Rebuilding Community in Partnership with the Holy Spirit
Rebuilding Community in Partnership with the Holy Spirit
It is Pentecost Sunday, a day when the church celebrates, the renewsing, sustaining and transformative power of the Holy Spirit, the third figure of the Trinity. We don’t talk about the Holy Spirit much and when we do it is in rather abstract ways. Perhaps that’s because we don’t understand the Holy Spirit or are afraid of what opening ourselves to this aspect of God might cause in our lives. The Apostle’s Creed has one line about the Holy Spirit which reads:
I believe in the Holy Spirit
That’s it, one line which states we believe in it, but with none of the other statements of belief that surround God, creator and God, Jesus Christ.
The focus of the sermon while I was writing it was how we might reflect and act as a Christian community in light of Covid-19 in the rebuilding/re-ordering of society to ensure there is a place for all people. This week as I wrote and recorded the sermon the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by police in the United States occurred.
I would be remiss if I din’t mention this terrible act of racism and violence. If we are every to have a hope of creating a society based on the values that Jesus instills in us, that the prophets spoke passionately about then we must address the issues of racism that exist within our society. Racism is present around us and we must name it. In light of the George Floyd killing, a friend who is a female minister of colour in the Presbyterian Church in Canada recounted her own experiences of racism within the church.
We must do better, we owe it to all of our brothers and sisters. I believe that so long as we are divided by issues of race and gender that God weeps for us.
This week our friend Reuben is back with us along with a special guest. They are singing the song Freedom, which is an appropriate message for us to be hearing at this time.
It is Pentecost, the day that the disciples received the Holy Spirit, the Advocate promised by Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the third part of the Trinity, our sustainer, the breeze of change, the breath of life.
Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit often in John’s gospel. The Spirit of truth (John 14:17), the Spirit will testify on Jesus’ behalf (John 15: 26) and Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). These are just some of the connections that John makes about the Holy Spirit. It is a very different visual in John’s gospel of the Holy Spirit, than it is in Acts where the Spirit descends like a dove, with tongues of fire. The contrast is almost startling.
In Acts, there is the rush of a violent wind, tongues of fire and then everyone is speaking and being understood. In John’s gospel, Jesus breaths on the disciples and bids them to receive the Holy Spirit. In both accounts the arrival of the Holy Spirit marks a radical sense of community. Think about it, in Acts no one can understand the other. All are speaking different languages and the Holy Spirit arrives, bridges that gap and brings the people who are present into a closer connection. They can understand one another. If nothing else they have been marked by having been present on that day. They share that common bond and have been gathered into community by the Holy Spirit. The same is true with John’s gospel. Though the crowd is smaller, the disciples gathered in the upper room on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, they too are drawn deeper into community with the reception of the Holy Spirit.
In our present time we might well ask the question what does it mean to be a community? Perhaps we are re-evaluating what that means in light of Covid-19 and the isolation many of us are feeling. Asking how we can be in community with one another here in Cobourg, but also how we form a larger community within the country we live and indeed as part of a global village.
Covid-19 has forced isolation on us, borders have been closed. There is much rhetoric of looking after our own. I hear that rhetoric within our own country when the Premiers speak about their individual provinces. We Ontarians, we New Brunswickers etc. In Calgary they are saying don’t be like Toronto, in response to images of Torontonians out enjoying a beautiful day this past weekend and breaking all of the social distancing rules.
The result is that it becomes harder to form community when you are restricted from truly communing with someone. When regional differences are being used to encourage the behaviours needed to fight Covid-19. It forces us to re-evaluate what it means to be community.
How might we reform or reframe what we think of community? I’m glad you asked. In John’s gospel this morning there is a funny line at the end that reads, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). On first read we might ask why forgiveness appears to be so arbitrary in this passage. Do the disciples really get to pick and chose who they forgive? Do we get to pick and chose who we forgive? If so, and I believe this passage has been wrongly interpreted by the church to do just this, then we are judging people based on what? Our own sense of moral rightness? How we think Jesus would have judged people? Except that the only people Jesus judged were those who were exerting a moral superiority over others, exploiting their position for wealth and power. For everyone else, Jesus forgave them.
Matt Skinner writes, “Jesus is not appointing the church as his moral watchdog; nor does he commission it to arbitrate people’s assets and liabilities on a heavenly balance sheet.
“In John’s Gospel, Jesus talks about sin as unbelief, the unwillingness or incapacity to grasp the truth of God manifested in him. To have sin abide, therefore, is to remain estranged from God. The consequence of such a condition is ongoing resistance. Sin in John is not about moral failings; primarily it is an inability or refusal to recognize God’s revelation when confronted by it, in Jesus.” (Matt Skinner)
What Jesus is saying to the disciples is this: it is up to you now to repair the relationship the people have with God. If you teach them about God’s love, that relationship will be repaired, but if you don’t then it will not be repaired. The words left unsaid are that the consequences of either action is on the disciples. And then it falls to us, we can either be a part of allowing others to see what it means to follow Jesus, to realize the world and society that he envisioned for all people or not. Our choice. Build a world founded on a love so unconditional it killed God or root it in hate, prejudice and fear. The choice is ours.
In Luke’s account of the Holy Spirit in Acts we can see how the Holy Spirit is tearing down all the walls that divide. A clear demonstration that when we trust in God, do the work that Jesus started and trust in the continual power of the Spirit we can transform lives.
Consider the ways that the Holy Spirit was at work in Acts:
- The promise of the Holy Spirit compelled 120 people to gather in anticipation of it. They rearranged their schedules and synchronized their calendars to make themselves available to God.
- The power of the Holy Spirit enabled each person in that room to speak in a language other than their own.
- The power of the Holy Spirit got the attention of the crowd on the street, perhaps because of the mighty sound of the rushing wind or the sheer chaos of all those people speaking together at the same time.
- The power of the Holy Spirit emboldened Peter to speak to the masses.
- The power of the Holy Spirit caused the crowds to not only hear Peter’s message but to also receive it to such an extent that 3,000 people made a decision to follow Jesus.
On this one day, the Holy Spirit transcended multiple layers of differences to accomplish God’s many purposes. (Debra Mumford)
We read that passage and maybe we think that it is an incredible story. But perhaps we wonder if it can happen again? Well that’s not kingdom thinking. That’s not thinking of the possibilities of how we can change the world, it lacks the breath of possibility.
We are living in a challenging and frightening time. Covid-19 is a very real danger and it has changed the way we live. However, it has forced upon us the opportunity for dialogue about a new way to live. We can either share the good news about a new way to live or we can keep silent. We can encourage a way of living together based on love, care for the vulnerable and mutual respect or we can keep silent. Jesus makes it very clear that this choice is ours. Our actions on any given day, at any given moment will determine how we continue to live with one another. I hope that it is with a peace which transcends all understanding written on our hearts and the warm wind of the Holy Spirit propelling us forward. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.