Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost, 2017

O God, who on this day didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people by sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, world without end.  Amen. 

Today is the Feast of Pentecost.  Pentecost is one of the seven Principal Feasts of our Book of Common Prayer.  It is also known as Whitsunday.  This is from the Old English Hwita Sunnandæg, or White Sunday, a term that likely refers to the white robes of the newly baptized, as Pentecost is one of the feasts of the year on which it is preferred to do baptisms.

Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of this week are the traditional Ember Days, on which we pray for the ministry.  The prayers for these three days are found in the Collects among the those for Various Occasions (no.  15, on pp.  205–206). 

Since we are no longer in Eastertide, this Friday is a day of Special Devotion, to observed by acts of discipline and self-denial. 

We commemorate the lesser feasts of three saints in the Prayer Book this week.  Tomorrow, Monday June 5, is the feast of St.  Boniface, an Englishman and the apostle of Germany.  Friday, June 9, is the feast of St.  Columba, abbot of Iona in Scotland.  And Saturday, June 11, is the feast of St.  Ephrem of Edessa in Syria, a deacon, writer of hymns, and theologian. 

Next Sunday, June 11, is Trinity Sunday, one of our seven Principal Feasts, like Pentecost.  It is also the feast of our St.  Barnabas, the patron of this church, but he will only be commemorated, as Trinity Sunday takes precedence.

In my sermon two weeks ago, I noted four tests, given to us in Holy Scripture, by which we may discern whether something is from the Spirit of God, or from some other, ungodly, spirit.  The first test is whether it is an act of love, love of God, and love of our neighbor.  For God is love, as the first letter of John says, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God, and knows God.  He who does not love, does not know God; for God is love." So if we see that someone is genuinely motivated by what is good for others, not by a desire to condemn or control, not by a desire to be right, not by self-righteousness, then it is more likely that that person is motivated by the Spirit of God.  On the other hand, if someone is motivated by these things, and not by love, then we know that they are being moved by some other spirit.

The second question is whether the spirit in question leads us to follow God's commandments: which commandments are set forth in Holy Scripture, and apprehended by reason, in particular the principles of natural justice.  As our Lord says (John 14:15–17), "If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of Truth..." We see here that the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of obedience to God.  So, when we are discerning spirits, if the spirit in question leads us to love God and keep his commandments, then we may be more sure that it is the Spirit of God.  But if people claim, and indeed we hear people claiming, that they are inspired by the Holy Spirit to disregard God's commandments, or to "move beyond" them, then we may be certain that it is not the Holy Spirit.

The third test, as the passage above says, is whether the spirit under discernment is a "Spirit of truth".  This includes being a spirit of reason, for, as the philosophers say, reason is what allows us to discern truth, and the relation between truths.  Part of the work of the Holy Spirit is to inspire our minds so that we may use our reason to discern what is true, better understand it, and put particular truths in proper relation to each other and to the whole of truth.  The Holy Spirit being a Spirit of Truth means we can know that a lying spirit, one that uses falsehood, for instance as propaganda, even in a presumably good end, is not the Spirit of God.  Likewise, an irrational spirit, one that demands blind obedience, or that discourages us from using our intellect, or that says that we should just go with our feelings or emotions in spite of our reason, such an irrational spirit is not the Spirit of God.

The fourth test is whether or not a spirit is catholic The word catholic come from the Greek καθ' ὅλον /kat holon/, or "according to the whole." Why is this a test? Our Lord says to us, "The Spirit will lead you into all truth." (John 16:13).  The "you" here is plural, collective.  It refers to us in the Church as whole.  The Spirit will lead us Christians, together, as the whole Church, to discern the truth.  In this sense, the Spirit is a Spirit of unity, not of division, in that He leads us to be one in the truth. 

So, if someone has an insight into some aspect of the truth, say with regard to the Scripture; if he or she presents it charitably, with love, to his fellow Christians; if that person is willing to listen and work together to discern the truth, then it is a good sign that that person is being motivated by the Spirit.  But, if someone claims to have a monopoly on the truth, that it is peculiar to himself and his followers, is someone is more interested in being right than being charitable, then the spirit in question is not the Spirit of God, and, while the particular truths in question may have some validity despite this, we should be very careful before accepting them.  Likewise, if a Christian or group of Christians is unwilling to work charitably with others who sincerely desire to follow Christ, then we know that such a person or group is not motivated by the Spirit of God.

So, taking these four tests, we can look at ourselves and try to discern what the Spirit is calling us to do.  These past two weeks, and especially since the feast of the Ascension, we have been asking for God to renew the gift of His Spirit in us, and in this congregation.  We know that if we ask God Father something in penitence and faith, seeking to do His will, He will hear our prayer.  We cannot however, predict how or when He will act upon it, but we may be sure that He will.  In today's Epistle reading, St. Paul tells us, however, of the kinds of things we might expect as gifts of the Spirit.  These are "utterance of wisdom", "knowledge", "faith", "gifts of healing", "miracles", "prophesy", "discernment of spirits", "tongues", "the interpretation of tongues".  I don't think he meant this list to be exhaustive.  Some of these gifts, like faith, the Spirit will give to us all, although perhaps in different measure according to our need and capacity.  Others of these gifts, like miracles, the Spirit apparently gives to some, but not to all. 

Now, the thing of which we must be aware is that some of these gifts can be counterfeited by the enemy.  All of these are real gifts, but, for instance, the Enemy can counterfeit miracles to make something look like the work of God.  Our enemy can counterfeit the gifts of tongues, or of prophesy, so that it looks like something from God, but is not.  And in every movement of renewal in Church history, take for example, the Oxford Movement, of which this congregation is an heir, or the Charismatic movement, or the Social Gospel movement, all of which have things in them which seem inspired and which led people closer to Christ, what starts out as a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit, can, in some places and with some people, through our pride and sin, be taken over by the enemy, and become a counterfeit.  How do we know this is happening? We ask for the gift of spiritual discernment, and using the tests provided by Scripture, exercise that discernment. 

One sure way we ourselves can avoid being led astray is to ask for the greatest gift of the Spirit.  And that gift St. Paul reveals to us in the next chapter following that from today's reading, in Chapter 13.   Here St. Paul says that the greatest gift is love, or charity, that love which puts God first, and which sincerely desires the best for all of God's creatures.  Without that all the other gifts are worthless, he says.  With that, everything else has value.  So as we pray for the Spirit today, let us pray for charity, the love of God living in us, let us pray for that above all, and for the true renewal which comes from being filled with the love of God.

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