“Unity of the Spirit”
Listen to this sermon.
Max Lucado once wrote, “The wizard of Oz says look inside yourself and find self. God says look inside yourself and find the Holy Spirit. The first will get you to Kansas. The latter will get you to heaven.”
Part of the work of the spirit is where it takes us in every way. Yet as Paul suggests, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” When you and I engage in spiritual practices like prayer and worship, there is freedom in it.
When we simply live into that freedom and let the Spirit do the work of transformation, we can find ourselves empowered to do more than we could imagine. Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, illuminate our paths with the truth of your word, with the example of Jesus and with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In your Holy name we pray. Amen.
As we are talking about sin in adult education this month it’s appropriate to use an example from Corinth in worship today. Corinth is often referred to as the Las Vegas of the Bible. It was a sin city. Fortunately, thanks to Paul, what happened in Corinth didn’t just stay in Corinth. We know about it. It had two areas of harbor access with a lot of trade between Europe and the Near East and sailors and all the vices that come with being an ancient port. There is some historical debate about how relatively corrupt it was but Corinth certainly had its vices.
One was the competition and division between members of the Christian church there. The Apostle Paul wrote that everyone in the Corinthian church has been given gifts. He makes the point that the Holy Spirit was the source of all of them. Paul wrote this because the Corinthian church had become a place of disagreement.
Members seemed unable to deal with differences. Factions developed as people looked to their own interests. Paul wanted the Corinthians to realize that whatever gifts they had were not theirs to boast about, for they came from outside – from the same Holy Spirit. He wanted them to see themselves as spiritual beings, and in doing so be fortified to resist the temptations around them.
Recall how the Bible begins, Genesis starts, in the beginning there was just God. God was and is. Then “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The word for the “wind of God” means “spirit”– it’s the Hebrew word “ruach.” As the wind swept, the spirit moved, life was created. Ruach is a feminine word in the Hebrew meaning “life.” The same spirit parted the Red Sea and descended on Jesus like a dove. This same spirit came to the disciples as Jesus declared he was returning to heaven. It was the same spirit that would blow through the room where the disciples were hiding at Pentecost.
In Acts 1, the great ruach came into the lives of Jesus’ followers, transforming them from disciples to apostles, empowering them to go forth as Jesus’ “witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Apostles are by definition, people who go out into the world. This is what the Holy Spirit does, takes us out of our narrow interests and send us forth into the world as people who would seek to be like Jesus.
As part of our congregational vitality process, session has begun focusing us on connecting with God and each other through Lent, and so we are asking you to recognize and honor God’s creation of you as a spiritual being. One way we hope you’ll do that is through the Lenten small group process you can read more about in your bulletin or you can talk about with me or with Kori who is leading the effort. We hope this Lenten process is a chance for you to connect more deeply with the spirit inside you. Our focus on prayer in worship will be heightened and made more prominent during this time.
We are encouraging each of us to think about the unifying aspects of our spiritual practices. Paul said we are baptized into one body and made to drink of the one spirit. When we pray, and reflect on our prayers, we may realize that we are all similar in seeking an open, influx of the spirit from the same source. That can be a unifying value.
During this time of great tension between peoples of different religions, this value is crucial. As we try and make sense of recent violence in France and Belgium, as well as ongoing violence, much of it motivated by religious differences, in Africa and the Middle East, there is something humbling and unifying about openness to the spirit that crosses religious boundaries.
In his recent bestselling book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan interprets the history of Jesus’ life as being that of a revolutionary leader focused on throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression from the Promised Land. There are some helpful parts of Aslan’s book and some parts that have been justly criticized, but what I find most interesting about it is the personal story of the author. I sat next to Aslan during a dinner at a religion conference in New York two summers ago and he told me of how he grew up as a Muslim who then became inspired by Jesus and converted to being an evangelical Christian in high school. Then as an adult, he returned to the Islamic faith of his childhood, only this time as a highly spiritual Sufi Muslim.
Now Aslan writes about Jesus from the vantage point of a spiritual Muslim. Aslan emphasized that we share a reverence for the spiritual nature of Jesus. One constant I heard from him that attracted him to Jesus as both a Christian and a Muslim is how Jesus was led by the Spirit in the world.
Peter proclaims that Jesus was “anointed with power and the Holy Spirit.” Jesus received the Holy Spirit at his baptism and bore the spirit in his miracles of healing and bringing good news to the poor. Then the Spirit, part of the trinity with Jesus at the beginning, radiated outwards as a gift from Jesus.
In John 13 through 16, as Jesus prepares to depart this world, he promises the Holy Spirit will come after him as a gift to all the people. In doing so he promises that his work will continue, being done by those who would seek to become like him. The continuing work of Jesus is possible because the Holy Spirit remains after Jesus to lead his people away from individual, narrow, selfish interests, into a world which needs people who care about the greater good; who seek to become more like their savior on the way.
Recognizing an openness to the spirit is humbling, liberating and unifying. For the spirit within us didn’t originate with us. The book of Exodus, Job and Daniel all speak of the ruach of God as the source of all human gifts, wisdom and strength. The same spirit that brought life to the world and that Jesus shared with his disciples is the source of, and holds together, all our gifts. That is why Paul sought to inspire the Corinthians to see beyond their own interests to the common Spirit which is the source of all good.
When we recognize that the Holy Spirit comes from outside ourselves and is the source of our gifts, we can return thanks to God. We start to think about how we show gratitude to God for the gifts of time, talent and treasure which don’t originate with us. It’s why Paul concludes that the many gifts form the one body of the church. It’s why we are all apostles who receive a special calling to go out into the world to continue Christ’s work.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King delivered a speech at the Lincoln Memorial which called for an end to racism in America and inspired the world to action.
Toward the end of the speech, King was discussing a dream which he had. A supporter, Mahalia Jackson, interrupted King in his speech and yelled: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” So King went off script and improvised talking in depth about his dreams of freedom, equality and unity for all people in a way the written draft had not. This section of the speech, delivered extemporaneously, contains some of the most powerful vision and lasting impact for our nation of any speech. King would say later he was led by the Spirit to speak about the dream he had.
That year King published a book, Strength to Love, containing sermons around social change, including several on his struggles with the pressures of leading a movement of change and being overwhelmed in life. He wrote in one, “It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problems to God (in prayer). My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. My fear began to pass from me. I was ready to face anything.”
Through prayer, King was strengthened by the spirit. The recent film Selma, out in theaters now, tells of the incredible tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when King, led a campaign to secure equal voting rights. The great spiritual strength he showed in doing so, he attributed to tapping into eternal, ever present, all-empowering, spirit of God, he found within himself in that kitchen.
John writes in his Gospel that at the end of Jesus’ life, around the time Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would come, at the last supper, just before the disciples got up and went to a garden where Jesus was betrayed and arrested—the last thing Jesus does with them before his death is to pray. Jesus prays for their well-being. He prays that they will stay true and engaged in the world. He prays that they will remain joyful. He prays that they may remain unified, that they may be one, that the “world may believe . . . and will see in their oneness the love of God.”
When the body of Christ is unified by and around the Spirit, it can have a unifying impact on the world. At a time of great exhaustion, division and anxiety in our fractured world, we need that. We need the world to see unity, to believe, to experience the love of God through us. The love of God expressed in love for one another.
If we believe our gifts come from the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit, which blew over creation, parted the seas, and led disciples to become apostles who went out into the world, is with us, then we too can be a new creation.
The Holy Spirit does not come into our lives to keep us the way we are. That has never been the spirit’s way. The spirit comes to push us to be more than we can be, to go deep into our discerning relationship with God in prayer and with each other as baptized Christians and then to go out and make a difference for the common good.
We know from scripture that the great ruach which brings forth life, parts seas, repairs dry bones, celebrates sacraments, blew open comfortable lives, unites divided churches and groups and leads anxious people to use their gifts to further Christ’s mission in the world, is still at work in the world. The Spirit can help us become more holy, more like Jesus, and to continue his work.
If you long to make a contribution the greater good, if you pine for the presence of the living God, if you long for the sweet redeeming passionate fire of life, think about how you can renew your baptismal covenant as a spiritual creation, and in opening yourself to the indwelling of the Spirit, become more like your Lord and Savior. May it be so. Let us pray. Gracious God, thank you for the spirit; the spirit of unity, the spirit of passion, the spirit of Christ-like love. Bind us together in the spirit as the body of Christ, and send us forth together to make a difference in the world. In your holy name we pray. Amen.
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” says Paul. And we are most in line with the Spirit, most faithfully obedient, when instead of trying to manipulate people into faith, we simply live in that freedom and let the Spirit do the work of transformation.”
― Mark Galli, Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit.