Missing the Spirit
Rev. Alex McNeill
Sermon Preached at New York Ave Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2021
Acts 19:1-7

How many of you remember your own baptism? For those of us who were baptized as infants, I’m willing to bet the chances of us having vivid memories of our own baptisms are scant. For those of us who were baptized as children, teenagers, or adults hopefully you have some memories of what the experience was like for you. Maybe you remember the feeling of water on your forehead or your family standing next to you, or the sound of the congregation as they affirmed your place in the faith.

Having been born into a Presbyterian family, I was baptized as a 6 month old, and all I know of my own baptism was from what my parents shared with me of their memories. One of the infamous stories in our family is that I participated in my own baptism by tugging at the pastor’s beard as he walked me up and down the center aisle of our church to introduce me to the congregation. I didn’t cry or fuss, but stared with huge wide eyes at this man who was not my parent taking me for a stroll around the sanctuary.

Usually the stories about the moments of our baptisms are cute or poignant or even embarrassing if something goes particularly awry. In our retellings of baptismal stories we tend to concentrate a lot on the circumstances surrounding the Baptism, what did we wear, who was there, how did it feel, and it can be easy to miss the spirit of what is happening. Our Biblical record is no exception. Even within the story of John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel we could get so caught up in John the Baptist’s outrageous attire and food choices that we miss the words he speaks and what follows.

Here’s my confession, I missed the Spirit of it too. I must admit that if you’d asked me before I prepared for this sermon about the essential elements of our baptismal sacrament, I probably would have focused much more on the sign and seal of our incorporation into Christ, the water’s cleansing of our repentance and forgiveness of sins, and the welcome into Christian community. I likely would have neglected to mention the gift of the Holy Spirit as an essential component of Baptism. Thankfully, today’s scripture has set me right and is a reminder that we best not forget the power of the Holy Spirit in our baptismal covenant.

So, what does the holy spirit have to do with our Baptism anyway?

If we only read the story of Jesus’ baptism in Mark’s gospel it might be tempting to see the Holy spirit descending like a dove and the voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be God’s beloved son as a gift meant particularly for Jesus as of way of signaling THIS is the coming Messiah. You might think, great! Jesus deserves all of this fanfare, send in the trumpets because this is a capital S sacred moment and we want to make sure the setting is just right. However, Paul’s conversation with the recently baptized disciples in Acts points to a broader understanding of the Holy Spirit’s connection with baptism. I don’t think Paul asks whether they had received the Holy Spirit as a disciples- worthiness-litmus-test but more like “have you received the free gift God sent you?” Have you yet gotten to experience the full depth of this thing called faith in Jesus?

If we trace the line from John the Baptist foretelling of one who will baptize with the holy spirit, to Jesus’s baptism where he receives the holy spirit, then to the Pentecost where Jesus’ disciples receive the Holy Spirit, then to this story in Acts, we can see more clearly that the holy spirit is not just for Jesus as a marker of his baptism, or the original disciples’ faithfulness, the holy spirit is part of our baptisms too. Tracing this line reveals that the holy spirit draws an ever expanding circle that includes even us.

By connecting the Spirit with our baptisms, it is a reminder that we are able to meet the Holy Spirit early in our faith journeys, it’s not as if the Spirit is not held back from us until we have proven our worth. For some of us it might have been a holy spirit moment that led us to first believe long before our official baptism into a faith community.

Who is this Holy Spirit anyway?

We can make a lot of references to the Holy spirit within the Christian faith without naming more specifically what characterizes the Holy Spirit. How would we know if Paul were to ask us, “and have you received the holy spirit when you came to believe?”

Rev. Elton Brown shared a profound quote from C. S. Lewis who “once told an audience that for Christians “spirit” is not lighter than matter, but heavier. Spirit is the real substance of God acting in creation and redemption and final reconciliation. Spirit fills us in church and then drives us from church.”[1]

Indeed. Just after Jesus baptism in Mark, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, not as a punishment, but as an important moment in Jesus’ life of faith, to really see what he was made of and what was central to his understanding of God’s call to him. When we receive the holy spirit it is not meant to be a feel good event that we cherish and keep to ourselves. Usually, receiving the spirit is an incitement to speak, prophesy, or act. Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hooke explains, “with the gift of the Holy Spirit at baptism, each new believer is drawn into the eschatological event of the pouring out of the Spirit, and thus becomes a prophet. This gift of prophecy calls us to proclaim what God is doing even now in our world, and to do so with boldness. This gift empowers us to “speak truth to power,” and includes baptism not only by water but by the Holy Spirit, and which gives us the ability and the inspiration to take up the prophetic calling of all Christians.[2] The gift of the Spirit is one we are meant to share with others.

Channeling the bold prophetic power with which the holy spirit imbues us is one of the more sacred tasks of us as Christians. The movement that founded More Light Presbyterians sought to speak truth to power that all God’s beloved gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual children should be welcomed and included within our faith, to remind those in power at the time that we were already here, you had baptized us as infants and raised us in the faith.  I wouldn’t be here if the Holy Spirit hadn’t inspired Rev. David Sindt to hold up a hand-written sign at the 1974 Presbyterian General Assembly that read, “is anyone else out there gay?” His courage sparked gatherings which became a movement for more love unafraid.

However, this past week has been a brutal reminder that we are in the midst of a long-unfolding crisis: how can we decipher between prophetic words and works inspired by the Holy Spirit,  and self-serving words or worse destructive actions based on manipulations and lies?  It may sound clear cut when painted in that extreme, but our work is to walk way up stream to the trickling source before it becomes a mighty raging river. Thankfully, deciphering what is of the Holy Spirit and what is not, is in itself a task we undertake with the Holy Spirit. In the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church USA we name, “in a broken and fearful world,  the Spirit gives us courage to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.”[3]

Part of the work of More Light has been to unmask idolatries of convenient homogeneity, and a willingness to deny the inherent goodness of God’s creation. For a thought or practice to become an idol all you need to do is value that thing above what God loves and deems good. Here’s a metric we can use to decipher what is Holy Spirit inspired and what is not: Check it for whom it proposes to include or exclude. Dr. Douglas Ottati writes, for a “theology of the Holy Spirit: In Luke–Acts, the power of the Spirit expands the Christian movement in an ever-widening circle (according to God’s plan).”[4] Just like we saw in tracing the movement of the Spirit from John the Baptist to those who receive the baptism of Jesus in our text from Acts, the Spirit is ever-expanding who is included. Our litmus test is does a prophetic word offer an expansive vision of more freedom and inclusion? Then YES. If we encounter a vision that seeks to narrowly define who is included or names who should be left out then NO — this is FEAR speaking, not the Spirit who calls us to abundance, inclusion and justice.

It is the difference between a protest for expanding justice to the marginalized and an insurrection to take back the country and make it great again for a select few. To unmask the idolatry that would goad someone into smashing into the halls of government we must walk back to one of the sources of the stream who as New York Times columnist Ezra Klein named, “the real villains here are the people in power who lied to those who trusted them, putting them and the country in danger, for personal and political gain.”[5]

One half of the work we undertake with the Spirit’s help is unmasking idolatries, the other is listening for a true prophetic word of where God is calling us to go. As we named in the Brief Statement of Faith, we are to hear the voices of peoples long silenced as we work for justice.  This responsibility is not just an item on a list of Christian to-dos, listening for the Spirit’s prophetic word is part of the Baptismal vows we should be upholding. When we baptize people into the Christian faith the congregation promises to nurture and guide them as they know and follow Christ. What happens when following Christ means naming clearly injustices carried out in the name of faith or idolatry? Do we still listen? Do we speak?

If anything this past year has been a painful reminder of the path yet to walk for true belonging, justice, and freedom for all creation. This week shattered any illusion that turning over a new leaf, on the calendar, or in the halls of government will erase the past. In the coming year it is clear we need spiritual and moral leadership fueled by the Holy Spirit’s daring and courageous unquenchable fire for justice. Thankfully, New York Ave knows how to follow this calling to listen for the Spirit, receive her, and go do. As the church of Abraham Lincoln during his presidency you know a thing or two about standing strong in the midst of national chaos, as a long time More Light Church you know the life-saving ministry of holding moral convictions above popular opinion. What we are called to do now is the same as ever, to prepare ourselves to receive the nudge of the holy spirit for the world we are invited to co-create with God, and to prepare ourselves to listen to others who share a prophetic vision of the unfurling banner of justice and inclusion. This is our sacrament of Baptism to uphold. Will you? I know you will with God’s help. Amen.

[1]Brown, Elton. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (p. 643). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2] Rev. Dr. Hooke, Ruthanna B. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (p. 629). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] A Brief Statement of Faith, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Book of Confessions: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Part I. (p.312). The Office of the General Assembly. 2016.

[4] DOUGLAS F. OTTATI, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (p. 628). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[5] Klein, Ezra, Twitter thread 1-07-21, https://twitter.com/ezraklein/status/1347241551412428807

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