After the Spirit
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent, March 22, 2020
“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 during a violent storm needs to see a light reaching out from the shore, the friendly beams of a lighthouse showing the way to safe harbor. An airplane flying at night over clouds relies on avionics, telling its pilot where he is, where the nearest airport is located, and tells ground control his position. It’s a life and death matter to follow the correct guidance in our lives. Follow the wrong leader, and you head for destruction.
The people of Germany got a new chancellor in 1933 who soon claimed rulership to lead Germany back to glory, after the Great War had left its fortunes in ruins. Adolf Hitler earned the title of the world’s worst dictator before I was born. He led his people into total war against the world and shameful policies that killed untold innocent millions.
An American religious figure, Jim Jones, led a popular group called The People’s Temple through 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 poison.
We are social animals. We want to join something, follow a leader, learn where we’re supposed to go. A particularly vulnerable person 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 displaced persons, only to find themselves trapped in a horror movie of their own.
Some organizations use a form of mind control which 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, and that I have the qualities they have been seeking. The food is good, the folks are friendly, the feeling is high. I get invited back. Now they tell me a little of the secret of their group, and indicate there’s more to learn. I start picking up the language of the group, code words and phrases which seem to mean more than what I can understand, and I’m curious about it. I ask, and I’m told this is most 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 explanation of the world, the leader, how things work defies logic, challenges my former 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 strange truth in code words, or do I join them and subconsciously instruct my mental objections to silence? 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 in a little room with flashing lights, no one hypnotized me. I turned my brain off in order to be accepted, because I needed acceptance. When we are led by such people, and by our lower instincts, because of need, we can often falter, and the results can be 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. 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 commercial greed, warlike arrogance and such. The world is the media, Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and most political apparatus. The devil is spiritual evil and alien guidance for our ruin. People dress in red suits on Halloween, but this is foolish. 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.
But there is an enemy inside us who is neither the world of fallen men nor the underworld of fallen angels. It is a part of ourselves, it is called flesh. As fallen human beings, we rise in Baptism to new life. But God allows a shade of sinful tendency to remain in our being so that we can know good and evil still. You can’t unlearn a former lesson: it’s the tattoo from the lost garden 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 don’t guess I need to describe your temptations to you: you know them well enough.
So, what are we to do? We are that ship on a raging sea, a plane tossed above the cloud cover, seeking a 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 a church he planted 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 real Christians were actually Jews first. Circumcision, feasts and fasts, Sabbath rules all had to be followed. Enjoin the Mosaic Law on your followers, and maybe then you can follow Christ. The Gentiles 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 at Mass contrasts the old and new covenants in a picture unexpected. Paul likens the old covenant to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, by 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 no miracle, only foolishness that led his wife Sarah to suggest they help God with the birth of the promised son. Ishmael and Hagar became a problem. Then the son of promise, by God’s miracle in their great old age, came. Isaac is like the new covenant, Mount Zion in Jerusalem. He is a freeborn son, and so are we Christians.
The Law had saved nobody. It only brought them to justice. The new way was Jesus Christ, and He came for Gentile and Jew, Roman and Greek, white, black and brown.
Paul concludes 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. 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, even when none of these things imagined 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 will celebrate this Wednesday, 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 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, be it for Yahweh or for Baal. Choose today whom you will follow: because you are choosing to follow someone or something at 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 another century, Libbie Stansbury convinced her doctor husband, Oscar, to gather a congregation of Episcopalians and start an Anglican type church in Chico. Their faith built this building, where they stood, knelt and worshipped. The Rev. Lewis Morris Wilkins led St. John’s parish to build it, and his window graces the baptismal apse. The membership roles of that earlier church read like a who’s who of early 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 2020. Listen to their voices, even as their generation is passing on to glory. 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 others.
What now? Where to, St. Augustine’s? Can we rest now? Or is the Spirit still leading us? And if He is leading His church today, where is His 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 as we bought and renovated this 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. We gradually reclaimed the offices, basement, and have a stair lift. Are we done? Or is this the launch pad, awaiting a new age in Anglican worship?
I can’t answer the question, but the Holy Spirit knows, and He resides in all of you and in me. The Body will know its direction, 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 speak. The guiding light we need so badly is shining in the dark of this world for you and me. Look for it, and call out to us all when you see the lighthouse.