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).
A Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension, May 28, 2017
The Epistle, 1 St. Peter 4:7-11 – The Gospel, St. John 15:26-16:4
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- Ascensiontide and waiting
Don’t just do something, sit there. The ten-day season of Ascension, or Ascensiontide in traditional parlance, is a curious place. We’ve moved past Easter. Jesus has ascended into heaven, and we are now waiting for the Holy Spirit to come. Waiting. Before Jesus left on Ascension Day, he commanded his disciples “not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father” for “you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5). We are now in the period of waiting for the Holy Spirit to come.
But this is not only a period of waiting. It is also a period of prayer. Acts describes the post-Ascension activity of the disciples:
They returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet…. And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers (Acts 1:12-14).
- To wait and pray is a standard posture in the life of faith. It is also frustrating and aggravating. We want to “do” something, be productive, and make something happen. Those are our words. The real reason we cannot wait and pray is that we do not really trust God yet and we want to control things. To wait and pray is to let go of control and trust.
- The biblical pattern of waiting.
There is a parallel between the Ascension and what happened when God gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Moses ascended the mountain to meet God, just as Jesus ascended into heaven to the Father. Moses would come back down with Law or Torah. Jesus will send the Holy Spirit, through whom the law is not written in our hearts (cf. Jer. 31:33).
While Moses was receiving the law from God on the mountain, the people had to wait for him at the bottom of the mountain. Moses was gone for a while, and the people became impatient. Exodus 32 says,
When the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exod. 32:1).
Aaron made two golden calves for the people and they worshiped the calves and had a drunken, idolatrous party that brought upon them God’s judgment—because they could not wait for God and his promise.
Saul was rejected as king, and David was chosen in his place, in part because Saul did not wait for the prophet Samuel to come and offer sacrifice before a significant battle against the Philistines. Samuel had told him to wait, but when the enemy approached and the people became afraid, Saul acted in haste and offered the sacrifice himself. Samuel said to him, “You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you. For now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue (1 Sam. 13:13-14).
- Waiting in the life of prayer
As we can see from these examples, when people do not wait and pray, things do not work out so well. We can do a thought experiment to understand why. Let’s say that, rather than the command to wait and pray, we were commanded to do whatever we wanted to do right now. Go, make your own happiness on your own terms apart from God. What would be the result? It would be the world we see today. People do not wait for God. Instead, they live for things in this world. And people in our culture have never been more discontented.
God calls to pray and wait because nothing we get right now can satisfy the inner longing of our hearts. God wants us to wait for him because he wants to fill us with himself, and he cannot do that unless we will wait and pray for him to come—for he will not come to us against our will.
Genuine faith keeps us in a posture of waiting and praying, for we can only get what we really want when Christ and his kingdom come. The good things we enjoy in this world give us a taste of the kingdom. They are sacramental signs of Christ. But genuine faith lets go of the things of this world when they become idols. The disciplines of the spiritual life can be understood as fighting for the balance between saying “yes” to the good that God gives us, and saying “no” to things that are not gifts and are, therefore, not from God.
We wait and pray for God to give us more of himself. This can be painful because our disordered desires cry out like spoiled children wanting to be satisfied now. This is the main reason waiting is hard. To make room for God, we must learn to say no to these desires, to put them to death to make room for the new life God wants to give us in the Spirit. As we say “no” to disordered desire and wait for God, we establish a new pattern that leads ultimately to fulfillment. This replaces the old pattern of fallen humanity, which demands fulfillment now, but is never satisfied.
- Praying for Pentecost
The good news is that we can have more of God in this world. We can, in the words of the Confirmation prayer, “daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more until [we] come to thy everlasting kingdom” (297). As we pray in the Collect for the Sunday after Ascension:
We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before (BCP 179).
So, don’t just do something, sit there… and pray. During Ascensiontide, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to us in a new way on Pentecost. Let us pray for a renewed experience of God’s grace and presence. Let us pray that God will stir up our spiritual gifts to serve others with greater zeal. Let us pray for new strength and virtue to fight the spiritual battle. If we will wait and pray, God will answer our prayer. As Jesus said, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Lk. 11:13).
A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Easter, May 21, 2017
The Epistle, James 1:22-27 – The Gospel, St. John 16:23-33
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- Rogation days and Ascension
The Fifth Sunday after Easter is called Rogation Sunday, and the next three days before the Feast of Ascension on Thursday are called Rogation Days. The word rogation comes from a Latin word that means “to ask” or “to pray.” As Jesus returns to the Father, we focus on the privilege and power we possess as his disciples to pray in his name. As Jesus said in the gospel, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you…. Ask and you will receive that your joy may be full.”
- The Epistle from James
The epistle focuses on behavior rather than prayer. St. James writes,
If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
What James says will convict most of us at some level. We are all, at times, forgetful hearers. We come to Jesus in our prayer. We hear the word of God and say, “Amen.” Then we go back into the world, forget who we are, and practice behavior that is not consistent with God’s word.
Why do we do this? One reason is that the world, the flesh, and the devil, tempt us to act unfaithfully. Our transition from prayer to life in the world follows the pattern of the baptism of Jesus. The Holy Spirit descended on him and the Father declared him to be his beloved Son (Matt. 3:16-4;1). Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to have that identity tested. We receive our new identity in baptism and we renew it constantly in our prayer. Then we go into the world to face various tests and temptations that pull us away from Christ.
We grow into our Christian identity over time as we continue to pray and hear God’s word. Some measure of behavioral failure is part of the process of our growth. We admit as much when we say the confession each week in the liturgy. We grow as we come to see more clearly how sin promises us a fulfillment that is does not deliver. We grow in our desire to do God’s will. As we continue in our prayer, we become stronger in Christ, in the Spirit, to resist the pull of the temptation. We increasingly become doers of the word and not hearers only.
We also become forgetful hearers when we have an unresolved past. We all carry with us deeply embedded emotional patterns that come from past relationships and experiences. These patterns include deep anxiety that is triggered by certain circumstances; a difficulty in trusting God because those who represented him to us before were not trustworthy; anger and resentment over past mistreatment; and denial, a tendency to insist everything is okay when, clearly, it is not. Our unresolved past creates a secret, hidden identity that acts out in unfaithful ways.
We retain these hidden identities because the gospel has not yet touched these areas of our lives. We need to forgive others to resolve these inherited patterns. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Our own forgiveness is linked to our forgiveness of others. This is true in part because our failure to forgive others keeps us stuck in vengeful or victimized patterns of behavior. Forgiving others makes us free from them.
To forgive others requires that we acknowledge our pain. We cannot deny what we have experienced and also forgive those who hurt us. To forgive others does not require that the people we forgive intended to hurt us. If someone intends to throw a rock into the water and it hits us in the head instead, it still hurt—even though the person did not intend to hurt us.
The key to forgiving others is learning to trust in the sovereignty of God. The gospel message is that Jesus is Lord. He is in control of everything, even our past. This is the foundation for teachings like Romans 8:28, “In everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” God is bringing his new creation out of the chaos of our lives. As Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Trust is the best synonym for faith. We are saved by faith, which means we are saved by trusting God; trusting in his power, trusting in the good that he has for us; trusting that he is changing us into new and glorious creatures; trusting that everything that has happened to us will be redeemed by God for good.
- The meaning of “the gospel”
Too often in our time, “the gospel” has been reduced to a mechanism for having our sins forgiven in a legal sense so God won’t punish us and we can get to some future place called heaven. This limited meaning creates a non-transformative practice of the faith. To accept the gospel means to trust that Jesus is Lord, and to apply that truth to every area of our lives right now, including our past.
To put our trust in Jesus means to live in his new story. The brutal execution of the Son of God is the means of our salvation. Following this pattern, the bad things that have happened to us are used by God as the means of our sanctification. To embrace the gospel, to trust Jesus, means to trust that Jesus is Lord and to accept the good that God is giving us right now in our real lives rather than holding on to the good that we wanted but did not get in the past.
When we do not trust that Jesus is Lord and is in control of everything, we become forgetful hearers. We hold on to hidden past identities that are triggered in real life and cause us to act out in unfaithful ways. We try to control things rather than trusting God and surrendering to his will in our lives. We become victims of the past rather than sons and daughter of God in the present. We become vengeful, seeking to make others pay. Or we remain captive to emotional impulses connected to past events.
The perfect law of liberty that James speaks of is not just a list of moral rules that we must obey to avoid being hypocrites. The perfect law of liberty is the truth that Jesus is Lord. It leads to corresponding truths that our sins are forgiven and that we can forgive. We can let go of the pattern of human sin that enslaves us. We can live in God’s kingdom right now.
This is what we are working on in the life of prayer. As we come to the altar of God to look into the perfect law of liberty, we are growing into the new identity God has given us. Our work in the life of prayer is to be honest with ourselves and with God. We must ask him to help us let go of our anger and regret. We must ask him to heal our wounds, to replace our pain with a new experience of his grace, so that we can practice new behavior that is rooted in our new experience of his love—and not in our past experiences of pain.
As we persevere in our prayer, as we practice trusting God, we grow in our ability to trust. The grace that comes to us through prayer enables us trust rather than control; to let go of our secret, hidden identities and embrace our new identity as children of God. God is able to do in us through our prayer what we are not able to do by our own unaided effort. This inner transformation is the true power of prayer. As Jesus said, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you….Ask and you will receive that your joy may be full.”