A Sermon for Pentecost, June 8, 2014
For the Epistle, Acts 2:1-11 – The Gospel, St. John 14:15-31
The Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. Pentecost as experience.
1. In a sermon about the Ascension last Sunday, I said that experience comes before doctrine in the Christian life; our doctrine explains our experience. Today is Pentecost, the day on which Jesus fulfilled his promise to send the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the source of Christian experience; without the gift of the Spirit Christian faith is, indeed, merely doctrine.
2. The sign of the gift of the Spirit on Pentecost was the tongues of fire that rested on each disciple. The sign of the gift of the Spirit for us is the water of Baptism. In Confirmation, we pray that God will strengthen and increase the baptismal gift so that we will “daily increase in the Spirit more and more.”
3. Because we have been given the gift of the Spirit, every doctrine is also an experience. We believe that God became man at Christmas, but Christ has become present in our bodies through the Spirit. We believe the Christ revealed himself through various epiphanies, but Christ is also revealed in us through his work in our lives. We believe that Christ died and rose from the dead, but we also continually die to sin and rise to new life; and we continually ascend with Christ through the Spirit.
B. Experiencing God in the ordinary
1. Talk about Christian experience scares some people because experiences of the Holy Spirit are often associated with Christians who do weird things. Many Christians think the Holy Spirit is not at work unless something strange or miraculous is happening—and some try very hard to make such things happen through prayer so that they can “feel” the Spirit.
2. A sacramental understanding of the faith saves us from this silliness, for it teaches us to see and experience God in ordinary things. Jesus was present in the world doing normal things like eating, drinking, walking around and talking to people. Jesus gives himself to us through ordinary things: water in baptism; oil and the bishop’s hands in confirmation; bread and wine in the Eucharist and oil in unction. We learn from this to see and experience Christ in everyday life through ordinary interactions with people, God’s sovereign ordering of the normal events of life and other common things.
3. If you are baptized into Christ your experience of the Holy Spirit is your life—for all of your life is lived in Christ through the Spirit. To experience all that this means we must develop what we might call “sacramental vision”; this is the ability to see everything as a sign of Christ. For Christ is present everywhere. We don’t always see and experience this because we don’t always see things as they are. Thus, a central part of our experience of the Spirit is the gradual healing of our blindness or a continual increase in our ability to see.
C. The nature of our experience
1. Life in the Spirit does not always make us feel good. We experience life a certain way “in the Spirit” because the Spirit gives us a new identity and destiny. By nature we are fallen creatures who are destined for judgment and death. Through the Spirit we have become children of God who are destined for resurrection and life in the world to come. This changes the way we experience all things, including pain and tribulation. For example, when we fall in to sin, our experience of the Spirit is one of conflict. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin so that we will be led to confession and forgiveness. The Spirit leads us to discomfort in order to restore us to health.
Temptation and testing are a part of life in the Spirit that makes us feel uncomfortable. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested (Luke 4:1)—and that was not an experience that made him feel good. Life in the Spirit does not avoid pain and sickness; life in the Spirit causes us to experience pain differently, as something that purifies us and prepares us for eternity.
D. The need to fully embrace our new identity in Christ.
1. We don’t always experience life in the Spirit as we ought to because we hold on to our old ways of thinking about ourselves. Even though Christ has forgiven our sins and is doing good things in our lives, we hold on to feelings of worthlessness and despair. This is a surprisingly rampant spiritual theme. Paradoxically, the “self esteem” generation tends to be full of self-loathing. This may be because the self-esteem message was built upon a foundation of sand—and in our hearts we all know it.
2. Pentecost is the authentic message of human worth. When Jesus gives us the Spirit he places a real and objective value on us. He recreates us in his own image and makes us, as the catechism says, “a member of Christ, the child of God and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven” (BCP 577). You cannot fully embrace your baptism and also hate yourself and be despairing about the future.
3. We grow in the Spirit as we slowly get rid of our faulty patterns of thinking and gradually embrace our new identity and value in Christ. How we feel about ourselves and how we behave will always reflect who we think we are. Those who hold on to a false sense of being worthless will continue to feel bad and act in destructive ways. But those who accept their new value and identity in Christ will begin to feel better and will begin to act in new ways that reveal that their new worth “in Christ.”
D. Liturgy teaches us our new identity and destiny.
The Eucharist reminds us who we really are. Whenever we remember what Christ has done we also remember who are “in Christ.” Gathering together with the church for the Eucharist is essentially to our experience of life in Christ, both because the life that was planted within us in Baptism must be fed with the Bread of Life and because we must remember, again and again, that, as Galatians says, “God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” (4:6).