One Spirit, One Community

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on Pentecost, June 4, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the Festival of Pentecost:
Acts 2:1-21 + Psalm 104:24-34, 35b + 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 + John 20:19-23

***************

This was a jointly preached sermon between one of our youth and myself.

***************

When I was young, well younger than I am now, I was taught the head, shoulders, knees, and toes song. You know, “head shoulders knees and toes, knees and toes,” you get the gist. And the preschool teachers began the long process of teaching us kids all the parts of the body and their roles. The hands were for touching, the mouth was for eating, the feet were for walking. And then years later the health and science teachers expanded on that, going into excruciating detail on organ and body systems, and how they interact with each other. My entire seventh grade science class was devoted to biology and the study of what makes creatures stay alive, while also adapting and evolving to continue thriving through homeostasis. We thoroughly explored how each part contributes to a whole, and that that is precisely what keeps us breathing in and out, among other things.

In the second reading, today we hear again the familiar idea that “all the members of the body, though many, are one body.” Reinforcing everything I had learned, a reminder even in faith. It doesn’t have the same meaning though. This liturgical version runs deeper as it applies to much more than just the scientific aspect of the body. If English class has taught me anything, it’s that to learn the true meaning, unwrap the layers of the text and focus in on the word choice. Paul chooses the word “member”, rather than piece or part. Now why is that? Paul uses the word member to represent living individuals coming together to become one, just as he uses the word body to symbolize not only the literal human body, but larger communities and societies. The dissolving of the differences that separate us brings us together, speaking the same language, listening to the same words, singing the same songs.

These days in the media you hear the way people treat each other. As if they have nothing in common. You see the inequality. The discrimination. How somehow people think it is acceptable to treat people differently than they deserve, based solely on things that make us people. Things like, “race, gender, sex, pregnancy, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth, etc.” If this all exists then how can we also be simultaneously members of one body, all whole as one? The other day I was sitting at the lunch table with my friends stressing over finals, how we were going to miss each other in high school, plans for the summer, etc. And the topic of Ariana Grande’s concert came up. Immediately we expressed our sadness for those who were injured and those who lost their life. But then my best friend in the world, who happens to be Sudanese and proud of it, looked at me, straight in the eye and said, “I hate those attacks because whenever people die or get injured everyone assumes that all Muslim people are bad and not every Muslim is a bad person.”

Therefore, how, in the midst of all this, can we be one whole society?
Paul tells us. “In one Spirit” For in one spirit. We are all connected. Today’s reading stresses that the Holy Spirit is truly what brings us together and creates that bond of members we have under the church of Christ. When I was growing up out of the three and one, the Father and the Son were most talked about. But now as I mature I start to realize that the Spirit might be one of the most important of all. The Holy Spirit not only unites us, but marks us as children of God during baptism. It is during that time when the Spirit washes over us, cleansing our mind, body, and conscience of differences, so that we can be our own selves, but joined under the entire umbrella of the church, sheltering us from the harsh rains of separation.

Furthering this train of thought, Paul grasps at something bigger for he touches the theme of identity, and defining who you are in relation to others. For not only does this reading ask “how can we be united when we are so different?” but also “how can we be different if we are so united?” The Holy Spirit guides us to help find that perfect middle, so that all those pieces of the puzzle are distinctive, but whole, and all irreplaceable.

Today we honor the Spirit and all that it entails, shaping our lives so that we can be who we are. Who we were created to be. Today we remember not only the stories when the Spirit comes as fire, or water, or wind, but especially the present stories of ways the Spirit shines through people now. In my now old middle school we had the most diverse classrooms I have ever seen. I must’ve had friends from countless countries teaching me about their traditions and lifestyles. I personally hung out with many Indian friends, so much that they have accepted me into their culture and called me an honorary Indian. I participated in doing an Indian dance in PE when we had to choreograph one together, and I’m pretty sure right now I could name at least 10 Indian songs that are popular even though I don’t understand the language at all. The purpose of this now lengthy example is that this is how I see the Holy Spirit. When I walked into school every day and saw all those friendly but widely varied faces it evidenced the power the Spirit has, forever bringing us together, no matter what.

NHLC Pentecost

Like Abby said, Paul writes “In the one Spirit we were baptized into one body, and so it is with Christ.” Friends, in our baptism we are brought together as one, joined to Christ, joined to one another, through the Spirit. And “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”.

I think that’s a really important verse for us. As Abby notes, we’re much more ready to identify those things that divide us than those things that unite us. And how on earth could we possibly work together for good if our starting point is one of division?

God’s not looking for mindless drone robots. That’s why I think Paul’s language of members of the body is so beautiful. Each member of the body retains their own identity. A finger is different than a toe, a shoulder different than a nose, but all of these members are dependent on one another to accomplish that which a body is used for. Our task, dear people, is to come together, bringing our individualities and identities, yet asking the prayerful and discerning question, “What is that God would have us do together?”

It’s part of the reason that today, during this celebration of Pentecost, that we’re recommitting and rededicating ourselves to the mission and ministry of New Hope Lutheran Church. On a day when we celebrate the birthday of the Church, the day when the message of the Gospel was heard in new ways by new groups of people and set loose in the world by the Holy Spirit, we’re also celebrating the ways in which we, as a church, as New Hope, are hearing and experiencing and living out the Gospel in new ways and being moved out from our pews by that same Holy Spirit.

Recommitting ourselves to the mission and ministry of New Hope means recommitting ourselves to prayerfully asking that question about what God is calling us to. It means moving forward into a new future, a new mission, a new path… It’s not closing the book, at all, it’s committing to beginning a new chapter, one that remembers and is informed by but is not beholden by our past.

There are many ways in which the church we are now has been incredibly blessed by the church we once were, and we are thankful for that. And, we are and we can be so much more than the church we once were.
Recommitting and rededicating ourselves to the mission and ministry of New Hope is recommitting and rededicating ourselves to listening for and following that Spirit of God that was set loose at Pentecost and is still moving mightily in our world and in this place.

And if you’re wondering if that’s true, if you’re still not convinced, just take a look at our worship this morning. Everything we’re doing this morning has been planned and led by this group of faithful Christians, who want nothing more than for you to recognize what they’ve known this whole time: that the Spirit is here and the Spirit is moving through this place like fire.

 

So in your everyday life, if you haven’t already, start noticing the little ways the Holy Spirit contributes in your life. Notice how the Spirit sparkles and flows through members you see, for all of them are surely becoming one body.

Advertisements

It All Seems A Little Far-Fetched, Don’t You Think?

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on May 24, 2015 *

Text: Romans 8:18-38

***************

Pray with me this morning:

Consume us, Holy Spirit.
Lead us, and go with us confidently
into the future that you are calling us,
And be with us in the midst of our uncertainty.
Amen.

***************

I’m reading a book by Rob Bell called What We Talk About When We Talk About God. In it, Bell’s aim is to give an expansive view of God that accounts for many different ways of speaking about and understanding God. In the first chapter, he diverts quickly into particle physics, talking about how the smaller and smaller we go from matter to atoms to protons and neutrons to quarks to bosons, etcetera, etcetera…scientists really can’t say with any degree of certainty why these subatomic particles behave like they do. In other words, once you get to a certain point in particle physics, the response, “I don’t know,” becomes perfectly acceptable.

And, you, like me, might be wondering what particle physics has to do with theology, and more specifically, what all of this could possibly have to do with Pentecost. Bell’s point is this: for so long, we have set science and religion over against each other, as polar opposites of the same line; and…we might be surprised to learn that science and religion have more in common with each other than we think or, in some cases, would care to admit.

Rob Bell says it this way: “I talk about all of this because when people object to the idea of God, to the idea that there is more beyond our tangible, provable-with-hard-evidence observations and experiences of the world, they aren’t taking the entire world into account. A brief reading of modern science quite quickly takes us into all sorts of interesting and compelling places where even the most intelligent, up-to-date, and informed scientists are constantly surprised by just how much more there is to the universe.”

Put simply, we don’t know all of the possibilities.

In my best ideas about myself, I’m enthralled by the abundance of possibilities. If I’m honest, most days, I’m skeptical of them.

And admittedly, this is a little bit how I feel about the Holy Spirit. I know what I’m “supposed” to think about the Spirit, and I think I know what the Spirit is and does, but truthfully, most days I’m skeptical of even myself. I find that the Spirit often defies explanation for me, thwarts my attempts to pin it down and put it in a box that can be named, described, and analyzed.

Lutherans, generally speaking, are one of the more academic branches of Christianity. There’s a reason our pastors have more books than any reasonable person should have. But just as a fun game, go ahead and ask your pastor if they’ve read all the books on their shelves. I think all of us here know the answer to that question… In general, Lutherans love to explain things. We’re rational thinkers, have a healthy grasp on the real and tangible, and trust in what we can explain, or at least, describe.

And so when I, as a Lutheran, run up against this thing that appears to be set against all of those things, I struggle with it. And I struggle with the idea that there are branches of my same Christian faith that profess to have this whole Holy Spirit-thing on lock down. People that believe that they have a true and plausible idea of exactly what the Spirit is and what the Spirit does.

I’m not saying that they don’t, I’m saying that I don’t, and I haven’t experienced what they’ve experienced, and I struggle because I have a penchant for trying to explain things, and this seems unexplainable, and maybe there’s something wrong with me…

And Paul, here in our reading today, seems sosure of what he’s saying…

All things work together for good for those whom God loves…
If God is for us, who is against us…?
Who will separate us from the love of God…?
The Spirit intercedes for us…

Yes, Paul, but how do you know…?

And here, right in the midst of my doubts, and skepticism, and fears…is where I hear Rob Bell’s and Paul’s words with great comfort.

First, Rob Bell, a little later in his same book, “When I’m talking about God, I’m talking about a reality known, felt, and experienced, but one that cannot be located in any specific physical space in any tangible way.”

God…the Spirit…is felt…and experienced… We know…because we’ve felt…we’ve experienced it to be true. We trust that it’s true. Search yourself deeply… God knows I had to… I think that feeling…that trust…is in there somewhere…

And hear Paul’s words, “In hope, we are saved. And we cannot hope in what we see. But we hope in what we do not see. And through patience, we wait for it.”

I think we catch bits and pieces of this hope. We notice its occasional breakthrough. We feel its intermittent inbreaking.

Like the kiss of warmth from the sun on our skin.
Like the gentle fragrance that just floats past our nose.
Like the soft touch of a faint breeze that glances off our neck.
Like the calming peace that settles over our very being.

We observe this hope in brief, fleeting moments, and yet we wait for the day when that hope is no longer felt in fleeting moments, but is the very reality in which we live.

And this is the pregnant waiting that Paul is talking about. All of creation is groaning and waiting for the fulfillment of the hope that is the restoration of all things. And we hope, and we trust, that that resurrection moment is coming, and in fact, is at hand.

But in the meantime, in the moments when that trust is difficult, in the times when that hope eludes us, Paul reassures us, “The Spirit intercedes for us,” literally, in Greek, on our behalf, “with sighs deeper than words.”

Common imagery for the Spirit is that of fire and flame. And while I think that certainly conveys the consuming nature of the Spirit and the force and vigor with which the Spirit moves, honestly it feels like our world is already burning. From Cleveland, to Burundi, to Baltimore, to Syria, to Palestine, to right here in Chicago… Truthfully, I need a break from fire.

I need a stiff northerly breeze. One that cools, and calms, and refreshes, and rejuvenates. And yes, that resurrects. I need a strong gust that moves me from my place of carelessness and complacency with the way things are to a future that is pregnant with possibility and peace, not just for a few, but for all.

People of God, that Spirit is here. Raise your faces to the sky and feel it. Be moved to action by it. Be led into the future of this faith community by it, where “I don’t know” may be a perfectly acceptable response.

But go confidently with this Spirit, knowing that death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth……nor anything, else. in all. of creation. will separate you from the love of God in Christ.

Amen.