Rejoice in the Spirit – May 1, 2016

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Dr. Carolyn J. SharpCarolyn J Sharp
Professor of Hebrew Scriptures, Yale Divinity School
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 1, 2016

Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 ; John 14:23-29

Holy God, we long for Your presence; we hunger for Your grace. Scripture calls us to You. Teach us to listen well, for Your Word is life and truth. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Pentecost is coming! Two Sundays from now, altar frontals and vestments in churches around the world will be red. You’ll hear a lesson from the Acts of the Apostles about the Holy Spirit coming as mighty wind and as fire. You’ll see flame motifs in bulletin art, representing the tongues of fire over the heads of the disciples when the Holy Spirit descends on them. Dramatic stuff, understood as nothing less than the founding of Christ’s Church. The story has been hugely influential in the history of Christian preaching and testifying. “Speaking in tongues” as a spiritual practice is grounded in that Pentecost moment; all of the Pentecostal branches of our faith tradition find their roots in that story.

Now, some of us here have had powerful experiences of the Holy Spirit. Others may be more skeptical. I know some Christian believers who speak in tongues (yes—absolutely including Episcopalians); such folks experience deep joy and closeness to God in those moments. Perhaps you’ve had that experience. On such occasions, the Spirit comes over believers like a rush of electric energy, compelling them to speak but at the same time moving them to a level beyond normal words and syntax.[i]

I’ve had that experience a few times myself, but more often, the Spirit comes over me as a wave of joy that will not dissipate, sometimes for hours. Those are times of wondrous blessing that sustain me and for which I give thanks to God.

Some believers tell of the feeling of being suddenly wrapped in a sense of love or peace more powerful than their rational minds could explain. Many Christians throughout the centuries have had this experience, including friends of mine. Being enveloped in all-encompassing love or peace is a real and undeniable effect of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

But others, including not a few clergy, are more wary of the expression of emotion in worship. They remain unconvinced about the authenticity of speaking in tongues and frown on ecstatic forms of prayer. They raise an eyebrow at the Pentecost experience as unseemly and perhaps unnecessary extroversion; they are uncomfortable at the prospect of believers bursting into a cacophony of testimonies, joyfully shouting their witness to “God’s deeds of power” across boundaries of language and ethnic difference.[ii]Believers of this rationalist temperament will be relieved at our lesson this morning from the Gospel of John, because the Gospel today teaches us about the Holy Spirit not with language of thunder and fire, not with folks being “slain in the Spirit,” but with a blessedly quiet way of thinking about the Spirit.

John is not about the mighty roar of wind or miraculous unquenchable flames. John offers us the Spirit in terms of sober spiritual introversion. It’s all about the mysterious wisdom of the Spirit working deep within believers’ hearts and minds.

With John, it’s all quiet power and love—and it’s beautiful.

In our lesson, Jesus is giving his farewell speech to the disciples before he goes to the Cross. He knows that his disciples will be terrified when he is gone. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus promises—a powerful assertion of loving connection even in the face of death itself. Love is at the core of the Gospel of John. “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus commands his disciples[iii]; for John—sober, quiet John—it is love that marks us as Christ’s own.

Jesus reassures them that the Holy Spirit is coming from the Father to be Advocate and Helper of all who believe. All who believe: those first disciples, and the early Church fathers; medieval mystics and 20th-century saints; you and me. The Holy Spirit will abide with us forever!

Hear now the extraordinary promise of our Lord and Savior:

The Spirit will teach us everything!

The Spirit will remind us of all that Jesus said[iv] and lead us into all truth![v]

I urge you to hear Jesus making this promise directly to you,in the core of your being,in the deepest silence of your heart.

He promises you, this morning, that the Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all that Jesus said and lead you into all truth. Knowing that the Holy Spirit will abide with us, help us, and guide us—
really trusting that— well, that changes everything. We can listen with generosity in times of conflict,
trusting that the Spirit will help us to love our antagonists. We can struggle onward in times of darkness,
trusting that the Spirit will help us to see the light of Christ. We can face the loss that is an inevitable part of life, trusting that the Spirit will help us to know Christ’s peace.[vi]

The Holy Spirit is our Advocate, and will remind us of all that Jesus said. This makes us eager, of course, to go back into the Gospel of John. (You know, right?, when you feel that prompting to meditate on a psalm or to know one of the Gospels more deeply, that is the Holy Spirit.) When we go back into the Gospel, we remember:

Jesus said that he is the bread of life.

Jesus said that he is the light of the world.

Jesus said that he is the resurrection and the life!

Beloved, the Holy Spirit has been teaching you about the love of God in Christ Jesus[vii] since before you were born, ever since God wove you intricately and marvelously in your mother’s womb.[viii]

You have been created to LISTEN and to LOVE.

(The Holy Spirit is working in you even now to remind you of that.) You have been made to listen for the truth of Christ in Scripture, to listen in prayer, to listen in sacred music and sacred silence, to listen in your relationships with loved ones and strangers. And you have been made to love—to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, to love others in Christian community, to love your enemies, to love every living thing with boundless compassion.[ix]

The good news is that the Holy Spirit stands with you as Advocate and Guide—   the Lord has not left you orphaned.

So you can do it.

You can face that thing about which you’ve been anxious …step into that conflict that is begging for resolution …grieve the loss that’s been so hard, you’ve looked away. You can wrestle with that challenge you’ve never mentioned to anyone …embrace that risky new project …surrender, finally, to the God who loves you.

You can do it, with us—with this Body of Christ gathered around you—because the Holy Spirit abides with you and with me, with Jacob and the choir and with the folks on the Social Justice Commission,
with the teenager trying to figure out whether this stuff is real, with the stranger who is here for the first time this morning.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”[x] Instead, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Spirit—the gift beyond all gifts from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be all honor, glory, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

[i] The tongue-speaking I’ve witnessed is not syntactically organized, as best I’ve been able to assess.
[ii] See Acts 2:1-11.
[iii] John 13:34.
[iv] John 14:26.
[v] John 16:13.
[vi] John 14:27.
[vii] See Romans 8:31-39.
[viii] See Psalm 139:13-16.
[ix] One may think on the words of the hymn, “Love divine, all loves excelling,” #657 in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, and especially the clause in verse 1, “Jesus, thou art all compassion; pure, unbounded love thou art.” Buddhist traditions are instructive regarding the practice of compassion as the highest and deepest calling of sentient beings.
[x] John 14:27.

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