Sunday, May 15, 2016

Phil Kniss: The rearranged life

Pentecost: The Spirit Transforms
Acts 2:1-21; John 14:12-17

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Full disclosure, before I launch into this Pentecost sermon . . .
    This is not my favorite day in the Christian calendar.

Of all the Christian holy days,
    Pentecost is not one
        I always look forward to with joy and an open heart.

Advent and Christmas? Certainly. Always.
Lent and Easter? By all means.
Even the darker days in the Christian calendar,
    like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday,
    are compelling to me, and have a natural appeal.
    Their goodness is immediately apparent.
    Their themes of forgiveness, reconciliation,
        hope and resurrection in the face of suffering!
    Who doesn’t welcome all that?

Not so, Pentecost.
    Pentecost, I have decided, is not for the faint of heart.
    And sometimes, I admit, I’m a little faint of heart.

Pentecost is not for those who want their Christian faith
    to always be a comfort,
    to always have their way of seeing things be reinforced,
    their way of living supported,
    their priorities underwritten,
    their agenda signed off on.

Pentecost is a day that can only be fully embraced
    by Christians who are ready to have their lives rearranged.

If we are going to take the work of the Holy Spirit seriously
    (and I think we should),
    then hang on for dear life!
    Our lives are about to be rearranged.

Now, if you resist this idea, I don’t blame you.
    As I said, that’s my posture, 99% of the time.
    I confess, when it comes to the Spirit,
        much of the time I’m in the resistance mode.
    No, I don’t deliberately say to the Spirit, “Get lost”
        I don’t consciously choose to say “no.”
        It’s just that I spend a good deal of energy and time
            arranging my life.
        Why would I want someone outside of my control
            to re-arrange my life, according to their liking?

Well, I’m about to help us explore that together,
    to help convince you, and convince me, for that matter,
    that we ought to submit our lives for rearranging.
    To do that, we need to examine what the Holy Spirit’s job is,
        the job given to the Spirit by the Triune God.

But before I do that,
    let me give you something to do.
    Listen to the Spirit, as you are listening to me.
    Ponder this question,
        as your mind moves back and forth
        between my words and your thoughts.
    Ask yourself if there has been a time
        when your life was rearranged,
            transformed by the Holy Spirit.

Maybe you didn’t know it at the time,
    but looking back, you can see the Spirit of God,
        the breath of God,
    breathing into you new life, transformed life, rearranged life.

A few of you will have a chance to share that experience with us.
    Because I’m going to invite you to do so,
        at the end of my sermon, as the Spirit leads.
    I’ll invite you to give brief testimony,
        about how the Spirit rearranged
        your thinking, your commitments, your relationships, your life.

So what does transformation by the Holy Spirit look like?
    How can you tell it’s the Spirit?
    Obviously, each story will be different.
    The Holy Spirit’s work is, by necessity,
        shaped by the context, culture, occasion, and person.

    Clearly, the events in Acts 2 are particular
        to what needed to happen in that context,
        as thousands of Jews gathered from around the world
            for a religious festival,
            right after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
        The Spirit enabled Peter’s sermon
            about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection,
            to be heard in everyone’s native language.
        And the Spirit gave them all a convincing experience,
            of seeing flames and hearing wind.

        Throughout the book of Acts,
            there were many different manifestations of the Spirit,
            each one suited to the context and people.

    Today, the Spirit is still at work.
    But we know a movement of the Spirit in an East African village,
        looks different than it does in an Amish community,
            or on the streets of Chicago,
            or in the halls of Congress.
        If the Spirit is the continuing presence of God among us,
            then God is in all of those places, and more.
            But the manifestations will be different.

    But I wonder, is there still a defining characteristic . . .
        a common thread that runs through
            everything the Spirit does,
            everywhere the Spirit shows up?
        Is there an identifying mark that will help us attribute
            some activity to the Holy Spirit,
            or are we completely on our own to decide?
        If it feels like the Spirit, do we just call it the Spirit,
            and leave it at that?

    Well, let me assert, there is an identifying mark.
        We aren’t left entirely on our own to decide,
            or to make it up as we go along.
        We are given a framework.
    Yes, it still requires a lot of discernment,
        and we won’t always agree
            whether a new revelation was the work of the Holy Spirit,
            or something we ate.

    But Jesus himself gives us some important insight
        when it comes to properly discerning the Spirit.
    And it comes from a text that we often misread, from John 14,
        where Jesus promises to send the Spirit, as an Advocate.
        We mistakenly read that to mean
            the Spirit is coming to Advocate on our behalf,
            to be on our side, our loyal sidekick.

        No, Jesus says to his disciples—
            these persons he’s been walking with daily,
            training for life in the Kingdom,
            he says to them,
                don’t worry about my absence,
                don’t be afraid you’re going to forget what I taught you.
            I will send one who will be my Advocate,
                who will represent the Kingdom and its values.

        The word Advocate here, is the same word as “lawyer.”
        The Spirit is standing in for Jesus.
            That is the Spirit’s one, and only, mission.
            The Spirit is an attorney, so to speak.
                And the client is God.
            The Spirit will always speak up for, and represent,
                the purposes of God as lived and taught by Jesus.

        Somewhere we got the notion that the Spirit
            is always on our side,
            to give us power to do what we wanted to do already.
        No, the Spirit is not our private spiritual battery pack.
            The Spirit is not our unconditional cheerleader.
        As often as the Spirit might comfort us,
            just as often, and more, the Spirit is apt to confront us.

        Every time we start distorting Jesus’ message
            and slap a Christian label on it,
            the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ attorney, will stand up in court,
                and say, “Objection!”

So that’s one identifying mark of the Spirit.
    What the Spirit does, will look like what Jesus did.
    What the Spirit says, will sound like what Jesus said.
    The Spirit’s work will be in perfect alignment
        with the priorities of God
        revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus.
    If some movement or person departs from the way of Jesus,
        and claims the backing of the Holy Spirit,
        we have good reason to doubt them.

The other point I’d like to lift up here
    is about transformation itself.
    It’s not superficial.
    Transformation doesn’t just mean we become better people—
        a little nicer, kinder, more spiritually aware.
    Transformation means our lives get rearranged.

One of the enduring metaphors of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit
    is the flame.
    It’s what the disciples and the crowds observed in Acts 2.
    Flames appeared to dance on their heads.

Fire rearranges things.
    Fire doesn’t really destroy physical matter.
        It transforms it.
        It rearranges it.
        It forces a radical chemical change.
    The heat of fire changes the molecular structure
        of whatever is burning.
    Molecules are set free of old bonds, and make new bonds.
    Molecules making up the wood or fiber or what have you,
        are transformed into molecules of
            carbon, water, oxygen, hydrogen,
            and other stuff I never learned about in chemistry.

That’s what Holy Spirit transformation does to our lives.
    The Spirit won’t destroy our lives.
    But the Spirit will rearrange us.
        Perhaps radically, entirely, rearrange us.

Spirit transformation is not to be taken lightly.
    It can have all sorts of unintended side effects.
    It can undo what we formerly thought to be true
        about ourselves, about God, about the world.
    It can result in a heightened state of chaos and confusion,
        as those things we used to cling to,
        start crumbling around us.
    It can result in significant loss—
        loss of job security, loss of some relationships,
        loss of identity, loss of order, loss of income.
    For our Anabaptist ancestors,
        and many other Christians throughout history,
        and even today,
        it can result in loss of life.

This is why I approach Pentecost with as much fear and trepidation,
    as I do joyful anticipation.
    It’s a real challenge for me to have an entirely open heart,
        when thinking about what it might mean,
        to submit my life to the Spirit for transformation.

And I imagine that’s true for most of us.
    We all have our own transformation stories,
        our stories of a time when our lives were rearranged.
    And when we were in the middle of it all, it was pretty unsettling.
        Maybe our way of thinking was rearranged.
        Maybe our beliefs and convictions were rearranged.
        Maybe our lifestyle and behaviors were rearranged.
        Maybe our community was rearranged,
            our whole network of relationships transformed.

Looking back on my life, there were a couple times
    when the future I thought I could see got rearranged.

    When we were a family of three,
        new parents in our 20s, and a babe in arms,
        we moved to Gainesville, Florida as church planters,
            without a paying job in hand.
        That was not the plan we mapped out.
        It required immense risk-taking,
            and often-repeated efforts to submit our future to God.
        But looking back, Irene and I both see the Spirit at work
            transforming us,
            turning our chaos and uncertainty and loss,
                into a richer form of life.

    I also think about my decision
        to start Doctor of Ministry studies 12 years ago,
        when all three of our children were in college the same year.
        It was a costly decision in many ways.
            And there were times I wondered if the Spirit was in it.
            But it transformed the way
                I thought about my calling as a pastor,
                and thought about the church and the world.
            My life and ministry were rearranged.
            Had the Spirit not transformed me through that,
                I doubt I would still be your pastor today.

Now, as I hinted at earlier,
    I’m going to go against my nature,
    which is to carefully arrange just about everything,
    and I’m going to pick up this microphone,
        and walk around the sanctuary.

You just heard me give two stories,
    about two sentences each,
        where I can now see, looking back,
        that the Holy Spirit rearranged my life,
            transformed my way of thinking,
                my way of being.

I know there are countless stories like that,
    represented in this sanctuary full of people.

Passing around the mike
    is more risk than I’m used to taking in a sermon.
    Maybe no one will say anything. Awkward!
    Maybe someone will want to say too much.
        But I trust you can monitor yourselves,
            and keep your stories brief and to the point,
            so more people can make a contribution.

I am inviting you, in the space of a few short sentences,
    to give testimony to a time when your life was rearranged—
        when your thinking was transformed,
            your commitments
            your lifestyle
            your actions were transformed,
        and you can now attribute that to the Holy Spirit.

It might have been triggered by a momentous earthshaking event,
    or by one brief conversation.
    But whatever started it,
        the Holy Spirit made it into something more.

What are your testimonies?
So I don’t have to run back and forth,
    I’m going to start here on the west side,
        and gradually move across.

Now many of you had stories you didn’t tell.
    Some of you have stories you are in the middle of.
    We now give you opportunity to share those without words.
        Come and light a candle at one of these four stations,
            and return to your seat.
    By that simple act of bringing flame to candle,
        in itself a physical transformation of the wax,
        you are symbolically bringing your transformation story
            into this space,
            before God, and before this community,
            and inviting the Holy Spirit to do its work.
    Come, now, as John provides some music for contemplation.

—Phil Kniss, May 15, 2016

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