Sunday, May 20, 2018

Born of the Spirit: Sermon for Pentecost B, May 20, 2018

Unless you have been on silent retreat for the last week, you have probably heard that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, was chosen to preach at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and his American bride, Meghan Markle. Upon hearing the news last week, those Episcopalians who have been blessed to hear this man of God preach reacted with what was, especially for we staid Episcopalians, outright glee. However, those of us who have to try to preach after that amazing sermon know also experienced a slight feeling of dread at the thought of stepping into a pulpit after an amazing message like that.

Sure, there was the frustrating side: trying to explain the proper usage of the word “Episcopal” (an adjective describing an institution) and “Episcopalian” (a stand-alone noun for a person, not a church), that the style to address him is “The Most Rev.” and not just “Reverend.” Then there was the amusement of watching every single place he has ever lived claim him as its own—Chicago, New York, North Carolina—all those newspapers looking for that precious local angle.

And if you were able to hear his sermon, you know that he did not disappoint. If you have not heard his sermon, even if royal weddings are not your thing, I highly recommend you listen to it, or any of his other sermons available on Youtube. Bishop Curry’s preaching is rightfully described as “Spirit-filled.” And yesterday, the world got a taste of it, thanks be to God. His preaching proclaims the gospel boldly in ways that capture the imagination even of those who are unacquainted with religious faith. Consider this: in a nation like the UK, where only 28% of the population expresses a belief in God, his amazing 13-minute sermon about the power of love had not just that nation but the world betraying the same kind of amazement and wonder we saw in our reading from Acts this morning. Yet of the three “persons” of the Trinity, the Spirit is probably the one we talk about the least, especially we Episcopalians.

Something about the Holy Spirit seems… intangible. God the Creator, we get. Jesus Christ the incarnate Son of God, a description which boggles the mind, we even get, because he was one of us, fully human. But the Spirit is a puzzle or a bewilderment.

Maybe it has to do with other names for the Spirit, which include Holy Ghost; Advocate; Helper; Breath of God; Giver of Life or Life-Giver; or Paraclete. Yet the Church itself would not exist without the Spirit, as we see in the words of the Nicene Creed, where discussion of the “Holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” is placed in the section on the Holy Spirit. We always need to remember that the Church was founded after Jesus’s earthly life had ended, not before, becoming the Body of Christ in the world. Today, the Day of Pentecost, is the day we celebrate and remember the Holy Spirit coming to consecrate and commission the Church to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the Earth.

Last week and this week, from the Day of Ascension onward, we have heard Jesus promising to send the Spirit to guide his disciples once Jesus himself ascends into heaven. He promises that we will be filled to overflowing with power to work for the glory of God’s kingdom once the Spirit descends upon us and abides within us. Over the last few weeks, we have heard that phrase repeatedly: “abide in.” We heard it in John 15: “Abide in me as I abide in you…. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” We heard it again, twelve times, actually, in the brief first letter of John, which was our epistle for several weeks. This indwelling of the Spirit of Love was most beautifully expressed in 1 John 4:16: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” 

That same Spirit abided completely in Jesus, and after his ascension, it is sent to abide within each of us, if we will welcome it. And elsewhere John’s gospel we are assured that it is through the sacraments of the Church that we can experience the Holy Spirit as Jesus and disciples experienced it, for John 6:56 promises, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

In his book, Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus, Bishop Curry spoke of Pentecost Day as a day of the power of collaboration and community, when the power of the Holy Spirit seized each one of those disciples and made it possible for the gospel of Jesus, the gospel of the power of love, to be heard and understood by all people—to abide in all people as a living presence. Bishop Curry wrote, “The story of Pentecost… speaks of barriers being bridged and divisions being overcome. On Pentecost, people heard the gospel of Jesus. And as they heard the gospel, barriers came tumbling down, bridges arose, and the new humanity in Christ began to emerge."(1) It is clear that when that Spirit is present and abiding in a community, barriers and divisions are broken, and bridges and community is built and made strong through planting within us the love of Jesus Christ, who scorns no one who seeks him, but instead embraces them regardless of any category we might us to differentiate one person from another.

The gospel of Jesus is meant to bring us together. It is never to be used to divide, to hurt, or to wound another. Rather, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we abide in each other, we abide in truth and integrity, we abide in God.

In another of his books, Following the Way of Jesus, Bishop Curry recalls the words of an illustrious former archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who served for far too short a time during World War II. Archbishop Temple once said that telling anyone to live like Jesus is useless. We fallible fallen people can’t do it. EXCEPT through the power of the Spirit of Christ. Bishop Curry then continued, “When the Spirit that lived so fully in Jesus inhabits us, then we have a chance to live like him. That’s precisely what happened to the early followers of Jesus’s way. They began to look like Jesus. Folk in Antioch saw them and nicknamed them 'little Christs.'”(2) And they, and we, are able to look and act like Jesus, flawed and hesitant as we all sometimes are, through the power of the Holy Spirit that we remember especially on this Pentecost Day.

The same Spirit who moved over the waters at creation, as our psalm reminds us: You send forth your Spirit, and all things are created; and so you renew the face of the earth. The Spirit who breathed life into all living things, and into all humanity at the birth of humanity. The same Spirit who is still active in creation, as our psalm reminds us in the present tense as well as the past. The same Spirit that descended upon Jesus as he arose from the waters of baptism to begin his earthly ministry of making God’s Love visible in human form. That then filled him with the power to speak words of healing, justice, and redemption into the most bereaved and wounded places that still exist in people throughout the centuries—all by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And as we saw in our reading from Acts today, that same Holy Spirit was able to transform Peter from a faithless companion who would not even admit to knowing Jesus on the night of Jesus’s arrest, to a fearless preacher driven out into the street and boldly proclaiming in the open air the full truth of Christ’s life without any concern for the consequences. In our gospel today, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the Advocate, and Paul reminds us of this also. The same Spirit who alights upon Jesus’s disciples is the one that intercedes for us, helping us in our weakness, our faithlessness and even despair, we hear in the Epistle to the Romans. The Spirit who hovers over us with her regenerative, healing presence when we are so troubled we don’t even know how to pray, as Paul assured the newborn church in Rome.

But that Spirit is more than an Advocate. It is the living presence of Christ within our hearts, the embodiment of the love and grace of God that seeks to claim us and renew us, body and soul. While during much of his earthly ministry Jesus directs his attention toward his own people, with some notable exceptions, when the Spirit empowers the disciples, the first thing we see is that the Spirit equips them to take their message beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem. Once those disciples pour out into the streets with their tongues of fire, we see the Spirit do something very interesting: it gives each disciple the ability to speak in a different language.

In doing this, the Spirit reminds us that diversity, not uniformity, is a strength, even a gift from God. And that’s a reminder we could all use today. Reminding us that, no matter what language we speak, in Christ we speak of love, redemption, and transformation not just of ourselves but of the whole world. It is the Spirit who draws us together as the Beloved Community, a community that is consecrated and charged by the Spirit to offer ourselves, souls and bodies, as witnesses and embodiments of God’s mercy, truth, and grace for the life of the world.

The same Holy Spirit who alights upon Jesus’s disciples, then and now, is the one whom we ask to consecrate the bread and wine and ourselves every time we gather around the altar in thanksgiving and communion, as we are reminded that we abide in Christ and in each other through the love of God manifested through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the same Spirit who at the end of worship sends us out into the world, just like those disciples on Pentecost, to carry of the work and healing of Jesus into a beautiful, hurting world. In the words of hymn 504, “Come, Holy Ghost our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire….”

Come Holy Spirit, kindle the holy fire of love within us, and lead us into deeper wisdom and faith, that we may dedicate our lives to God. May we embrace the power of the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth of God’s love and grace in our lives, and go out into the world like those disciples, our hair on fire, rejoicing as we proclaim the wonders of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Louisiana, MO, at 10 am, and St. John's Episcopal Church, Eolia, MO, at 2 pm, on May 20, 2018.


(1) The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus, 2013, Kindle locations 846-848.
(2) The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Following the Way of Jesus: Volume 6 in the Church’s Teachings for a Changing World series, 2017, chapter 1, location 143 of 1178.

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