The Community of the Holy Spirit: The Birth of a Diverse Church (Sermon)

This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday and for someone who spent his high school years in a Charismatic church, I know the day fairly well. It proved to play another significant role in my spiritual autobiography as it was also the day of my first sermon as pastor of Camas Friends Church. We covered the scripture passage Acts 2:1-21, the text all churches following the Revised Common Lectionary would have covered as well. Here is a summary of what was said.

Acts 2 is a favorite among our more lively and spirited brothers and sisters. There was, at least for me, growing up in a community that focused so heavily on the Spirit a strong emphasis on this chapter as it pertained to tongues, and prophesy. I remember many sermons discussing the ins and outs of the meaning behind this baptism of the Spirit, what Peter meant by “Sons and Daughters” and of course plenty of good jokes around the whole, “they must be drunk” line. I too was tempted to make a joke about that but was able to refrain myself for the time being.

This is that:Upon approaching the text again I was met with something different in the text that I had missed up until now. For one, Luke emphasizes the continuity of these events with both OT and NT sources. He quotes Peter, quoting the connection with Joel, but he also draws on similar language used by both John the Bapstist and Jesus who both prophesy about the coming of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Luke in the book of Acts, say “This is That” repeatedly. ‘This’ new thing you see happening is connected ‘that’ older thing, that thing located within our tradition. Luke was clear to show that while God may be conducting a new movement among the people, it did not totally break with the old.

Thus, “This is that” is a key function of what birthed the church and what keeps us the church. It names our continuity with the past. Justifies our connection with God’s great story. It challenges our faithfulness to the call of the Holy Spirit. If we cannot say “This is That” if we cannot draw on our history, we may be breaking with our narrative.

Diversity and Babel: I read the second portion of the this passage as a reversal of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. Where in Genesis 11 humanity wanted to “overcome historically developing diversity” (Yoder). They sought to keep themselves from being scattered, and maintain the sameness they had as a community. John Howard Yoder calls this the beginning of foundationalism, where humans sought to establish absolute certainty and control. Gen. 11 story illustrates that “diversity was the original divine intent.” God scatters the people and confuses their language so that they did not understand one another. God liberates humanity from their desire for absolute certainty and sameness pushing them back into difference.

Therefore, Acts 2 is a reversal of Babel. The God who embraces difference, diversity, and welcomes all to the table gives the disciples the ability to speak so that “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each,” with the purpose of bringing salvation to those who hear it. This time however, diversity is the starting point. Difference is the basis through which God’s universal language is communicated.

As we all are aware this idea of diversity is one thing we fear the most in American society.  We want to live in safe places, where safe often means “everyone is like me.” We want to create huge, homogeneous, cookie cutter church communities where anonymity can reign. Prejudice and Racism still run rampant and often unchecked. Immigration threatens our sameness and for that we resent those who represent it. Today people, both inside and outside the church, long for Tower of Babel.

However, if the church is to be the church at all, it will be the community of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit binds us together in all our diversity, our many differences of opinions, and our deeply held beliefs. We submit our difference them to the language and the mission of the Spirit which can unify us. But this unity is a gift that needs can be received or refused.  When we join together, when we find the sense of the meeting (or as some say ‘consensus’), when we are faithful to Gospel Order, we say “This is that” pointing back to Pentecost, showing that we too are God’s people living in the wake of the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

After the sermon we reflected in silence on the Query: Where have you witnessed the bond of the Holy Spirit most at work in diverse communities, such as Camas Friends?

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There was some interested in knowing what I used for preparation of the message so in the future I will try to create a short reading list. Here are a few suggested readings from this past week:

  • James Wm. McClendon, “Doctrine” (chapter on the Holy Spirit and Mission).
  • John Howard Yoder, “For the Nations” (chapter 3 “See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun”).
  • Colin Brown, “Karl Barth and the Christian Message” (chapter 2 “The Word of God and the Knowledge of God” – section on the Trinity).
  • John Woolman, “Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman” (p. 133).
  • FF Bruce, “Acts” (Commentary)
  • I. Howard Marshall, “Acts” (Commentary)
  • C. Norman Kraus, “Community of the Spirit.”
  • Everett L. Cattell, “The Holiness of the Spirit.”

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

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