Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pentecost

June 12, 2011

Acts 2.1-21

+ It has become a Pentecost Day tradition for me to tell this story. Yes, I know you’ve heard it before, so don’t think too quickly that I am recycling an old sermon just because this story sounds familiar. I just love to tell the story.

Several years ago, in a Bible study, we were discussing the Holy Spirit. Now, as we all know, the Holy Spirit is not something most of us think about very often. The Holy Spirit is mysterious and ephemeral. Well, in this discussion, someone point-blank asked: “So, what is the Holy Spirit?”

The priest who was heading the discussion thought for a moment and then said, in all seriousness, “Well, when you think of the Holy Spirit, just think of Casper the Friendly Ghost.”

I was telling this story to my friend, Justin Schwartz this past week and also mentioned (and this is a complete aside mind you) that I once considered getting a tattoo. And one of the subjects I considered was Casper the Friendly Ghost. As a little boy, I loved Casper. The problem with me getting Casper as a tattoo was that with my Irish-pale skin, no one would be able to actually see Casper. He would just sort of look like a white scar against my white skin.

Anyway, I do have an issue with seeing the Holy Spirit as “something like Casper the Friendly Ghost.” And I don’t think I have shared with you before my vehement response to this priest and her analogy of Casper in describing the Holy Spirit.

Nothing that we read about in our reading from Acts today conveys an image of the Spirit looking anything like Casper. The Spirit that we find in today’s reading is not some nice sweet little ghost floating around and looking gentle and cute. The Spirit we encounter is truly a firestorm. The Spirit comes blasting in and flip-flops everything. Nothing is ever quite the same again in the lives of those followers of Jesus gathered in the Upper Room—or, we can say, in our own lives as Christians either.

And THAT is how the Spirit works.

I have been reading a wonderful book recently by Scot McKnight called One.Life. McKnight talks quite a bit about Pentecost and the Spirit of Christ that came upon those people. For McKnight, that event in the life of the Church and in our lives as followers of Jesus was one of the most radical events to happen. It was not some personal religious experience. It was not some individual spiritual experience that made everyone feel all warm and cuddly. What happened in that room was a swift kick. It was a kick from God to God’s people. The Spirit’s outpouring on t hose people was the motivation for them to get up and get out and do what they were called to do.

Now, we’ve all heard of this phenomenon of “speaking in tongues” that we are introduced to in the book of Acts. I find it amazing that in the more Pentecostal churches these speaking in tongues is viewed as a special gift that is almost always done INSIDE the church.

I remember seeing it for the first time in my Aunt Shirley’s First Assemblies of God Church. People would get up and speak in some strange language that no one understood and people would rejoice in it, but no one really seemed to know what was being said. It was celebrated because it was seen as a special gift from God granted to certain people.

But, what we find in the Book of Acts, when the gift of tongues comes upon those followers of Jesus, is not quite what the people in the Assemblies were doing. What happens to the first followers of Jesus is actually quite practical. It was more than some mystical, secret language of the Spirit. It was, instead, a sign from the Spirit. It was sign that what happened at the Tower of Babel, when the nations were confused by multiple languages, has been reversed. Now, empowered by the Spirit, the followers of Jesus were compelled to go out and preach this Kingdom of God to all people and that different languages would no longer be a barrier to them. The Spirit’s movement in their lives meant that all the barriers were knocked down. The Wind of that Spirit came in and destroyed every barrier in ministering and serving others.

For us, it’s similar. Maybe our barriers are not languages in the ministries each of us are called to do here and outside these walls. But the ministries we have been empowered by the Spirit of Christ to do in our lives truly should be breaking barriers as well. We are all called to ministries that break down barriers. Our ministries to proclaim by word and example the radical love of God and the Kingdom of God in our midst will break down barriers.

As McKnight writes in One.Life:

“…when Pentecost happens, the Spirit of God…
transforms human abilities
and Transcends human inabilities
so Transformed people can participate
In God’s Kingdom
In the here and now.”

In other words, no longer are we confined by inabilities. No longer are we held prisoner by what we are not able to do. Because the Spirit again and again breaks down those barriers—whatever they may be—and compels us to serve whenever and where we are.

McKnight also gives a wonderful description of what exactly this Kingdom or Reign of God is like. He writes:

“[The Kingdom is] Life lived with others, regardless of who they are
Life shaped by the teachings of Jesus through his apostles
Life experience by eating with one another.
Life swarmed by prayer.
Life carried away in awe of what God was [and I would add, IS] doing
Life shared economically and materially
Life welcomed by outsiders
Life expanded.
Life unleashed.”

This Spirit that we are celebrating today on this Pentecost Day is truly that Life unleashed. The Spirit is life at its best, life at its greatest potential. This Spirit is motivating all of us, like those first followers, as well. It is motivating us to get up and to move outside these walls and to proclaim justice and mercy and peace to those around us.

When the Spirit moves in our lives, we are not only recognize the injustices going on around us, but we are also motivated to stand up and to proclaim them wrong. When the Spirit moves in our lives, we not only are able to see the sufferings of those who are marginalized and oppressed and driven down, but we are empowered to get up and help them and strive to create a better place.

This is what it means to be a Christian. This is what it means to do ministry. This is what it means to live a life in which the Spirit moves and compels and drives us forward. This is what it means to follow Jesus.

McKnight in his book answers that all-important question of “What is a Christian?” with this wonderfully insightful answer:

“A Christian is one who follows Jesus by devoting his or her life to the kingdom of God, fired by Jesus’ own imagination, to a life of loving God and loving others, and to a society shaped by justice, especially for those who have been marginalized, to peace, and to a life devoted to acquiring wisdom in the context of a local church. This life can only be discovered by being empowered by God’s Spirit.”

This is what the Spirit does. It empowers us. When we think we are weak and hobbled by life, the Spirit comes in and gives us strength. When we think we are good enough to do ministry, to proclaim by example or word that love of God that we have been shown and can show others, the Spirit comes in and corrects. When we think we are too old or too young or not enough or too smart or limited by a lack of financial resources or physical limitations or mental illness or grief, the Spirit comes in and fills us once again with life.

The Spirit unleashes life within us so, through us, life can be unleashed. That is what ministry is. And it is incredible.

So, let us receive the Holy Spirit. Let that Spirit’s incredible, overwhelming life be unleashed through us. Let us, as McKnight tells us, devote our lives to the Kingdom of God…to a life of loving God and loving others, and to a society shaped by justice for all people, no matter who they are.

The Spirit knows no limits. Empowered by this same incredible, firestorm of a Spirit, neither do we. So, let us break down those limits in our lives and let us live a full and completely unleashed life to its very fullest. Only when we do that, will we truly be living a life in that Spirit of life.

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