In the Spirit

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, on the Feast of Pentecost, May 19, 2013.

When I was eleven years old  I nearly died of pneumonia. I was in the hospital for a month  and almost every day they gave me blood transfusions. That was state of the art medicine in those days and they had only recently learned about  matching blood types. They had a problem matching my blood type so they asked for volunteers from the community and found a man who matched  who was a left-handed pitcher on the town baseball team. I don’t know whether he ever knew who the recipient was and at that age I didn’t dare approach  someone that much bigger and older even to say “thank you” but I went to see the baseball games between my town,  Cuba, New York, and teams from other towns and I always felt a special link to my “blood brother” out there on the mound. It didn’t make me left-handed  and I never learned to pitch all that well but my body was as happy  with his blood as mine and I lived to tell about it.

Since that time, of course,  we’ve learned to share more than blood. Now we can transplant kidneys and  even hearts. Fortunately, we human beings have a lot in common with each other and the Bible shows us how deep that connection is and how much deeper it can be. One thing the Bible takes for granted  that we mostly don’t is this:  there is no word in the Bible  for the individual human body, only for the flesh we have in common. There are words for head and hand and foot and so on  but no word for an individual human body. It’s a way of looking at human life  that I think we Americans  have trouble understanding.  We’re brought up to believe in individualism.  We want to be self-supporting and self-sufficient.

I may have said before that when I lived in Japan  I was surprised to hear the Japanese say so often, “Watakushitachi Nipponjin wa . . .” – “we Japanese” believe this or think that, and I remember thinking Americans don’t generalize that way about us. We Americans don’t tend to think alike or do things in groups. Maybe especially in New England we like our privacy. So I remember being surprised when I first learned that the Hebrew language has no word  for the individual body. It just wasn’t a way of thinking  that I had encountered before. Or maybe I should say I had encountered it but hadn’t taken it in, hadn’t thought about it,  hadn’t understood it. But it’s certainly there  in St Paul’s epistles when he talks about the church as  the body of Christ. “You are the body of Christ,” he writes,  “and everyone members of it.”

We have a shared humanity.  The lines between us aren’t as hard and fast as we like to think.  St. Paul, our patron saint, spoke often about that shared humanity  and he took it to the next level.  He was speaking about how we know that shared humanity in the church,  how even more intensely we Christians share a common humanity.  We have a shared life in the church, we are one body, as we have been saying at the breaking of the bread, because we share the risen life of Christ.  We are one body; we are the body of Christ  and individually members of it. “If one member suffers,” Paul wrote, “all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)  So that’s a basic aspect of being a Christian:  a shared humanity deepened and enriched by sharing  the life of Christ.

But it’s not just our human flesh that unites us, is it?  Not even just our shared life in Christ. There’s something more to being human  and we call it Spirit. We know it in lots of ways.  There’s team spirit and  low spirits and high spirits. The Holy Spirit is similar: it comes and goes  invisibly but makes an enormous difference.  It’s similar to team spirit and good spirits  but it’s the Holy Spirit and that Spirit makes a difference  all through the Bible but especially in the prophets  and in the life of the early church. It’s the Holy Spirit: God making a difference in our lives.

Now, Pentecost is the festival of the Spirit.  Why isn’t it a bigger festival  than Christmas or Easter? Pentecost is the festival of the Spirit.  Christmas is about Jesus; Easter is about Jesus; Christmas and Easter are about  Jesus coming to be with us and that’s a good thing. But Pentecost is about the Spirit,  and whether we know Jesus or not, we all know the Spirit. We know about team spirit and good spirits  and that invisible something that gets into us and changes our day. And we know how we come away  feeling better about ourselves when we work together with others  in any group effort – like last week’s tag sale, for a simple example. There’s a spirit of unity  and sometimes that spirit comes from God and is known as the Holy Spirit: God in us, God at work within us. So I think we know the Spirit well,  but we go long days, even years sometimes, without noticing, recognizing,  that Spirit within, opening ourselves to that Spirit,  seeking the gifts of that Spirit.

Years and years ago, for some reason,  I began to take an interest in wild flowers and trees and as I learned the names of the roadside plants  I began to notice them as more than just  spots of color beside the road  but now as colts foot  and boneset and chicory  and Joe Pye weed and Queen Ann’s lace and it was like seeing them for the first time. I guess there had always been bergamot growing here and there, but I didn’t really see it until I knew it’s name. I learned about trees, too,  and suddenly I wasn’t just seeing trees but ash and maple and oak  and shag bark hickory. They’d been there all along  but I hadn’t really seen them  because I didn’t know their names. I was blind because I didn’t know the names  for what I was seeing.

I think it’s like that with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is at work on every side but we don’t notice,  don’t put a name to it, because we’re blinded by familiarity.  It’s like the school boy  who got to seventh grade English and suddenly discovered  that he’d been speaking prose all his life.  The Spirit is at work on every side  but often unrecognized, often unrecognized because so various  and so unpredictable. I mean, it’s one thing to spot a roadside columbine  because they’re always the same shape and size and range of color – but the Holy Spirit is not like that, not predictable.

We sang about the Spirit just now in a hymn that asked for God to come like fire and burn “earthly passions . . .to dust and ashes.”  Really?  Do we really want our agendas, our passions, our likes and dislikes, burned away? It could happen. I’ve known people  who wouldn’t have gone to church on a bet who suddenly found a whole new center  for their lives. And whatever they had done before became dust and ashes, no longer important  because of their new focus. It can happen.  The Spirit is like fire –  it can warm us when we’re cold  and we like that but it can also burn away the false priorities  and re-center our lives and that may be harder to accept.

The Spirit is compared to fire  in our hymns and prayers and fire is essential to human life  but fire is dangerous.  Fire can warm, yes, and fire can destroy.  What is the Spirit doing in the church today? I wish I knew.  Sometimes it seems like a destructive fire. I read last week about the closing  of another church and I wonder what’s happening.

Fifty years ago I moved to a new parish  and preached about the work of the Holy Spirit who was reforming the church’s liturgy,  purging away old customs and patterns, putting a new emphasis on lay ministry. New things were happening and the church was growing  but old patterns were purged away, burned away,  and it wasn’t always easy. There was a new prayer book and women being ordained  and some people left rather than face the new. And now what?  The diocese is closing churches. So are most major denominations. Fire purges out, burns away, sweeps away whole communities – you see  on the evening news people coming back  to areas of California where there’s been forest fire  to find their homes gone and a need to rebuild and start over.  It can’t be easy. Fire sweeps away some ecclesiastical homes as well.

Lots of churches, as I said, are closing these days and I don’t think it’s a lack of faith or zeal. When I was ordained churches were growing  but I don’t think we had better Christians then or better clergy.  It was easier then in a lot of ways  to be a Christian and not so easy now. Maybe the Holy Spirit wants to challenge us and see whether we’re up to the challenge. I was reading last week about the church in Africa, in the Sudan, where 30 years ago 5% were Christian and now 85% – Mostly Anglicans and Roman Catholics. And what has happened in that thirty years  to grow the church?  Persecution and civil war. In a population of some 6 million,  over two million have died,  half of them Anglicans. There are no buildings left, no churches or schools,  in an area the size of Alaska. None of the clergy are paid. Many have been driven into exile in Uganda and Kenya.  But the church has grown, grown like wild fire.  But purged by fire.

What is the spirit doing here in our society? Maybe the Holy Spirit has an agenda  and we have no choice but to try to follow and learn, try to recognize new plants growing up and put names to them. We may see things we hadn’t expected to see  or wanted to see and we may need to learn to say,  “Yes, that’s the Holy Spirit at work purging, burning, renewing, restoring,  inspiring, uniting.”  These are hard times for the church  but don’t ask what’s wrong, ask what’s right. Ask what God is doing in places  where we may not see it at first, may even see it as negative. But it is God’s church still  and God always gives us what we need to do the work God gives us to do.

Ask God to help you see what that work is here and now.  And pray, always pray, for the vision and wisdom and strength to see and do the ministry  God gives you.  The Spirit inspires and purges and burns and renews  but above all the Spirit unites. Just as the same blood flows in our veins – different types but basically the same – so the same Spirit moves in our lives – yours and mine,  uniting us in a common mission. We have different gifts of course,  but there’s one Spirit and a common mission  wherever we may be.

This is the festival of the Spirit  the Spirit that comes like the wind and blows us around  sometimes to distant places but still we share one life. I need to close this last sermon here by saying  how grateful I am that the Spirit  brought me here for a while,  grateful for the gifts and the life we have shared, grateful that we will continue to be  not blood brothers and sisters but brothers and sisters in the Spirit, always members of one another, and still sharing a common life.

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