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"Spirit, Baptism, Witness" (Ascension Sunday) - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on June 2, 2019 by Kathy Miller

Spirit, Baptism, Witness

(Ascension Sunday)

Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day.  Amen.

Introduction

Our scripture reading this morning comes from the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. In it the author refers to the first book, which scholars believe was the Gospel according to Luke. Hear now God’s word to us this day from Acts chapter 1 verses 1 through 11.

Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The Word of the Lord. 

Thanks be to God.

––––––––

Spirit, Baptism, Witness

I’m not a big sports person, which perhaps makes what I’m about to say a little questionable, but I think I’m correct in comparing the Ascension of Christ and Pentecost—the gifting of the Holy Spirit—to a handoff, which I believe is what happens in football when someone hands the ball to someone else so they can run with it. Except for the fact that it’s not really like that because (and pay attention here because I’m going to switch to a different sports illustration just to keep us all on our toes), although the baton is transferred from Jesus to the Spirit, or really from Jesus to the disciples, there is a gap in between. As we just read, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit then he ascends and there are, presumably, a few days before the Spirit descends on Pentecost. I’m thinking there might be an illustration from quidditch, the flying sport played in the Harry Potter novels that fits better, but what fun would an accurate illustration be?

Regardless, we are at the point in our church calendar when we shift our focus from the life and ministry of Jesus to the life and ministry of the church—the body of believers who continue Jesus’ ministry to this day.

In order to understand this handoff that isn’t really a handoff, we need to understand three key terms that appear in our scripture reading for this morning: Spirit, baptism, and witness.

 

First, Spirit.

The third member of the trinity is, I believe, an intentionally difficult concept to grasp. We tend to be pretty good at picturing God as the creator. In popular culture, this figure of the creator is often imaged as an old, wise, white man with a beard, or as the voice of Morgan Freeman, or, more recently, as a large black woman. This parental figure is the progenitor of all creation. Someone we can love but who also inspires our respect and awe.

The image of God as the Redeemer is perhaps even easier for us since it assumed human form in Jesus. We know Christ came and lived among us—redeemed us, saved us, and showed us a new way to  know God the creator, to envision God’s kingdom, to live in this world. Most of us can summon an image of Jesus in our minds when we hear stories about him.

The image of God as Sustainer or Spirit, though, is much harder. Spirit tends to evoke images along the lines of Casper the Friendly Ghost; and Sustainer seems to imply that the job of the Spirit is a maintenance of the status quo. Frequently, even in the church, we just don’t talk about the Spirit. It is the silent member of the Trinity.

Next week we will talk more about how we might imagine the Spirit (or we will once I write that sermon), but this morning I want to talk specifically about the work of the Spirit—what it is that the Spirit does.

However, the list of jobs that theologians throughout the years have assigned to the Spirit is quite long and includes things such as:

  • Connecting God and creation
  • Making the sacraments real
  • Lifting our hearts to God
  • Speaking through the Prophets
  • Calling individuals and communities to do God’s work
  • Seeking justice
  • Consoling, comforting, and/or suffering with us
  • Giving gifts (like patience, not an x-box)
  • Teaching
  • Convicting
  • Healing and casting out demons

 

Basically, the Spirit gets the equivalent of the kitchen sink—whatever we don’t think God the Creator or God the Sustainer does, we assign to the Spirit. One theologian wrote that the Spirit is the keeper of mysteries, perhaps first and foremost who the Spirit is and what the Spirit does.

My favorite description of what the Spirit does, however, comes from the feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson who defines the Spirit as She-Who-Dwells-Within, the divine presence in compassionate engagement with the world. The Spirit, Johnson says, is God drawing near and passing by in vivifying, sustaining, renewing, and liberating power in the midst of history as we experience it. For Johnson, the Spirit is the presence of God in the world and the Spirit’s work is to liberate us from whatever bind us, be that hunger, poverty, addiction, depression, violence, so that we can fully flourish as beings created in the image of God.[1]

While we often encounter the Spirit in our individual lives, Johnson emphasizes that the Spirit is one that continually pushes us toward community. In part, because we cannot fully flourish as human beings if others around us are still suffering. If we have been liberated, even in part, the Spirit will continually push us to work toward the liberation of others.

The Spirit is the presence of God engaged in this world for the purpose of liberating each and every one of us so that we all might flourish as God’s beloved creatures.

 

Next, baptism.

For most of us in the Presbyterian Church, baptism is when we sprinkle water on babies’ heads and proclaim that they are first and foremost a beloved child of God. It is, for us, a sacrament. A visible sign of an invisible grace.

The author of Luke and Acts, however, is making a distinction between this baptism, a baptism with water, and a baptism with the Spirit that occurred on Pentecost.

The baptism of the Spirit on Pentecost was, in essence, a transfer of power. Whereas before God’s presence on earth was located in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, now God would be present in the form of the Spirit. And, according to Acts, this Spirit resides in those who believe in Christ and follow his path.

What is remarkable about this is that it means that the story we read in the Bible, the story of God’s relationship with the people that began with creation and seemed to culminate in the resurrection and ascension of Christ is not in fact over. It continues, and the story of each of our lives, and the story of our collective life together, is a part of the biblical narrative—a part of the story about God’s relationship with creation.

Moreover, the gift of the Spirit means that God is still present in our midst,

            that God is still on the move, still at work in the world.

It means that God is not done with this world yet and not done with us yet.

It means that God continues to walk with us through dark valleys,

            still makes paths through the dry places of our lives,

                        still speaks in the still small voices that we hear,

                        is still weaving a story of love and hope and peace within and between us,

still bringing life out of death, calling us by name, and holding all things together.

But the gift of the Spirit also means that we have a responsibility. Because the well-worn adage is true: to much that is given, much is required. Jesus promises the gift of the Spirit but he also sends the disciples to be his witnesses, which brings us to our third word—witness.

To be a witness requires two things.

First, to be a witness we must be present to experience or see something. In our scripture reading for this morning, Jesus is about to ascend to heaven, he will no longer be walking around on earth, but he is going to send his Spirit and it will land on the disciples and they will become his body in the world. They will be his eyes and ears. This is what the mystic Teresa of Avila meant when she wrote,

“that Christ has no body now on earth but ours,

no hands but ours, no feet but ours.

Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world.”

Ours are the eyes to see the world. For God to see what is happening, we must see what is happening. Part of what we are called to do as Christians is to  pay attention, to notice, to bear witness to the joys and sorrows of the world and of those in our midst. Jesus sends his disciples, us, into the world with the command to be his witnesses, to see for him, to be present for him.

The second part of being a witness is to bear witness—to tell, or testify to, what we have seen, what we know to be true. As one writers puts it, “to bear witness … is to give an account through one’s life to that which both fills and moves beyond one’s life. [It is to live] the ultimate truth in and through the everydayness of one’s life.”⁠[2] Certainly we can testify with our words, and at times that may be what is required. But, I suspect that what Jesus is asking of his disciples is that their lives bear witness to what they learned from, and saw in, him. That the choices they make, the words they use, the lives they lead, point to a God who values love above being right, who is relentlessly for the poor and oppressed, who is scandalously abundant, and who loves us more than we will ever know.

The Ascension of Christ means that the Holy Spirit is about to be on the loose in the world and especially in those of us who work to follow Christ. It means that we must bear witness—we must see one another and our world. We must pay attention. And we must be witnesses—our lives must be signposts that point to God. Because Christ now has no body on earth but ours.

Amen.



[1] Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992).

[2] Rebecca S. Chopp, “Bearing Witness: Traditional Faith in Contemporary Experience.” Quarterly Review: A Journal of Theological Resources for Ministry. 17, no.3 (1997): 198.

 
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