Saturday, October 20, 2007

Sermon: 21 Pentecost (21 Oct 2007)

21 Pentecost: 21 October 2007
(Acts 2:1-4, 14-21/Psalm 104:25-37/Ephesians 4:1-6, 14-16/Matthew 3:13-17)
I believe in the Holy Spirit.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Summary: The Christian life is life in the Spirit. We are conceived by the Spirit when we hear the gospel and the Spirit stirs faith within us. We are born of the Spirit in baptism, sealed as Christ’s own forever, and given a new identity in the Spirit. We mature in the Spirit as we submit to and cooperate with the process of sanctification (theosis), the process of growing in Christ-likeness and union with God.

The newly-baptized servant of God stands by the baptistery clothed in a white robe – the external, physical sign of the inner, spiritual robe of righteousness – clothed with light as with a garment. The celebrant offers the prayer of Holy Chrismation.

Blessed are You, Lord, God, Ruler of all, Source of all good things, Sun of Righteousness. You have raised up a light of salvation for those in darkness, through the manifestation of Your only-begotten Son and our God. Though we are unworthy, You have given us a blessed cleansing in holy water and a living sanctification through holy anointing. Now, to Your newly enlightened servant, You have been pleased to give new birth by water and the Spirit, for the forgiveness of his sins, whether committed willingly or unwillingly. Therefore, O Master, and gracious King of all, grant him also the seal of the gift of Your holy, almighty and adorable Spirit and the communion of the holy Body and precious Blood of Your Christ. Keep him in Your holiness, strengthen him in the true faith, and deliver him from the evil one and all his deceitful ways. Keep him in purity and righteousness by a fear of You that brings salvation, that he may please You in his every word and deed and become a son and an heir of Your heavenly kingdom. For You are our God, a God of mercy and salvation, and we give glory to You, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever. Amen.

After this prayer, the celebrant anoints the newly-baptized servant of God with holy chrism – holy oil – making the sign of the cross on the forehead, eyes, nostrils, ears, breast, hands and feet saying,

The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This ancient rite is holy remembering in word and symbol. For, as Jesus told Nicodemus, we are born of water and Spirit. As Jesus told Photini – the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria – true worshipers must worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. As those who have been reborn through baptism, as those who truly worship the Father, we are people of the Spirit. We proclaim not only with our lips but with our lives the words of the Creed, I believe in the Holy Spirit. We not only believe in the Spirit, we live in the Spirit.

It’s all mystery, this life in the Spirit. Jesus likens it to the wind: unseen, powerful, unpredictable. To a confused and struggling Nicodemus Jesus says,

The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8, NET).

Human conception is a mystery – not the mechanics of it but the creation of life where an instant before there was nothing: so, too, the creation of life in and through the Spirit. The Gospel is proclaimed to those who have never heard or to those who have heard and have resolutely rejected – in short, to those who are dead. And then suddenly some find themselves believing. Suddenly some find new life where an instant before there was nothing. Why? How? The wind of the Spirit blows, from where and to where we do not know; but, in its wake there is new life, new creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father: these words of the Nicene Creed– hard fought and hard won by our fathers in the faith – acknowledge the Holy Spirit as the source of our new life in Christ.

If this initial blowing of the wind of the Spirit that calls forth faith within us – that kindles the spark of life – can be likened to conception, then baptism is certainly full birth in the Spirit. And the life that follows, the life in the Spirit, is like no life we’ve known or imagined before. Words fail. Analogies fall flat. The Trinity, beyond all time, exists as a community of Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – each unique and yet of one essence. Love ceaselessly passes between them, and life: pure, abundant, eternal life. When the wind of the Spirit blows through us it catches us up into that love and life of the Trinity. On the night he was betrayed, in his last extended discourse to his disciples, Jesus revealed this mystery.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:15-20, NRSV).

We speak of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, though the words scarce do justice to the reality. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we are caught up into the life of the Trinity: Christ is in the Father and we are in Christ, and all this is through the Holy Spirit. Life in the Spirit is like no life we’ve known or imagined before.

When children are born they are also named, and that name is identity, seal, and pledge. Another generation was added to my family recently with the birth of my great-nephew. He was named in honor of his grandfather, my brother, William, and of our father – the baby’s great-grandfather. That name was placed like a seal upon him, an indelible mark of identity. From this time forth and forever he is marked with this name: it both establishes and creates his identity. It makes him part of an ongoing story. It entitles him. And it obligates him. He is sealed as a member of our family forever. This seal is more than just a name, more even than just an identity. It is a pledge, a promise, that his family makes to him: to love, to nurture, to provide, to protect, to educate, to equip. Through this seal his parents say to him, “Everything we have is yours; we pledge this as your inheritance.”

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory (Eph 1:11-14, NRSV).

The Holy Spirit is the seal of the newly baptized servant of God, an indelible mark of identity. The Rite of Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer makes this explicit. The bishop or priest places a hand on head of the newly baptized, marking on the forehead the sign of the cross and saying,

[Name], you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. Amen.

The Holy Spirit establishes and creates our identity, makes us part of an ongoing story, incorporates us into a family – a family of blood and water, the blood of Christ and the water of baptism – a family in which the old differences of race and gender and status no longer matter. In contemplating the riches of God’s love for us in making us his sons and daughters – his family – Paul falls to his knees in prayer and praise.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Eph 3:14-19, NIV).

The Holy Spirit is the seal of our identity as members of God’s family and as members of one another. The Holy Spirit is the seal of God’s ownership of us. And the Holy Spirit is God’s present sign and pledge of our future full redemption.

Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come (2 Cor 1:21-22, NIV).

Before the recent mortgage scandals of sub-prime lending and balloon payments, earnest money and down payments were customary. An offer to purchase a house was accompanied by a check – usually one or two percent of the asking price – called earnest money; it expressed the buyer’s earnest intent to complete the transaction, a guarantee that the offer was real and would be honored fully. Likewise, at the time of purchase, a down payment of ten to twenty percent was given to the lending institution as a guarantee that all future payments would be made. Based upon these two “earnest payments” the buyer became a homeowner, though of course the full redemption of the home lay in the future. This is a modern take on Paul’s analogy. The Holy Spirit is the earnest money, the down payment, of our inheritance. The Holy Spirit is the present expression of God’s pledge to redeem us fully in the day of Christ’s appearing and to grant us the full inheritance that is ours as his children.

The seal of the Holy Spirit establishes our identity as Christ’s own, as the sons and daughters of God. The seal of the Holy Spirit is the earnest, the pledge of God, guaranteeing our future full redemption and inheritance. The seal of the Holy Spirit is also God’s stamp, his imprint upon us forming us in the image of Christ.

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to trap Him by what He said. 16 They sent their disciples to Him, with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know that You are truthful and teach truthfully the way of God. You defer to no one, for You don't show partiality. 17 Tell us, therefore, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
18 But perceiving their malice, Jesus said, "Why are you testing Me, hypocrites? 19 Show Me the coin used for the tax." So they brought Him a denarius. 20 "Whose image and inscription is this?" He asked them.
21 "Caesar's," they said to Him.
Then He said to them, "Therefore, give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mt 22:15-21, HCSB).

Whose image is on the coin? was Jesus’ question. In Rome, each coin was made by hand. Seals were placed on the blank coin, front and back, and struck to imprint the desired images on it. What has been struck and formed and imprinted by the seal of Caesar belongs to Caesar. But not us. We have been struck and formed and imprinted by the seal of the Holy Spirit and we belong to God. Or better still, we are being struck and formed and imprinted by the seal of the Holy Spirit, for this re-imaging is an ongoing process of growth and transformation. We are conceived by the Spirit in faith, born of the Spirit in baptism, and we grow in the Spirit through sanctification.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit (Gal 5:16-25, NRSV).

This process of growth, of re-imaging through the Spirit, is both a mystical work of God and a tangible work of man. It is enabled and empowered by the Spirit, but it is implemented by man in cooperation with the Spirit. It is work. It is discipline.

So then, putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption (Eph 4:25-30, NRSV).

Paul gives more behavioral instruction – do this, don’t do that – but this enough for now. The Spirit works within us to make obedience and righteousness possible, but we must discipline ourselves to obey and strive toward righteousness, if we are to grow into the image of Christ.

I believe in the Holy Spirit we say in the Creed. Yet much more than this, we live in the Holy Spirit. We are conceived by the Spirit in faith, born of the Spirit in baptism, and we grow in the Spirit through sanctification. It is mystery, this life in the Spirit – life abundant and everlasting, life beyond our words and imagination. And yet it is also at hand and “ordinary”: kindness and faithfulness and generosity and obedience and love. It is not beyond our grasp, not for those of us who believe in the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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