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New Life in the Spirit

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“New Life in the Spirit” (Acts 2:1-21)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
June 12, 2011 (Pentecost), Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Pentecost: An amazing sight to have seen!
I would have loved to have been there that Pentecost day long ago when the church was born by the surprising power of the Holy Spirit. There were three times a year when every Jew who could make the journey would show up in Jerusalem: Once in the fall for the feast of Tabernacles to celebrate the fall harvest, to remember the time when God dwelt with the people in the wilderness, and to look forward to a time when every nation will worship God; once in the spring for the Passover festival to remember the passover and deliverance out of slavery; and once fifty days (or seven weeks) later for the feast of Pentecost or Weeks, to celebrate the spring harvest and remember the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai.

It would have been amazing to see all those thousands of people from throughout the Roman world gathering in Jerusalem for this festival. Folks from every nation under heaven were there, and as if to be sure we get the point, Luke even makes mention of the Medes, who no longer existed as a nation.

I would have loved to have been in the upper room with the disciples, locked in, probably scared, praying, and waiting for something they couldn’t possibly have anticipated. It must have felt a little bit like the day Jesus rose from the dead and they were back in the upper room, scared, but locked doors couldn’t keep Jesus from accomplishing his purpose then, and now, fifty days later, the Spirit was ready to make another surprising entrance.

And I really would have loved to have been there to see (and hear) that – to hear and feel the voice suddenly coming from heaven to fill the entire house like the sound of rushing wind, to see the tongues of fire rest upon them, fill them, and empower them to speak in many tongues.

Yes, it would have been something to have been there that day the tower of Babel was turned upside down, that day when the scattered languages and nations were once again drawn back together. Various ancient peoples had held a sort of utopian hope for a universal language,1 an expectation now turned sideways by the Holy Spirit.

But most importantly, can you imagine being there as the early church was born, as believers were filled and empowered and transformed by the Holy Spirit, as a little more of God’s new creation came into the world, as Peter, who had once fearfully denied Jesus three times, stood and boldly delivered the church’s first sermon?

Can you imagine being there?

Telling these old stories
Except, we weren’t there that Pentecost day, when the Holy Spirit filled and moved and brought the church to life. Nor were we there some five hundred odd years ago when the Holy Spirit blew with a mighty wind and a Reformation movement was birthed and our own faith ancestors joined the radical wing of that movement. Nor were we there just 200 years ago, when the Holy Spirit drew together this particular corner of God’s family, which would come to be called “Grace Hill.”

But we don’t tell these tremendous stories of God’s deeds of power because we wish we could have been there, and we pine for the “good ol’ days;” for we have a mission and a purpose and a calling here in this place and time. Nor do we tell these stories because we’d like to think ourselves more unique, special, and important than we really are.

Rather, we tell these stories in part to remember who we are, why we’re here, and where we’re going. These stories remind us that we don’t exist as the church merely because some folks got together and formed a sort of nice club called church. No, these stories remind us this Pentecost day that the church is a body of believers that is enlivened, empowered, moved, and directed by the very presence of God – not just to turn inward and tend to the needs of its members, but to embody in its life together the healing presence of Jesus Christ himself for a broken and hurting world as a foretaste of God’s future, and to witness to the good news of redemption and hope in Jesus’ name.

When we tell these stories, we remind ourselves that we do not and cannot exist by our own will, by our own good ideas or careful planning, but solely by God’s grace and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, there is no church. And maybe we need to spend a little more time praying in the Spirit, so that we may also live and witness empowered by the Spirit.

But perhaps most importantly, we tell these stories of long ago because they are still our stories today. The story of Pentecost is still our story today. The surprising, transforming power of the Holy Spirit continues its work among God’s people.

Caught up in the Spirit’s winds
We know who gave the church’s first sermon. It wasn’t a priest or rabbi, not someone who had all the right credentials. In fact, this fisherman from Galilee named Peter was the one who had denied Jesus three times and abandoned him. That’s whom the Spirit moved and used. And the Spirit is waiting and wanting to use all of us – this motley crew of Peters – if we will just let it.

It’s the Spirit, you see, that moves us also, that leads us, that drives us, that transforms us and empowers us to live a new life in Christ and with Christ in us. If you’ve ever experienced a nudging (or perhaps a shoving), or a sense of conviction, or joy or comfort or peace, or if you’ve ever done anything at all in the name of Christ, you’ve experienced the activity of the Spirit.

Some of the youth might remember two summers ago when we heard Greg Boyd speak at Columbus. And he told this story about how one day he was in his car and for some reason had a $100 bill in his pocket. And he came to this intersection and there was a mother with her children crossing the intersection.

And he felt this nudge, this leading, to give that $100 bill to that family. And so he got out of his car told the mother that he felt like he was supposed to give her that $100 bill. She thanked him very politely, and he drove off.

And as he was driving off, he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the mother weeping on the street corner.

He didn’t know if that was really the Spirit leading him to do that, he told the audience, and he said, “But so what?” If it wasn’t, then he did a nice thing for someone. When have you felt the Spirit move you? How is the Spirit changing you and empowering you to live a new life in Christ. What risk, what chance, what act of love and compassion is the Spirit blowing into your life?

The word for “Spirit,” as we’re often reminded, has to do with “wind” or “breath” – the wind, the breath, the Spirit hovering over the face of the deep in the beginning, the “breath” the risen Jesus gave to his disciples in the locked room as he sent them into the world, the mighty wind that blew into that upper room at Pentecost.

It’s sometimes described as something like a dove, or here in the Pentecost story, as fire. But really, like breath and wind, it is invisible and can only by observed in how it sounds, how it feels, how it moves those things that are visible.

Leaving Rooms, Crossing Borders
Just as Jesus is the image of the invisible God, so the church is to be the visible embodiment of the invisible Spirit of God because we have that breath, that wind, that Spirit within us, nudging us, changing us, moving us if we will just let it.

Just as the unity of the early church was threatened by language and culture, so too there are many languages that divide people in our churches today – literal languages, and also cultural differences, differences in ideology, or political perspective, or economic class, or education, or personality, or national identity, or upbringing.

And the Holy Spirit continues to urge and empower us to speak with tongues of fire across those divisions, to undo Babel, to cross borders of fear, division and hatred with bridges of healing and hope, to embody an alternative to the fear and division of the world in an international, inter-ethnic, inter-ideological, inter-class, inter-whatever(!) body of believers the world over, who require no worldly or national policy or power for our protection, but rely wholly on the protection and comfort of the Holy Spirit as we entrust our lives to God and God alone through our Teacher, our Lord, our Healer, and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

This, friends, is our story for today. May we yield our will to God’s will and to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, that we may live a new life for Christ as his visible body here in the world and for the world, led out beyond our closed-in rooms, burning in power and in witness, in compassion, healing, and hope. Amen.

Notes:
1. Kate Huey, SAMUEL, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.

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Baptism Meditation

May 26th, 2010 No comments

“Baptism Meditation” (Pentecost/Baptism Sunday)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
May 23, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This meditation makes significant use of Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1995.

Celebrating the Spirit

These past weeks, we have been celebrating. We have been celebrating the Easter story, that God raised Jesus from the dead. We have been celebrating God’s victory, rejoicing in our hope, and sharing our faith stories as we have been witnessing to the risen Lord’s presence in our lives.

And the Holy Spirit that gave birth to the church so many years ago has been dancing, burning over us and in our hearts, entering our midst time and again, to inspire to challenge, to comfort, and to empower, as we have been gathering to celebrate and to worship the Living God, who raised Christ Jesus from the dead. Several of you have shared with me, that you have felt the Holy Spirit’s presence at work right here among us, and I couldn’t agree more.

Today that celebration continues. This is an exciting day in the life of the church. Today, we get to participate in the anticipation, the excitement, the pure delight and joy the disciples experienced as they caught the first whispers of the sound from heaven, that soon built to a rush of mighty wind and filled the house where they were sitting.

This morning, right here in this place, this house where we are sitting, six people are going to share their faith stories, six people are going to publicly declare their allegiance to Jesus Christ, and six people are going to receive baptism by water, just as we trust that the Spirit will baptize from above. Six people who have been called by God, who have encountered the risen Lord, whose faith has been nurtured by the Spirit, and all of us are witnesses as the Holy Spirit comes in power ever again.

We are celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit this morning by witnessing first-hand its real, tangible work in the lives of six individuals. These past weeks since Easter, you may have noticed, we have been inviting people to share their faith stories – to bear witness to the risen Lord’s presence in their lives and to the work of the Holy Spirit. These stories have built up the body of Christ, and have modeled for us what it might mean to share our faith with others.

Today, these stories reach a sort of fulfillment, as the Holy Spirit has led Sam, Ashley, Brett, Travis, Matt, and Melinda, make their confession of faith and request baptism. I can think of no better Pentecost sermon than to hear the stories of how the Spirit has come into our midst, and to re-enact Pentecost through Christian baptism. So baptism candidates, your faith statements and your baptism will be this morning’s Pentecost sermon, and I trust that like Peter’s Pentecost sermon, yours will be one we will not forget.

So for my part, since all of you have the sermon covered for this morning, instead of preaching a sermon, I would like to share some brief reflections about the significance of what we will soon experience, that is, Christian baptism.

[Baptism candidates, you probably have many friends and family members who have been baptized already – some as infants, some as children, some as adults, some never have been and perhaps never will be, but all are just as committed to following Jesus, and each Christian tradition has important things to say about baptism. Recognizing that no tradition – especially not your own – can rightly say it has everything figured out better than anyone else, there is also something important, I think, about reflecting on the tradition into which you are being baptized – the Anabaptist tradition.]

Baptism is a practice that is overflowing with significance and meaning. Of the many important understandings of baptism, I’d like to touch on three: baptism as a sign, baptism as a covenant, and baptism as witness.

Baptism as a Sign of God’s Deliverance

First, to speak of baptism as a sign is to draw on a wealth of biblical significance. A sign is first and foremost an act of God’s grace that points toward God’s deliverance. God performed signs and wonders in Egypt (Ex. 10:1, Num. 4:11), as God delivered the people of Israel. God sent signs to the prophets as a promise of salvation (Isa. 7:14, 55:13). Jesus himself performed many signs (John 2:11; 12:37; 20:30). Jesus even referred to his own death and resurrection as a sign of his authority and power to save (John 2:18-22).

At the same time, a sign is also a human action that points toward God’s deliverance. The new people of God, called out of Egypt, ate unleavened bread at Passover and bound the commandments to their foreheads and hands and kept the Sabbath as signs of God’s mighty saving acts to redeem the people out of the house of slavery (Ex. 13:9; Deut. 6:8; 5:12-15).

To speak of baptism as a sign, therefore, is first to speak of it as something pointing to – even celebrating – God’s faithfulness to deliver us from sin and death, and yet also the faithful human response of loving and following Jesus Christ “in the context of Christ’s body, the church.”1

The sign of baptism finds its origin in the ancient Hebrew practice of ceremonial washing of uncleanliness or sin, so that one could participate in the community of God’s people. Likewise, Christian baptism is a sign of cleansing, that a person “has repented, received forgiveness, renounced evil, and died to sin, through the grace of God in Christ Jesus.” Having been cleansed, believers are “incorporated into Christ’s body on earth, the church,”2 the community of God’s people through the new covenant.

Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). In Jesus, God’s reign is breaking into the world “as good news for those who repent. . . Conversion is a turning from sin, from evil, and from false gods – and a turning to Jesus Christ, who shows us the one true God.”3 Baptism is a sign that this has taken place, and is the beginning of a journey of ongoing conversion through the work of the Spirit. [The Anabaptist tradition emphasizes that conversion and following Christ is both an event and a journey. It involves an initial decision (which can be instantaneous or gradual), along with daily discipleship – each day, we all have a decision to make: Will we follow Christ? This shouldn’t be confused with salvation by works, but rather, it is a recognition of the two-way connection between knowing Christ and following him (John 14:21, 23).]

Baptism as a Covenant with God, an Individual, and the Body of Christ

Secondly, baptism is sign of a covenant involving God, an individual, and the body of Christ. Public promises and commitments are important – as we are reminded each time we witness a wedding. We will hear six people make their “pledge before the church. . . with God to walk in the way of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is a public eternal commitment to love and identify with Jesus Christ, “not only in his baptism by water, but in his life in the Spirit and in his death and suffering love.”4

For this reason, the New Testament also speaks of a baptism of blood or suffering (1 John 5:7-8, Romans 6:1-11). Jesus saw the giving of his life through the shedding of his blood for others as a baptism (Luke 12:50), and he spoke of his disciples’ suffering and death as a baptism (Mark 10:38). Therefore, those who covenant with God in water baptism also “commit themselves to follow Jesus in giving their lives for others, in loving their enemies, and in renouncing violence, even when it means their own suffering and death.”

This was a pressing reality – both for early Christians and early Anabaptists, as it is today in some parts of the world – but Jesus is also faithful to the covenant, and those who are baptized into his death will also share in his resurrection.

Today we are fortunate to live in a land where baptism does not bring with it the threat of death. Today the seductions that draw us away from covenant faithfulness are much more subtle, gently crowding out the one true God with other gods like power, wealth, performance, bodies, nations, entertainment, and so much more. But Jesus is still faithful to the promises made, and continually calls us home, as the Holy Spirit works out our ongoing journey of conversion.

The apostle Paul understood that no one is a Christian alone. Rather, as we come to faith in Christ, we are found to be “in Christ,” incorporated into his body on earth, the church. For this reason, baptism is a covenant also to love one another, to give and receive counsel and care, to share one another’s burdens and joys, and to walk together along the journey of following our Lord as his body on earth.

Baptism as Witness before a Watching World

And finally, baptism means that our covenanted life together and with God is a witness before a watching world. In addition to the baptism of water and blood, the New Testament also speaks of a baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 John 5, Acts).

Through the Spirit, we “repent and turn toward God in faith.” The Holy Spirit “enables believers to walk in newness of life, to live in community with Christ and the church, to offer Christ’s healing and forgiveness to those in need, to witness boldly to the good news of Christ, and to hope in the sharing of Christ’s future glory.”5 Indeed, the first gift of the baptism of Holy Spirit at Pentecost was witness. The disciples immediately began telling about God’s deeds of power in raising Christ from the dead. Baptism is a public declaration of allegiance to Jesus Christ and a witness to the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of a believer.

In the New Testament, baptism meant incorporation into a new social reality – literally a new creation. The church was a reality and identity that transcended other dividing identities, such as Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.6 Paul speaks of this new creation as being a proclamation to the Powers (Eph. 3:10), who desired to maintain division and violence. How much the world needs this witness of baptism and hope in Jesus Christ still today!

We are about the hear the witness of six sisters and brothers. They will share about how God has been active in their lives, and the importance of their faith. At this time, may we all remember the sign of God’s deeds of power, may we all re-affirm our covenants with God and one another, and may we all find our stories, our tongues of witness to what God has done in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

1 “Article 11: Baptism” in Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.

2 Ibid.

3 Lois Barrett, et al., “Response to Mennonite World Conference Request for Perspectives on Core Convictions” (Pamphlet), Mennonite Church USA, 2002.

4 “Article 11: Baptism” in Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.

5 Ibid.

6 For more on this, see John Howard Yoder’s Body Politics.



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