On Being Churched in Spirit
May 23, 2021
Psalm 104: 1-4: Bless the Lord, O my soul. Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.
Acts 2: 1-12: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
In the large southern Baptist church I attended as a child and as a teenager, we would meet three times a week. The least-attended service was on Wednesday evenings and even then there would easily be two hundred people. First we would share dinner together, prepared by a hired cook and his crew, then we would sing hymns before the children filed out and into various locations throughout the massive church building for age-appropriate instruction. I remember all this with absolute joy and excitement because there were many of us kids, so many that we would go on trips together, even. We piled into our church bus and went skiing in the winter, to the beach in the summer, to choir camps in the mountains, and retreats for youth groups wherever they were being held. At those retreat events, we would join hundreds of other youth, and when I grew old enough to start noticing boys…well, those retreats were a new kind of heaven that I had never heard talked about from the pulpit. There was plenty of hand holding going on and even some furtive kissing in the shadows. There were a couple of years there when I signed up for every single trip offered; it didn’t matter where we were going.
Just because we were churched, didn’t mean we were saintly. Far from it. We would attend the classes and events we were required to attend, and in the in-between times, all kinds of drama unfolded. Sometimes, among the backdrop of teenage drama, the sacred would break into our young lives.
There is one trip I will never forget. We had traveled to the beach for a retreat that lasted longer than most, perhaps a week. It was the last night we would gather together and emotions were running high. Friendships and romantic interests that had been nurtured all week were on the brink of separation. We filed into the church hall of the host church, as we had every evening all week, for singing and a short program, but that night, all the lights were off and there were burning candles lit and placed all around the perimeter of the room, perfect lighting for hand holding and maybe even a quick kiss or two during prayers. I am fairly certain that not one teenager was expecting what would soon occur in that room.
Our minds were not really on Jesus when we entered that space, but the youth leaders that had organized it all had their minds and hearts centered on creating a sacred space. I remember we sang the hymn Sweet, Sweet Spirit (the same one we sang at the beginning of our service today) and we sang it over and over and over again. One of the pastors eventually stood up and we braced ourselves for what we expected would be a sermon, but he simply asked us all to join hands. Some of us could not believe our stroke of luck; they are actually letting us hold hands! Then he asked us to bow our heads. He said we were going to enter the silence together for awhile. After a few restless minutes of people squirming and giggling and whispering, we finally settled into a silence that absolutely enveloped us. There is no way to know where it started, but later we would all remember that the hands we were holding began to tremble. Some people began to sniffle and cry and then one of the adults went over to the piano and began to play the hymn, Just As I Am. We began to sing and cry and sing and sob. All candles but one were extinguished and I tell you there was a presence in that place that was Love Itself. We were joined by a love so immense and so complete that I can only call it the Holy Spirit. When the service drew to a close, long after the usual time, just a few young people left. Most of us stayed right there, for hours, talking about what had happened, trying to make sense of something so far beyond what we had vocabulary to express. Most of us had been churched our whole lives, but that night we were churched in the Spirit.
In the book of John, chapter 14, Jesus says, “Soon I will leave you, but the Father is sending an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to teach you everything and to remind you of all I have said to you.”
And so the story goes that Jesus was betrayed, arrested, questioned, beaten, imprisoned and nailed to a cross to die as a criminal for proclaiming to be the Son of God. After his death and burial, he reappeared in various places over the following 50 days and he said very little. What he did say fell into three categories: blessings of peace, assurance of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and instructions of what to do next. In the book of Acts, the risen Christ appears to 120 of his followers, among them were his mother, Mary, other unnamed women, and Jesus’s brothers. Jesus says, in Acts chapter 1, “As I taught you, that just as John ritually cleansed people with water, so you will be washed with the Holy Spirit. You will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and you will be my witnesses to the farthest places on earth.”
After hearing these words from the risen Christ, his large band of followers travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Shavuot (shuh·voo·owt). It was the harvest season for wheat and also a day to remember Moses receiving the Torah, the written word from God that also makes up the first five books of our Old Testament. It was a busy time in Jerusalem. This was not a year like any other, however. Jesus had been crucified shortly after Passover, just seven weeks prior. There had been earthquakes, a full eclipse of the sun, and the curtain in the Temple that separated the Most Holy from the throngs of commoners had literally, and inexplicably, been torn in two. It had been seven weeks, about 50 days, and no doubt people were still talking, still wondering what to believe. Were the stories true? Could that have been the promised Messiah that was crucified? People are saying they have seen him, that Jesus of Nazareth.
In the midst of all this, these followers of Jesus return to Jerusalem for Shavuot. Part of the festival involves staying up all night, reading from the Torah. It will be a night like no other, for, as promised, they receive a great gift. The gift of the Holy Spirit is manifested in three ways. Listen again to these words from our scriptures today: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” After this, all doubts were dispelled. After this, there was no turning back. The story of Jesus of Nazareth would be carried forward, against all odds. His story would be shared in every language.
Today we celebrate Pentecost as the most rudimentary beginnings of the Christian church. Pentecost is a Greek word. The suffix “pente” means fifty, marking the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot. Keep in mind that the followers of Christ were predominantly Jewish, so they were still observing Jewish law and custom. There was no such thing as the Christian church. In fact, the word “church” would be a new term, derived from the Greek word kuriakos, that means “belonging to the Lord.” Dig a little deeper and we find that kuriakos comes from an even older Proto-Indo-European word, kewH, that means “to swell, spread out, be strong, prevail.” Powerful roots for the word, CHURCH, and one that originally was not used to describe a place, but rather to describe qualities of a people…people belonging to the Lord.
In our best moments we are people belonging to the Lord. There have been unspeakable atrocities in our church history, however. Wars fought over religion, violent disregards of life and liberties because of misguided religious fervor and flagrant misuses of power, the very power that was meant to be our Teacher, our Helper, our Advocate…the Holy Spirit, the critical member of the sacred trinity: God the All-Knowing, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit that forever moves us closer to God within.
Too often the Spirit is lost in theological debate over who and what God is, what Jesus did and did not say. The Holy Spirit has been sent to help us with all of that, to help us discern what we can accept as truth, but the help of the Spirit does not come uninvited, barging it’s way into our minds and hearts; it’s up to us to create the space, both within our hearts and within the structure of our lives. If we wish for the presence of goodness and grace in our lives then we have to create space and time, just like those youth leaders created that candle-lit hall for us on our final night of that retreat when the presence of Divine Love surprised us. Friends, the Holy Spirit is a strong and delicate force, filled with the power of God, understood in every language, and yet easily overlooked and underutilized as we worship the demigods of self-sufficiency, independence and control.
In closing, on this Pentecost Sunday, I want to pray for us. I want to pray for us as a church, as people belonging to God. May we live like a people churched in the Spirit. May we recognize our own truth, brought to us from God, by the Holy Spirit, and may our truth make us fearless and strong in our love for one another. Amen.
Beloved God, we are here together with all our complexities…our mix of hope and fear, trust and worry, health and illness, acceptance and resistance. Help us, Lord, to bring the disparities of our emotions ever closer together, so that we may move through the joys and challenges of our lives with equanimity, balance, and serenity. We pray your healing presence be with us and with all those in need. May we be ever attune to the ways we can serve, with sensitivity and effectiveness and in the spirit of Christ, the giver of this prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the Apostle Paul in the book of second Corinthians, chapter 13: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Amen.