A sermon for Pentecost, May 15, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Today is the feast of Pentecost when the church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. One version of that is the story in our lesson from the book of Acts. The Spirit alights on the apostles like tongues of fire and they are understood by everyone in their own languages, while the apostles preach the Gospel. But the coming of the Holy Spirit is not just about a dramatic public event of evangelism. The Holy Spirit has always been regarded by the church as the presence of God, enlivening and guiding it. But we are like Philip—we can’t see it, even when it is standing there staring us in the face: “Lord, show us the Father.” “How long have you been with me Philip, and you still cannot see me?” Jesus answered him. “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
This is the promise and the reality of Jesus to us, to all of us. But there is no cause to be complacent about that, or to pat ourselves on the back, or to think that God abiding in us makes us or our decisions better than anyone else’s. The World, pre-occupied in serving self, cannot receive the Spirit because it does not see or know him—too often the Church paradoxically becomes that World, pre-occupied with fears and schemes, rather than the courage and love of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the Spirit does guide us, in our weakness and our blindness.
St. Paul says this, just a few verses later in his letter to the Romans following our epistle lesson for today: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sights to deep for words.” The Holy Spirit is not something superficial, nor is it something emotional; rather it is the power of God among us, between us and within each of us, guiding and healing us in his love.
The passage appointed from this same chapter today starts: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” I’ve been recently reading a couple of very good books about the Roman Empire. In one by Mary Beard [called SPQR] which has little to do with religion and almost nothing about Christianity, it is clear that everyone in the Roman Empire at this time was very familiar with slavery and with adoption. The economy of the empire was based on slavery, from the lowest and harshest of menial labor in the mines to very high functionaries in the households of the wealthiest aristocrats.
Wealth and comfort for the owners proceeded from the work of the slaves, yet they counted as nothing, they were regarded as invisible and of little or no worth. Any slave could be beaten or even killed, without the master having to even explain. Many early Christians were slaves and a substantial number of other Christians at the same time were owners of slaves. Everyone intimately understood the fear that dominated the lives of the slaves. Jesus, described himself as a slave to all—a most extraordinarily radical thing. Equally radical was that the church asserted that they followed this man, and honored him as God.
Adoption was also common in the Roman Empire, though not nearly as many people were adopted as were slaves. Many Roman emperors were the adopted sons of the previous emperor. If a man of wealth and property did not have a son who he judged satisfactory to be his heir, he would choose someone to adopt as his son. Today, wealth is more often handled through corporations that have complicated succession plans. In the Roman Empire being adopted was a typical succession plan—those who were adopted achieved higher status and security than they had had previously.
So St. Paul says, “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” The Holy Spirit, which the church receives on Pentecost takes us out of fear and slavery through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And not only that, every one of us is now adopted, not by a wealthy landowner, or by a Roman Emperor, but by the God who created heaven and earth. When we boldly and audaciously sing, “Our Father…” at the breaking of the bread, that Holy Spirit is bearing witness “with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” as St. Paul says. And he continues, “If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Suffering is indeed real, we can expect it, and the Holy Spirit enables us to face it squarely–without fear.
We are glorified with God as we live for others. We know the blessing of Christ’s presence through being generous and welcoming. We know God by looking Jesus in the face.
As it says in today’s psalm:
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them
all’ the earth is full of your creatures.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in all his works.
He looks at the earth and it trembles; he touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will praise my God while I have my being.
May these words of mine please him;
I will rejoice in the Lord.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.