A Sermon for Pentecost, May 20, 2018
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. Spiritual gifts and the gift of the Spirit
Our stated mission includes the charge to “work and pray and give for the spread of [God’s] kingdom” (BCP 291). We regularly instruct people, with some detail, about how to pray and give. What about our spiritual work? Pentecost is an appropriate time to begin a discussion about spiritual gifts, which are the unique ways the gift of the Spirit is manifested in each believer.
Before we can understand our unique spiritual gifts, we must first understand how the gift of the Spirit reorients our lives. The gift of the Spirit is the remedy for sin. The spiritual death that resulted from the first sin was the loss of communion with God through the Spirit of God (Gen. 2:17). As the Holy Spirit is given to the church on Pentecost, this life-giving connection is restored.
The objective sign of the gift of the Spirit, the way Pentecost comes to us, is the water of baptism (1 Cor. 12:13). From the beginning of church, the water of baptism was completed by the laying on of the Bishop’s hands—what we now call Confirmation (Acts 8:14-17, Hebrews 6:1-2). God conveys the gift of the Spirit through sacramental signs so that you can know that we have been given this gift.
But receiving a gift does guarantee we will use it. Planting a seed does not guarantee growth into a tree. Baptism is the beginning. The question is, “What is God doing in your life now? The Bishop prays over those being Confirmed that they will “daily increase in the Holy Spirit more and more” (BCP 297).
II. The gift of the Spirit as a reorientation of Life
The first sin and the spiritual death of Genesis led to notable consequences. The first humans blamed someone else for their own sinful behavior. Then they began to hurt each other. Cain killed his brother Abel. The first murder was tied to worship. Cain made an unacceptable offering to God (Genesis 4:4-5). When God rejected his worship, Cain took it out on his brother (Gen. 4:8).
Sin disconnects us from God and leaves us in a state of emptiness and neediness. We try to meet our needs at the expense of others. We deny our guilt by blaming others. We deal with our pain by hurting others. This is our inheritance “in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22). Our emptiness must be filled by something. That something ends up being the various idolatries and addictions of the human condition.
The gift of the Spirit reorients our lives away from the patterns of sin and towards love for God and others. When we stop blaming others, take responsibility for our own behavior, and turn back to God in faith, God gives us his Spirit and restores to us relationship with him. As Jesus said in the gospel,
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him (Jn. 14:23).
As the Father and the Son make their home within us through the Spirit, our lives produce a different kind of fruit. The Spirit fills the empty places of our hearts and begins to heal the wounds of sin. Our interior experience of God’s love and grace is manifested outwardly in love for others. Instead of inflicting our pain on others, we share our experience of grace. As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
The word for “comfort” in this passage is the verbal form of the noun “paraclete,” the word Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:16-18). We are comforted, strengthened, and healed by the Spirit so that we can be agents of comfort, strength, and healing for others through the Spirit.
III. Worship and prayer as the foundation for love of neighbor
Worship and prayer are the foundation of our love for others. God fills our emptiness and heals our wounds in a progressive manner—not unlike the way an antibiotic slowly kills an infection in our bodies. In the liturgies of the Christian life, we continually bring our disordered selves to God, who continually forgives, heals, and strengthens us. As we “daily increase in the Holy Spirit more and more” we grow in both our interior healing and the love for others that results from it.
The sin of Cain, the Bible’s first murder, was rooted in his refusal to worship God with his whole being. Our ability to love others is dependent upon our worship. When we neglect worship, we lose our ability to love with the love that come from God. The first and great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Our ability to fulfill the second commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is dependent upon our obedience to the first commandment (cf. Matt. 22:37-40). Mere philanthropy can never reach the heights of agape love.
There are errors in the other direction. Our prayer can be self-centered. Interior peace can become the goal with the result that we have no concern for the brokenness of the world. Thus, there are two errors. One occurs when the church neglects its worship and life of prayer and gets caught up in various forms of activism. The church reflects the anxiety and “busy-ness” of the world rather than the peace of God. The other error occurs when the church becomes absorbed in its own spirituality and has no ministry outside of itself. In its authentic pattern, the Christian life begins in worship and prayer. This experience of God’s love is then manifested in good works done for others in love. The absence of either part is a serious defect—even heresy.
IV. Our ministries and the use of our gifts
We often approach the topic of ministry by focusing on what “the church” is doing. The church develops a “program” and recruits its member to give their time and labor. However, ministry works best in the other direction. You are the church. As you pray and experience the love and grace of God through the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will naturally move you into loving behavior towards others. This is not just volunteer work at church. Your “ministry” is your total life “in Christ.” It is what you do at home, work and leisure. Your most significant ministry may be the way you manifest the presence of Christ in a challenging work environment or in a difficult marriage; doing what is right and encouraging others in response to harsh treatment or dishonesty. The worst kind of ministry occurs when we do wonderful things at church but are dishonest and unkind in the other areas of our lives.
The ministry of the church is the sum of the work of the members of the body of Christ. Some of that work takes place at church, but most of that work takes place in the world. The best ministry in the church occurs when there is a pooling of our spiritual gifts for the sake of efficiency; when we can do something better together than we can separately. The worst ministry is when the church decides it should do something and then pressures reluctant volunteers to do things they do not have the gifts, time, or desire to do. Of course, there is also sloth. You must be willing to use your gifts, and this will take time and effort.
Your spiritual gifts are the unique form that love takes in your life. Some people have a gift for quiet service. Some have the gift for giving encouragement or wise counsel. Some people have a gift for giving money. Some have gifts for prayer and intercession. What are your gifts? What form does love take in your life? What is the shape of your ministry? What new things might God be calling your to do? These are questions to ask on Pentecost. You experience God’s love in the sacraments and prayer. How do you share that love with others? In Eucharistic terms, as you receive the body and blood of Jesus at the altar, consider, what are the good works that God has prepared for you to walk in? (BCP 83, Eph. 2:10).
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. Pentecost and experience
1. Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the church. As such, it corrects an error in our pattern of making disciples. The church is born, not with a class of instruction—a catechism, but with an experience. The Spirit comes, and stuff begins to happen. To be sure, there will be catechism. Peter’s sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2:14-40) explained the experience of Pentecost, and the church took the next four centuries to get the explanation just right; but the experience came first and the explanation came after.
2. We often confuse the explanation with the experience. Too often we believe in statements about God, but do not experience God’s grace and power. This gap inevitably leads to theological and spiritual doubt—for the explanation cannot hold without the experience. The church has contributed to this problem in evangelism and catechism by explaining God to people when we should be leading them into the experience of communion with God.
B. Our experience of Pentecost
1. We are unlikely to experience what the first disciples experienced on Pentecost. There is no reason for God to enable us to miraculously speak in some foreign language unless we are given a mission to people who speak that language. But we can experience the relational connection with God that Jesus promises in the gospel for Pentecost.
2. In the gospel Jesus gives a pattern for how the Spirit comes to us. He repeats it three times for emphasis:
If you love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever—even the Spirit of truth (John 14:15-17).
He who has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him (John 14:21).
If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (John 14:23).
3. In summary: If we keep the commandments of Jesus, God will send us the Spirit. When we hear the “commandment” our tendency is to think of the Ten Commandments—the rules God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai. Thus, if we keep the rules, God will send us the Spirit. This is, unfortunately, how many look at faith. They try hard to keep all the rules hoping that God will accept them. This is wrong.
C. The commandment to believe or trust
1. In John’s gospel, Jesus gives two specific commandments. These two commandments are the essence of what Jesus means when he says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” The first is the commandment to believe or put our trust in Jesus. In John 6:29, Jesus says, “This is the work of God; that you believe in him who he sent.”
2. Faith in Jesus reverses the pattern of the first sin—which we all repeat in our lives. We don’t trust God; therefore we disobey his commandments and lose our connection to God through the Spirit. Alienation from God lead us to feel guilty, ashamed and afraid. This is the state of spiritual death. The answer is to trust Jesus now where we did not trust God before. This reverses the pattern: Faith opens our hearts up to the gift of the Spirit. This Spirit raises us from spiritual death, reconnects us to God and gives us a new desire and ability to please God. Guilt, shame and fear are replaced with forgiveness, joy and peace.
3. This relationship of trust is distinct from mere rule keeping. If I trust a person who has authority over me, l will want to follow his instructions because I believe he knows and desires what it best. However, if I don’t trust those in authority over me, I will follow the rules out of fear—fear of what will happen if I don’t. The problem is that Spirit enters our lives through our attitude of faith in Jesus. This is what it means to be saved by faith. Thus, fear and doubt reject the relationship of union with God and the gift of the Spirit that are the very means of salvation. This is why Jesus commands us to believe
D. The commandment to love
1. The second specific commandment of Jesus is the commandment or mandate to love. At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you…By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35—see also 1 John 3:23).
2. The commandment to love highlights the communal nature of the gift of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not my personal possession; the Spirit is God’s gift to us all corporately. We become who we are meant to be as individuals only in relationship to others in the community—just an arm is useless unless it is attached to a body.
3. The experience of the Spirit is mediated through others. When we love one another with the love that we have experienced from God, we become part of each other’s experience of God. We give with our spiritual gifts, and receive from others through their spiritual gifts. This is why objections to mediated grace are silly. People will say, “I don’t need anyone to come between me and God. I can go to God directly through Jesus.” This is a dangerous half-truth. To be sure, we can all pray directly to God, and there is a direct, mystical experience of grace. But, in addition, we need and should want a thousand mediators. Mediators bring us closer to God; the more we have, the better off we are.
E. Trust and Love in community
1. Mediating relationships, of course, are not all love and sunshine. Relationships within the Body of Christ are often messy and difficult because we are messy and difficult people. Many people shy away from the church precisely because real relationships require this kind of deep personal engagement and commitment. However, when we avoid real flesh and blood community, we avoid a substantial means of grace—the grace that comes from knowing others and being known, from loving and being loved.
2. Our relational experience in the Body of Christ is an essential part of our Pentecost. When we offend each other, the Holy Spirit calls us to grow through the pain; to learn how to speak the truth in love; to examine or own motives; to learn how to forgive and accept forgiveness; to learn how to forbear and suffer long—and not run away. The Spirit comes to us as we trust Jesus and love each other through tragedy, trial and disappointment. We do not yet trust and love as we ought. Rather, in our relationship with God and with each other in Christ, we are learning how to trust and learning how to love. This is the experience of the Holy Spirit.
3. In this light, we can see why we are tempted just to memorize the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments and be done with it; why it is easier to argue about theology than it is to trust God; why it is easier to judge each other than it is to love each other; why we are more comfortable with the explanation than we are with the experience. However, Jesus calls us to more than that: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word [he will begin to trust me and begin to love others] and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
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).
Pentecost, the reversal of the fall
Pentecost is the undoing of the fall of man. Genesis tells us that the first humans received life from God when he “breathed into their nostrils the breath of life” (2:7). They were given dominion over the creation, the garden and a commandment not to eat the fruit of The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, under pain of death. They disobeyed—and they died. The death they died was the withdrawal of God’s Spirit. God had given them life through the Spirit so that they were able to live in intimate fellowship with God in the garden. After the first sin, God withdrew his life giving presence from them.
This death was evidenced by several things. The first humans began to experience guilt, shame and fear in the presence of God; they were cut off from access to The Tree of Life, which was given to sustain the life that God had given them; and they were exiled from the garden and subjected to the curse of labor, in dual form (Genesis 3).
The physical death the first humans eventually experienced was merely the natural, long term consequence of the death they died when they sinned. It is like a branch that is cut off from a vine or the trunk of a tree. It appears to have life for while on its own apart from the tree, but it is, in fact, dead the moment is it cut off from the source of life; in due course it will wither and decay.
In the celebrations of Christmas through Ascension, we rehearsed again how the Son of God became man in order to save us from this condition of separation from God. Jesus lived the faithful and holy life, died the atoning death, rose in glorious conquest on Easter and returned to the Father in the Ascension. Today, because of all that Christ has done, God is able to send the Spirit to restore us to life.
The gospel and the gift of the Spirit
In today’s gospel, the gift of the Spirit is described in terms that reverse the pattern of sin. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father and he will give you another comforter.” And again, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word: and My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him.” The first humans showed that they did not really love God because they did not keep his word; consequently, God withdrew the Spirit from them. Now, when love for Christ is shown by obeying his word, life is restored through the gift of the Spirit.
This highlights the importance of obedience. Whatever intimacy existed between the first humans and God, it was rendered empty by the fact that they did not do what he said. Their disobedience was evidence that they did not really trust God or love him. We show our faith in Christ and our love for him by doing the things he calls us to do. As 1 John explains, “He who says, ‘I know him’ and does not keep his commandments, is a liar and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, truly the love of God is perfected in him” (2:4-5).
The commandments of Jesus are not mere rules. On Maundy Thursday Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you; that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). 1 John says, “This is his commandment: that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (3:23). Love obeys the Ten Commandments, but love is not satisfied with mere legal observance. Love fulfills the intent of the commandments; love desires and works for the glory of God and the good of those who are made in his image. This is why love fulfills the law (Romans 13:10).
When faith is shown in loving obedience, the pattern of the fall is reversed; God breathes the breath of life back into us; we are reattached to the true vine; we are restored to life.
The restoration of the human vocation.
The gift of the Spirit restores us to life in the garden in fellowship with God. In Christ, through the Spirit, guilt, shame and fear give way to forgiveness, peace and the boldness we have to say, “Our Father.”
In Christ, through the gift of the Spirit, we may now eat of the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life is the Good Friday tree, and the fruit of that tree is the water of baptism that washes us from our guilt, the Sacramental Bread that gives us life and the Eucharistic blood that continues to cleanse us from sin. As Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the Last Day” (John 6:54).
In Christ, through the gift of the Spirit, our exile from God’s presence in ended and we are brought back into intimate fellowship with God and with all who belong to him in the Communion of the Saints.
Restoration, but not completion
We are restored to fellowship with God in the garden, but the forbidden tree is still there. The commandment to respond to the gift of life with love and obedience must, necessarily, include that possibility that we might not. Consequently, it is God’s will that we, like his people in every age, be tested. The question is the one Jesus presented to Peter. “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-19). The answer is either faith that leads to obedience, or doubt that leads to disobedience.
Before the fall, the first humans were innocent and sinless, but they were not perfect or mature. It was God’s intention that they grow by faith and obedience. They were supposed to refuse the temptation of the forbidden fruit and they were supposed to feed on the fruit of the Tree of Life. Had they done that, they would have grown in knowledge in the right way; they would have progressed from infancy to adulthood and maturity.
We are cleansed from sin and restored to fellowship with God through the gift of the Spirit; but we are not yet mature or perfected. We may look like adults, but we are, in fact, spiritual children. It is our vocation to grow to maturity by faith and obedience; by saying no to the false promises made to us by the evil one, and by feeding on the bread of life through the life of prayer.
As Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word: and My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
Jesus rose on Easter as the “firstfruits of them that slept.” With the gift of the Holy Spirit, the harvest is completed and the experience of resurrection is extended to all of God’s people. We who were dead in our sins are raised to new life through the Spirit.
In Genesis, God created man from the dust and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). This life giving connection to God was lost through by sin. As God said, “In the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). The death caused by sin was the severing of man’s communion with God through the Spirit. We may appear to be alive in the body apart from God, but we are, in fact, dead. We cut off from the source of life and destined for the grave and eternal separation from God.
The drama of redemption that we have rehearsed again since Advent comes to fruition on Pentecost. Pentecost is the moment when the dead receive again the breath of life. The gift of the Spirit restores us to the communion with God that we lost through sin. As Ephesians says, “You he made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” (Ephesians 2:1). Through the Spirit, we are have eternal right now and the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.
The whole creation shares with us the hope and promise of resurrection through the Spirit. As Romans says, “The creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Romans 8:21-22). The sacraments, in which physical elements become means of grace, in which physical elements already participate in the new creation through the Spirit, anticipate the time when God will make all things new.
On Pentecost, the outward sign of the gift of the Spirit was the tongues of fire, dividing and resting on the head of each believer. For subsequent Christians, the sign of the gift of the Spirit is the water of baptism. St. Peter describes this succinctly in the conclusion to his sermon on Pentecost: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Act 2:38).
On Pentecost, the evidence that each believer received the Spirit was that each spoke in various languages of the ancient world. This enabled all the pilgrims who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost to hear about Jesus in their own languages. The ongoing evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in us is what we call “the fruits of the Spirit” (cf. Galatians 5:22). People know that the Spirit is active in our lives because they can see the change the Spirit causes in us.
Baptism does not guarantee either the fruits of the Spirit or ultimate salvation. We must also experience what the church refers to as “conversion of the heart.” Conversion of the heart is the encounter with God that makes us aware of our sin and leads us to repentance, confession and the experience grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. The sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are the objective signs of the gift of the Spirit. Conversion of the heart is the subjective condition that enables us to receive the gift effectually. In many baptized Christians, the gift of the Spirit is latent rather than active because they have not yet come to genuine repentance and sincere faith in Jesus, they have not yet experienced conversion of the heart.
Conversion of the heart is a continual process. As we “Walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16) we become more aware of our sin, make better confessions, experience more of God’s grace, develop new virtues and manifest new fruits of the Spirit. We lead a life prayer precisely so that we may “daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more until [we] come to thine everlasting kingdom” (BCP 297).
Jesus said in the gospel (John 14:15-31). “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23). When Father and Son make their home in us through the Spirit, we begin to love as God loves. Love is the chief virtue and the preeminent fruit of the Spirit.
Romans says, “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:5 NKJ). This is why Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you. That you love one another as I have loved you. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). The Holy Spirit both enables and commands us to love in the manner that we have been loved by God.
Love is the unifying language that undoes the confusion of Babel and causes us to speak with one heart and one mind. Love is the unifying language that enables all to hear and see the gospel. Love enables us to forgive and let go of our petty grievances. Love frees us from selfishness, and causes us to serve with a joyful heart where ever God calls us to serve. Love enables us to sacrifice, to give up the temporal for the eternal after the pattern of Jesus.
St. Paul reminds us, in 1 Corinthians 13, that we can do all manner of religious and charitable deeds, but if they are not motivated by love, we gain nothing from them. As Jesus said after recounting all the good religious practices of the church in Ephesus, “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4).
If our hearts are unconverted or our love has grown cold, we must return to Pentecost and pray, in the words of our sequence hymn: “Come thou Holy Spirit come and from thy celestial home, Shed a ray of light divine…Heal our wounds, our strength renew; On our dryness pour thy dew. Wash the stains of guilt away. Bend the stubborn heart and will; Melt the frozen, warm the chill. Guide the steps the go astray” (Hymnal 109).
Pentecost reminds us that Christian faith is a life giving experience of resurrection. It can never be reduced to mere doctrine or rules. Doctrine describes the experience. Moral rules are the responsibilities and implications of the experience. But the essence of our faith is union with the Father through the Son in the Spirit. The essence of our faith is the experience of love–which comes to us through the gift of the Spirit. Thus, we pray on Pentecost, “Come Holy Ghost, fill the hearts of thy faithful people and kindle in them the fire of thy love.”