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Sermon #233 St. James the Less #140 5/23/21

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: `In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' "

Acts 2:1-21

Come Holy Spirit

There is an ancient hymn that is typically sung moments before a person is ordained to the priesthood. The first line goes, “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire/and lighten with celestial fire;/thou the anointing Spirit art,/ who dost thy seven-fold gifts impart.”

For those of you present at my ordination a few years ago, you may remember me stretched out on the floor right before the bishop and other clergy laid hands on me. While I was laying face down on the floor it was this ancient hymn that was sung by our choir.

As much as it is an ordination hymn, it really is a Pentecost hymn: “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire/ and lighten with celestial fire.”

As one writer put it, “‘Come, Holy Spirit!’ is the first and last prayer of the church” (Hauerwas & Willimon pg. x)

It was on this day that God’s Holy Spirit poured out on those in the Upper Room. The fearful apostles were transformed into bold preachers of Christ Crucified and his glorious resurrection.

This truly was a miracle because these timid disciples were not transformed by their own courage or strength, it was an act of God that brought all this about.

We aren’t much without the Holy Spirit. We are empty vessels in need of filling, dry bones seeking the breath of life. And so, our prayer individually and collectively as a church is, “Come, Holy Spirit, rouse our souls with your inspiration and light our hearts with the fire of your love.”

But normally when we think of the Holy Spirit in the church our minds don’t automatically think about the Episcopal Church. We may be more inclined to think about Pentecostalism or one of those other charismatic denominations.

Whether you’ve been to one of their services in-person or watched one on TV, it can be quite energetic and lively at points—especially when compared to the more liturgical nature of the Episcopal Church.

But you may be surprised that Episcopalians and Anglicans around the world don’t draw such a hard line as we typically do in North America.

While in Kenya and Tanzania a few years ago I was talking to Anglican priests about church growth and evangelism in their context. The church in the Southern Hemisphere is growing exponentially compared to the US and Europe, and I went to find out why that was.

During one conversation with a group of clergy they told me that 20 years ago the Pentecostals were very popular, and their churches were packed. The Anglicans looked around and said, “Well, we need to become more Pentecostal if we’re going to connect with the people around us.”

And so, they introduced more charismatic elements into their Sunday worship. There was more singing and dancing, lots of different instruments playing, and even the priests would occasionally go off script. I can already see some of you tightening up with anxiety while others are nodding their heads like “Yes, let’s do it.”

Anyways, a few years passed, and more and more people started attending the Anglican churches. The Pentecostal pastors then got together and said, “The Anglicans are doing something right, we need to embrace more liturgy and tradition.”

Some more time passed and then they said you could be walking down the street and see an Anglican priest praying extemporaneously with someone in need—his prayer book nowhere in sight, and on the other side of the street was a Pentecostal preacher buying something at a bakery, wearing a priest’s collar!

All that to be said, the rigid denominational lines that we have here in the States just don’t exist in other parts of the world. Worshiping in East African Anglican churches were some of the most Pentecostal services I’ve ever been a part of, and yet still a place an Episcopalian could feel at home.

The church is a big place with a lot of variety to it, and even within our own denomination there is plenty of differences.

Liturgy is not a bad thing, neither is being formal, or having a prayer book in your hand. Every church, no matter the denomination, must always be watchful for when worship becomes lifeless, a routine, but most importantly, when it becomes Spirit-less.

We’re in serious trouble when our first and last prayer as a church is not “Come, Holy Spirit.”

The First Pentecost

There was no doubt when the Spirit descended on the apostles that a fire was lit in their heart. They couldn’t help but run out into the streets and start telling everyone about Jesus.

They weren’t only bold and passionate in their proclamation—they were loud. So loud and obnoxious that some thought they were drunk! And the great irony is that what some perceived as drunkenness was actually the work of God.

There is a crucial question that comes from this passage for those of us in the church.

One bishop asks, “Have our churches today got enough energy, enough Spirit-driven new life, to make onlookers pass any comment at all? Has anything happened which might make people think we were drunk? If not, is it because the Spirit is simply at work in other ways, or because we have so successfully quenched the Spirit that there is actually nothing happening at all” (Wright, Acts 30)?

What do people think about when they drive past our church? Or better yet, what do you think about when you drive past our church?

The Spirit didn’t just descend on individual disciples, but on the church. He came to bring new life into that fearful group that was gathered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem.

The Church

And yet today “the church” is not always perceived as dynamic and energetic at it was on that first Pentecost. There are many folks we know who are repulsed at the thought of church.

People have been burned by the church, or worse, they have been sufficiently bored by the church that they need not return ever again for fear of falling asleep.

We have lost the ability to light people’s hearts on fire with the message of Jesus. And that’s not Jesus’ fault, but ours for making his good news seem so dull and unimportant.

We have been at this for two thousand years and people are not clamoring to join us. No one is looking at us and saying we’re an ideal community or begging to know how to get in (Peterson paraphrased).

And yet, the Spirit specifically fell on the church—mostly because he knew we’d need him; we can’t do it alone.

Eugene Peterson on reflecting the recent failures of the church asks: So, why the church? Why continue to go to church and be a part of this community when there are so many other things we could be doing with our time?

His answer, “Because the Holy Spirit formed [the church] to be a colony of heaven in the country of death.”

“Church,” he says “is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not the kingdom complete, but it is a witness to that kingdom” (11-12).

What I find so remarkable in this quote is that you and I are the core strategy of the Holy Spirit. What we are doing today, gathered in this way, is not the kingdom complete, we have plenty of issues to iron out, but nonetheless, we are pointing to that inbreaking kingdom just by coming together for worship.

Amid so much chaos and death, you and I are a colony of heaven here in Madison. We are a refuge to this community, an oasis, where those who are wearied from the journey can drink the water of life and be fed with heavenly food.

And this promise is not just for other people, but for you as well. It is the Spirit who comes alongside us when we are worn down by the challenges of life, he is the One who breathes new, abundant life into us when we seem lifeless.

Pentecost is a great reminder we cannot do this alone. We need the Holy Spirit to revive us, to fill us to the brim, and transform us just as he did for those tired and anxious apostles all those years ago. He did it once and he has continued to do it daily for those who call on him. So, let’s do that now: “Come, Holy Spirit, rouse our souls with your inspiration and light our hearts with the fire of your love.” Come quickly and do not delay. Amen.

Pentecost. Year B. Acts 2:1-21. N.T. Wright’s Acts for Everyone. Peterson’s Practice Resurrection. Hauerwas & Willimon’s The Holy Spirit. Pic here.

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