Sunday, May 28, 2023

Paula Stoltzfus: Alive in the Spirit

The Spirit of Jesus binds us to each other
The Wind of God Blows New Life
Acts 2:1-4; Romans 8:14-39

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This morning we celebrate Pentecost, the indwelling of the spirit of God on the early believers of Jesus gathered.  An interesting fact about Pentecost. It is right around 50 days after Passover, Jesus’ death, and resurrection. This coincides with a Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the anniversary of the Jewish people receiving the Torah. So the early Jesus followers were celebrating Shavuot at the same time as the descent of the tongues of fire.  So for them, the gift of the Holy Spirit was in addition to the divine revelation of God’s presence given in the holy scriptures.

Paul’s letter written later to the Romans expounds on his belief of life in the Spirit, wide and expansive as it was. The Romans were a community mixed of Jews and Gentiles. Those that lived in the identity of God’s people and those that were “outside” of this identity.  This picture is of an identity that does not come from a spirit of slavery, bound by fear and indebtedness, but one of adoption, a place of belonging and freedom, communicating choice instead of election.

The familial imagery used here is one easily identified with. It is one based on relationship rather than by association. The church for me was that growing up.  Since our family lived at significant distance from our extended family, the church relationships became my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

Quite frankly, our family units are not always the ones in which we share things in common. We often choose with whom we have our close connections to share the depth of experience in life, from the joys to the present sufferings.

The believers in Rome knew of suffering.  The Jewish community knew well of the oppressive forces of Roman rule.

Paul acknowledges that life would not always go well.  There would be suffering. But suffering in the context of family and being a child of God allowed one's suffering to endure.  This alongside the image of family, placed Jew and Gentile together. The interconnectedness deepened.

This kind of intimate relationship anchors one’s identity.  There is a sense of belonging, a love that runs so deep that suffering, even though felt, lives into a hope that the suffering won’t last forever.

We live in a fractured world.  We are still grieving the losses of Covid and the reckoning that needs to happen with the -isms and phobia. Many that stem from fear. We are a changed people. And not only that, relationships, systems, countries, people groups, churches, and even creation itself is experiencing the brokenness which reaches as far back to the beginning with Adam and Eve’s separation through sin.

Paul works with this intimate relationship between humanity and creation. Humanity has subjected suffering onto creation.  Humanity experiences the death and decay of creation.  We not only suffer with one another. The creation itself suffers, groaning as in labor.

I find it fascinating that labor is Paul’s chosen descriptor as he himself would not have experienced labor first hand.  Maybe he heard labor stories or heard the cries of one in labor in the communities he grew up in and visited.  Nonetheless, it is an imagery that I appreciate as one who has endured labor.

Labor is intense.  There is a raw vulnerability that swells from the depths with great pain and intensity that can not be ignored. For me there was a piercing focus on breathing. It was only in focusing on the breath that I was able to get through the pain of one contraction after another.

Creation, subjected to the patterns of humanity has suffered as in labor.  Perhaps more severe weather patterns, glaciers melting at record rates, sea level rising, the poorest living in the lowest sea levels homes being threatened, rainforests being bulldozed to erect palm trees to feed the insatiable human appetite for palm oil, droughts increasing, floods threatening are the earth's contractions. Just when one disaster is addressed another occurs.  

But Paul doesn’t stop there. Not only creation, but we ourselves groan inwardly, waiting for our own redemption. The brokenness of creation, reflects our own brokenness. We experience cut off in our relationships, flooded by loneliness, bulldozed by business, surviving from one crises to another. Words become illusive. When the pain in our depths is so deep. When depression, sickness, or despair are so paralyzing. The Holy Spirit is present to intercede. Allowing our very breath to express what we cannot.

Our very breath.

What a gift. Our very breath carries what we cannot express to God! Breathe that in with me friends.

We are tempted to allow the demands of life take hold of our very breath, keeping us running this way and that, breathing shallowly and quickly to keep up with ourselves and others. When we stop and breathe deeply and slowly we live into a different invitation, one of the Spirit. The same Spirit that is present with the labor pains of creation is present with us, connecting all that is living.

There are more and more studies that show how time spent outdoors lowers heart rate, releases tension, reduces stress and cortisol levels. We have a symbiotic relationship with creation.  We take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.  The trees and green leafy plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen.  We experience its beauty. We soak in the sunshine. We absorb the nourishing rains. We need each other.  We share in the blessings and in the groans too deep for words.  

Paul seems to communicate that humanity is a part of setting creation free.  As we make courageous choices to care for creation, we in turn are cared for. Not only creation, but also our siblings in some of the most vulnerable places in the world, like the slums where Jugo and Grace live in Jakarta where the sea level rise threatens their communities existence. When we act individually and communally at curbing our carbon footprint, live sustainably, perhaps  even giving up something, we are caring for their humanity, as they are restored, we are restored.

Steven Charleston, author of Ladder to the Light, a member of the Choctaw Nation and an Episcopalian priest, describes it this way.  “The understanding of community, of kinship, in the spiritual tradition of Native America is vast and liberating…Community extends in a great circle around all of creation. It includes not only the tribe of the human beings, but many other tribes as well, both seen and unseen. All living things are a family, and that family is permeable. The vision of our renewal begins the moment we understand that creation is not all about us, but about life.” Later he says, “ Kinship means not conformity, but relationship - deep, spiritual relationship…It means being a nation without boundaries or hierarchies. It means being willing to take less so others may have more - not because it is the law, but because it is love.”

This love is what holds us when there is suffering. And Paul says as much. Suffering happens. But he makes it clear that suffering does not have the last word.  In God we have hope that redemption, restoration, and resurrection are the last words. He concludes this by saying that nothing can separate God from those who love Yahweh.

In a time when Roman rule was harsh. Paul lists off a number of ways that people would have suffered, offering assurance of God’s enduring love.

This message is not new. It harkens back to the Hebrew scriptures in the Psalms where the refrain, “God’s love endures forever.” Paul, having been steeped in the scriptures, continued the message. God’s infinite love is always present, ready to be received at any moment, even when the “feeling” is absent.

James Finley, a Christian psychotherapist, speaks about “the infinite love of God, the Holy, welling up, presence-ing itself and pouring itself out... This is the God-given, godly nature of every breath and heartbeat. It is the sun moving across the sky, our breathing in and breathing out, the miracle of being alive and real in the world.”

Our hope lies there, trusting that God’s love is with us and in us individually and communally, with creation, at all times, even when we don’t feel it.

How hard it is to live out our faith in those moments when absence is the predominant sensation and hope seems so small. We need lament and confession. We need each other.  We need our kinship of all beings. We need breathe.  We need the Holy Spirit to keep the life force within us all alive. Thanks be to God that we are promised this. God’s presence. Spirit Divine. One who holds us in love and never forsakes us. Amen. Alleluia!

Let us join together in confession as we also in faith breathe in the Holy Spirit inviting restoration.

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