Community and Commitment
Humility is not one of my core competencies. Those who have known me well over the years will certainly attest to that. Of the many acts of amazing grace with which I have been blessed over the past few years, the most impactful have been the situations in which God has put me where I had no choice to be humble, and, as a part of that, to let go of my dependence on my hard-headed self and surrender to God’s will for me and my work in my life.
So it is that I stand here amid yet another opportunity to be humble. When I accepted Gail’s invitation to speak today, I once again did so without checking the calendar. I do believe that Call is involved in both the Worship Mission Group’s offering of opportunities to bring the teaching and our acceptance of them, but that doesn’t mean that I was not daunted when I realized that June 4 was Pentecost—one of the two most important Sundays in the Christian calendar—and even further daunted (to the point of intimidation) when I realized that Pentecost is also recommitment Sunday, the most important Sunday in the life of the 8th Day Community. I feel both completely undeserving of the honor of standing before you on this most holy day, but also, as a spiritual midget amongst spiritual giants, completely inadequate for the task of delivering a meaningful message on this day of all days.
It fits with today’s theme that, if there is any meaning or impact from this message that I deliver today, it is ONLY because the Holy Spirit has used me as a vessel.
My preparation for today was richly blessed in that the silent retreat happened shortly after I was asked to speak, so I could use that amazing time of quiet and reflection to begin reading, thinking about, and preparing for this teaching. Lest there are doubters among those of you who often hear me say that I’m the most blessed person on earth, the silent retreat produced yet another example of the rainstorm of blessings in which I live.
During the retreat, seemingly at random, although clearly nothing is random, I picked up and began to read Father Thomas Keating’s short book, The Better Part. I read parts of the book during the retreat and purchased it after I got home. One of the fresh insights I received from reading the book was that Lectio Divina, which I had only experienced in group settings, is primarily an individual activity and can be very valuable in preparing to preach. I approached today’s lectionary scriptures using Lectio Divina and through that approach was able to gain a new understanding of those scriptures to serve as a basis of my talk today.
The thoughts I’ll share today are based on both the Hebrew Bible reading from Acts 2 and the Gospel reading from John 20. I would like to read the John passage and part of the Acts passage:
Acts 2:1- 11
2 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”
Jesus appears to the disciples
19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
While we typically think of the Acts description of the Pentecost events as the definitive description of Jesus sending the promised Advocate or Comforter, the John passage also documents the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit for the first time. When I dutifully did my research on these passages, my New Interpreters’ Study Bible emphasized the difference in timing of the event – on the day of the resurrection in the John passage and fifty days after Passover, during the Festival of Pentecost in the Acts passage. (In Luke’s account of Jesus appearing to the disciples following the resurrection, Jesus doesn’t breathe the Holy Spirit into the disciples). But as I reflected on the passages I was struck not by those differences but by the similarities in the two scriptures and the implications for our community.
In both the John and Acts passages, the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, came to the disciples when they were together in community. I think we often focus on the later parts of the Acts passage, ie, the crowd understanding the disciples’ speech in their own languages and then Peter’s speech to the assembled multitude. Until I began preparing for this talk, I’m not sure that I even paid attention to the beginning of the passage to realize that the disciples didn’t receive the Holy Spirit when they were among the crowd, but by themselves in their own small community. The crowd didn’t gather until after they were filled with the spirit and began to speak in multiple languages.
I was especially struck by another aspect of the John passage. The disciples were not only by themselves as a group but behind closed and locked doors because they were afraid of the authorities. One can infer that they weren’t exactly having a joyful worship service or even a prayer meeting. They were very probably just huddled together in fear. The Acts passage doesn’t provide details of the private time, but it isn’t hard to believe that even fifty days after Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection, the disciples were still unsure of what was going to happen and were together primarily for mutual support.
To summarize the striking similarities in the two seemingly-different accounts of the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise by sending the Holy Spirit to the disciples:
- The Holy Spirit came not to isolated individuals but to individuals who were truly in community.
- That first Spirit-filled community became a community through love for and of Christ and through the sacrifice, pain, and full commitment to Jesus Christ and to each other.
- The community was not necessarily looking for or asking for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
And the Holy Spirit came to that first Christian community despite their fears and their attempt—at least in the case of the Gospel passage—to close themselves off from the world at large.
As we reflect on our community two thousand years after the events described in today’s scripture passages, there are also striking similarities between our situation and that of the disciples:
We are a community. And as the name of our “umbrella church” states, we are a Church of the Saviour, a community specifically formed in and through the love of Christ. Through the centrality of love and devotion to Christ, we also love and support each other.
While we don’t meet behind closed and locked doors and we aren’t necessarily in fear of the authorities’ direct action against us, as we continue to watch the aftermath of the election we certainly have fears and concerns about how the actions of today’s authorities will impact our world and our ability to fulfill our Call and missions. I would even suggest that at least on occasions in the past few months those fears, concerns and questions about the future have been our primary focus just as fears, concerns and questions about the future were the primary focus of the disciples following the crucifixion and leading up to Pentecost.
At the risk of stretching the Church of the Saviour analogy too far, these passages suggest that the inward journey—the working of the Holy Spirit in our individual lives—can only fully happen as the Holy Spirit comes to our community at large.
Before I close I want to briefly touch on another fascinating similarity between the passages in John and Acts, in this case, the response to being filled with the Spirit.
The last part of the John passage (“If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”) has perplexed me because I didn’t understand why the disciples would consciously choose not to forgive someone’s sins. In preparing for this teaching (my Bible study and understanding would be much more advanced if I had to bring the teaching once a month or so, but I’m not necessarily volunteering for that!), I learned that in John “sin” is a theological concept and doesn’t refer to individual acts. Instead, as the New Interpreters’ Study Bible puts it, “forgiveness of sins is the community’s Spirit-empowered mission to continue Jesus’ work of making God known in the world….” So, a different way of saying the last part of the passage would be: “if you work to make God known to others, their sins will be forgiven. If you don’t help others to know God, their sins won’t be forgiven”
In the Acts passage, the Spirit-empowered disciples make Christ known to the “world,” represented by the Jews in Jerusalem from all over known civilization, by speaking and being understood in all the various languages.
So, in both passages the response to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is to embark on the outward journey of making Christ known in the world. And the Acts passage gives us further guidance: When the Holy Spirit entered their community so that the disciples could speak in a language that all understood, the crowd came to them. Spirit-given language—of speech, culture, and experience—is the key to the world hearing the Word.
In his teaching a couple of weeks ago, my friend and spiritual advisor David Hilfiker spoke to both the building of a community to allow the work of the Holy Spirit and to the Spirit-empowered work:
Jesus spent much of his time nurturing the twelve apostles he'd called to follow him: teaching them; encouraging them; chastising them; showing them how to live together; and reminding them that theirs was a new life, a new community of believers. Ultimately, social movements may arise through an individual but they only flower through the community. Ultimately, most of us move closer to God only with the support of a community.
It's in community that we imitate God and practice holiness, closing the distance between one another. It's in community that we close the distance between ourselves and the wider world.
The closing the distance to which David referred happens because, in the words of the passage from John, you are “forgiving the sins of others” by helping them to know Christ in “languages” they can understand.
I would like to close with a couple of thoughts from Father Keating’s book:
Where did he come from when he visited the apostles on the night of his resurrection and appeared suddenly in their midst, despite locked doors? Perhaps he came out of their hearts, where he was living already!
We are apostles in the sense of being immersed in the infusion of divine love that the apostles experienced at Pentecost…. We transmit the Bible more by who we are and how we love than by any other means.
By committing and recommitting to Christ and to each other, we become increasingly a true community.
As we become increasingly a true community, we become better vessels for the infusion of divine love that is the Holy Spirit working in the community and in our individual lives.
As we become better vessels for the Holy Spirit, we are better able to speak a language of love that the world can understand, thus closing the distance between the world and Christ.
Community and commitment are thus critical to a Spirit-guided inward and outward journey.
May God continue to bless, and may the Holy Spirit continue to work within and through this amazing and committed 8th Day Faith Community.