The reason it takes us all is that the gift of faith is experienced so differently by each one of us. God speaks differently to each person – and what resonates in the heart of one person may not resonate in the heart of another – but the difference doesn’t make it any less true, or any less God and Spirit sent.
Sermon by Rev. Jenny Carter
June 11, 2017
Based on Acts 2:1-13
The story of Pentecost, the story where we remember what happened that day in Jerusalem all those centuries ago, where the Holy Spirit came like a mighty wind and in a burning like fire, has been called many things. It has been called the birth of the Christian church, because people heard how they were to be as a people; and as a gathered community which sought to make sense of God’s ways. It has been called a miracle – because people from different countries, different language groups, and different cultures – could hear and understand the message of the good news of Jesus Christ preached by a bunch of Galilean fishermen, as if they were speaking in a language other than their own. It has been called a pouring out of spirit, since everyone who was there felt the Spirit move in their hearts, and let it change their lives.
Pentecost is, of course, all those things. It was a birth, miracle and an out pouring of Spirit, and it changed everything. Just like a mighty wind can flatten trees, and fire can consume structures and anything standing in its way, the Holy Spirit came: a wild, unpredictable and unprecedented out pouring of divine power, which obliterated the barriers that we humans have inherited and tend to believe important. The Spirit was poured out and the boundaries that existed between slave and free, rich and poor, Cretan and Roman, Jewish and Gentile, all different cultures, different places in the social order, different languages spoken – all over come – making hearing and understanding one another possible.
This is a story about the Spirit being revealed and the unleashing of divine power. It’s a big story. It’s a powerful story. Pentecost, you see, is not an event of mere history. It is, in fact, the story of our very lives. That somehow faith, that deep sense of knowing or that corner of our hearts, where we cannot help but be hope filled – that sense where we know we belong and have a God given role to play in this world – where love of enemies and care of neighbours becomes habit – where forgiveness becomes precious – and where joy overflows – is given birth somewhere deep within us.
We call that the gift of faith, and that is Pentecost. That birth of faith, that deep sense of knowing is what happened then, and is what has happened to all of us here. You see, we know. Somehow and somewhere deep inside of us we know that there is a power in and among us – and it’s God.
And not a tame God either – but a wild one. One that cannot be contained or tamed or reduced to one people, one way of worshipping, one way of thinking, or even one way of experiencing the divine. Our God, comes like a mighty wind, and like the burning of a fire seeks to change everything, to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary – one heart, one person, and one community at a time.
That is Pentecost.
Just like at that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit still comes in powerful ways but having all the answers to everything is not part of the Pentecostal gift of Spirit. Peter and those with him didn’t have all the answers about how exactly they were to live into God’s future. They didn’t really have a clue. Like us, they were susceptible to errors and they had to rely on each other to help them make sense of God’s ways. We do too. If you’ve ever wondered why our faith is so reliant on gathering together, why communal worship is important, and why we need to have deeper conversations with one another, it’s because of this. We need one another if we are to make sense of God’s ways. Make sense of how God is moving in our lives as individuals, and how the Spirit is moving us as a community. Discerning of Spirit is a communal activity, not a solo one.
While having all the answers is not a Pentecostal Spirit gift – faith is. Every Sunday as I stand up here and look out at all of you I see the gift of faith. Each one of you has that gift. Each one of us has that deep place within our hearts, our souls, where we feel God deeply, and so we have come together to help each other make sense of God’s ways, as we seek to follow in ways that make sense. Which is not always a smooth process. On the contrary, it is choppy, wild, and inspired work – and it takes us all.
The reason it takes us all is that the gift of faith is experienced so differently by each one of us. God speaks differently to each person – and what resonates in the heart of one person may not resonate in the heart of another – but the difference doesn’t make it any less true, or any less God and Spirit sent. In fact, it is these differences, when shared without shyness and without judgement, which actually ignite and release the Spirit fire that can transform our lives. These differences help us understand all of the ways God is at work, which makes following God’s ways that much easier.
The theme of the recent General Meeting of BC Conference was “How Big is our Tent?” A rather benign title for a provocative theme. A theme where we were all encouraged to think about the faith of those who share the “tent,” or our denomination and church with us. The theme presenter, Janet Gear, a professor at Vancouver School of Theology, spoke about how the gift of faith – that Pentecost gift – is experienced differently by people, but how when we come together and share from the deepest places of our hearts of faith, the Spirit among us is unleashed.
I was very moved by her presentation. She reminded me that the way we speak about God, our theology if you will, is always secondary to that deeper place within us – our faith place. Faith comes first, and then theology or our attempt to communicate the meaning we receive from our faith, comes second. She reminded me that in the United Church we have one church, one set of doctrines, but we have a variety of theologies – all seeking to add colour and texture and understanding to the ways God is at work through Spirit in our church. She reminded me that the purpose of gathering as a community of faith is not seeking conformity in theology, but seeking unity in the Spirit so that the Spirit can be about Spirit work. She reminded me that difference among theologies is not something to be avoided or argued about, but something to be embraced because it reveals God’s ways, and how we can live in to those ways.
So, faith is deeper and comes first – then comes theology. But theology is not unimportant (which is a relief because I’ve dedicated a large part of my heart and life to its pursuit!). Theology gives us a language through which we can articulate our faith. Theology is the voice of our faith that tells us how God works in the world, what that divine work looks like, what our role in it is, and what gift that is for the world. That’s the other thing about theology – we Christians give theological meaning to things – not for our own sake, but for the world’s. We exist for the benefit of others, not just our own.
In her research, Janet has determined that there are five main theologies shared by clergy and lay people in the United Church: evangelical, ecclesial, missional, ecumenical and spiritual. As I look around this room, I know that she is right. We have these theologies, or streams as she calls them, here.
We have evangelicals who speak about God’s saving action through Jesus, so that there might be new life for the believer. We have ecclesial folk, who speak about being a part of Christ’s body – the church – where we seek to become communities of love and grace that serve the world. We have missional people, who see clearly that the purpose of church is to serve our neighbours in need whether they live down the street or on the other side of the planet. We have ecumenical people, who know from their deepest hearts that the divine summons is to radical social transformation, and so they join efforts to bring peace and justice to the world. And we have spiritual people who know that God is at work in creation, and God is both transcendent (or beyond us) as well as in the very fabric of our souls and so their spiritual path is about personal and social awakening to the truth of God among us.
You see how beautiful we are here at First? God has spoken to us in a variety of ways – all colourful, all life giving. Now we need to find ways to speak to one another in deep and honest ways, so that the Spirit might be unleashed in our own lives and community.
Over the next five weeks we will be exploring each stream more fully. My hope is that we will come to a new appreciation of not only how God works, but how the Spirit is alive and among us through the faith of those who share the pew with us – so that we might be able to answer, when all is said and done, that our tent is indeed very big. It’s big, and roomy, and beautiful, and Spirit filled.
May it be so in your life and in mine.