The Holy Spirit for a Dispirited People: “Kindle in Us the Fire of Your Love"The Bishop's Blog
A sermon preached by Bishop Ken Carter on the Day of Pentecost, June 23, 2021, at First United Methodist Church in Winter Park, Florida
The Hebrew word for spirit, ruach, can also be translated “breath” or “wind.” So I want to stay there for a moment. You and I have come through an extraordinary time in human history. First a global health crisis, transmitted by particles that we exhale and inhale. And so the outward and visible sign of all of this has been a mask. And, if you are less fortunate, a ventilator. Today I lift up my brother, Bishop Daniel Arichea of the Philippines, who is in intensive care with COVID.
We live in a dispiriting time.
Then, in the midst of a global health crisis, George Floyd is killed, recorded for all of the world to see, and his last words are, “I can’t breathe”.
We are living in a dispiriting time. And so you and I find ourselves here, today, on the day of Pentecost, the big day in which we take notice of the Holy Spirit.
A word about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was present in creation, moving over the face of the waters. The Holy Spirit was present in the lives of the prophets: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me”, Isaiah voiced, “and has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the captives, to announce that this is the year of the Lord”. Jesus read from these words in his very first public sermon, in Capernaum (Luke 4).
The Holy Spirit was present in the form of a dove as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. When Jesus began to explain what his departure would mean for the disciples, he told them that he would not really be leaving them, his spirit, the comforter, the advocate, would be present (John 14).
This promise finds its greatest fulfillment on the day of Pentecost. In the first chapter of Acts we hear the words of Jesus, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and this becomes a reality today. Pentecost occurred, not accidentally, on Shavuot, one of the three major festivals of Judaism, which occurred 50 days after the Feast of First Fruits. It was a remembrance of Moses at Mount Sinai, reading the law seven weeks after their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. And so it is a celebration of a spring harvest and the giving of the commandments.
According to Jewish law, every male was required to come to Jerusalem with an offering. And so on this day, the faithful were gathered from every nation; the miracle is not that they speak in tongues, but that each one understands in their own native language, languages they have learned while living in exile, after the disintegration of the Kingdom of David and the destruction of the temple.
A dispirited people were re-assembled, just as we shall be, when they came together on this day (Acts 2).
Let us be clear, there is no life, no life in faith, without Pentecost, without the Holy Spirit. The spirit, given on Pentecost, is most fully present in profession of faith (1 Corinthians 12), but prior to this in baptism, and later through participation in the church and the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14). The Spirit always comes as a gift (John 3) and is always expressed for the good of others (1 Cor 12), especially for the body of Christ (Ephesians 4).
This is some of the background in understanding the Holy Spirit, and yet it is true that there is a great deal of confusion on this subject. Once we get a sense of what the Holy Spirit actually is, we may wonder how this relates to us, if at all.
We may think people have the Holy Spirit if they speak in tongues, in the sense of the charismatic churches, or if there is a demonstrably intense emotional reality. Maybe this does not describe us either. I have always been a fan of Phil Jackson the basketball coach. I was reminded of reading his autobiography years ago, as a boy he grew up as the child of two parents who were Pentecostal preachers, and he never had that experience of glossalia, speaking in tongues. He wondered: “Is something wrong with me?”
Or we may think the Holy Spirit is given to those who are always doing spiritual things, going on retreats, meeting for prayer, using religious language: “God helped me to select this gift for a friend, God opened up this parking place for me uptown, God got me this promotion at work, God gave me just the right word to say.” And you may think, “this is not me.”
We may think people who have the Holy Spirit are folks who seem to embody the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5), loving people, joyous people, peaceful people, patient people. On some days we don’t feel so holy or spiritual in these senses.
In other words, is the Holy Spirit relevant to you and me?
So hear me. This is a turning point in the whole history of God’s relationship with us. On the day of Pentecost, on Shavuot, in Jerusalem, they are all together in one place. I have been to Jerusalem several times and one of those happened to be on Pentecost. We had visited the Upper Room, where Jesus had told the disciples to gather. We walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the burial site of Jesus. It was Sunday morning, about 10 o’clock. It was the intersection of holy time and holy space.
Churches across the centuries have contested their right to this holy ground. Now we can all be territorial about our spaces, and that might be your favorite chair at home or your Sunday School classroom, but these folks have the territorial instinct down to a sacred art. And so along comes a processional choir singing Russian music, followed by a monk dressed in his habit, with the longest flowing beard I have ever seen. Then a group of Ethiopian Christians, their beautiful black faces in contrast, just behind them, dancing with joy. As they are entering, a group of Roman Catholics is departing, chanting the liturgy in Latin. Waiting in the wings, oblivious to all of these other groups, are the Coptic Christians, who actually think they have the true claim to this space.
It was truly multi-sensory---the smell of incense, the brightness of colors, the brilliant light of a flame, the roar of sounds, all of these different languages, none of which I understood. On one level, it was chaos. And yet, underneath it all I got it, completely. The spirit was undeniably present in the power and mystery and chaos of the moment. That day I became a Pentecostal!
On this, the day of Pentecost, we are all together in one place. And we repeat the words of the communion liturgy
Pour out your holy spirit on us, gathered here.
Why do we say these words? Outwardly, it might seem that everything is in good order. But inwardly, because we are human beings, we have struggles, we have questions, inwardly there is disorder and confusion and exhaustion.
We are dispirited.
The good news—to a dispirited people, God comes. As a young adult, I learned to pray these words:
Come Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your love.
In the 4th century the church elders got together and reflected on what this faith meant, and they sensed a greater need to define the Holy Spirit. Now, in a way that is humorous, and perhaps God sat in the heavens and laughed. But they worked at it, and one of the sentences from the creed, in Nicea, stands out:
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.”
So in the middle of February the phone rang and the voice on the end said, “I am calling from the hospital and would like to ask if you would receive the Vaccine?”
And I responded, “Yes”. My name had come up on the list. We made the appointment.
I went to the auditorium of the hospital. I signed in, my named was called, I rolled up my sleeve, I took the shot.
“Go sit over there for fifteen minutes”, the nurse then said in a calm voice, “and then you can leave”.
And so I did. I sat there and all was quiet, people going about the task. I thought of loss in my own family, and with friends. I reflect on the many ways many have suffered. I gave thank for the gift of life. For the research that went into this gift. United Methodists draw upon scripture, tradition, reason and experience. I gave thanks for the reason of scientists that had led to this moment. It was like an experience of the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. The auditorium became for me a sanctuary.
I felt a connection to God and to every person in that room.
Listen to the words from our communion prayer again:
Pour out your spirit on us, gathered here.
I realize that we/I have made the mistake of seeing the Holy Spirit as being about an individual, me, what happens inside me.
But we do pray, pour out your Holy Spirit on us, gathered here. On the day of Pentecost, the fire of the Holy Spirit came when they are all assembled together.
There is no holiness but social holiness, John Wesley said, which means, I can’t be holy without you and you can’t be holy without me.
I am coming to the conviction that holy people are marked by a collective responsibility for others, and especially the most vulnerable. And this is who we are, as the church of the cross and the flame.
Over the last 10 years, the Florida Conference has channeled $14 Million in equitable compensation funds to clergy and local churches. This is collective responsibility. This is holiness and righteousness. This is equity. Without this, we do not reflect the image of God, who has created us all in our differences. Think about what the people actually looked like on the day of Pentecost!
Over the past 12 months, United Methodists in Florida have shared five million meals with our hungry neighbors. Our first goal was one million, then three million meals. That is holiness and righteousness.
Over the past generation, over 10,000 children and youth have been to our summer camps, most of them at Warren Willis Camp in Leesburg, where they learned about Jesus and found a safe place to take the next step in faith. That is holiness and righteousness.
And all of this is our collective responsibility.
In his reflection on the question, "Am I my brother's or sister's keeper?", Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks of responsibility as righteousness. And then he speaks of Noah (who built the ark) as "a righteous man in a fur coat", noting that "there are two ways of keeping warm on a cold night. You can wear a fur coat, or light a fire. Wear a fur coat and you warm only yourself. Light a fire and you warm others. We are supposed to light a fire.”
In our connection, we light a fire.
- $14 Million in equitable compensation funds is a fire.
- 5 Million Meals through Fill the Table in a pandemic is a fire.
- 10,000 young people, becoming disciples of Jesus Christ is a fire.
And I know enough about First United Methodist Church in Winter Park that you have started fires—digging wells, shelter in the homeless, sharing the gospel from generation to generation, starting a counseling center as mental health is in peril, post-pandemic.
Even in the Sunshine State, it can be a cold world!
So this is the altar call. I shared what I was preparing in this sermon with a few friends and one engaged me. His name is Brian, and he said, “I am a graduate of Morehouse College. We have been rooted in the image of a candle in the dark. There are many dark rooms we find ourselves in but no matter how dark, it takes only a single candle lit to provide light enough to navigate the darkness. We will need such a light now.“
What does it mean for you and me to have an experience of the Holy Spirit today. Whoever we are, wherever we are, we can be people of a warm heart, people of the cross and the flame. Which means, we have a collective responsibility for each other. This is how you are teaching me to be holy and righteous. And this is the continuing United Methodist Church that I serve and love.
This is why we are together, on the Day of Pentecost.
Pour out your holy spirit on us, gathered here, O God.
Kindle in us the fire of your love.
Fill our dis-spirited lives.
And use us to light a fire. Amen!
Sources: Jonathan Sacks, Lessons in Leadership. Thomas Langford, “The Holy Spirit and Sanctification: Refinding the Lost Image of Creation”, in Dow Kirkpatrick, The Holy Spirit. Brian Tillman’s reflection on Morehouse College.