Scripture | Romans 8:14-17 | Acts 2:1-21
The way the Book of Acts describes, there was nothing subtle about it. I imagine the sound of a tornado, with flashes of lightening surrounding them. The sound and light of pyrotechnics, coming out of nowhere, centered on this motley crew of rag-tag disciples huddled in a room somewhere, waiting.
I’ve often wondered how the disciples felt the day the Holy Spirit showed up. They knew the Spirit would be coming – Jesus promised them that, before he left. They knew where they were supposed to be – he told them to stay in Jerusalem, and wait. But they didn’t know when it would happen, or how long they would have to wait, or what it would be like when the Holy Spirit came. All they could do was trust they would know what to do when it happened.
And they did. They were empowered. Peter preached, people believed, and three thousand of them were baptized in Jesus’ name. This was the beginning of a whole new era. It was the beginning of the church, the body of Christ, with his Spirit living in them.
The Spirit came in a moment of crisis and opportunity. It was a crisis: Jesus had died, and risen, but left them again. The disciples were on their own again. They could have gone underground, or dispersed altogether, and it would have been understandable. Jesus had died because the political authorities considered him a risk, and his religious opponents saw him as a heretic. To talk about him openly was dangerous. It was a moment of crisis, a turning point, and an opportunity worthy of divine imagination.
In retrospect it all seems clear that things unfolded as they should. Of course the church was born. But it’s important to remember that there was no road-map or five-year-plan. The disciples didn’t have a consultant to help them chart a path. They were making it up as they went along, leaning on what they knew from the past, creating a new future, hoping and praying constantly that they were getting things right. All they had was the Spirit leading them along the way.
If you read the Book of Acts, you can see it wasn’t easy or straightforward. They sometimes disagreed; they fought and bickered with each other. Some of Jesus’ followers were jailed, some were persecuted and some were even killed. Looking back in time, it’s a wonder the church survived at all.
Without the Holy Spirit leading them, none of us would be here now. The church would simply not have happened. But it did. In that moment of crisis the Spirit came and led them to a future, which no one had ever dreamed.
The Spirit still comes, I think, in moments of crisis and opportunity, at turning points in history when we most need God’s guidance. I think it’s true for us as a church, and it’s true for us as individual followers of Jesus Christ.
The last few weeks we’ve been reading some of the Confessions of our church. These are statements of faith or catechisms that our ancestors developed in different times and places. Every one of them is historically rooted in a time of change and new directions. Each one was borne of a moment when leaders of the church faced opportunity or struggle. Each one is an attempt to articulate the faith in a compelling way for that particular moment in time.
This morning’s Brief Statement of Faith came not at a time not so much of crisis, but opportunity. It’s one of the most recent of our Confessions, written in 1983, when the Northern and Southern branches of the Presbyterian Church re-united. The church had been torn apart by the civil war and each branch had gone its own way. The differences between the northern and southern branches were about a lot more than the history of slavery or war. We were like distant cousins, still family, but with such different culture, structure and traditions. There was a lot to navigate and compromise, and it wasn’t always easy.
The wisdom of our leaders then was that the united church had to be based in more than negotiated compromise. If all we had was a set of rules we all reluctantly agreed on, we wouldn’t last long. There would be endless battles to redefine the rules, and we would get lost in the weeds. We needed to be firmly grounded in the Gospel, and our center needed to be Jesus Christ. We needed to be led by the Spirit of God, or this new creation would quickly wither away. That’s how the Brief Statement of Faith came to be.
There’s a line in the faith-statement that I especially love. It reads, “In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage…” The Spirit gives us courage.
I find this so comforting. We don’t have to manufacture courage in times of change. Our future doesn’t depend on our summoning up bravery out of nothing. We don’t have to face down our fears by sheer willpower. We have a power not of our own making, and God pours that Spirit into our hearts until we are full to overflowing, brimming with its life and liveliness.
As our reading from Romans puts it, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.” We have the “Spirit of adoption,” as God’s own children, heirs of the promise, recipients of grace.
The Spirit gives us courage…
I thank God for that. I thank God.
At every turning point along the way we have the Spirit’s power. At every moment of decision, every leap of faith we face. Not just for the church, but for us as individuals, in our own moments of crisis and opportunity. And there are many. There are so many times we need the Spirit’s guidance, and all the courage we can get.
I think about our High School seniors who are about to graduate, and about the Denison students who graduated yesterday. There’s such a feeling of pressure as they go out the door. Did they choose the right college or career? Will the relationship they’re in still last when they go their separate ways? What job will they get, and when? Will it lead to the future they imagined, or in a direction they haven’t even thought of?
Honestly, it feels like the future is riding on every single decision that they make.
And the truth is that it is. People my age are looking back at our lives, wondering how things unfolded how they did. “How did I end up here,” we wonder. All those small decisions, one after the other…
Many of you know my son Ben got married last weekend down in Nashville. His wife Jessica is from the Nashville area. They met because they both went to school at Belmont. If he had gone somewhere else they never would have met. He chose Belmont because he wanted to major in music and it was a good school for that. But his interest in music started long before he was in High School… before he started playing bass in Middle School, before he picked up viola in 4th grade, even before he sang in the children’s choir at our church, all the way back to Kindermusik and the songs we used to sing together.
And what of the decisions other people made? Like the churches we’ve been part of that called and paid wonderful musicians… or his friends and teachers who encouraged him…
And that’s not even considering all the influences and decisions in Jessica’s life that brought her to Belmont, or to each other’s circle of friends…
Our lives are made of all those small decisions, one after another… each opportunity a new step in one direction or another, each one leading to a different place.
How do you create the future when you don’t know what it’s supposed to be? When there is no roadmap or no timetable? We could be frozen with all the choices we have to make, all the decisions along the way.
But the Spirit gives us courage… And I find no small comfort there. The Spirit gives us courage to follow, one step after another, where God is leading us…
It doesn’t mean we’ll never make mistakes or stupid choices. Of course we will. It doesn’t mean we’ll be crystal clear about next steps; there will be times we are confused. But it does mean we’re not alone in this. We have guidance, from God and from each other. And through our faith we know the big picture of what God values most.
We don’t have to pretend that we always know what we’re doing, or summon courage on our own. We don’t have to fake bravery or confidence. Christ will give us his own Spirit to fill that void. And we can trust that it will always be there for us.
There’s no need to be afraid of what the future holds. Not because it will be easy or kind to us.
In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage…
Let us pray:
Eternal God, you call us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church