A sermon on Ephesians 3:14-21; John 16:7-15, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church
The rhythms of church life – by which I mean, the rhythms of church attendance and the rhythms of our expenditures of energy at church – might suggest that Easter is the climax of the liturgical year, from which apex we ride a slow decline into the doldrums of summer. The climax of the liturgical year, however, is still ahead of us – even though there will be admittedly fewer of us here to experience it together. I’m speaking, of course, of Pentecost, the Sunday on which we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the one-hundred-and-twenty or so disciples waiting together in their crowded upper room where they had been staying since the epoch-making weekend of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That event is rightly celebrated as the birthday of the Church.
It was after they were “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) that the disciples emerged from that upper room and flooded the precincts of the Temple to bear witness to all concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus and to call thousands to repentance and into the fellowship of Christ through the Holy Spirit in the very first day (2:41), “the Lord adding daily” thereafter “to the number who were being rescued” (Acts 2:47).
I don’t want Pentecost to take us by surprise this year, such that we aren’t prepared to receive all that it holds for us, and so it is my plan to reflect with you for this and the following two weeks upon the New Testament vision for the role that the Holy Spirit plays in the life of the believer and in the life of the believing community. Jesus himself gave careful attention to preparing his disciples for their Pentecost. In our Gospel reading, we hear merely one reference to this upcoming Pentecost out of four references just within Jesus’ “farewell discourse,” the Fourth Gospel’s account of the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples on the evening before his passion and death. Jesus would continue to point them forward to Pentecost, moreover, in the period between his resurrection and his ascension, his physical departure from the visible realm.
On that night before his suffering and death – but also looking ahead to his returning to the Father at his ascension – Jesus assured his disciples: “I’m telling you the truth: it’s to your advantage that I’m going away, because if I don’t go away, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go away, I’ll send him to you” (John 16:7). I imagine that this was a tough sell. After all, it had to be fabulous to have Jesus there – to hear his teaching with the full conviction of the truth of his words that his presence (and the Presence of God that it mediated) brought; to witness his miraculous healings and signs, the ocular proof of the power of God at work in him and, because in him, immediately available in their midst; to see and know personally, with the eyes of the body and not only the eyes of faith, him in whom they were placing such trust. Who here has not ever wished to have been alive then to have seen Jesus in action, to have met him in the body? Who here has not considered Thomas ever so fortunate to have been able to put forth his hand and touch the wounds in the risen Lord’s resurrected body and know beyond the shadow of another doubt that he was risen, that everything he had said about himself proved true, that everything he taught was therefore reliable as a bedrock foundation? I would gladly endure that mild slapdown – “Do you believe because you’ve seen me? Blessed are those who believe without seeing!” – to be able to believe because I’ve seen. What could be better than having Jesus here?
And yet, Jesus himself said to them – and all but told them on oath by insisting, “I’m telling you the truth” – that things would be better for them, that they would gain greater advantage, from his departure, because it would mean his sending “the Advocate.” Had we started listening in to this discourse from the beginning today, we would have heard his introduced as “another Advocate” (John 14:16), one who would be even more for them (and for us) than Jesus, the original Advocate, was for them. This second “Advocate” is, of course, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name” (14:26), Jesus says, “the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father” (15:26). The question before us is, are we experiencing this “better” yet? Do we enjoy such a connection with the Holy Spirit, and with the living Jesus through the Holy Spirit, that we are glad no longer to have Jesus walking about the earthly sphere?
Paul certainly prayed that his own converts in Ephesus – along with new converts who would have joined the Christian movement since his departure – would enjoy such a connection. In one of those rare passages in which Paul opens up a window into his own powerful prayer life, and specifically how he prays for his churches, we find him praying that they would enter into a rich experience of God’s Holy Spirit:
“I bend my knees toward the Father, from whom all fatherhood in the heavens and upon the earth takes its name, that he might grant you to be strengthened with power in your innermost self through his Holy Spirit, in accordance with his glorious bounty; that Christ might live in your hearts by faith, while you sink deep roots and foundations into love, in order that you might have the power to understand, along with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of, and to fathom the unfathomable love of Christ; that you might be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:14-19).
ow John Wesley was not a fan of what he called “enthusiasm,” which he defined as “a religious madness arising from some falsely imagined influence or inspiration of God; at least, from … expecting something from God which ought not to be expected from Him” (from his Sermon, “The Nature of Enthusiasm”). We, too, should want to be careful not to fall into the trap of imagining ourselves inspired by God when we are not, nor to fall into the trap of “expecting something from God which ought not to be expected from Him.” But I think we should seek to be equally careful not to expect too little from God, not to be so wedded to a “reasonable religion” that we shut ourselves off from the intimate knowledge of God and the flooding of our lives and our congregation with the power of God that Paul, at least, seems to be convinced that God wishes to provide, unless Paul is himself praying in vain.
Paul’s prayer for the Christians in Ephesus – and I might presume that he would have prayed it for us as well, had he any inkling we would be gathering this morning in Jesus’ name – was for an experience. It was for an encounter with Divinity that would presumably have a starting point, but not an ending point. It was for the invasion of our inmost selves by God’s Holy Spirit, an invasion that would flood us with both power and a Person – not power for us to do what we wish, but power that comes in the divine Person of God the Holy Spirit, accomplishing what he wishes in us and among us and through us. The second petition seems to me to be a consequence of the fulfillment of the first – that Christ would live within each one of us and among all of us together, bringing with him an experience of divine love that, at one and the same time, is so great that it cannot be measured, but is so full and real that we feel its limitlessness. The third petition is the most paradoxical – that the infinite and boundless God in all his fullness should somehow come to occupy this infinitesimal space of “me.” And how could that ever happen, except by God’s settling within us, filling us with God’s Holy Spirit. If it sounds a lot like “possession,” I think we’re on the right track.
Should we let him in?
He will mess with everything if we do, but what might we hold onto about our lives as they are that would be of greater value to us, that would bring us greater joy and fullness, than to “fathom the unfathomable love of Christ,” or to know the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit in our inmost selves, or to experience the fullness of God firsthand and thus to know that, having God, we have it all? I personally would think it a great tragedy for us to go through our whole lives enacting the forms of piety, but remaining closed off from its power.
Should we let him in?
Let me tell you briefly a story of a church that did. The pastor – I should say “rector,” as he was the senior pastor at an Episcopal Church – encountered another Episcopal church that had let the Holy Spirit in and spent some time corresponding with its rector. After a time of study, he led his parish through a series of sermons exploring the Scriptural witness to the Holy Spirit and the Scriptural vision for Spirit-led lives and Spirit-led churches. At some point in this pilgrimage, they prayed, and the Spirit showed up. Most in the congregation were suffused with a new and deeper love for God, for one another, and for the people outside their walls. They began meeting together more often, informally and in newly formed small groups, praying with and for one another, calling down God’s help, favor, guidance, and Spirit upon one another. They began worshiping with a new passion for God. The old Anglican hymns came alive as vehicles of praise, adoration, and prayer. As might be expected, new songs were brought into the repertoire as well, bringing an added dimension to worship. The old liturgy took on a new life – the words didn’t change, but the people had changed. When the time for prayer came around, people were unafraid to pray out loud and to pray with confidence.
Some admittedly strange things started happening as well. Either in the Sunday morning service, or the Wednesday evening teaching service, or in small groups – always at the appointed time for such things – someone might say something that he or she believed had been given him or her from the Lord. Generally, these would be sifted and confirmed or discarded over the course of the week. Someone might start praying in a language that was not recognized – what is commonly called “speaking in tongues.” Now, I have to admit that I had serious doubts about this phenomenon myself. I loved the people. I respected their ardor for God and for genuine discipleship, but this part seemed a bit much – until, that is, a retired elementary school math teacher started praying over me in Greek. I can still remember a line from her prayer: … chairein en tē aretē tou kuriou, “… that he might rejoice in the excellence of the Lord.” [[Greek geeks reading this: of course I know that chairein is an infinitive, but I am assuming that the words right before this would have been something like “Grant him” or “Make him”]]
But the most important thing about this influx of the Holy Spirit into the lives of individual disciples and into their corporate life together was the level of love for one another and for the stranger in their midst that this engendered. It was a church to which I was eager to invite people (as indeed, were many), because there was something there that was unmistakably beyond the “everyday.” It was a place where connection with God was palpable. Those whom I brought almost never failed to be impressed by the spirit of the congregation and by the experience. I hold in my mind Paul’s own vision for Christian worship and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the assembly: “if all are speaking prophetic utterances in the Spirit and an unbeliever or outsider comes in, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the hidden secrets of his heart are brought out into the open and in this way, falling on his face to worship God, he will announce, ‘Truly God is in your midst’!” (1 Cor 14:24-25).
I’d like for us to be that kind of church. I would never presume that there are only certain ways that the Holy Spirit will make himself known, but I do presume that he makes his presence unmistakably known. I’d like for the presence and power of God to be so real and palpable here – something that comes to pass because the Spirit of God is vitally present in us and manifesting himself through us and among us – that the visitor goes away not merely thinking, “Wow, those were really welcoming people” (though I do want the visitor always to leave with that impression!), but rather, “God is truly in your midst!”
The season after Easter was, for the first disciples, a time of waiting and praying for this “power from on high,” this anointing with the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised. As we approach Pentecost this year, I would like to invite you – as many of you as are attracted to the experience that Paul’s prayer envisions, who want to find out what’s better than having Jesus here in the flesh with us – to spend these next few weeks as did those first disciples. I want to invite us all to wait in our own metaphorical “upper rooms” with the expectancy of being clothed with power from on high. I want to invite you to pray to God about receiving more of God’s Holy Spirit yourself and about releasing more of God’s Spirit in our midst. This is a prayer that we can count on God answering for, as Jesus is remembered in Luke’s Gospel to have said, “If you, being wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13).
Let’s invite him in.