Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

May 29, 2011

Church of the Resurrection, Cincinnati


(Based on Acts 8:5-8,14-17; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21)


Well, we made it once again, didn’t we? The world didn’t end last Sunday after all.


The whole thing reminded me of my favorite New Yorker cartoon from some years ago. It showed the standard view of an old man with straggly hair and a long beard, dressed in a long white gown. He’s walking on the streets of New York, carrying a placard. It says, “WE ARE DOOOOOMED!!! . . .  The world will NOT end!”


Actually, this experience of a failed prophecy last week provides a good entry into today’s scriptures.


During these weeks since Easter we have been reflecting on the amazing event of Christ’s resurrection. Starting last week and continuing today, the focus has been shifting from looking back to looking forward, to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in two weeks on the great feast of Pentecost. We are promised that, although Jesus is going to leave us in one form, we will not be left orphans. He will return to us in a new form, through the action of an Advocate, his Spirit. We are being challenged to be ready for the coming of the Spirit.


But the experience of last week’s false prophecy should alert us to be on guard and be clear what we are asking for.


Because it turns out that what some people call “the spirit” is not the Spirit of truth at all. Down across the centuries of our church story there have been any number of people who claimed to possess the Spirit, much like last week’s prophet. Many were actually quite harmless, just people a little bit crazier that the rest of us. But in the case of others the results were much less benign.


Just think, in our own time, of David Koresch and his community of ‘angels’ down in Waco, Texas. Or think of Jim Jones and the Peoples’ Temple in Guiana where 900 people were led to commit suicide on the basis of his promise. (That one has particular meaning for me, because a very good friend of mine from San Francisco lost seven members of his family there.)


Or think of those televangelists proclaiming the Gospel of Money, the Gospel of Prosperity. As if that were the message the man from Nazareth who didn’t have a place to lay his head. Just put your trust in the Spirit and you will be RICH! And the implication is even more absurd: If you aren’t rich, it’s because you haven’t prayed enough! (“Oh, and by the way, could you add a zero to your contribution? I’m getting tired of my Mercedes, I want to move up to a Maserati. . . .”)


And it’s not just individuals who were misled and caused great harm by misleading others. Church officials, including popes, could be equally misled. Just think of Galileo, condemned by a pope who thought Genesis was a book of science rather than a book of poetry. Or think of those bishops and priests who supported the institution of slavery as if it was God’s will, because Paul in his cultural situation counseled slaves to be obedient to their masters.


Well, then, what are we being promised? And what should we be praying for?


The history of false prophets and false leaders led the great spiritual giants of our tradition to go deep inside themselves to pray for the gift of what they called the discernment of spirits. There is a good Spirit and there are evil spirits abroad in our world – and in our church. How do we sort them out? Where do we recognize the presence of the true Spirit? What criteria, what signs should we be looking for?


Paul wrestled with this question in one form or other in many of his letters. The answer he came up with is The Epistle to the Galatians:


. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit. Let us not be conceited, provoking one another, envious of one another. (Gal 5: 22-26)  


These are the signs to be alert to.


But we can even reduce these signs to a sort of check-list of ‘good behaviors.’ Respectable church conduct. Sort of like the list we used to profess in the Boy Scout’s pledge of honor. You know, “I will be honest and good and all those other things.” I see some of you nodding; you remember it.


But there’s something going on here that cuts deeper even than moral living. Notice that Paul is referring to those who ‘belong to Christ.” It’s not just a matter of ethics. The Spirit we are praying for is not a mood (“Hey, I got the Spirit, baby!”). It’s not a matter of enthusiasm.


We have to keep always in mind that the Spirit we are praying for is the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the spirit that impelled the man who walked the roads of Galilee. If we separate the ‘Spirit’ from identification with Jesus we leave ourselves open to all sorts of mischief and folly. (When some people claim to have the Spirit, maybe the best thing we can say would be, “You may think it’s the spirit but you’re just diggin’ yourself, sugar. . . “)


Notice how Jesus describes the mission of the Holy Spirit: “He will teach you and remind you of all that I told you.” (John 14:26) The Spirit does not exist of himself. There is no new word given to us, no new revelation. The Spirit of truth points back to Jesus who alone is the Way and the Truth and the Life.


The ultimate criterion of the presence of the Spirit is the life revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. And that means doing the will of the Father. It means finding life by giving it away. It means being willing to lay down our life for a sister or bother. It means speaking up for those who have no voice in our power-hungry world. It means challenging the false gods of this world and being called foolish for doing so. It means being ready to embrace the folly of the cross. Listen to how Paul puts it to the Corinthians:


   The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

      “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

And the learning of the learned I will set aside.”

Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:18-25)


You and I are already God’s children, made in the divine likeness. What we shall become has yet to be revealed. But if we submit our lives to the shaping of the Spirit of Jesus, as individuals and as a church, it will be a thing of beauty beyond our wildest imagining.


  Spirit of the living God,

fall afresh on me.

Spirit of the living God,

fall afresh on me.           .


Melt me,

Mold me.

Fill me,

Use me.


Spirit of the living God,

fall afresh on me. ♫