Sunday, May 23, 2021

Demonstrably Different -- a sermon for Pentecost

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St John’s

Demonstrably Different

Acts 2.1-13 (selected), Galatians 5.16-26 (Common English Bible)

23 May 2021, Pentecost, NL3-46

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? …we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!” Peter stood up and said “Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!”


I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other.

When Pentecost Day arrived — 50 days after Passover, the day when Jews celebrate God giving the Torah on Mount Sinai, thus creating the Israelites as God’s covenant people — the disciples were together. Traditionally, Jewish people get together to study scripture all night long for this particular holiday, so it’s possible that’s what the disciples were doing that day, reading scripture and giving thanks for God revealing the word and bringing them together as a community.

That morning, when perhaps they had been reading scripture all night, and maybe they were a little bit giddy from sleep deprivation and holiday excitement, there was a loud and rushing wind blowing through the house — like the wind that blew over the waters of creation back in Genesis 1. And tongues of fire, like the flames that had danced in the burning bush, and like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites in the wilderness, appeared above them, leading them out of the house, into the street. And they spoke…and people heard. It was a day of new creation, with the wind of God blowing and the fire of the Spirit filling them all, so that they could share stories of God’s amazing works in ways that people would understand, bringing a new community into being.

It’s a community that, of course, seeks to become more like Christ every day. And, according to Paul, the way we do that is by being guided by the Spirit, rather than being guided mainly by the ancient law. Paul says that when we are guided by the Spirit, we will choose to set aside our selfish desires, and choose instead things that build up. He told the Galatians, and still tells us today, that if we are following the Spirit, our community will have a demonstrably different character than those who are not. And then he describes two different and competing visions of what life can be like: life driven by selfish desire, and life driven by the Spirit. If we are following the Spirit, Paul says, it will be obvious to even a casual observer who looks at us or our community.

Listen to the things Paul describes as coming from “selfish motives” — things like sexual immorality, hate, fighting, competitive opposition, group rivalry, jealousy, doing whatever feels good, idolatry. These are things that put myself first — above what’s good for others, above what’s good for my community, even above God. Sometimes it might seem like they serve us — to be competitive, to have rivals, to do what feels right, even to hate people who are different. But in addition to hurting others, they are harmful to ourselves as well. When we dehumanise others, we lose a bit of our own humanity. When we think only of ourselves, we cut ourselves off from support and relationships that could help us grow. When our focus is on me and my security and what I want — when we focus on serving ourselves, or saving ourselves — we paradoxically lose everything, including the chance to experience the kingdom of God.

Now listen to the fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Do you notice anything about those things? They are relational things. Love is always received and given, not kept for ourselves. Joy bubbles over and is shared. Peace is known between people. Patience and kindness and gentleness and self-control are how we treat each other and how we interact with the world. Generosity is about giving away. Faithfulness means being focused on Jesus and following him. The fruit of the Spirit draws our eyes away from our self-centredness and pulls us into community. Just as the Spirit blowing through the upper room on Pentecost morning drew the disciples away from studying for their own sake and pulled them out into the street to speak to people who needed to hear the good news in understandable language.

When people look at the church today, do they see a different way of life than anywhere else? Do they see a community that loves, is joyful, works for peace, has patience, is kind and generous, faithful and gentle? In other words, is the Body of Christ demonstrating the relational, outward-looking fruit of the Spirit, in a way that any casual observer could see or experience? Or do they see a community that cares mainly about itself, about keeping the people inside the church happy, arguing amongst ourselves and serving our own comforts and desires and doing what we want regardless of what else is going on around us?

The General Assembly is meeting this week. Lots of people might wonder why that matters…and it’s a good question. Does the Assembly demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit? Does it lead us all, as the church, the Body of Christ, in living a more fruitful faith in the world? Or is it just arguing about how to best keep members happy while ignoring the things affecting real people, like climate change and weapons of war and economic injustice and gender disparity and health problems and cycles of poverty and violence and trauma? Those are big issues, yes, but they are also things that are part of everyday reality for billions of people. They may not seem to immediately be about theology, but they are about how we respond to God’s work in Christ in this world, how we steward the gifts we have been given and live with the compassion, justice, and love of God for all people. And if the Body of Christ can’t do anything about those things because we’re too busy worshipping our buildings or our legislation or our traditions, then we have not followed the Spirit’s lead and we’re not bearing fruit and we are far away from the kingdom of God.

If our faith doesn’t lead us to do things that make other people feel loved, and that work for peace, and that expand generosity, that bring more beauty and goodness into the world, then we’re not being led by the Spirit, Paul says. He would say it’s time to seek the Spirit more, and then follow more closely. The Holy Spirit blew into the upper room and made a new creation — a Body that went out of its comfortable familiar building into the streets, met people, spoke their language, and invited them into God’s deeds of power. 

More than just singing happy birthday to the church, perhaps it’s past time for us to celebrate this birthday by doing what the Spirit has always been calling us to do: to go out of our comfortable familiar building into the streets, to meet people where they are rather than insisting they come to us, to speak their language rather than insisting they speak ours, and invite them into God’s deeds of power rather than lamenting that no one wants to join in our personal pet peeves or projects.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the things God’s law has always been trying to bring forth in us, the things that studying all night for Pentecost are meant to help us learn. These are the things that the Spirit is calling the Body of Christ to live. These are what the world should see and feel and experience from the church. Imagine how delicious that would be, if we could be the ones living so that everyone can taste and see that God is good.

May it be so. Amen.