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Monday, June 13, 2011

Sermon from June 12, 2011 + The Day of Pentecost, year A

“We Believe in the Holy Spirit . . .”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23 (citing John 16 and John 3 as well)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sometimes the Holy Spirit is the forgotten person of the Holy Trinity for Lutherans in our preaching and teaching. It’s not that the Spirit is missing from our theological heritage – some of the most powerful and beautiful writing Luther did is found in his explanation to the Third Article of the Creed in his Catechisms. It’s just that with our focus on the saving work of Jesus, we sometimes ignore or discount the work of the Holy Spirit.

In part that’s because it’s relatively easy to declare with clarity what Jesus has done – that we’ve been saved by his work for us, completely by grace, and that we can do nothing to earn it. Doctrines can be built upon this foundation, and have been. It’s much harder to declare with certainty what the Spirit has done or is doing. Luther rightly connects the work of the Spirit to the existence and continued life of the Church. But there is also the scriptural promise that the Spirit of God moves in mysterious ways, where God wills, and in ways we cannot control or always fathom. And it can seem threatening to us to hear people speak of being “led by God’s Spirit,” speaking of a deep awareness of the Spirit of God in their lives.

How different it is for us than for those first believers on that day of Pentecost. How could you miss that God’s Spirit was there – the sound of a rushing wind, the flames over their heads, the many languages. Transformed from folks staying behind closed doors to bold witnesses out on the streets, these followers had no difficulty seeing the coming of the Holy Spirit and sensing their transformation.

Today is the Day of Pentecost, the day we remind ourselves that those events of 2,000 years ago are not history but present reality. We claim that Jesus still breathes into us the Holy Spirit of God just as he did in the Upper Room on Easter night. We claim the Spirit’s presence in our lives just as it was on the first Pentecost. So why is it so hard for us to believe it?

Well, for one thing, that first Day of Pentecost taught us that the Spirit leads us into the future without full disclosure.

This is what was happening that day of Pentecost. Ignore Peter, the main speaker, for a moment. Think about some of the others who were there, or might have been.

Was a young man named Stephen there, a Greek Jew in Jerusalem for the festival, who heard this amazing preaching? Is it possible that he was one of the 3,000 converted that day? And if so, could he have known that he would very soon be the first to be killed for the faith that was now giving him such joy, such life?

And was another young man named Saul listening that day? Angry that the preaching of Jesus hadn’t ended with his death, was he at all impressed by what he heard? Or more incensed and determined to defend God and his Jewish faith against these unbelievers? And if so, would he have believed that not many years later he would actually be arguing with this same Peter that even non-Jews should be welcome into Christ’s Church?

Think of all those believers preaching that day. Tradition says most of them were eventually killed for their faith, their preaching. Could they have known what was ahead? Would it have mattered?

And the Spirit still works in this way. We may feel called by God to act, to move – but God rarely gives us the full future, or a view of the end of our discipleship. And that can be frightening for all of us.

Maddie and Kaiya, you have said you are ready to stand before us, your brothers and sisters, and affirm your baptism, claim the faith that has been growing in you since baptism. You will make promises to serve God with your lives, to commit yourselves as witnesses. You are ready to do this because the Holy Spirit has been present in your lives since your baptism, and has been leading you to this moment.

But like those first disciples filled with the Spirit, you have no idea what future lies before you. You both have a sense of some of your spiritual gifts, and it’s a delight to hear you both speak of them, but you don’t know what paths lie before you as seek to use these gifts. It is a perilous thing you do, a perilous thing we all do, to say “yes” in response to God’s “yes” to you of love and grace. Because you are saying “yes” to the Holy Spirit leading you. And like the rest of us, you have no idea where that might be.

But a second problem we have with believing in the Spirit of God is that in doing so we give up our control over what the Spirit can or cannot do.

In John 16 Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Think about that for a moment – Jesus is telling the church, telling us, that we cannot know everything God wills for us, we cannot know all the truth at once. God the Spirit will need to continue to be with us and guide us to that truth, over time, when we’re ready.

We tend to fear that as humans – when it comes to God most people, and most institutions, prefer to codify all their sense of truth, and protect it, and make sure it never is changed. We take the gift of God given us freely without any work on our part, and try to control truth, try to control God.

And we live in a post-enlightenment world, where this kind of talk – that the Spirit of God leads people and tells them things – is seen by many as verging on mental illness. But even we are influenced by the world’s view, so we discount it when people claim to have heard God’s Spirit guide them because we’re suspicious of such confidence, such otherworldliness.

But what if Jesus truly meant this – that we cannot own the truth, or package it, because we need to be open to the Spirit’s leading us in new ways? What if he truly meant to breathe the Spirit into all the believers in such a way that cannot be controlled, where God does what needs doing in us and in the world without asking our permission? It’s a little frightening – but it’s also a gift of life, God’s life, blowing in our world.

The very reality of faith in the Holy Spirit is that we admit God cannot be controlled. The Spirit blows like the wind, Jesus says in John 3, wherever the Spirit wills. God is working in people in ways we cannot predict. God is leading people to things we may not have imagined or planned for, things we cannot control. And yes, it is a little frightening – but it’s also a gift of life, God’s life, blowing in our world. So our call this day of Pentecost, and always, is to listen together for continued guidance and direction from the Holy Spirit, trusting that Jesus’ promise will be kept, and we will be led into the truth God needs us to know.

As Kaiya and Maddie make their affirmation today they model for us this leap of faith.

Without knowing what lies ahead, they say “I believe,” and “I will follow.” They open themselves to the gift and leading of the Holy Spirit. And could we have such courage ourselves, we might also take more seriously the reality that God’s Spirit continues to blow in our lives like that first day. Not as flashy and impressive visually, perhaps. But still there.

We know from those first believers that we cannot see the whole story, the whole direction God’s Spirit might be leading. We know we cannot control the Holy Spirit, or even always know who is being led by the Spirit and who is not (though the Scriptures do give us ways to test that.)

But we know what Paul says today is true: in our baptism into Christ we are made one by the same Spirit, and our unity is found in the Spirit of God binding us together, and together we will be led to the truth God thinks we are ready to know, and into the paths God would have us go.

Because that’s what Jesus promises to us today and always – that we are not alone, and that the Spirit of God will continue to breathe into us and lead us into life. And that – that we can believe with joy.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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