Sunday, May 24, 2015

Phil Kniss: A church conspiracy to change the world

Pentecost: The living Christ sends the Spirit of truth
Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:12-15

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Pentecost is just plain wild!
    Can’t get around it.
    The story in Acts 2 is wild . . . beyond belief.
        Violent wind blowing—inside a room,
            fire dancing on people’s heads,
            people speaking in languages they don’t know,
            a crowd gathering to witness the chaos,
            accusations of drunkenness.
    This wild story has, at times, led to some pretty wild things
        happening in today’s church,
        as Christians try to come to terms with what this wildness meant.

    Some parts of the church think this is what the Spirit looks like
        pretty much all the time,
        and that untamed, ecstatic spiritual experiences are what
            every real Christian should strive for,
        and wild mass outpourings are proof positive
            the Holy Spirit is at work.
    And then, other parts of the church say,
        Acts 2 was a special one-time event, for a special occasion,
            and ever since then,
            the Holy Spirit always does things decently and in order . . .
                exactly the way we just . . . happen to prefer things.

    So the wild work of the Spirit,
        and the wildly different ways Christians think about the Spirit,
            has led to bitter conflict and divisions in the church,
            that I’m pretty sure the Holy Spirit had nothing to do with,

One of the top stories in religious news in recent weeks,
    is that the Southern Baptist board of missions
        lifted the ban on speaking in tongues
        for their overseas missionaries.
    The fact that Baptist missionaries up to now,
        could be sent home for speaking in tongues was news to me,
        and struck me as ironic . . . and mildly humorous.

Seeing how wild and out-of-control the scene was
    at the church’s founding in Acts 2,
    it’s interesting how invested some of us are
        in keeping matters under control in the church.

And I say that as one who has sometimes been described . . .
    (inaccurately, of course) as a control freak.
    I’m not a control freak.
        I just like things carried out in an orderly fashion.
            All the time.

So, to this mostly rational, methodical, and thoughtful preacher,
    Pentecost is just plain wild.
    And once a year, at least,
        I am reminded how untamed and unpredictable . . .
        In other words, how unlike me . . . the Holy Spirit seems to be.

Those in Jerusalem on that wild day,
    looking in on all that chaos,
    were also confronted with something foreign to their framework,
        their normal way of making sense of the world.
They were Egyptians and Libyans and Cyrenians,
    living in some of the great intellectual centers of the world,
    and now they were watching . . . backwoods Galileans
        speaking fluently in their own native dialect.
So in v. 12, of Acts 2, they ask out loud, “What does this mean?”

A great question.
    The simplest, and most important, question they could ask.
        “What does this mean?”
    They could tell, by mere observation,
        that something both authentic and significant,
            was going on.
    They just didn’t know what it meant.

There were also cynics in the crowd, v. 13,
    who thought it meant nothing.
    “They’re drunk!” “They’re nuts!”
    But the consensus seemed to be God was doing something.
        They just needed to figure out what, and why.

So right then Peter stood up and preached a powerful sermon.
    Peter—the one who only days earlier
        was about to give up on the Jesus movement,
        and go back to a life of fishing—
        now preached in a loud voice to the bewildered crowd
        and explained exactly what God was up to,
            and why it was significant.
    He preached as if he understood it.
        Maybe . . . suddenly . . . he did.

He said this is a culmination of something
    God has been working on a long, long, time.
    Ages ago God’s prophet Joel predicted there would be
        great and wondrous signs,
        ushering in a new age of God’s rule on the earth.
    That God’s spirit would blow in, would burst on the scene,
        and be poured out on all sons and daughters of humankind.
        Young and old, slave and free.
    They would all think new thoughts,
        say new things,
        and be a new people.

    Prophet Joel said, “It’s going to happen.”
    Apostle Peter said, “Now it’s happening.”

Which raises the question for us, today,
    “Is it still happening?”
        Is what God did during the Jewish festival of Pentecost
            around 35 AD,
            in any way expected to be replicated in the church today?
        Was this Pentecost wildness a once-and-done kind of thing,
            that we won’t have to do ever again (thank goodness!),
            or is it a model for Christians still?

That all depends, of course,
    on how you understand what God was actually doing there.

If we think, as many Christians do,
    that this outpouring of the Holy Spirit was primarily
        a demonstration of what God wants to do
            in the interior lives of individual believers . . .
    if we think that Pentecost is God’s revelation
        of what a faith-filled, Spirit-filled
            personal religious experience is supposed to look like,
    and that’s what God was really up to that day,
        then I think we have profoundly missed the point.

    And we are doomed to keep having pointless arguments
        over the Holy Spirit’s many and varied ways
        of working in the lives of individual believers.

If, however,
    we read this story from Acts more carefully, more completely,
        more in the context of the whole biblical narrative,
    we will be confronted with a much bigger picture of the Spirit,
        a picture we as a church simply must keep reaching for,
        because it will always be bigger than we are.

God, through the Holy Spirit,
    was giving birth to a new community of the Kingdom of God.

This was a radical new development in a very old story.
    Way back in Genesis chapter 2, the story goes,
        God breathed into a lump of clay shaped like a human,
            breathed into its nostrils the breath of life,
            so that the form became a living being.
        God’s breath is God’s spirit.
            It’s right there in the language.
            Spirit and breath are literally the same word,
                both in Hebrew and Greek.

So Acts chapter 2 is a retold and reframed creation story.
    God’s breath, the Spirit, blew into a lifeless lump of humanity,
        men and women hiding from the world out of fear,
            behind locked doors,
        and blew life into them,
            so that they became a living, spirit-breathing community,
        that would bless the whole world,
        that would, like the first humans, partner with God
            to carry out God’s purposes for creation.

God’s agenda at Pentecost was to breathe on God’s people,
    to enliven and empower them to live
        like God intended women and men to live in the world,
        so that their life together would reflect God’s good purposes,
            God’s shalom,
            God’s justice,
            God’s beauty.

God’s intention is to partner with humanity,
    to restore the goodness and beauty and harmonious diversity
        of the world as God created it.
    And it is all dependent on God’s breath,
        God’s creative, life-giving, sustaining breath.

God’s breath is not something that blows down upon us
    as some external pressure
    that exerts itself on us, disrupts us,
        or forces us into some new life form.
    No, God’s intention is that God’s breath
        fills our lungs, and becomes our breath,
        so that there is no sharp separation
            between God’s breath and ours,
            between God’s spirit and ours.
    So that when we breathe, God breathes with us.
        We breathe together.
        We con-spire.
        We are part of a divine conspiracy.

You might remember me saying this before—
    this beautiful fact that conspiracy means, literally,
        breathing together?
    The Latin word spir-a-re means to breathe.
        When you’re inspired—in-spired—
            you have breathed “in” some new idea or truth
            or emotion that fills you up.
        When you expire (or die), you  ex-pire—
            breathe “out” for the last time.
        And when you con-spire, you breathe “with.”

So when God breathed his own Holy Breath (Holy Spirit)
    into this group of frightened disciples in Acts 2,
    the whole intent was to get them, as a community,
        to start breathing the same air,
        to start “breathing with” God.
    To get them in the same life rhythm as the Creator—
        to breathe in with God, to breathe out with God,
            in and out,
            in unison with God,
            so that their life and life purposes,
            would be in synch with God’s purposes.

God’s whole deal at Pentecost,
    was to finally get God’s people to be God’s co-conspirators,
    to be about the same intentional, purposeful business
        of changing the world,
    the same business of restoring the world
        to what God wanted it to be in the first place.

That breath of God, the Holy Spirit,
    fundamentally changed that community of Jesus’ disciples.
    They became a new community.

So what happened right after God’s breath was poured out on them?
    They started living differently . . . together.
        Their fear turned into holy boldness.
        Their isolation from society
            turned into compassionate activism,
            and they started going out
                to heal and deliver in Jesus’ name.
        Their self-interest turned into mutual self-sacrifice
            and sharing and generosity and being family to each other.

So is Pentecost a model for Christians today?
    Absolutely, positively, happily, yes!

It is a model of how a group of people might open themselves
    to be and become something they couldn’t have imagined
    before the wind of God started blowing,
    before they opened themselves to God’s Spirit-breath.

It is model of how the church can, today,
    reclaim its intended place in God’s strategy of cosmic salvation.
God has always intended to save the world
    through people willing to breathe with him,
    to conspire with God to change the world.
        Our mission as a church is nothing less than that—
            to conspire with God to save the world,
            to help usher in the full and unhindered reign of God.

    But church, be not proud.
        It’s clearly beyond us,
            beyond our natural human abilities and capacities.
    We need God’s Spirit-breath to pull this off.
        But when the Spirit fills the church,
            when the holy breath of God fills us,
            wow . . . what wild and surprising things might await.
        We might also attract a crowd of onlookers,
            who ask, “What does it mean?”

    What does this mean, they might ask,
        that in this community of Christians called church,
            enemies are being turned into friends,
            violence is being forsaken,
            justice is being done,
            forgiveness is being offered, and received,
                to those who don’t deserve it,
            the hungry and naked and poor of this world
                are not only fed and clothed,
                but given back their dignity
                    and now sharing life with the rich and powerful
                    who call them brothers and sisters.
        What does this mean, that
            the utterly broken find unexpected wholeness,
            sinners repent and renounce lives of sin,
            the lost and wandering find a home,
            the shunned are brought back into community,
                and told they belong.

    When God’s Spirit-breath truly takes hold of us,
        as a community,
        and fills our lungs,
        and we started breathing with God,
            conspiring with God,
            wild things are bound to happen.

Every bit as wild, and disturbing to the status quo,
    as Jesus himself was to the world of his day.
    Remember the gospel reading this morning from John?
        This Holy Spirit was sent by Jesus,
            to be an Advocate for him and the gospel,
            to make sure that Jesus’ followers,
                kept following Jesus,
            that over time, wouldn’t start taking Jesus the wrong way.
    So God’s Holy Spirit-Breath,
        is just as much the Spirit of Jesus,
        as the Spirit of God the Father.

    That’s how we will know whether it’s the Holy Spirit
        moving in the church,
        or something foreign to God’s agenda.
    It will look like Jesus.

    This is one of those cases where if it
        looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck,
            it really is a duck.
    If this community of disciples of Jesus starts
        looking like Jesus, talking like Jesus,
            living and moving in the world like Jesus,
        it is the Spirit of Jesus, God’s Spirit, God’s Breath, doing it.
    Then we are breathing with Jesus,
        we are conspiring with the Triune God,
        who is bringing about the salvation and healing of all creation.

Let’s sing together this great hymn and prayer by Tom Troeger.
    HWB 31—
        Wind who makes all winds that blow . . .
            aim your breath with steady power
            on your church, this day, this hour.
            Raise, renew the life we’ve lost,
            Spirit God of Pentecost.

—Phil Kniss, May 24, 2015

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