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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Blessing and Challenge of the Promise

Sermon on texts from Acts 2:1-21 and John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Creator Spirit, heavenly dove, descend upon us from above;
                With graces manifold restore your creatures as they were before.   
To you, the Comforter, we cry; to you, the gift of God most high,
                True fount of life, the fire of love, the soul’s anointing from above.
(Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal, #577, verses 1&2)

Beautiful words, yes? Inspiring words. Comforting words.
With its evocative melody, this chant, Creator Spirit, Heavenly Dove is frequently sung during  ordinations, consecrations and commissionings of individuals set apart to serve in specific ministries in the church.
This chant is selected in part, I am sure, as a means to inspire the newly commissioned, consecrated, or ordained, as well as to remind us all of what God is doing in our midst- calling us together, equipping us for ministry, teaching us the ways of God, feeding us, and then sending us out in mission and service to the gospel. 

I clearly remember hearing this hymn chanted at my own ordination – some of you were even there. Referred to as the Hymn of Invocation, the entire assembly sang that day as many pastors surrounded me and prepared to lay their hands upon me.
Hearing these words and then feeling those hands upon my head, my shoulders, my back, my arms - was a powerful experience, and not only for me personally, but for all present; each hand, each voice presenting the Church at large, united by the Holy Spirit.

In you, with graces sevenfold, we God’s almighty hand behold;
                While you with tongues of fire proclaim to all the world
                                God’s holy name.
(Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal, #577, verse 3)

Perhaps these words are meant to comfort and inspire, since these are part of the work of the Holy Spirit. But I know that on that day, I felt the weight of those hands, too.
For while the ministry of God is an important and life-giving ministry in which we all have a share, the truth is that there are also forces in the world which oppose God’s purpose and will. As Jesus points out in our gospel lesson, these forces do not believe in Jesus, or in his message of grace and love. They – those forces – those voices – can sometimes weigh us down, calling us to hate when we know we should love. They can create confusion, beseeching us to doubt, when we want so badly to believe. They can tear at our fabric of our faith, attempting to drown out the message of God’s grace and mercy.
They can cause despair to creep in. They can discourage. They can sometime lead us down the path of least resistance – the path of denial not only of God’s existence, but of God’s supremacy in our lives.

Come Holy Spirit!

Perhaps, we are all in need of a little soothing, inspiring and comforting from time to time, as we come up against those forces, and feel or witness their impact in the world. At those times it is good to know that God’s Holy Spirit is walking beside us each day in all ways encouraging us, inspiring us, and yes, comforting us. But these are not the only things that the Holy Spirit of God does.
If we look at the reading that we have from the book of Acts this morning, we see some words that do not evoke the sweet scenes of a gently descending dove sent to lull us back to peaceful reverie when we become disturbed by the cacophony of worldly sound and voice. Instead, in this reading, we get images of confusion and are reminded that in the beginning, God’s spirit hovered over the waters and did what? – Stirred them up.           
Those in attendance on that Pentecost day are described as being perplexed. The Holy Spirit is a rushing wind, stirring things up, filling the place where they were staying–

The text describes it as a violent wind – powerful, perhaps even relentless. Fire appeared among the people gathered there; divided tongues of fire rested on each one of them.
After checking for singed hair, the disciples start babbling to one another, even more startled and confused, because low and behold, suddenly, these friends who formerly spoke only Aramaic or maybe, a little Greek, were speaking in many other tongues!

Imagine this scene with me, if you will:
Look! There is our friend, John, is that Persian coming out of his mouth?
And what about James – he has never been to Babylonia, how can he be speaking their language, and so clearly, too!                                      
Bartholomew? Is that you? But it sounds like Elamite coming from your lips!
And is that really Nathaniel – speaking Egyptian, of all things? How? How can this be?
And people from throughout Jerusalem gather in the street outside the place they are staying, drawn by all the noise and captivated by what they see – by what they hear.
I’ll bet comfort isn’t a feeling that was much felt in that moment. Bewilderment, yes; maybe, fear; and amazement, surely. I’ll bet there was astonishment, excitement - and confusion.  
And then, there were those other voices too,
                the ones speaking in opposition to God’s powerful,
                                miraculous work on that Pentecost Day.
                                                “They are filled with new wine,” they sneered.

As I reflected on these scriptures this week, I began to wonder how this reading of the text might affect the way we understand the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives, beginning at our Baptism. Most of us present today were baptized as infants, as were our confirmands, who will each affirm her baptism in a few moments during the Rite of Confirmation. As babies, we might have missed the rushing wind and astonishing feeling of the Holy Spirit descending upon us – or perhaps we didn’t miss it – we just didn’t know what it was. We were babies, after all.

Others of us came to faith, or at least to the font of living waters, at an age of discretion – either as teens or adults. But, distracted by the human words that surrounded us that day, the music, perhaps even our own nervousness, we, too, may have missed the immediate feeling of God’s Spirit covering us and filling us up – although I have to tell you that the adults I have baptized describe an experience of amazing and powerful clarity and the power of the Holy Spirit palpably present on that day.

At our Baptism, the pastor said these or similar words, while tracing the sign of the cross, perhaps in oil, on their forehead: “(Your name, Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

My friends, rather than words of comfort and consolation, these are words of invocation.
They are a declaration not of who you are but whose you are:
They claim us, Child of God, and they challenge us, Child of God!; they charge us – You are a Child of God and they send us out – Go forth, Child of God!

It occurs to me that at the moment of our Baptism, these words do anything but comfort us.
The good news however, is that while they do all of those things – claim, challenge, charge, and send, those words – “child of God” - come with the promise that in faith God’s Holy Spirit goes with us. God’s Holy Spirit walks with, in, and beside us. God’s Spirit is there to inspire us when we soar   and to brush us off, heal our wounds, and send us back out when we fail.

Jesus makes the promise that he will send his Spirit upon us. A Spirit who will guide us in all we do and say, that in the vast experience of our lives, we might glorify God.
On this Day of Pentecost, the fiftieth day of Easter, we stand with all the faithful to proclaim that the powers of evil have been vanquished through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

We proclaim that through his victory over sin and death, Jesus has claimed the victory and that as he promised, Jesus sends the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to ensure that God’s vision and determination for the world will come to fruition.

As our young people are confirmed today, we celebrate with them and with all those in other places similarly being confirmed, together with the whole church, the power of God’s Holy Spirit to be present in every circumstance, providing exactly what we need to be God’s people.

We accept the Spirit’s challenge to be the church which acclaims the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit as alive, present and active, constantly inspiring, leading, challenging, teaching, feeding, and sending us forth to be the hands and feet and heart of God in the world. We invite the Spirit’s stirring us up and renewing us to live the Way of Christ.