Sermon preached by The Rev’d Nicholas Lang
May the life of the Creator surprise us with new things, the life of the Christ invite us towards a grander grace, and the life of the Spirit call us onward. Amen.
The pastor of a congregation that was very stuck in its ways and refused to entertain any thought of change or focus on anything beyond their own needs told them that he would be serving them prune juice in place of Communion wine. When asked why he would dare entertain such a thought, he said, “If the Holy Spirit won’t move you…maybe the prune juice will!”
The Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit. The Spirit of the Lord. We are all familiar with this entity—if not through personal experience at least in the many references to the spirit in Scripture. We hear things about the Spirit in the first and second reading this morning: “the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away…” “…we abide in God because God has given us of his Spirit. The Gospel contains the last of the “I am” passages in the long farewell discourse Jesus gave his friends before his death which was, essentially, an instruction preparing them to receive the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Back in the 1970’s, there was afloat a movement within a number of denominations that put great emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives. It was known as the “Charismatic Movement” and it offered an intense course called “Life in the Spirit” that taught the basic principles inherent in the ethos of this movement. I don’t think it was as widespread within the Episcopal Church as it was in the Roman Catholic Church and in that denomination it replaced some of the old fashioned rigidity with just new forms of rigidity.
For example, one was expected to be “baptized” in the Spirit through a rather interesting ritual and to speak in tongues as a demonstration that the “baptism” was effective. One was expected to attend at least one or two prayer meetings a week during which people gave testimony and prophesy and, yes, a chorus here and there of Glassolalia, this unusual pattern of syllables that made no sense but was considered the work of God’s Spirit—Holy Language. And there developed a sense that those “baptized in the spirit” were a better quality of Christian than those who had not or even looked askance at the whole idea.
At our weekly perusal of the Sunday lessons last Thursday, “Looking for the Good News” we scrutinizers talked about the concept of “Life in the Spirit” and it raised for me both the memories of those day back in the early 1970’s as well as the question “What does Life in the Spirit really look like?” I think we find the answer in the three readings of this Sunday.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we see the transforming power of the Holy Spirit working through Philip. It is extremely significant that the person who asks him to be his guide and to baptize him is an Ethiopian. He was not only a Gentile, he had very dark skin and very different features than Philip. He was clearly an outsider—in the original Greek a stranger or alien.
The teaching here is that the Good News must be offered to all peoples—without exception. The Ethiopian’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” might be translated today as “What prevents me from approaching God’s Table to be fed with the Eucharist even if I have not been baptized?” The answer, in both cases, must be “Not a thing. Absolutely nothing.”
Notice that the Ethiopian did not ask for a teacher, he asked for a guide. The Reverend William Brosend, Professor of Homiletics at the School of Sewanee, Tennessee says that “Teachers point and say, ‘Go there, do that. Guides reach out and say, ‘This is the road I have traveled. You might want to try it, but whatever road you choose, I’ll walk it with you.’ Teachers say, ‘I told you so.’ Guides come after you if you lose the way. The church, I am convinced, needs fewer teachers and more guides.”
I believe that “Life in the Spirit” is the church being very intentional about its mission to invite and welcome everyone—no matter who they are or from where they’ve arrived—and for those of us who are here awaiting their arrival to offer ourselves up as guides to walk the journey with them.
John’s Epistle is a love letter about God’s essence and about the power of love. The key premise of the lesson is this: If we abide in love we abide in God and God abides in us.” The verb abide has a number of meanings, a few with a negative connotation, but the Greek verb in this text refers to one’s “dwelling” or “remaining” in love. We hear this word “abide” six times in the eight verses that comprise John’s Gospel that we heard today.
There is one striking declaration in the Epistle that we won’t want to miss: “There is no fear in love” and “perfect love casts out fear.” That is very good news, especially in the fear-oriented times in which we find ourselves. Life lived in the Spirit is a life built on hope—a life that recognizes the abundance of love that surrounds us. The church that abides in the Spirit is one that never preaches fear and always reinforces the truth of God’s unwavering, unconditional, even outrageous love for all people.
We might wonder about the metaphor of vines and vineyards that we get in the final reading of the day but the people of Judea knew exactly what Jesus was talking about. It was an industry that was a part of their life for centuries. The vineyard was a symbol of their nation—in much the same way as America thinks of “amber waves of grain.” The vineyard was the way Israel was described in the Hebrew Scriptures and Isaiah referred to Israel as the vineyard of God.
The most salient emphasis in this passage is the organic relationship between the branches and the vine. Life in the Spirit is a life of mutual indwelling—not a rigid, binding obligation to rules and regulations—but a fluid, permeable abiding, an intimacy with God and God’s Spirit and with one another in the discipleship of followers of the Holy One of God—Jesus. To detach from the life of such a community is to risk withering and dying like a branch. To be a part of such a community is to be fully alive and productive and actively bearing fruit. What does that look like in a community such as ours?
We might look at a sampling of what has been raised up and supported in this parish. I mention some today, not because they are more important or significant than other areas of ministry, but just as some of the many examples of life lived in the Spirit here. Did you know that 22 people are trained as intercessors and lead us in articulating our prayer needs every Sunday. Forty-five of our company here are members of Healing Teams that bring comfort and reconciliation and holy touch to all of us who come with a plethora of needs.
Almost 70 people—adults and children—have offered their voices to make joyful music in our worship. Fifteen teachers work in our program of Christian education with our children. On average, a dozen people who are either unemployed or in need of job searching skills have met weekly since the beginning of March, 50% who are not members of St. Paul’s and who have described it as being unlike any other transitional group in which they have been involved.
About ten people share the task of baking the fresh tasty bread that feeds us at the Eucharist every week. The six people who are part of the Prayer Shawl Ministry and make shawls for those hospitalized or ill at home have given out 50 blessed shawls in the past couple of years. Over the last month, more than 400 pounds of non-food items that people on food stamps can’t purchase were delivered to the Norwalk Emergency Shelter because of your giving.
Life in the Spirit: a life full of invitation and welcome for everyone, a life of offering ourselves up as guides to walk the journey with those who are here and those not yet here, a life that gratefully recognizes the abundance of love that surrounds us, a life of mutual indwelling—not a rigid, binding obligation to rules and regulations—but a fluid, permeable abiding with one another and with God that of itself creates an abundance of holy energy.
Some two thousand years ago, St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote these words: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” The most profound example of this I believe to be Jesus. No matter where we find ourselves in our theological or faith understanding of who Jesus was or is for us, the one thing he did was to tell us to practice being fully human.
With all kinds of opportunities to tell us what “to think,” he told us what “to do”: wash feet, give your possessions away, share your food and drink, favor good-for-nothings, pray for those who are out to get you, be the first to say, “I’m sorry.” And that’s probably the best description we can find of what it means to live “life in God’s Spirit.” (Oh, not to worry, there won’t be prune juice in the Communion cup this morning.)