After the Spirit
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019
“Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.”
A SHIP at sea caught in a violent storm strains to see a light from shore, the friendly beam of a lighthouse, showing the way to safe harbor. An airplane flying over thick clouds relies on its avionics, telling the pilot where he is, where to find the nearest airport, and relays to ground control his position. It’s a life and death matter to follow the correct guidance in our lives. Follow the wrong light, the wrong direction, and you’re headed for destruction.
The people of Germany elected a new chancellor in 1933 who soon claimed ultimate rulership to lead his fatherland back to glory after the Great War left its fortunes in ruins. Adolf Hitler earned the title of history’s most evil dictator half a decade before I was born. He led his people into total war against the entire world and into shameful ethnic cleansing programs that killed untold millions.
An American religious figure, Jim Jones, led a zealous group he called The People’s Temple through several California cities until they finally settled in Guyana, South America, where perversion, drugs and insanity caused him to lead the entire compound into suicide. Over 900 people drank the Kool Aid he had laced with cyanide.
We are social animals. We want to join something, to follow a leader, to learn from others where we’re supposed to go. A person who is critically vulnerable for joining a cult or following a dictator is one who is displaced, socially outcast, recently separated from a former vital relationship. The need to reconnect, to commit oneself to an inspirational leader, may give false hope to such displaced people, only to find themselves trapped in a horror movie of their own.
We’ve heard the term “community organizer” in recent years. Some politicians rose from such a profession. But what is it? In the main, a community organizer is a leftist who causes people to feel displaced and in need of new leadership, and are taught to overthrow the present government, to break the nation and rise bravely under a new order. Be careful of that misleading term “community organizer.”
Some political or religious cults use a form of mind control that goes like this: I get invited to your special place—a ranch, a center, a home—for dinner and a celebration. At this event, people in the group meet me and tell me how much they like me. They feel I would fit in here, that I have all the qualities they have been seeking. The food is good, the folks are friendly, feelings are high. I get invited back. Now they tell some of the secrets of their group, hinting there’s more to learn. I start picking up the language of the group, coded words and phrases which seem to mean more than I can understand, and I’m curious about it. I ask, and I’m told this is sacred, but they’ll let me in on some of it.
The explanation baffles me. I learn things that make no sense at all. Their vision of the world, the leader, how things work challenges logic, defies my sense of reality. And now I have a choice to make. Do I leave this group of new-found friends who love me so dearly, because I can’t accept their strangely expressed truths in coded words, or do I join them and direct my own mental objections to be silent? If I stay, I must use the code words, accept the in-group language, and believe it, unthinking. The minute I open my mouth to utter the magic words, my mind shuts off and I stop thinking about it at all.
Now, that’s classic cultic mind-control. Nobody took me into a little room with flashing lights, no one hypnotized me. I turned my brain off in order to be accepted, because I needed to connect with this group. When we are led by such people, and by our lower instincts because of our needs, we can often falter, and the results are disastrous.
It doesn’t take a cult or an inspiring dictator to steer us wrong. When we are baptized, we renounce three common sources of temptation. Temptation is simply a word for being led the wrong way, and the world, the flesh and the devil are identified as sources of guidance we should leave alone.
The world is the term we use to mean all mankind that follows such social constructs as commercial greed and warlike arrogance. The world is the media, Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and most of the political apparatus.
The devil is an often-cartoonish concept of spiritual evil and alien guidance toward our ruin. People in red suits and horns at Halloween make fun of fallen angels, but this characterization is itself laughable. In truth we are caught in a matrix of spiritual guidance from above and below, and most of the time we have no idea we’re being led by light or darkness. With luck, and the grace of God, we may survive our encounters with the evil one. His tricks eventually become apparent to us if we learn and understand God’s truth. The devil’s main weapon is deception.
But there is an enemy inside us who is neither the world of fallen men nor the underworld of fallen angels. He is a part of ourselves called the flesh. As fallen human beings, we rise in Baptism to new life. But God allows a portion of our sinful tendency to remain in us so that we can know good and evil still. You can’t unlearn a former lesson: it’s the embarrassing tattoo of the lost garden world in each of us. Now we know good and evil by experience, and our flesh, that part of us that lives for pleasure pulls us toward things we shouldn’t do or have. I guess I don’t need to describe your temptations to you: you know them well enough.
So, what are we to do? We are that ship on raging seas, that plane tossed in wind currents above thick cloud cover, seeking sight of land. We want to choose a leader, follow a faith, be part of a loving enclave. How are we to be led?
St. Paul had a tiff with his church plant in Galatia. These gentiles had accepted the freedom of following Jesus, being brought into His kingdom, loving one another and welcoming new believers regularly. Then someone came to tell them they couldn’t really be Christians because the real Christians were actually Jews first. Circumcision, feasts and fasts, and the Sabbath rules all had to be followed. Enjoin the Mosaic Law on your followers, and maybe then you can follow Christ. They were impressed and wrote Paul of the new path they were following. You could hear him scream in the pages of the Epistle.
Today’s lesson contrasts the old and new covenants in a picture quite unexpected. Paul likens the old covenant of the Jewish Law to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, through Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl. Ishmael is born under the law of Mount Sinai in Arabia, that is, according to the flesh and man’s ability. It was not a miracle, only foolishness that led his wife Sarah to suggest they help God with the birth of a son. Ishmael and Hagar only became a problem to the couple. Then the son of promise, Isaac, was born by a miracle in their great old age,. He was like the new covenant, Mount Zion in Jerusalem. He is a freeborn son, and so are we Christians. The Law of Moses had saved nobody. It only brought us to condemnation. The new way was Jesus Christ, and He came for Gentile and Jew, Roman and Greek, white, black and brown.
Paul concludes this lesson by saying, “We, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born after the Spirit, even so it is now... we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.” Gal 4:21-31 We are born after the Spirit. Are those code words? Let’s see what that means.
When God is about to do something wonderful, what comes first? Well, in heaven the Father is first of all, and His mind works wonderful things, envisions truth and light and order and beauty, when none of these things yet exist. But right after that, what? “The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Then God said, Let there be light.” Gen 1:2-3
Before there was anything made, the Spirit of God went out into the deep, silent and empty space. The Spirit goes before, all else comes after. When the angel came to Mary, as we just celebrated March 25th he told her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” Luke 1:35 Before the Word was spoken into her womb, the Spirit overshadowed her. The Spirit goes first, we follow.
We are imperfect beings. That isn’t a permanent thing. We humbly admit our weakness and our failings, but that isn’t forever. We must either be growing in stature and grace before God, or it is a certainty we will be shrinking and fading into the shadows of a dying world. You can’t stay as you are, half in, half out. You are not allowed to remain lukewarm. Jesus said such people would be spit out of His mouth.
Elijah challenged his countrymen not to remain undecided for Yahweh or for Baal. Choose whom you will follow: because you are choosing to follow someone or something every moment. Your default and mine will be our flesh. We will sink back into the flesh every time, if we are not choosing to follow the Spirit.
Is this a religious condemnation? Am I trying to whip up volunteers for coffee hour? Maybe. I hope it’s more than that. This little church has an amazing platform built under us by earlier generations. At the turn of an earlier century, Libbie Stansbury convinced her husband, Oscar, to gather a congregation of Episcopalians and start an Anglican church here in Chico. The product of their faith built this building, where they stood, knelt and worshipped. The Rev. Lewis Morris Wilkins led St. John’s parish to build this church, and his window graces the baptismal apse. The membership roles of that earlier church read like a who’s who of Chico history, and lead us down the 20th century to the formation of St. Augustine’s.
We also have a list of founders to be proud of, but pride won’t serve us in 2019. Listen to their voices, even as their generation is passing on to glory in their 90s. They followed the Spirit to start a church, and then to bless the efforts of the foundling group to buy back the building they were all baptized and married in. And why? For spite, or pride, or status, or fame?
No. To worship the Lord they knew and loved. And to share Him with many others.
And now we sit, in comfort, modern heaters warming our legs in pews brought up from Sacramento’s Church of the Holy Trinity. What now? Where to, St. Augustine’s? Are we done? Can we rest now? Or is the Spirit leading us, still? And if He is leading His church today, where is He directing us to go? Can we say, “I’m tired,” and lay down? If we don’t feel much in the way of motivation, are we following after the Spirit or after our flesh?
We were in the midst of a miracle when we bought and renovated this fine old building. It was a mess. It took a small fortune to turn it into this space, and by God’s grace we did it and we got out of debt as well. We gradually reclaimed the offices, the basement, Augie’s coffeehouse now Gogi’s Cafe, and have installed a stair lift. Are we done? Or is this the launch pad, finally completed, waiting for what follows next…
I can’t answer the next question, but the Holy Spirit knows, and He resides in all of you and in me. The Body will know its direction, and will follow it, but only if we are following in faith the One who lives in us and stirs us toward His calling.
What’s next for St. Augustine’s? What is the path for you in your life? Listen to the Spirit, not the world, flesh or devil. Listen, and then speak. The guiding light we need so badly is shining in the dark of this world for you and me. Look for it, and cry out to us all when you see the lighthouse.