Sunday, May 23, 2010

Flames of spirit; embers of soul, May 23, 2010

Texts: Genesis 11: 1-9    Tower of Babel * John 14: 8-17 * Romans 8: 14-17 * Acts 2: 1-21

Violent wind and flames of fire: this is how the Bible portrays God's Spirit. When the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus, it comes as a rush of wind and as tongues of fire that alight on each one.

People in Jerusalem who hear the Spirit-led disciples are amazed. Some dismiss the good news of Jesus, which the disciples proclaim in every known language. The sceptics say they must be drunk. But no, Peter says: it is too early for the disciples to have been drinking. Instead, Peter says that their power comes from God's Spirit as prophesied in the apocalyptic Hebrew book of Joel:

"In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

Hmm . . . though we are promised salvation in this outpouring of Spirit, it sometimes also scares me! Christ's Church begins with violent wind, tongues of flame, and news of the day of God's judgement when the sun shall go dark and the moon turn to blood.

Good news! And upon hearing this good news in Peter's sermon, 3,000 people from many nations repent and are baptized as followers of the Way of Christ. And so the church grows from 120 people to 3,000 in one morning.

The Church gets its power from the Spirit, which blows where it will and which inspires us. And indeed this is good news. But I think the Spirit can also lead to trouble. When individuals or communities are inspired, the results are not always holy.

A good example of unholy inspiration comes from this morning's reading about the Tower of Babel from Genesis. It is the time after Noah's Ark, and humans are repopulating the earth. They are united and speak one language. This unity gives them great power and so people begin building a huge tower that is to ascend to the heavens. When God sees how powerful they are becoming, he intervenes to put a stop to them. He scatters humans all across the earth and confuses their languages so that one people cannot communicate or work with another. And they abandon their city, which they call Babel.

The story of the Tower of Babel is one of inspiration that is out of control. A united humanity feels its power and over-reaches itself. And is this not what often happens? Unfortunately, examples of inspired insanity are not hard to find in human history.

Take the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this spring. For the past 150 years, there has been an ever-growing demand for oil. At present, about 85 million barrels of oil are mined and burned every day. Since about 4 million barrels of daily production is lost each year as old wells run dry, new sources of oil are constantly needed. Since WWII, more and more oil rigs have been drilling offshore; and the depths at which oil platforms float above the ocean floor have been growing. But when an oil well drills into the ocean floor a mile or more below the ocean's surface, we now know how difficult it can be when an accident occurs.

For more than one month now, a massive oil leak has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, after an explosion destroyed the oil platform Deepwater Horizon. One can be inspired that engineers are able to locate oil reservoirs below the ocean floor and float a platform one mile above that floor to drill and produce oil. But unfortunately, they have not yet developed the capacity to stop an oil leak at such a depth. And so we weep as oil ruins parts of the natural habitat of the Gulf of Mexico.

The story in the Gulf reminds me of the Tower of Babel. In the story from Genesis, an inspired humanity builds a tower to ascend into the heavens. In our current events story, an inspired humanity drills into the murky and dangerous depths of the ocean.

In both instances, there is inspiration, but it is not holy. Humanity's collective ability to transform nature increases at an ever-growing rate. But our power often seems to lack common sense. Just because we can mine and burn 85 million barrels of oil every day does not mean that this is necessarily a good idea. And yet the competitive pressures under which companies and nations live means that we do not have the power to supervise and control our activities.

The story of Pentecost is the reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel. At Babel, humanity is scattered and languages are confused. At Pentecost, people from all around the Mediterranean are gathered in Jerusalem, and the Holy Spirit gives the disciples the power to speak to everyone in their own language. Thus the church is founded with the power of the Spirit to bring different people together.

Now, the history of the church since that Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago has included many instances of inspiration gone awry as well as of inspiration that follows the will of God. The negative examples might include the Crusades of the Middle Ages, the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics in the 17th century in Europe and church approval of the destruction of first nations in the Americas after 1500.

But even when we in the church get it wrong, God in the form of Spirit, Father, and Christ, offers us what we need to regain our balance. In the church and in our lives we need the power of the Spirit. But the good news is that there are also other elements in our life with God to help keep us balanced.

One way to understand this is with the concept of soul. I used to think that soul and spirit referred to the same thing. But then I read the 1992 best-selling book "Care of the Soul" by Thomas Moore. Moore makes a distinction between soul and spirit. Spirit, he writes, is connected to consciousness, thinking, idealism, and activism and it is oriented to the future. Soul on the other hand is connected to the body, the unconscious mind, feelings and tradition and it is oriented to the past.

But despite these differences, soul and spirit complement each other. Both can be seen as a kind of fire. Spirit is like an out-of-control flame that signals action, danger and change. Soul is like the glowing embers in a hearth fire; a fire that has burned down, become tame, and which we can rely upon for warmth and comfort.

Spirit without soul can be ungrounded and dangerous. And soul without spirit can be lifeless. But when they work together -- when with Grace, our spirit is grounded in soul and our soul is enlivened by spirit -- then life flourishes.

The life of Jesus illustrates both spirit and soul. Jesus begins his ministry when he is anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism. And he ends his ministry by promising the disciples that God will send his Holy Spirit to teach them everything. But Jesus also models for the disciples a humble and soulful path that grounds God's Spirit in human reality. Jesus is God-with-us, God in the flesh. He experiences of all the joys and pains of human existence. His path is one of humility and suffering -- the way of the Cross; and it this gracious and difficult way that we are called to follow, and which we do follow through the power of Spirit.

And so in Christ's church we have idealism and spirit, which is represented by soaring buildings, tall steeples, and ambitious missions to work for the reign of God. And in Christ's church, we also have the comfort and grounding of soul, which is represented by the communion table and the baptismal font. At the Lord's Table we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in a simple meal of bread and wine. And at the font, we are initiated into the Way of the Cross using that most common and essential element, water.

Water, bread and wine: the soulful elements of a humble and embodied life in Christ. Steeple, cross, and Bible: the spiritual elements of an idealistic and ambitious life in Christ. We have both sides in the church. And because we have both sides, worship and mission can be moved by the power of God's Spirit while remaining grounded and balanced.

In the power of the Spirit, we strain for the future, work for social justice, and spread the good news of God as known through Christ. At the same time, we do this spiritual work as the humble fools we are: broken and mortal individuals who walk with Christ on the way of the Cross. On this journey, we share simple meals of bread and wine and try to comfort ourselves as brothers and sisters.

God has given us his Holy Spirit, which comes to us as wind and flame. And he has also given us a soulful companion in Jesus who gently warms us by the embers of the hearth. In God through Christ, our lives both include ambitious projects and the comfort of friends at the dinner table.

So as we give thanks again at Pentecost for the coming of the power of the Spirit amongst us, we also give thanks for the humble example of Jesus who keeps us grounded on God's path of faith, hope and love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Our hymn of response tells again the story of Pentecost. It is . . .

* HYMN "Spirit of God, Unleashed on Earth" #207 VU



And now let us pray . . .

Let us pray,
    for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus
    for all people everywhere according to their need
    and for the entire web of life . . .

God of Life, help us to be aware that you are with us every moment;
help us to give thanks for this and all our blessings.

For paths blazed by the flame of Spirit, we give thanks.
For the power to dream dreams, and work for the vision of world made whole, we give thanks.
For fellow pilgrims on the humble path of life, we give thanks.
And for your love which comes as both soaring Spirit and comforting soul, we give thanks.

God of Spirit,

As wind and fire, you blow where you will.
Help us to humbly follow the promptings of your Spirit and so become the Body of Christ on earth that always seeks to do your will.

God of Faith,

    Help us to trust the Way of the Cross.
    Help us to be both idealistic and realistic as we seek to love God and neighbour
God of Healing,

May we feel your healing touch during times of physical and emotional pain, in times of loss, and when we feel afraid and alone.

God, we need your loving presence.

We raise up for support and love those that we have named aloud and those whom we now remember in silence . . .

Gracious God, these are our concerns, these are our joys, these are our prayers. We lift them up to you.

All of this we pray in the name of the Risen Christ, our Redeemer and our Hope. Amen

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