St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Whitsunday, May 23, 2021
"The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”
YOU DON’T get up on Sunday and go to Church. You don’t sit in a pew and watch a service. You don’t worship God listening to KLOVE or watching religious television. You’re not a Christian because your parents had you baptized. Pentecost was not a day when 120 people voted to start a new religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. And Jesus did not live just a long time ago, in some faraway land. This is a life and death question: what are we doing here?
Modern Christians often reject the word “religion” connected with faith in Jesus Christ. Religion is not a bad word, but their point is that you can have all the trappings of worship and lifestyle, soaring architecture, seminary graduates steeped in brilliantly conceived theology, pipe organs and choirs and pageantry, five Sunday services, preachers with great hair, and thousands of members: and yet the Spirit of God gets nowhere unless by some happy accident. A vital relationship with a living Savior that goes home with the participants is not the goal of such an organization. “Religion,” the term objected to, connotes a man-made system of beliefs and practices that, when consciously agreed to, are supposed to get you in good with God. I think it’s funny, and sad, when someone apologizes to me for not coming more often to church. Like you come here for me: it’s my religion. God forbid.
God created us all. We humans left Him behind, cutting ourselves off from our source of life. Life was given us by His Spirit, He breathed into a man’s earthen form, and he became a living soul. Away from God’s Spirit, we are astronauts without oxygen, we can’t live in space. So we die. Although much of humanity forgot God, the nagging thought of Who made us and Why we’re here drove many to invent myths, carve totems, create legends and worship the sun, the moon, the earth, the sea. In attempts to explain our wonder in the face of creation, people invented gods like themselves, or philosophies of spiritual life outside of physical manifestation, or a volleyball with a handprint-face. God broke through many times, but people turned His revelation into systems, rules, reasons to punish, causes for fear, or even to kill.
Jesus Christ is the single figure in human history that will not go away or conveniently be explained as a religious teacher, some tragic hero, a misunderstood prophet, a bearded guy in a robe, a primitive man for all seasons. We can’t tame Him: we can only try to freeze-dry His words into doctrines we understand better and might attempt to follow. But He never established such a religion. What did He do?
He walked and talked and showed the power and nature and love of God. He died on a cross. And then He rose again. His was the most fascinating life ever lived, and He truly worshipped the God of Abraham but not like some distant star; more like His true Father. Then He gave His Father to us. A relationship was born through the faith that this is indeed the Son of God. And He promised more. “I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” John 14:16
Christ rose into the skies above Mount Olivet and His disciples returned to Jerusalem, praising God and praying fervently for the next wonderful thing. It happened. Ten days later, the room where they were praying together was filled with sound. They all heard it. Like wind blowing. Then their faces glowed with heavenly light and something like flames were seen around their heads. They walked out into the streets to foreign-born Hebrews, and began speaking these others’ languages, talking about Jesus and the Kingdom of God now come to Earth. But it wasn’t the outer signs and sights that marked that day as wonderful. God now dwelt with us inside of us, the Spirit that gives life and light breathed into our lifeless forms once more, causing us to live as God always intended us to live.
The Old Covenant prepared them for this day. They understood that God is One. They were faithful to offer Him sacrifices. Now they knew Jesus’ sacrifice fulfilled all that God intended for mankind’s redeeming. The old way was a kind of engagement, their Temple worship and offerings like the engagement ring. God was engaged to marry His people. The New Covenant was accomplished by the Blood of the Lamb and through faith in Him, so God’s people might finally be married to Him. He uses that language Himself. Marriage is intimate, two lives become one. Both husband and wife bring themselves to the union, both giving and receiving. They melt together what used to define them distinct from one another: more than a meeting, more like a concert.
What could be more intimate than the dwelling of God’s Holy Spirit inside of you? Is He there? Can you tell? It’s very possible He is and you seldom feel Him. You may fear such an encounter; many do. Some people act quite goofy about the Spirit—not Episcopalians, of course. You can have the Spirit: you just can’t have Him in church, thank you! But really: is He here? Inside? Ask Him. Make Yourself known to me. I want You, but I really don’t feel You very much. I would like to know You better. You are the Spirit of truth, and truth is what I need very much.
Now, in Jesus’ death are all sacrifices ended? Do we cease to offer God sacrifices now that the New Testament is written and the Church is born and we have the Holy Spirit? You might ask the Spirit that question. He’s inspired a good many words in Scripture to answer it, in case you distrust your own connection with Him. So let me read a few.
“…let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” Hebrews 13:15-16 “Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” Philippians 2:17 And of course, “…present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” Romans 12:1-2 Jesus firmly instructed us to pick up our own crosses and follow Him. Our suffering in this life was anticipated: it’s not useless or meaningless pain, but an offering of our lives for Him. He said to rejoice and be glad. God receives our sacrifice. It’s joined to His.
“To you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” Phil 1:29 “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Phil 3:10-11 “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church.” Col 1:24 To prove He was Christ’s true Apostle to Corinth, Paul enumerated the many things he’d suffered. Sacrifice was the proof of the validity of his teachings.
Many are praying for a change in our society, that the world might conform to God’s will and many be again drawn into Christ’s redeeming love and grace. It’s a good prayer. Some call it revival. Some say transformation. Most of us are watching the horizon for our prodigals to return. Some are just frustrated by the mayhem: the drugs, violence, confusion and conflict. We cry out to God. We pray. We ask. We seek. We knock. I’ll say it. Nothing much has arrived in that way. Churches are shrinking. The economy is tanked. The nation… well, that’s politics. And Christianity as a religion has decided there are no more sacrifices. Full stop. For fear of creating a false offering, idolatrous pagan rituals, or Romish superstitions, Christians forbid sacrifice. Some even rail against the faithlessness of succumbing to disease or any suffering whatever. Where is your faith, brother?
What does the Spirit of God say? “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Romans 8:16-18 God’s children suffer—an illness, a lost culture, disdain, loneliness, poverty, rejection. But if suffered in faith: God receives it as a sacrifice for Him. He joins it to the suffering of His Son and gives it meaning.
Is God waiting for us to willingly offer Him our sacrifice? Is the transformation we want to see determined by our commitment to give all we are to Him? Souls and bodies, given to God as our holy, reasonable service—would that do anything to the effectiveness of our prayers? A child’s prayer may dutifully ask God to bless mommy, daddy and all those she loves. Are we children? Or can we seriously go to the mat for our children, our culture’s children, our children’s children? What does the Spirit of God say to sinking our lives into Him, living for Jesus, even when it hurts—especially when it hurts?
You don’t get up on Sunday and go to Church. You are the Church, wherever you are. You don’t sit in a pew and watch a service. You do service to a living God, in all places and times. You don’t worship God by listening to KLOVE or watching religious TV. Christ’s life is a participation sport—a contact sport, in fact. You’re not a Christian because your parents had you baptized. You’re a Christian because the living Spirit of God dwells in you.
It’s Pentecost 2021. What does the Spirit say to the Church today?