Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 6/11/2000
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Acts 2:1-21
On the campus of the University of Maryland, both women had encountered a group that made claims about God's Spirit. Those claims were quite spectacular. They were invited to a number of meetings and because the two had shown interest, members of the group became aggressive in trying to get the women to make a weekly commitment. They became disturbed by the group's persistence and came to me seeking a second opinion.
Through the years others have come with stories of similar encounters; encounters that have often ignited their fears and feelings of insecurity. There will always be people who believe they have found the Holy Spirit or that the Holy Spirit has found them. Such groups generally consider themselves anointed by God to do God's work. In fact, their stories mirror the one described in our lesson this morning. What are we to think?
Consider the experience of the people mentioned in our lesson today. We associate their experience with the essence of Pentecost. So what happened to those who experienced the tongues of fire and the mighty rush of the wind? What became of those who began to speak in foreign languages? Because of their experience, were these individuals empowered to change the world view of everyone they met? Were these people suddenly given abilities they never possessed?
Historically, the answers to these questions are far too few. What we do know is that some people continued to seek and practice what they called the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Others during the Church's primitive days of evolution chose to invest themselves in spreading Jesus' teachings. They established small communities that lived and practiced "the way of Jesus," of which St. Matthew's is a descendant.
If we have difficulty understanding the Holy Spirit's role in our lives, we have good reason. There have been many mixed messages throughout Church history, particularly with respect to what was reported in the book of Acts. A conflict arises when people insist on seeking God's presence and dwelling on the religious experience associated with finding it. The conflict comes when we contrast such a religious experience with what Jesus actually asked his disciples to do? He said, "Go into all the world . . ."
In one respect we Christians are like automobiles. Some of us fill our tanks with gasoline and drive all over the place. Others of us fill our tanks and we want to stay at the gas station. Those of us in this latter group appear devoted to being nurtured, being loved, and seeking more ways of being filled with the Holy Spirit. We seemingly cannot get enough of experiencing God's presence in our lives. And this is fine. We usually receive exactly what we seek. Jesus, however, invited his disciples to go into our world and teach people a better way to live.
Consider your own thoughts about God's Spirit. What do you personally believe about the Holy Spirit? This is an important question for each of us to consider. Is God's Spirit like an outside force that will attach itself to us so that we become filled with abilities we normally would not have? Or, is having the Holy Spirit an experience that percolates from within us that will eventually radiate from us in everything we do?
Jesus once taught, "The Kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen." Now, isn't that interesting? He went on to say, "No one will say, 'Look, here it is!' or, 'There it is!'', because the Kingdom of God is within you." Jesus is describing a human experience that is quite different from what we typically associate with Pentecost. Jesus taught that God's Spirit manifests itself through the spirit of our living.
If this is so, then when does God's Spirit begin working through us? God's Spirit begins working the moment we access and use it. Jesus described many of the result areas in his Sermon on the Mount. He taught us how Spirit-filled people respond to others. With his own life Jesus demonstrated a great insight. It is not what we experience that matters. What matters is what other people experience coming through us.
For example, if we become hurt by the words of another, we choose to let go of the incident. When we are lied to, we choose to forgive. When someone breaks our trust, we choose not to dwell on their failure. When we are cheated, we thank God for the opportunity to demonstrate who we have become. The more we choose such responses, the stronger and the more visible the Spirit of God becomes.
Jane Allen wrote a book entitled, Light From Many Lamps. In it she has a passage that describes how the Spirit begins this percolating process and how easily we can mistake its origin.
"The thoughtless, the ignorant and the indolent see only the apparent effects of things and not the things themselves. They talk about luck, fortune and chance. And seeing a man grow rich they say, "How lucky he is." Observing another becoming brilliant, they say, "How highly favored she is." And noting the saintly character of still another they say, "How chance has aided her at every turn." They do not see the trials, the failures, and the struggles that these persons have voluntarily encountered in order to gain the experiences that have changed their lives. They have no knowledge of the sacrifices that have been made, of the undaunted efforts they have put forth, and of the faith they have exercised that they might overcome the apparently insurmountable in order to realize the visions of their hearts. They do not know of the periods of darkness and the heartaches; they see only the light and the joy, and they call it "good luck." They do not see the long and arduous journeys but only behold the wondrous creativity in their lives and call it "good fortune." They do not understand the process; they only perceive the results and they call it "chance." The vision that you glorify in your mind, the ideal that you enthroned in your heart, this will build your life and this is what you can become if you take responsibility for the quality of your thoughts. Your greatest challenge is you and not those you claim or blame as being the ones who fashioned you."
There is a difference between those who seek the spiritual ecstasy of being in God's presence and those who seek to teach others about the pearl of great price. This difference is not about earning our own way into God's favor by becoming well disciplined in Jesus' teachings, rather it is about getting ourselves out of the way so that the Spirit of God becomes visible. God is always ready and eager to reveal his nature in the physical world. It is we who must open our doors and thrust open our windows so that the light of God can be seen. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and always faithful God, how often we have sought your presence and could not find it. We have great expectations of you. We have wanted and even demanded miracles from you. We have prayed for deliverance from painful experiences. We have wanted talents and abilities as though you give them only to those who ask. We have felt the silence of unanswered prayer.
We wonder how Moses could hold his staff over the water and part the sea while we feel so powerless to create changes within the circumstances we face. We wonder how it was that Daniel faced lions with confidence, while we feel the uncertainty each time our lives experience sudden and expected events.
How easy we forget that your Son was not spared the pain of rejection and crucifixion in spite of his thoughts to you in the garden. How easily we fail to remember the confusion of Mary as she stood at the foot of the cross as she recalled the promises that were made to her at her son's conception.
O God, there is so much more we need to learn about how life unfolds within the surrounding nature of your Spirit. Yet we have discovered that the more we choose to become like you, the more the tensions and the stress-agents of our world lose their power. In spite of what our senses behold, teach us how to guard and protect our trust in you, that your Spirit might always guide us in our decision making. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .