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F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
Pentecost - 5/23/10
Numbers 11:16-29; Psalm 18:1-20; Acts 1:1-11; John 14:15-31
We know that in order to be God in the Biblical worldview, you must be two things. You must be both creator of all that is, and sovereign over all that is.
But in order to understand the gift of the Holy Spirit on Whitsunday or Pentecost, it is that power of creating that we want to focus on, the power to bring things into being, and to sustain their being. If you are a created being, you are dependent for your very existence on something outside yourself. All we creatures need something outside of ourselves, not only to have a good and productive life, but to exist at all. A very humbling realization.
Knowing that fact ought to generate in us that "fear of the Lord" so highly recommended in the Bible. Honest worship is the respect you properly pay to that being who holds you in the palm of His Hand. He, not you, decides the reason for your existence. We are given a freewill to say "yes" or "no", because God wants a free response from us, He wants us to return His love for us freely and joyfully.
But that arrangement puts us at risk if we should decide to reject His offer of communion and community. If we distance ourselves from Him, we erode our ability to be our real selves openly and safely, not only with Him, but with each other. In other words, we erode our own power of being ourselves. We get our ability to be only from Him, so rebellion is suicidal.
That is exactly what happens in the Fall. We, as it were, walk off the Hand of God, as though we could sustain ourselves by ourselves. It does not work, so that we and our relationships with one another begin immediately to erode and collapse -- illustrated by Adam and Eve, then by Cain and Abel, and then by most of the rest of human history -- mitigated only when God chose Abraham to begin the Hebrew community of revelation which would carry the law and grace of God into the world, the early beginnings of redemption .
We jump forward a few millennia to about 30 AD in Acts 1, where the disciples are gathered after the Resurrection. Jesus has called them to witness His ascension, His return to the Father. We celebrated the Ascension just ten days ago. Jesus had already told His disciples that they would receive a new kind of power which would change their lives, through what He called the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
This baptism of the Holy Spirit was not described by Jesus, except that it was contrasted to the baptism with water for the forgiveness of sins with which John the Baptist, and some of Jesusí own disciples, ministered to their Jewish people. But something deeper than water baptism was going to happen with this Baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus gives clues to the kind of power that this new baptism would bring. He says, "...you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth."
It will be a power which enables frightened disciples to be witnesses, boldly, even at the risk of their lives. On this day, some two millennia ago, the disciples were changed from frightened men to bold tellers of the story of Jesus. It was not that they never experienced fear. St. Paul tells of his trials and fears. There were fears, but there was a power greater than their fears which consistently led them to victory against the forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The world, the flesh, and the devil could not shut them up.
The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus delivering "all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage". "Death makes cowards of us all" says one of Shakespeareís characters. We fear extinction, nothingness. We fear the collapse of order and the chaos that can lead to death. That threat can make us compromise our personal integrity. We sometimes feel forced by fear of death (or the death of our self-respect) to violate our moral code and our deepest loyalties.
Unless.... we are secure in that power of being which God alone can give.
Jesus had that power to be Himself fully and openly in the face of those who were seeking His destruction. That power changed the first Christians -- who had learned how to die well so that they could live well. "Oh death, where is thy sting? The fear of death no longer controlled them.
Jesus told His disciples that He had the power to lay down His life and the power to pick it up again. Jesus had that power of being naturally. We can have it by adoption and grace, by the presence of God dwelling within and among us. That is the comfort with which Jesus wants to bless us. The early Christians, and many others after them, experienced this power of the Holy Spirit. There were renewals of faith, there were miracles happening among Christians, and still today.
But by the 1700ís, Enlightenment philosophers were boldly writing that Christianity was passť, that it had become a pro-forma religion, with lots of liturgy and theology, but with no real power. Miracles, they said, were no longer happening, and the power to change the lives of people seemed absent. They often thought that Biblical religion had passed on a good morality, but no substance in a real God who acted in history. The Church was in retreat because it had no credible answers to those challenges. The nurturing, sustaining, mothering power of the Holy Spirit was missing. God seemed no longer in our midst. He was distant and aloof, just a far-off law-giver, not an very present help in trouble.
In the spring of 1960, I stood outside the chapel at General Seminary in New York City, and felt a heavy weight of depression fall on me. As I looked around the world, I knew that the Soviet Union would fall -- because no tyranny can persist with deceit and force. It would end. But as I surveyed the West, I knew also that the West was spiritually dead, maybe on its last legs. Churches were well attended, but there was little spiritual life in them. It was a depressing picture. I was wondering in the back of my mind whether I should be ordained that coming summer. But the Lord said, "Donít worry, it is in the Church." I took that to mean that He would renew our lifeless Church, and so was ordained.
I went the following year to England to get my doctorate in the relation between science and theology, which was a glorious experience, bolstering again my belief that we Christians would win the intellectual battles. But I had no sure trust that we were winning the spiritual and emotional battles, or that we could recover our witness in the public arena. We, unlike 1st century Christians, had been very effectively shut down. We had virtually no public testimony. I knew that we could and should. But I too was inhibited about publicly proclaiming Jesus. Well, I was raised a proper Episcopalian. We did not do such things.
In 1964, I returned to an America in which God, two years before in 1962, had been dismissed as sovereign when prayer was declared illegal in government schools, followed by a meteoric rise in violent crime, sexual promiscuity, divorce, and a precipitous drop in education. Now the law, the fathering side of God, was declared dead. Only the pagan mother earth, Gaia, remained.
The Christian-inspired civil rights movement and the Democratic Party were being highjacked by radical socialists and crypto-communists in the 1960ís. And none of this, to this day, has been substantially reclaimed for sanity -- all with no effective response by American Christians. And Roe v. Wade was in the pipeline along with homosexuality.
Baptism of the Holy Spirit is often associated with the "charismatic renewal" of 1960ís & Ď70ís, with Holy Spirit movements in the early 1900ís, Amy Semple MacPherson in nearby Los Angeles, and with earlier Pentecostal movements at the time of the Reformation, not just with early New Testament times.
There have been periodic renewals of Christian faith in history, but few of them seemed to have vital staying power. For a few decades, there would be real miracles, and the lives of people were often dramatically changed.
The renewal of the 1960ís and Ď70ís came for me as a wonderful and welcome unfreezing of we staid Episcopalians, the "frozen chosen". Most of us could not pray out loud without a prayer book in our hands, and would have felt embarrassed and inadequate if asked to pray at a public gathering. In high school, I had several Christian friends who were Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian. I wondered why these people could talk about Jesus, and we Episcopalians could not. Our worship may have been orthodox and proper, but it was often lifeless.
During the 1970ís, I was the priest at St. Stephenís Church in a little town, East Haddam, CT, a parish which turned out to be a battle ground with many factions. I heard about parishes and ministries which seemed to be having a powerful renewal, including those things which happened in the early Church. I made a few visitations, took some parishioners with me, and we were surprised and elated that, yes, even in the Episcopal Church there were signs of life.
What, then, are we to make of this phenomenon in which persons appear to heal the sick, "speak in other tongues", as we read in the Epistle, and manifest other gifts of the Holy Spirit which seem unavailable, or even unwanted, to many if not most Christians, gifts which St. Paul describes in Ephesians 4?
The charismatic renewal flourished for about 20 years, and then began to wane. It ran into trouble in many parishes, causing unnecessary division and friction. And it seemed to focus itself primarily on things emotional, feeling-oriented, and lots of volume. We did not have those problems at St. Stephenís because we kept everything within the bounds of orthodox prayer book liturgy, and kept steadfastly to orthodox teaching and preaching, and because we had learned to a significant degree to live in the light with each other, to be open and free, and to hold each other accountable for our walk in Christ.
It was a beautiful and powerful experience, and I will at some appropriate time share more of that story.
Our Christian tradition, the faith of the Church, has, I believe, three main streams: reformed/evangelical, catholic, and charismatic. The true Church will be a blending of these three. Each has a special emphasis and gift to blend into the life of the Church, and each helps correct the other from excesses. Satan has masterfully employed the strategy of divide and conquer, so that these three streams more often are at odds with each other than part of a unified Church.
The evangelical/reformed tradition gives us the emphasis on the Bible and on evangelizing the world. The catholic (small Ďcí) tradition points us to the weight of tradition found tried and true through the test of time, going back to the foundations of the Bible and the Church Councils, and points us toward the orderly doing of things, "all things decently and in order". The catholic side also emphasizes the sacramental nature of our relationship with God and each other. And the charismatic tradition reminds us that the Holy Spirit did not die after the Great Church Councils, that God is alive and well with us today. It reminds us that Jesus Himself said that we, His disciples would be doing more mighty works than He had done, precisely because we would be filled, both individually and corporately, with the Holy Spirit of God.
A Church that would in both word and deed combine those three streams would be more than a match for anything the world, the flesh, or the devil could throw at us. The Great Commission was not given as a hopeless cause. It was given as a task which we were assigned to accomplish, not totally finish, but effectively make a difference in the world around us. We should be offering a live, workable opportunity to the world, yet Christians are hardly doing that today. The early Church did just that with the Roman Empire, and Christians should have continued doing that right up through history to the present time.
Obviously we have not. We are in nearly full retreat today in the West, which began as the stronghold of Christian civilization. All, or nearly all, the accomplishments of the West have come about because of the rise of Christian culture in the West -- including (1) the foundation of universities for a freemarket of ideas, the rise of science at those universities, and (2) the creation of a government limited in power because it was understood to be under the law and grace of God, leading directly to the founding of America.
We are losing all of those gifts from God as we continue to trash our Biblical heritage in the West. The West is disintegrating. The Church is for the most part oblivious, increasingly on the defensive, and increasingly compromising its orthodoxy to "get along with" the new world order of neo-paganism.
The renewal of Christendom in the West must bring together those three streams of our tradition, reformed/evangelical, catholic, and charismatic.
The charismatic renewal of modern times has lacked a solid theological foundation, and has drifted out of the stabilizing boundaries of liturgy and church authority, leading often to a free-wheeling emotionalism which runs dry very quickly and is almost impossible to pass on to the next generation.
But the substantial foundation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the ability to be ourselves as persons in the presence of God and of each other, and out there in the world of spiritual conflict.
All the other gifts of the Spirit make sense only in that context, working together with the reformed and catholic gifts from God. The gifts of the Spirit to which St. Paul refers are things we do in the service of God. But behind and undergirding those is our ability to be. God gives us a stability to be in Him -- so that we can effectively do for Him. Most charismatic renewals have jumped into doing before they got their being stabilized, and so spun off, often erratically.
The Anglican tradition, when it remains faithful to its heritage, is, I believe, the best situated of all Christian communities to begin leading the way toward the reunion of the Church of God -- because there has been an openness among Anglicans to keep exploring the possibilities, and at the same time sticking firmly to the basic traditions which make up the Body of Christ.
But it begins here at home. It begins in our individual homes, in our personal spiritual lives, living together freely and honestly, keeping the door open always to discussion of issues. As Fr. David Baumann at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament says, "No compromise of truth, no dilution of love." Truth and love are eternally wedded in God, and they must be with us also. We must be in this for the long haul, and at any cost which the Lord might ask us to pay.
Next Sunday is Trinity Sunday. Over the last few months, we have been celebrating the Church Year through its high point in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, and on through the 40 days with Jesus, the Ascension, right up to today, the Birthday of the Church, with the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Trinity Sunday is the summation of all that in the very nature of the Triune God. This progression has all been leading to our life being drawn into the life of God, who is one God in three persons.
Today in -- preparation for Trinity Sunday -- we celebrate God making available to us the power which overcomes death, our ability to stand once again on the Hand of God, receiving our being from God Himself, removing our stability from attack and destruction by the world, the flesh, or the devil. We will be spending many Sunday looking at how that can happen among us.
Heavenly Father, here we are, nearing the end of the story of the formation of the Good News for we human beings, getting ready once again in our Church Year Cycle, to take on that challenge for ourselves, to become well-equipped sons and daughters of You to bring the spiritual war back onto enemy ground, to retake that ground for You and Your Kingdom. Keep us steady and on course.... In the name of Jesus Christ, and in the Power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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