Sunday, May 27, 2012

Having A Personal Pentecost

Yesterday I was ordained to the diaconate and today I preached my first official homily.  It's a different approach than before, but the same message....

Having A Personal Pentecost
Scriptures (Cycle B):  Acts 2:1–11, Galatians 5:16–25, John 15:26,27; 16:12–15

I am relatively new to the Catholic Church.  Until 2007 I had spent the previous 33 years as an Evangelical pastor, most of them in a small local denomination. The focus of my ministry was preaching, and I would normally give 25-40 minute sermons, working serially through books of the Bible.  Now I am having to learn a new model of preaching. I must confess, though, that I resonate with something Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  Anyway, I will not preach for 40 minutes this morning (or even 25)!
In 1999 I took my first steps toward the Catholic Church, although I had no idea at the time.  I was searching for more intimacy with God and was introduced to Catholic spirituality through The Liturgy of the Hours.  By 2003 I was slipping into Saturday Vigil Mass at St Joan of Arc (I live and was pastoring in Elizabethtown, and this parish is both large and distant enough that I could be anonymous).  By 2006 I realized I was more Catholic than Protestant so I resigned from the congregation I had pastored for 18 years.  In 2007 my wife and I officially entered the Church in this parish.
Now that I am here I am thrilled.... and amazed.... and intimidated.  I knew my role before, and now at age 60 I feel as if I’m starting all over again.  Yet one fundamental constant has not changed: a total commitment to Jesus Christ. Christianity is Jesus Christ. We are called to be united with, to know and to be like Jesus. How can we do this? Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: It is through the Holy Spirit.
The reason we are here on this Pentecost Sunday is because the Father loves us and gave us the Son.  Likewise, the Son loves us and gave himself for us (we affirm this regularly in the Creed).  Part of that giving is the Spirit –– God wants us to have his Spirit:  So Jesus gives us his Spirit, and the Spirit is released within the Church.
Part of my journey to the Catholic Church was the realization that I had not given much thought to the church-as-a-whole. The bit of recognition given to the whole church in my background was called “the invisible Body of Christ” (which is really more like the “soul” of Christ instead of a coherent visible Body on earth). Then I began to see that Catholic Faith has the Church front and center.  It is the graces given through the Church that bring us to Christ and keep us on the journey of grace which can lead us finally to heaven.
I began to see that my theological formation had focused on personal experience and that the Catholic focus is more on corporate sacramental grace. It seems that too often the two are understood to be either/or; they should be both/and.  Christians who understand their faith primarily as personal experience need the sacramental graces of the Church, and Christians who are grounded in the sacramental graces of the Church need a conscious, personal identification with Jesus that affects the way they understand themselves and how they live every day.  Both expressions of Christian faith –– the personal and the corporate –– are a work of the Holy Spirit.
There is a crucial point to all of this: Jesus gives his Spirit to us so that we can be connected intimately to all that God intended when he created us.  Yet because of that long-ago disobedience in the Garden, we are born broken people in a broken world. We need to be saved, and that is what has happened in and through Jesus Christ. Salvation is not only the forgiveness of ours sins (although that is incredible), but also our transformation (so that we can become like Jesus).  Jesus came into our world and lived a perfect human life.  He is everything that Adam was meant to be (and we ourselves).  Our calling as Christians is to be like Jesus, and Jesus gives us his Spirit so that can become reality.
We are to be different because the Spirit of Jesus lives in us! The Epistle reading for today gives the contrast:  life lived in sin with its brokenness.... or life lived in the Spirit with the character of Jesus himself.  Think about the first list: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. These things tear us apart and make life a misery. This list sounds like the news media –– we hear it every day: shootings, abuse in families, treachery in politics, road rage, a culture obsessed with sex....  But then think of the second list: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.... it sounds like a description of Jesus. Here are qualities that give healing and hope to a world dying in pain –– the pain of a self-autonomy that lashes out and leaves everyone wounded.  The fruit of the Spirit describes how we are called to live as Christians –– as “Christ-like ones”.
The way that we turn away from the first list and embrace the beauty of the second is given in familiar words we find in the earliest proclamations of the Gospel:  repent and believe the good news.
Part of the good news is that Jesus gives us his Spirit. It is the Spirit that came upon Jesus in his baptism and empowered his ministry, and later raised him from the dead. It is the Sprit that immediately began to transform the lives of those first disciples so that the crowd was amazed.
Jesus wants to transform each of our lives so that, as we live in this broken and hurting world, people who do not have faith (or who are weak in faith) will see Jesus in us and also be amazed.  It happens when we invite the Holy Spirit to be at work in us every day.  Jesus started this process in my life when I was in my teens. I had an incredible conversion experience that truly changed my life.  But it was mostly “personal,” and for years I had no idea what I was missing from the Church. Perhaps many of you are the opposite of me (Jesus works his transformation from many different starting points). Perhaps you are well-rooted in the Church, but when you are alone out there in the world or even without the support of the Liturgy, your faith is not as personal as you’d like for it to be.  Maybe you have wondered, “Where is the power of the Holy Spirit in my daily life?”
What we really believe about the Holy Spirit is not found only in our doctrines and creeds. It is fleshed out in our day to day lives. We can understand Scripture and confess the Creed each Sunday (and that is important), and yet not really know, experientially, anything of the real person of the Holy Spirit. Knowing the Holy Spirit means we open ourselves to be invaded. We are allowing someone else to come in and control our lives.
One day my wife and I were waiting in a bank for an appointment. As we stood over in the corner, a man came in and went to the counter in the usual way. After he had been there a short time, the conversation began to escalate; his voice got increasingly louder. Within a couple of minutes everyone in the bank knew not only that he was upset, but why. It seems he had a check made out to someone else, his daughter.  She had endorsed it, and he was there to cash it. The teller would not do it. He protested they had done it before (then, it was a mistake). He reminded them he came in every week and they knew him (but they had a policy which allowed no exceptions). By this time he was livid.... and loud. In a most abusive tone he said he would be back in one hour, and he wanted all his accounts cleared with his money waiting for him. And with that, he stormed out.
I do not consider myself to be the most patient person. I know what it feels like to be in situations that are inconvenient and frustrating. I know what it is to feel that someone else is being either incompetent or obstinate just to ruin my immediate plans. But with God's help I try not to act out like that man in the bank, and I’m helped because I have asked the Holy Spirit to control my life.  I want to be like Jesus.
Christian Faith is not meant to be passive; it is active.  May I give you an assignment for this week?  Each day when you look at yourself in the mirror –– brushing your teeth or combing your hair –– look yourself in the eyes and affirm your faith in Jesus, and then realize: "the Spirit of God has been given to me. . . the risen Son of God lives in me. . . Father God is enabling me to show something of himself through my life!" Then ask the Lord to make that a reality in your life throughout the day. You will begin to experience your own personal Pentecost!
Deacon David L. Hall, D. Min.
Heart for God, Ltd.

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