Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sermon in Tabora Cathedral (Tanzania)

Acts 19:1-7, John 14:15-17

In the Name of the Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

My dear brothers and sisters, I am filled with joy and gratitude at the opportunity to open up the word of God with you here today. My wife, Brenda, is here with me, and my colleague, Father Dave Halt, is here as well. We consider it a privilege to visit your diocese and your cathedral, and to receive the marvelous hospitality of your bishop and everyone else whom we have met. Praised be Jesus Christ!

You and I come from different parts of the world—sometimes it feels not just like different parts of the world, but different worlds!—and our experience of life is very different. In North America, we are beginning to experience a changed environment in which Christians no longer enjoy that status and privilege in society that we have long taken for granted. It is more challenging to be a Christian in American culture now than it was when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. But I know that, in many parts of Tanzania, and in many other places in Africa, dealing with a social environment that is hostile to Christianity—hostile to our Lord Jesus—is not anything new, but quite common, quite ordinary. So I am humbled to be among you. We honor you for your courageous witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ even in the midst of very challenging and difficult circumstances.

Yet, despite our difference, there is one part of our experience that we hold very much in common. We both have Jesus! We have been made new in the waters of the sacrament of baptism. As St Paul tells us, we have “clothed ourselves in Christ” as we have come under the waters of baptism. In our baptismal liturgy in America, we speak of being “sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

Marked as Christ’s own forever! This is what Christian disciples share, no matter what time zone or latitude we live in. When I began my ordained ministry nearly 25 years ago, I was a chaplain in a parish school. The mother of one of our students sent her son to me for counseling because he was suffering from recurring nightmares in which demons were attacking him. I prayed with him, and reminded him of his own baptism. I reminded him that when he was baptized, he was sealed with God’s Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. The priest who baptized him signed his forehead with the cross. I reminded this boy that even though he could no longer see that cross on his forehead when he looked in the mirror, the devil and all his demons can see it, and they know that they cannot hurt him because he belongs to Jesus. He has been marked as Christ’s own forever, and none of the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places can hurt him. His mother told me a little while later that there were no more nightmares!

When we “put on Christ” in baptism and are marked as Christ’s own forever, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit of God takes up residence in our hearts. We are possessed by the Holy Spirit. We read today in the Acts of the Apostles about a time when St Paul encountered a group of believers who had been baptized, but only with the baptism of John the Baptist. People who had gone to John the be baptized did so as a sign of repentance for their sins, and it was good for them to do so. But even John realized that the baptism he was offering was incomplete. It was a sign of repentance for sins, but it did not provide any forgiveness for those sins. But, John said, there was One coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, one whose baptism would carry with it the forgiveness of sins. So St Paul explained to these believers that, yes, they were following the truth, but not the whole truth. They did not have complete information. Acts tells us that not only had they not received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized by John, but they did not know there was even such a thing as the Holy Spirit!

I do not know what it’s like in your world here in the Diocese of Tabora and the Anglican Church of Tanzania. But in my world, in the Episcopal Church in the USA, and among many other Christian bodies in America, it often seems like there are a great many people who are baptized, and who are active Christians, active in church communities, but who have never heard that there is such a thing as the Holy Spirit! Of course, this is not literally true; I’m exaggerating to make a point. Everyone has heard of the Holy Spirit, and would say they believe in the Holy Spirit. But many times we go about our work, in the church and in the world, as if the Holy Spirit is only an imaginary being. We do everything as if the fruit of our labor depends completely on our own efforts. We give lip-service to God, and maybe even lip-service to the Holy Spirit, but we think and act as if the entire burden rests on our shoulders. This is a guaranteed formula for depression and fatigue and what we in America call “burnout.”

That is certainly a mistake, but there is another equally serious mistake we can make in the opposite direction. We can use the Holy Spirit—perhaps I should say we can exploit or abuse the Holy Spirit—to justify nearly anything we would like to do. This is particularly dangerous in times of controversial votes or elections within the life of the church. When people agree with the outcome of a vote or an election, it’s tempting to say, “The Holy Spirit has spoken!” But we are presumptuous and prideful when we do that. God has given us no guarantee that the Holy Spirit will always work his sovereign will through the majority vote in an election. Perhaps this is only a problem in American; perhaps this is not something you have to worry about in Tanzania. I hope so!

So, after Paul explained the whole truth to believers who had only been baptized with the baptism of John, he baptized them in the name of Jesus. And then what happened? Scripture tells us that they immediately began to prophesy and speak in tongues. They began to manifest the power of the Holy Spirit. They began to experience some of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The truth that we are called to lay hold of here is that we who are baptized into Christ are called to live in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not just a nice idea. The Holy Spirit is not just an abstract theological concept. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift of himself—to encourage us, to strengthen and empower us, to lead us and guide us, and to reassure us constantly, no matter what happens, that we are marked as Christ’s own forever.

Listen to what Jesus tells us in the words of the Gospel according to St John: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” This is at the same time tremendously comforting—to be given “another Helper,” because we need all the help we can get!—but also very difficult, very challenging. The gift of the Holy Spirit is a gift of great power, and we want to know how to use that gift carefully and well. I have a priest in my diocese who is very skilled at make things from wood—furniture for homes, as well as furniture for churches: altars, baptismal fonts, communion rails, and various other items. His work decorates many of the churches in my diocese. This priest has many wonderful and sophisticated tools in his shop—different kinds of saws and drills and planes and lathes and others I cannot even imagine. But if I were to enter his workshop, it would be quite dangerous for me to use any of those tools. I do not have the proper training and I do not have the proper skill. The same tools that are marvelous in Father Tim’s hands would be weapons of destruction in my hands!

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are powerful. They can be powerful and marvelous tools for the proclamation of the gospel to the world and for the building up of the Body of Christ. The disciples whose baptisms we read about today in Acts prophesied and spoke in tongues after receiving the Holy Spirit. I have no doubt that many among you have experienced those same gifts, and that these gifts have been faithfully used to build up the Body of Christ in the Diocese of Tabora. And there are other gifts of the Holy Spirit. Some are spectacular and miraculous, like the gift of healing. Perhaps some of you will be able to tell me stories of how the spiritual gift of healing has been exercised among you.

Many of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, however, are quiet, and do not command our immediate attention. Some have the gift of teaching. Some have the gift to be evangelists; and what an important gift that is everywhere, but particularly in a culture like you have in Tanzania. Some have the gift of service or administration. Others have the gift of hospitality, being able to joyfully welcome others into their homes. All the gifts of the Spirit, both the spectacular ones and the quiet ones, are important and powerful. All are necessary to the health and vitality of the church, of the Christian community. All are vital in the witness we bear to the world of the saving love of God in Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit is sovereign. Like the wind, the Spirit will blow wherever the Spirit wills to blow. But as faithful disciples of Jesus, we have a responsibility to become skilled in how we exercise the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Powerful tools need to be in the hands of mature, well-trained, and highly-disciplined people. So I encourage you, my brothers and sisters, to continue to grow up in all ways into Christ, to become mature disciples, able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, overflowing with both courage and wisdom. Please know that we in the Diocese of Springfield hold you in the Diocese of Tabora in our prayers on a regular basis. In every church, on every Sunday, we pray for Bishop Elias by name, and we pray, in turn, for each of your parishes and churches. I would also be grateful and humbled to know that you also pray for us, because we desperately need your prayers. We desperately need to experience the power of the Holy Spirit in our diocese. Pray that we will become mature disciples, able to effectively use the powerful gifts that God shares with us through his Holy Spirit. Praised be Jesus Christ! Amen. 

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