn’t stop there. He qualifies his statement. The gift of the Holy Spirit is universal to all Christians, but there are strings attached. Along with this essential birthright comes an equally essential responsibility.  “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The gift of the Holy Spirit, and the gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit, are not personal playthings. They are to be employed to the glory of God and the building up of His church. In the book of Acts we read of a fellow named Simon Magus. He was impressed with the power of the Holy Spirit, particularly as it operated in the gift of healing in the ministry of St Peter and other early apostles. Simon was a man of some means, and he offered Peter cold hard cash in exchange for the spiritual gift of healing. As we might say today, he was “clueless.” The Holy Spirit is not for sale to the highest bidder. No gift from the Holy Spirit is for our own self-aggrandizement.
Rather, they are all for the building up of the whole people of God, for the strengthening of the church in her mission and ministry.

Now, it must not be left unsaid, many gifts of the Spirit are woefully and tragically underutilized. If all Christians became aware of their gifts and began to exercise those gifts in a faithful manner, the impact on the church—and the church’s impact on the world—could scarcely be imagined. The situation as it actually exists in many Christian communities can be likened to that of a professional soccer match in South America or Europe, where 60,000 fans desperately in need of exercise are watching 22 athletes desperately in need of a rest!

So as we confirm these people today, and as we renew our own baptismal vows, let our prayer be that they develop an early awareness of the gifts they received in this Baptism, and that one of those gifts be faith sufficient to exercise the others. The Holy Spirit is the birthright of all Christians; not just for a few, but for all. And exercising the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the responsibility of all Christians; again, not just the few, but all.

Come, Holy Spirit, come. Fill the hearts of your faithful people and kindle in us the fire of your love. Alleluia and Amen.

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