Pentecost Sermon 2017

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“Feeling the Spirit”  — Acts 2:1-21/John 20:19-29

Preached on Pentecost Sunday 2017

Roger J. Gench

The Spirit is the least developed, or, better yet, most neglected, member of the Trinity. God the Father or Mother (the Bible uses both metaphors for God) and God the crucified and risen Christ are much more developed dimensions of God than God as the Spirit. Now, to be sure, there is one thing you can say about the Spirit that is clear—from both the Bible and Christian tradition: where the Spirit is, there also is God the Mother/Father as well as the crucified and risen Christ. So the Spirit is the Spirit of God the Father/Mother and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. And that is saying a lot, perhaps all that needs to be said about the Spirit. So the Spirit is not a nebulous thing. It is God the Source of all that is (Father/Mother) and God who was and is present in the one who became incarnate and suffered under Pontius Pilate, who was raised from the dead, and who is currently raising life from the death-tending stuff on our world. That is a lot to say about the Spirit. And just as important, the Spirit’s role is to help us discern where God in Christ is at work in our time and place. The Spirit helps us discern, and participate in, the movement of God among us – to make sense of what God is doing here and now.

In our morning scripture lesson from the book of Acts, Peter (quoting from the book of Joel) emphatically repeats something that makes this point about the Spirit. The prophet Joel said that the Spirit’s work is to empower young and old, male and female— even slaves—to prophesy, that is, to make sense of what God is doing in the world. Then Peter, underlining this point, adds the words: “and they shall prophesy.” Why does he do this? Peter insists, emphatically, that the Spirit empowers young and old, male and female—slaves included—to prophesy; the Spirit will enable all of these people to make sense of what God is doing here and now. And the inclusion of last group—slaves— would have been shocking in both Joel’s day and Peter’s, because slaves were the most devalued and marginalized of people, those whom Jesus sought out in his ministry. In other words, the marginalized—those whom society has wounded the most—will be the very ones who make sense of what God is doing in our world.

Let’s add another dimension to this portrait of the Spirit and the Spirit’s work: the Gospel of John’s Pentecost story, our second reading this morning. In this scene when the risen Jesus appears to his disciples, he breathes on them, giving them the Spirit. Now you’ll note that I included the story of Thomas in this reading, which immediately follows, because it conveys something critical to our understanding of the Spirit that Jesus gives the disciples. For John, the Spirit leads Jesus’ disciples into further truth, which is to say that it unfolds the significance, the relevance, of what God accomplished in Christ (see John 16:12-13); and the story of Thomas provides clarity about the nature of this truth: the Spirit’s work is especially attentive to the wounds of Christ and to the crucified places in our own lives and in the world. Thomas has, for centuries been much maligned because he wanted to finger the evidence of the crucified and resurrected Christ. “Unless I put my finger in the nail marks, and my hand in his side, I will not believe (John 20:25).” Biblical scholar Richard Hays, however, suggests that Thomas is actually quite perceptive, insisting on a very important point. As Hays notes, Thomas did not say, “‘Unless I see his halo, I’ll never believe.’ He understood that the Christ of faith must be the Jesus who was crucified, dead and buried. Anything else, anything less, would trivialize the struggle, trivialize the power of evil in the world, trivialize the resurrection. The power of death is conquered—the wounds remain.” What this suggests is that the Spirit sends us into the wounded places of the world, the places where we, like Jesus, might participate in the Spirit’s work of bringing life out of death, healing out of woundedness. This is no doubt one of the most difficult lessons about the work of the Spirit—seeing and believing that God is especially at work in the wounded places of our lives and those of the world. The Spirit is sending us to those very places.

The church of Christendom, I’m afraid, has been slow to embrace this vocation, to see that this is precisely where the Spirit is at work in our world. With us, or in spite of us, the Spirit is at work in wounded places. I once saw a beautiful Tiffany window depicting the risen Christ. But the hands of Christ, in this window, bore no marks of the nails. I was mightily tempted to get a magic marker and add them. The window was created during the heyday of mainline Protestantism when the church was pretty much aligned with the principalities and powers of the world. The window, in other words, was more an expression of the Church triumphant than the Church of the crucified and risen Christ. Therein lies a perennial problem of the church—the temptation to focus on the glory of the risen Lord and thus to overlook the marks of wounded humanity he bears forever on his body. The Spirit of God (the Father/Mother and the crucified and risen Christ) is at work in the wounded places of the world— with us and through us, and even in spite of us if need be. This has been the case for 2000 years. The great promise or peril of the church has to do with whether we are the church triumphant or the church of the crucified and risen One!

I am currently serving on the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee of the PCUSA. This is the socially responsible investment wing of our denomination. Our work is to ensure that all of our monies are invested in socially responsible ways. The truth is, I was reluctant to serve on this committee; but they needed someone to serve and a friend twisted my arm. But it has turned out to be an important learning experience—and what I’ve learned is this: it’s true that if you follow the money, you can see all kinds of good, bad and everything between. One of the things we are working on right now is climate change. Many folk in the PCUSA want us to divest of fossil fuel companies. But interestingly, others have argued for retaining our investments in oil companies because otherwise we lose our voice. And just this week, we found out that during a shareholder’s meeting of ExxonMobil, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), along with nearly three dozen others faith-based communities, put forth a proposal that called on the oil giant to align itself with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement which calls for a global target of keeping global temperature rise to 2 degrees C. The proposal also called on the oil company to assess the its risk related to climate change—something that it has been heretofore unwilling to do. The proposal apparently persuaded the shareholders, for it received a whopping 62.3% of their vote!! Is this not the activity of the Spirit, working in, with and through the church? Some may scoff at this, but I don’t. The Spirit’s work leads us to those places where woundedness and power collide, and where God is seeking to bring life out of the death-tending stuff of the world.

There is a refrain in a Bob Dylan song that goes like this: “something is happening here but you don’t know what it is.” It’s a haunting refrain that speaks to the confusions of our life in a world where lies and false news become so commonplace that truth is hard to discern. Yet the Spirit is at work in such world, focusing our attention on the wounded places, for that is where God in Christ is always to be found. And that, to me, is the truth of the gospel—the gospel of which, by the Spirit’s power, we are witnesses.  Amen.

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