A Spirit for Change

Pentecost is an ancient Jewish celebration. Pentecost means fiftieth day and there were several fiftieth days or Pentecosts in the tradition. From Passover to the Pentecost of New grain was fifty days. From that date to the Pentecost of new wine was fifty days and then another fifty days to the Pentecost of new oil.

In Acts 2, the disciples have gathered to celebrate the Pentecost of new grain. They are celebrating the way they do every year. There is nothing out of the ordinary. But suddenly there is a violent wind and flames have appeared out of the sky.

The crowd that has gathered is from many different places and they speak different languages but they can understand what the disciples are saying. Just like in this version of the Lord’s prayer. It sounds different but the words have similar meanings regardless of language. We can experience the Holy in multiple languages. We can speak of God, of Gitchi Manitou in several first nation languages, of Allah in Arabic but we end up in the same place…the Holy, the one who is creator and sustainer of life.

In this Pentecost experience, that creator sends a spirit of action and animation among people who have already had experience of the person of Jesus and of the risen Christ. This experience of Pentecost, of being filled with the spirit then sends them out into the world to act for the Risen Christ.

Skip forward about 60 years to the story of Paul. You might remember from a few weeks ago when we heard the story of Stephen’s stoning that Saul was watching and approved of the killing. Saul had an experience of the Risen Christ in which Christ speaks to him and asks why he is persecuting the Christians. It is an ah ha moment for Saul. He becomes Paul—a Christian missionary who travels around establishing churches everywhere he goes.

The second scripture is from Galatians and Paul is describing his life before and after the moment of his conversion. Before he met the risen Christ, he was devout in his belief. He was actively engaged in seeking to destroy any Jesus followers he could find. In Paul’s time, it was important to maintain the status quo. Change was actively avoided and Saul was part of that active resistance. The fact that Saul had an experience that changed him so profoundly would met with a healthy dose of skepticism. He would have to be able to justify the change. In the passage we heard this morning, that’s exactly what he does.

He says, “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” When broken down this statement picks up various passages in Isaiah and Jeremiah. You might remember Jesus also picking up themes from the Hebrew scriptures and applying them to himself in order to find credibility amongst people who knew their Bible well.

Paul claims that this change within him was a result of his experience of the risen Christ and a call directly from Christ. He claims that God knew him before he was born and that God was revealed to him in his vision of the Risen Christ and the he is sent to proclaim God to everyone everywhere.

One of the things that is fascinating about this is that Saul/Paul’s sense of call went from maintaining the status-quo and removing anyone who threatened that status-quo to a call to change the world. He went from trying to keep people thinking, believing and practicing their faith in the same way as they had for centuries to being an voice that changed how people thought, believed and practiced their faith.

Paul didn’t start life as an advocate for Christianity. As new information presented itself, he was able to be open to a God that continued to speak to him and unsettle him. That God, completely changed the direction of his life. We need to be open to a God that continues to speak to us in many ways. We don’t always know how the Holy spirit will speak to us or touch us. We don’t always know what the spirit will say to us.

Things that we think are true and right, may not be so. People that we think are our enemy, may not actually be our enemy. The spirit turns our world upside down and inside out. It is difficult to remain faithful by maintaining the status quo, by keeping things the same. The world changes, our lives change. God calls us as individuals to different things at different points in our lives. We might have a moment where we can look back and say…it changed there. Sometimes the change is more gradual and we find that we are in a completely different place from where we thought we would be.

The church is no different. God calls the church to change over time. We are changed by people who come and go. We are changed by events in the world around us as we seek to respond faithfully. If Constantine hadn’t made Christianity the official religion of the roman empire, if Martin Luther hadn’t posted his theses, if no one else had challenged the beliefs and practices of Christianity, it would not have evolved into the faith we have today.

The Holy Spirit inspires and encourages us to be bold and faithful for Christ. It encourages us to seek ways of living that respond to challenges in our world and yet are grounded in who we know God to be. The spirit is among us—moving and faithful.

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Pentecost Whirlwind

From this experience of Pentecost, the new community of Jesus-followers received gifts. Not one gift. Not the same gift for everyone. Except that these are not ordinary gifts. The Greek translation means something more along the lines of “spirit induced phenomena.”[1] We think of a gift as something given freely once and for all. But spirit induced phenomena only works when the spirit is at work. A gift should be something we can pull out whenever we need or whenever it pleases us. A spirit induced phenomena is not about us and what we can do. It doesn’t rely on our willingness to share whatever our “gift” is. A spirit induced phenomena is what happens when the spirit works through us.

In this passage, we hear Paul writing to the community. He identifies that the community used to be pagan. Again, the translation needs an explanation. Pagan in the Greek simply means a group of people who share something in common. This group was outsiders. They were not part of the Jesus group. Nor were they viewed as part of God’s people. And yet the spirit of God worked through them. The Jesus followers wondered how this group of outsiders could say “Jesus is Lord.” They wondered how this group of outsiders could praise God. The Jesus followers clearly saw this group as outsiders who had no claim to God or to Jesus. Paul reminds the community that following Jesus is not a head decision. It isn’t something that is necessarily logical or even tangible. The spirit comes upon people unexpectedly and moves people to extraordinary actions. Through those actions the spirit—and by extension—God is experienced.

We run into problems when we want to only use our heads and think logically about using our gifts. Our minds sometimes limit the possibilities. We might ask “what’s in it for me?” We might think to ourselves, “I’m tired of sharing my gifts and no one notices anyway.” “What difference does my little gift make in the grand scheme of the world…It seems like a pretty pointless gift.” When we think this way we think of our abilities and resources as gifts. They are something that have been given to us. They belong to us and we can choose to use them and share them—or not. Our ability to use our gifts relies on how generous we feel at any moment.

In that first Pentecost story, it wasn’t gifts that were at play. It was a spirit induced phenomena. Who knew those Jesus followers could speak so many languages? Who knew that speaking a different language could influence so many people? Three thousand people were baptized. And it wasn’t an orderly, planned experience. It was spontaneous and unexpected. It was a moment where the spirit moved in a community and the entire community recognized and was touched by that spirit of God. It wasn’t about the spirit touching one person for their own benefit. The entire community was touched by the spirit for the benefit of the entire community.

The way that the spirit moves is different in each person. It looks different and we are not expected to all receive the same abilities through that spirit. But each of us do receive a little bit of the spirit, which the spirit uses for building up the entire community. When the spirit is at work we no longer ask, “How does this benefit me?” Instead we ask, “How does this benefit my community or the world?” Maybe we don’t even stop to contemplate the benefits. Sometimes the spirit is described as a whirlwind. If you get caught up in a whirlwind there isn’t time to stop and think. It isn’t until the whirlwind stops that you can reflect on the experience. The whirlwind might seem scary as we see it coming towards us and we might hope that thinking, asking questions and getting caught in our answers will stop the whirlwind or at least slow it down. And so we ask: “What if…?” “What will so and so think…?” “What’s in it for me?” Sometimes this works—temporarily. But the Spirit doesn’t stop or do what we want. The Spirit is always in motion and always working through us—even when we try to slow it down or stop it. So we have a choice. Fight against the Spirit. Resist the Spirit with all our might or embrace the Spirit. Get caught up in the whirlwind and see where we land.

One of the other images used for Holy Spirit is fire. I’m hesitant about using this image right now because we all have the destructive images from Fort McMurray in our minds this week. These images conjure up danger, horror, worry, despair, desolation, grief, lament and helplessness. There may be some similarities between fire and our experiences of the Spirit but to draw those similarities out feels unhelpful. It seems to trivialize the very really experience of people whose worlds have just collapsed so I am not going to attempt to draw that parallel today.

But I will ask some questions to help us see the Spirit in a place that seems desolate. How is the Spirit at work in the midst of destruction and grief? How is the Spirit rebuilding and restoring the community?

The Spirit is messy, disorderly and inexplicable. It brings with it chaos and uncertainty. It doesn’t stop because we are hesitant or uncomfortable. It brings with it moments and experiences we can’t explain. It works through us and others to transform the world.

[1]. Bruce J. Malina, and John J. Pilch, Social-science commentary on the Letters of Paul (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 112.

Gifts of the Spirit

A Pentecost reflection based on Acts 2:1-21 and the gifts of the whole community. On the day of Pentecost all the followers of Jesus have gathered together in one place.  And there’s this violent rush of wind which rattles the doors, blows that sand through the windows and cracks. It’s the kind of wind you do not want to be out in. Except that this wind doesn’t stay outside. It comes in amongst them and brings with it fire: fire that touches each person and equips them with the Holy Spirit.

Fire and wind may be good or bad. One of my favorite things as a child was listening to the wind blow through the tall prairie grass. But as we know, wind can also be incredibly destructive and actually kill. Fire has similar traits. In a candle or campfire it gives a sense of security, warmth, welcome. Those flames can destroy and kill if not handled with respect.

But the story tells us that this is how the Holy Spirit first came to the disciples: In wind and in flame. In something both gentle and warm and powerful and destructive. This is part of our faith. Used wisely, our faith can give life, can nurture, encourage, offer security and welcome. If we do not tend our faith well, or misuse it, our faith can lead to destruction and death for ourselves and others.

One of the things that Christians tend to be good at is believing that we have to do everything, be everything, look after everyone and be good at everything. I know for myself, it is easy to think that as a minister I have to be good at preaching and leading worship, and visiting, and administration, and Bible study, and small talk and pastoral care and teaching and baking and cooking and hospitality, and technology and organization, and tidiness, and praying, and personal prayer, building relationships, communicating, taking notes, chairing meetings, conflict resolution, keeping everyone happy, making sure everyone else gets along and uses their gifts, time management, appealing to people who are conservative and people who are more liberal, connecting with other denominations, connecting with people outside the church, working with children, teens, families, seniors, funerals, hospital visiting, writing cards, encouraging, doing outreach, lifting up all sorts of justice issues in and out of the church, leadership… These are things that I think I should be good at and that I think I need to do and do well in order to work as a minister…And there are probably many others I can add to this list.  Some of these things are gifts: things that come naturally and do well. Some are skills – things that I have had to learn and have to continue working at. Some are things that are neither skills nor gifts but things I do because I have to.

Using my gifts gives me energy and excitement. Using my skills, I feel competent and able to function.  Using my gifts and skills gives me life, passion, energy.  I love an opportunity to be creative in worship, to try something new and different to help people engage in their faith.

And then there are the things that are neither a gift or a skill. These things are exhausting and draining.  I don’t want to do them…I can if I have to but I tend to avoid them because I know that they will drain my energy. I hate going to large parties and making small talk with people I don’t know.

But there’s good news for us in the readings we heard today: The good news is that the Holy Spirit is among us and gives each of us different gifts. What does this mean? It means that when each of us use our gifts and skills all of us are more alive and more filled with the spirit. I know that there are people in this place who love chatting up other people, who love being in groups of people and who have a gift for “schmoozing” and who could be amazing at sharing the gospel.  I know that there are people who love talking on the phone and could help us stay connected as a congregation. I know there are people with good leadership skills who can help us navigate a challenging time in the congregation. I know there are people who like playing with technology who might be able to connect us and to integrate technology into our life as church. There are those who lead through singing and music so the rest of us can make a joyful  noise…just for starters. There’s a million other gifts too.

What does this mean? It means that I don’t have to be good at everything. I’m free to be human and have a few gifts.

What does this mean? It means that none of us have to be good at everything.

What does this mean? It means that each of us have a few gifts to share with the world around us.

What does this mean? It means that there is not one gift that is better than another or more worthy than another.

What does this mean? It means that we can be part of the same body with different functions.

What does this mean? It means we can trust others to use their gifts so we can rest and look after ourselves. It also means that we can step back from tasks that are not our gifts so others can use their gifts.

What does this mean? It means that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon each of us.

What does this mean? It means we have a choice about how we respond to the fire and wind. We can ignore it, but then it could become destructive and dangerous. We can choose to embrace the wind and allow it to caress us and allow the flame to warm and cheer us. It’s our choice.

What does this mean? It means that we are Christ’s body, We are the people of God.