Summary: Combinging Jesus’ teaching on the coming Comforter and the testimony of a contemporary Christian apologist, this sermon urges appropriation of the Spirit’s ministry comes best by learning to listen to a still, small voice.
Hearing the still, small voice
Today we note two birthdays, both of them mentioned in the bulletin. One birthday belongs to Emile M---, who is Donna Y---’s father. The other birthday isn’t mentioned with that term – birthday – but it is a birthday nevertheless and has often been referred to with that label. It is the birthday of the Church, when on the day of Pentecost – as Jesus had promised – the Holy Spirit descended from heaven and indwelt the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. And, from that moment, the preaching of the good news began in earnest, and, as St. Luke put it in the book of Acts, “the Lord added to the Church those who were to be saved.”
There is something profoundly fitting that the member of the Holy Trinity who is responsible for the generation of the body of our Lord in the womb of the Virgin Mary is also the one who generates the body of our Lord in the world, that body known as the Church. It is also typical of the Holy Spirit – that our knowledge of Him is almost exclusively tied to a knowledge of the things which he does. In the creed, he is the giver of life, he speaks through the Prophets, he is the one who baptizes us into Christ, thus forming and expanding the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, he effects forgiveness of our sins, and as He was instrumental in raising Jesus Christ from the dead, so he will also one day call each of us from the grave into everlasting life in a body like our Lord’s.
It is no wonder, then, that the Holy Spirit Himself has posed something of a puzzle for Christians down through the ages. This week, I happened upon a testimony about life with the Holy Spirit written by Frederica Mathews-Greene for Beliefnet, an web site for Christians [“From Clapping Hands to Still Small Voice” Her testimony crystallizes this Holy puzzle quite nicely. Let me quote, first of all, from her earliest understandings of the Holy Spirit: [http://www.beliefnet.com/story/166/story_16665_1.html].
“When I was a kid, I had no clear idea of what the Holy Ghost was for. He seemed boring and dowdy, a leftover appendage to the Trinity. Maybe it was because the Holy Ghost was described as the Love between the Father and Son. Love is great, but it isn’t a Person. The Father and Son came first, united and powerful, and then the Holy Ghost dawdled after, “proceeding” (whatever that means) from both, as if he were an afterthought. Pretty ghostly. I went to my Catholic Confirmation at the age of 12 prepared to receive this vague presence, feeling tensely expectant and – nothing happened. Bummer.”
This pretty well sums up MY earliest Christian remembrances of the Holy Spirit. Except my cradle faith was Southern Baptist, not Roman Catholic. So I even lost out on that “tensely expectant feeling prior to confirmation.” For me, the Holy Ghost was more ghostly than the ghosts in the ghost stories my friends and I would tell each other around a camp fire at night.
What came next for Frederica? Well, for her and her husband, it was involvement in the charismatic movement. I remember that too, at least the distant appeal of it. My college peers were pretty well divided between those who got caught up in all the excitement of 1970’s charismatic enthusiasm and those who weren’t having any of that. Frederica and her husband took a heaping double-handful of it. Here’s how she describes it:
“I wish I could summarize the next decade or so in a couple of words, but it was too full of upheaval. … We saw healings and miracles; we experienced many “words” from the Lord. By now, I was the one strumming guitar, and as we finished seminary and began to serve in Episcopal parishes we always kept a midweek Prayer and Praise service going. It was terrific.”
And, I believe her – that it was, from her point of view, terrific. I never questioned this particular judgment of those I knew who were caught up in the charismatic enthusiasms of the 1970s. What I did question is the thing which Frederica herself began to question. Here’s how she puts it:
“It was terrific. For a while, anyway. Then it began to get tedious. We felt like it was a chore to crank everyone up to a fever pitch of spiritual excitement every week. As the person leading the music, I was uncomfortably aware that much of what people were feeling was guided by my prodding. I wanted the music to serve and underscore religious experience, but there was a thin line between that and manipulating it.”