A Sermon for Pentecost, June 04, 2017
For the Epistle, Acts 2:1-11 – The Gospel, St. John 14:15-31
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. Life in the Spirit is the foundation of faith
We have often begun our evangelism by explaining God to people, or by trying to convince people that God’s existence makes logical sense. The feast of Pentecost provides a course correction. It reminds us that the church and her mission began with an experience of union with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, not with a lecture. This teaches us that our experience of God precedes our doctrine about God. The Nicene Creed is the church’s explanation of Pentecost.
Experience always precedes doctrine. What everyone believes about life explains what they have experienced in life. We develop our doctrine to explain our experience. This is the reason that apologetic alone seldom converts people. It attempts to explain to others an experience they have not yet had. People are converted when the Holy Spirit starts to work in their lives and they experience something new that demands a new explanation.
This is the reason mission should be centered on drawing people into prayer and conversation with God. Once people begin to experience God’s presence—once God begins to tap them on the shoulder or, as with St. Paul, knock them off their “high” horse, the door will open for a conversation to explain what is happening.
B. The experience of the Holy Spirit is not usually spectacular or weird.
For some Christians, the Spirit’s presence is measured by whether something strange happened. This can obscure the way that the Holy Spirit is experienced through the giving of supernatural but ordinary wisdom, strength, and comfort. The word that the KJV translates as “Comforter” and the NKJV translates as “Helper” is the Greek word “paraclete.” It means “one who comes alongside.” We usually need someone to come alongside and provide ordinary things to meet normal challenges. Speaking in tongues or a word of prophesy may not be what we need to deal with a stressful business meeting or a crying baby.
Of course, Pentecost was a bit strange. A group of Jewish people started speaking foreign languages. The equivalent for us would be if the Spirit descended and various people in our congregation started speaking in Spanish, Vietnamese, Burmese and German—languages the speakers had never learned. The purpose of tongues on Pentecost was practical. It enabled the pilgrims in Jerusalem who spoke those languages to hear the gospel. It was also symbolic of the way the Spirit reverses the discord and confusion that began at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:7-9). The work of the Spirit is to brings the nations back into harmony with God, and, then, unity.
There is a distinction between the way we experience the Spirit at our conversion, and the way we experience the Spirit in living out the Christian life. Much work goes into the initial planting of a seed or a tree. We break up the soil, remove old roots and carefully plant the new life. But once it is planted and the roots become established, it is sustained by normal water and sunlight. Childbirth involves a unique experience of labor and delivery. But child raising involves ordinary routines or liturgies of feeding and care. Some people make the mistake of trying to continually recapture the experience of their spiritual birth. This is not possible because we have grown beyond that stage. The spiritual experiences associated with growth to maturity are different than the experiences associated with our spiritual infancy.
In both the spiritual life and raising children, there is an inertia to stay in the comfort zone. No child who has known the comfort of a mother’s breast is eager to give it up. The child must be weaned. This involves discomfort and pain, but it is necessary if we are to avoid the pathetic and weird scene of breast-feeding teenagers. In the spiritual life, we want to stay in our comfort zone, but God pushes us out into discomfort so that we will grow. As we mature, the activity of the Holy Spirit, our spiritual “experience,” will increasingly involve discomfort and pain. This is the reason a spirituality that focuses on making us feel good is extremely counter-productive. What it will succeed in doing is creating perpetual spiritual infants.
C. The essential experience of life in the Spirit
As we grow in our faith we discover that the authentic experience of life in the Spirit is the experience of death and resurrection. We are, as St. Paul says, “Always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10). We carry about the dying of the Lord Jesus in the way we continually die to our old, sinful selves (cf. Ephesians 4:22-24) through confession and behavioral change, and through the way God teaches us to give up control of life and trust him. This painful experience of death leads us to the experience of forgiveness, peace, and joy, and to the cultivation of new virtues—to new life.
Romans 8:13-14 describes this as the work of the Holy Spirit. “If you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.”
Our union with Christ in his death leads us to the experience resurrection and life. Thus, the characteristic New Testament attitude towards the cross is joy. “Count is all joy,” St. James writes, “when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (Jas. 1:2-4). In Acts 5, after the apostles were beaten by the authorities for their faith, we are told “They departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41).
When we lack the inner joy of life in the Spirit, it is because we are experiencing the cross the way we experience ordinary pain. Some Christians have been trained to think of the spiritual life as perpetual self-denial and pain, without any corresponding experience of grace and new life. For some, it doesn’t count as religion unless it makes us miserable. This is the opposite of the error that requires every spiritual experience to make us feel good. Both errors are common and spiritually harmful.
The gift of the Spirit does not take away our pain. The gift of the Holy Spirit changes the nature of our pain. The pain of life in this fallen world becomes the birth pangs of God’s New Creation. The pain of death becomes the pain of birth When we experience pain on a natural level, apart from God, it is constant reminder that we are going to die. When we experience pain in Christ in the Spirit, it is a constant reminder that we possess eternal life and are destined to be glorious eternal creatures. As Romans says,
We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:22-23).
Therefore, as Romans says,
We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (5:3-5).