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Our Identity in the Spirit

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria, VA on Sunday, May 19, 2013.

Pentecost Sunday; Year C (RCL): Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, (25-27)

         Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

         Who am I? Who. Am. I?

         The question of identity will preoccupy us at some point, and very likely more than once at different times throughout our lives. Younger ones start to wonder what to make of who they are or will become. Will I be a fireman, or a police officer, an astronaut, or perhaps the first female President of the United States? Courtship, marriage and parenthood can prompt a reassessment of who we are. Does he love me? Will she marry me? How far are we willing to go with the infertility work-up? How many children can we parent well? Empty-nesters start to ponder how to fill time and space as their grown children vacate the premises and busy homes give way to silence and stillness. The recently retired must find an entirely new rhythm for their days to stay active, interested and practical. Those who grieve must struggle with the emptiness of loss, and how to live with life without the other. All of these different situations prompt us to reflect upon our identity.

         When we ask that question, “Who am I?” we begin to consider the network of relationships that we share. I am a son, a brother, a husband, a godfather to some, and an uncle to many more. We also think about our various roles in a broader community, whether it is occupational or otherwise. I am a friend, a pastor, a preacher, a colleague, and a citizen. Finally, we also may reflect upon our various attributes: I am middle-aged, middle-class, and mostly politically moderate.

         Closely connected to questions of identity is the sense of meaning we desire for our lives. We hope our personalities facilitate happy, healthy relationships. We wish for success in our occupational endeavors. We aspire to achieve something substantial, to leave a legacy, or to make a positive mark in our community.

         As Christians, our identity and meaning are bound up in a story: the story of loving sacrifice, with the giving and receiving of gifts; a story of immense power and glorious possibilities that ushers in hope and peace, and maybe some anxiety.

         Today, we celebrate Pentecost, the occasion when the Holy Spirit descended upon the first followers of Jesus in a unique and powerful way, enabling them to exercise a ministry that has irrevocably altered many lives and the world in which we live, and how we look at both. This event was the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that he would not abandon us. Even though he went to Calvary to die on the cross, Jesus rose again, and although he ascended into heaven to return to the Father, his presence remained, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, embodied in his disciples, then and now.


         The effect of this promise and its fulfillment on our identity and the meaning of our lives can hardly be described. The Spirit given to us changes everything: our perspective; every relationship we enjoy, and some that we don’t; our motives and our priorities. Nothing escapes the implications of what it means to be Spirit-filled people as Disciples of Christ. Everything we do, everything we are should telegraph that reality.

         However, it doesn’t always feel that way. We tend to define our identity and find meaning and purpose through other realities, when in fact, the presence of the Holy Spirit creates a new reality that both includes and transcends all that we are, all that we have, and all that we do. This can be a very scary proposition. As the author of Hebrews wrote, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb 10:31) While we like the idea of being spiritually empowered, dreaming of what we might do with it, power scares us, and rightfully so. The risks of exercising power can, and probably should, make us tremble.

         This is brought to our attention starkly in the words of Jesus. “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…” (John 14: 12) We all know that the power Jesus wielded made him both popular and despised. Eventually, it led to him enduring great suffering. His proclamation that we share the same power through the Spirit can make us hesitate. The implications of power – the responsibilities and sometimes the undesirable results – are intimidating.

Yet as faithful Christians, we have no choice, for to follow Jesus means allowing that spiritual power to flow through us unimpeded, guided not by our own preferences but by the purpose of God. That purpose is somewhat mysterious, and outside the realm of fiction or suspenseful movies, we might not be really fond of mysteries. Why? Because they often elude our control.

         It is worth it, though. The risk, the pain, the uncomfortable unpredictability - it is all completely worth it – because when the Holy Spirit flows through us, we understand who we are, whose we are, and our lives gain a meaningful purpose that nothing else can give. As the Spirit moves through us, we know peace that takes the place of fear. Joy triumphs over despair, and worry about the prospect of losing it all recedes, because when the Holy Spirit is at work within us, we die to whatever once obsessed us, and our lives are renewed, transformed, and dedicated to the sacred purpose of unfettered love in Jesus Christ.

         What this looks like day by day for our Church and for each individual member in it varies considerably. We can never account for how the Spirit works. As Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Sometimes, the Spirit works out God’s purpose through us in ways we notice only in hindsight, and sometimes, we are aware that the Spirit is moving us, though we may not know where.

Finishing high school, I wanted to attend the U. S. Naval Academy, but had I gone to Annapolis, I might not have met the McFaddens at VTS or married the Heart Of My Heart, Chrissie.

If Chrissie and I had pushed further through the infertility process to have our own children, would we appreciate all children as 'gifts of God' the way we do now in our extended family and yours?

It has been interesting to watch my father 'retire' numerous times and later find other 'work' that seemed to bring much joy to his heart and purpose to his life.

And, of course, we are all excited to see the fruits of the Spirit revealed from the diligent search, discernment, and call process and the new possibilities that emerge with our new rector who comes to live among us to serve, lead and guide this parish.

Times such as these require prayerful discernment to sense the presence and the purpose of God through the Spirit. We need ‘disciple hearts and minds,’ along with the accountability of community, and some humility, to step out as courageous stewards to see life in new ways.

         None of this is easy, but very little that is truly worthwhile ever is, and nothing matters more than receiving with gratitude and exercising with gladness the powerful spiritual gifts that God so eagerly wants to bestow upon all of us.

         In his poetic prayer, “To make things new that never were,” Walter Brueggemann calls upon the Holy Spirit to “Rush us beyond ourselves, rush us beyond our hopes, rush us beyond our fears, until we enact your newness in the world.”[1] The Spirit’s power even makes new things that never existed before. It is no wonder that the gathered then, and we today, witness in perplexed amazement at the Holy Spirit’s rushing force to enact that newness in the world.

         So I urge you to consider this next week how it might feel and what it might look like if each one of us individually, and collectively as a body, were to open ourselves just a little more to the Spirit of God. How might our daily lives, the life of this congregation, and the life of the world around us be transformed if we acted more faithfully as channels of God’s Grace? Certainly, we have seen in part the wonders that can be wrought, by the apostles’ first works and all disciples who followed, but have we only scratched the surface of what can be possible when we open our hearts a little more to the Spirit, and let it flow freely through us? Give those questions some thought this week. What would it mean for whom you are, and for whom we are? What might it mean for the world around us? Amen.

[1] Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, [fortress Press, 2003], p. 167.