Sermon preached by the Reverend Lloyd Alexander Lewis, Jr.
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Day of Pentecost – May 23, 2010
”For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” Romans 8:15
This is a joyful day. For one thing it is the day Christians around the world celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, that day when the church remembers what happened 50 days after the first Easter. Pentecost is a constitutive day for us in the same way that God’s ancient chosen people recognized in its calendar the day of the giving of the Law, the Ten Commandments, to the children of Israel. For after the people had been delivered by God’s almighty hand through the waters of the Red Sea and brought into the land of promise, they were marked forever as God’s own with the words of that covenant which began, “I am the Lord your God: you shall have no other God’s before me.” So when the children of Israel gathered together to celebrate their Pentecost, making a sort of home-coming pilgrimage of those who were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, something unusual happened. Under the symbols of fire and wind, that Spirit which the prophet Joel had announced would come as part of God’s last days suddenly arrived. It was present in an upper room where the Apostles and Mary were gathered, and it was the promised gift of Jesus: crucified, raised, and ascended. Miraculously women and men, no matter where they came from or what their heritage was, heard the good news unmediated in their own languages. This, by the way, was the original inclusive language experience. We know what happened afterwards. Despite the fact that scoffers accused the disciples of drunkenness, Peter preached with boldness. Thousands responded to the sermon. Not a bad for a first day’s effort.
The second thing that makes this day joyful is that shortly 4 children will be added to the body of Christ through Holy Baptism, that sacrament upon which all sacraments pivot. By the commitment of their parents and their sponsors and all of us gathered here, they will enter into the Easter mystery. Prayer will be offered, water will be poured, oil will be imposed on their heads in the shape of a cross. And in all of this they will die with Christ and be raised with him and be sealed by the Spirit as God’s own forever.
So this is a sermon about the gift of the Spirit at baptism and the gift of the Spirit to the Church, and being a slave no more but becoming a child.
Years ago, Theresa Bell, my maternal grandmother, and I had a long conversation on a Sunday afternoon about her growing up in a rural community near the railroad tracks in Manassas, Virginia. My grandmother was a staunch Baptist, and she patiently and humorously endured the ways of her grandson, the Episcopal priest, especially when it came to the ways the Episcopal Church did thing. At some point our conversation turned to baptism, and when it did, she described her own baptism as a young woman. “We baptized in the river,” she said. “We did not use that birdbath you use in your church. When the preacher baptized, all the members of the church stood on one bank of the river singing hymns, and the preacher stood in the river. You went down to the water, and that water was cold. When you went in that water, you knew that you had been somewhere. And then you went under the water and came back up. And you joined the hymn singers.”
That event changed her life. Until she died at 92 she was part of her church, first in Manassas and later in Alexandria, where she raised her children, did her work, and, in the course of both, prayed and cared for more people than I could ever count. And it all began for her with that moment with the water and the Spirit.
“When you went down to the water, you knew that you had been somewhere.”
When Paul of Tarsus wrote to the Christians at Rome, he wrote as one who did not know them face to face. But he preached to them the common faith that they shared: that to solve the problem of all humanity being alienated from one another and from God, God himself had acted, making a preemptive strike on history in the manger on Christmas and on the Cross on Good Friday. He had sent the very best, his Son, into this world, not waiting for the world to get its act together first. But he sent him to turn the world around and to bring it back…. ”So God loved the world….” The consequences of this were that all people were set free: free from the wrath of God in the face of creation in rebellion having the last say about us; free from sin and personal brokenness being our final master; free even from that brand of religion that makes us believe that we need to make ourselves lovely before God through the impossible effort of trying to keep all the rules all the time perfectly. No: God had changed that scenario in Jesus.
And one more important thing had happened, that Paul discovered. Jesus had not only freed us from the consequences of human failure. He had freed us to enjoy a new relationship with God. For the fire and the wind of the Spirit God gives us changes us and seals our relationship to him, making us by adoption and grace children to God and heirs to all of his promises, even the gift of eternal life. “When we cry,‘Abba! Father!’ Paul says, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” This is not a distant relationship that God gives us, but it is just as loving and personal as the words we speak in the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer his son taught us, the prayer in which God invites us to address him as “Abba: Papa.”
We, then, in baptism and by Pentecost, should be about the business of affirming who we have become: the fact that “When we went down to the water, we recognize that we have been somewhere” and the fact that the power and sealing love of God have made this possible. Immediately this has to do with these four new Christians we are to create this day. They should know that from this day forward that they belong to God; that no one and nothing else can supersede that claim; and that God’s claim over them is irrevocable. Nothing: not heights nor depths nor angels nor principalities; nothing in all of creation can separate them from that love. They will need to grow into claiming that on their own, and each one of us will have a part to play in that growth and maturation. Come Pentecost Sunday 10, 15, 20 years from now, they should be here, because they will have grown through the Spirit working in them and working in us to claim their Christian birthright.
But if that is true of the newly baptized, how much the more is it true for all of us who are the heirs of Pentecost in the life of this parish community? I can tell you that I remember this church from the times I visited it no more than 15 years ago now. It has grown; it has become more welcoming; it has become more and more a place where, whether we name it or not, it is not only alive but thriving because what happened on that first Pentecost with fire and wind has, in subtle but effective ways, happened here. Externals may loom large in some churches, but ultimately the externals which divided people were overcome at Pentecost. It is the internal that finally determines identity, and the Spirit — that friend at court, that public defender, that paraclete, that advocate — lives in each and every one of us. Come Pentecost Sunday 10, 15, 20 years from now, will that same Spirit still be working and continuing to grow this parish community so that it might thrive, so that it might remain a place where all can say that because they have been down in the water, they know they have been somewhere?
And so we pray
Come Holy Ghost, Comforter, Spirit of power fulfilling all things; treasury of blessings, and giver of life; come abide with us and be among us and save us good Lord.
We did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption.