Sunday, January 13, 2013

Waiting for the Spirit

Texts: Act 8 5-25 (receiving the Spirit); Luke 3 15-22 (Jesus is baptized)

How would you describe our spirits as a congregation this new year? Are they high or low? Healthy or ailing? In or out of line with God's Holy Spirit? These are some questions that come to my mind in relationship to our Scripture readings today.

In today's Gospel reading, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin John. But unlike the other Gospel accounts of his baptism, Luke's version does not show Jesus receiving the blessing of the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism. That comes later, after all the people have been baptized and after John has been arrested by Herod. Luke says it is only then, at a moment when Jesus is praying, that "the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'"

Something similar happens in  today's reading from Acts. We hear of a group of Samaritans who are converted and baptized by Philip in the months immediately after Jesus' death and resurrection. But they too do not receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of their baptism. This comes later when Peter and John visit the region, pray, and lay their hands on the new converts.

The text does not show us what receiving the Holy Spirit means for these new Christians. But it does say that the action of Peter and John so impress a local magician, Simon, that he offers them money to show him how to do this trick. Other parts of the book of Acts show us why Simon might be impressed by the ability to bestow the Spirit.

At the Festival of the Pentecost, 50 days after the first Easter, the Holy Spirit comes to Jesus' disciples in Jerusalem as wind and tongues of fire. It enables them to speak to all the Jews assembled in the city for the Festival in their own native languages and to convert them to faith in Jesus as the Christ.

The Spirit-filled disciples also heal sick people, cast out demons, and even raise a few dead people to renewed life. Clearly, the Holy Spirit has enormous power, even if we don't know exactly how and when it gets bestowed.

Christian denominations like the Pentecostals take the Holy Spirit more seriously than do most United Churches. Does this mean that we are a dispirited church? Should we perhaps try to follow the Pentecostals down the strange roads opened up by the Spirit as portrayed by Luke in the Book of Acts?

I was impressed by a Spirit-filled church three years ago in San Francisco. This was  the year when I was a student supply minister in Didsbury Alberta. I took a week's vacation after Easter 2010, and since I had never been to California before, I used that opportunity to spend a week in San Francisco.

A tourist guide book spoke highly of a church near where I was staying in the downtown core -- Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. So on the Sunday of that week, I worshipped at that church, and I was amazed by what I experienced.

Despite pouring rain, despite the fact that it was the second of two morning services, despite the fact that it was the "low Sunday" after Easter, and despite the fact that the church's famous Black pastor was away and the preacher that day was a newly ordained White lesbian woman who had come from that church but who was now a minister in a rural part of Arizona, the sanctuary was packed. And the service felt as much like a rock concert to me as it did a worship service.

We were led by a 100-voice Gospel choir. Its members were equal parts men and women; people of European, African, Latin American and Asian descent; and queer and straight people. When they sang, we all got up and swayed and danced along.

The congregation seemed just as diverse as the choir. Two Black women, who seemed to be impoverished, sat on one side of me; on my other side was a prosperous White couple from the suburbs. All of us sang and danced as one.

Although the service included moments familiar to me -- times of confession and lament as well as of praise and joy -- it seemed mostly upbeat to me. I am not sure that I would like this style of worship each week. But one thing evident in the service was Spirit -- lots and lots of Spirit.

The Holy Spirit denotes some of the more mysterious and powerful aspects of God. God the Father is often seen as  remote: the source of all life and judge of the universe. God the Son becomes dear to us in the stories of Jesus of Nazareth. At baptism, we receive Jesus as the Christ into our hearts.

The Holy Spirit was promised to us by Jesus. The book of Acts details the power of the Spirit. I believe that the miracles portrayed there don't need to be understood as literal facts. Instead, I see them as ways to describe the power and joy that can be part of a community that is filled with God's Spirit.

The tough news is that living a life in the Spirit can be difficult to sustain over time -- whether in our worship and mission work, in a marriage, in a job or career, or in the struggle for justice.

Our Scripture readings give us some clues as to what we can do when we suffer from the absence of God's Spirit. We can wait. We can pray. And we can trust. Then when God's Spirit does come again into our hearts or fills our worship or mission, we can give thanks and praise the Spirit's awesome power.

At Glide Memorial church in San Francisco, I got a sense of how the Holy Spirit informed their life. Their Spirit-filled worship fed into the huge amount of outreach they did to the homeless, addicted, and desperate people who live in the neighbourhood around the church. In turn, their outreach to the poor and their focus on justice fed into their worship life. It seemed to be a relationship that blessed both the poor people who came to their soup kitchens and health clinics and all the people -- rich and poor, gay and straight, white people and people of colour -- who came to their packed Sunday worship services.

I don't find it easy to create this kind of powerful relationship between outreach, justice and worship. I raise the example of Glide Memorial here today simply as a reminder to myself and a pointer to us all of how life in the Body of Christ can be a life filled to overflowing with the power of God's Spirit.

In today's Idle No More movement among First Nations youth across Canada, we see the Spirit lifting people out of despair towards hope and out of apathy towards activism. It is a movement that challenges the very basis of Canada as a state founded on war, conquest and colonialism. I am glad that this movement has developed and that it includes the wisdom of elders, the rhythm of ceremonial drums, and the joy of round dancing.

Who knows why such a movement suddenly erupts and catches fire? Four women in Saskatchewan were angry that an omnibus Budget Bill of the federal government had changed environmental protections guaranteed by treaties without any consultation with First Nations. They spread word about protest actions using a Twitter hashtag #idlenomore. Since then, innumerable young natives have put themselves under their banner. But no matter why this movement has taken off unlike others, I pray that it will maintain and develop its spirited momentum.

The Spirit is said to be like breath, wind and flame. Sometimes it can feel as powerful as a blizzard or grass fire that races across a vast prairie. At other times, it can feel like the small still whisper of God's voice on a spring morning or like a little candle burning at a Christmas Eve service.

In worship, I usually prefer the gentle promptings of the Spirit over its awesome and fiery manifestations, which is why I chose they hymn "Spirit of Life" as our hymn of response. But no matter what form it takes, today as we wait for God's Spirit, pray for it, and trust that it will burst into our lives and communities at unexpected moments, we can raise our eyes to God in heaven and to the Risen Christ within our beating hearts and say again . . .

Thanks be to God.


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