July 16, 2017 Sermon

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 16, 2017, Lectionary A, Proper 10

The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector

Scripture: Matthew13:1-9, 18-23; Romans 8: 1-11

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30

 

Who are you?

 

Let us pray. Gracious, loving Father, powerfully send afresh the Holy Spirit to baptize us with Him; so that we may increasingly come to know your presence through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

 

Play first video at https://youtu.be/5O11_Ma20Rk

 

Play second video at https://youtu.be/Ow0lr63y4Mw

 

As with the woman who had a nail in her forehead, we may be reluctant, indeed resistant to admitting we have a problem even though it causes us much pain, effecting who we are and how we see the world.

 

On the other hand, some of us are willing to admit we have a problem or problems and would like to fix them.  Despite our best efforts, however, we just can’t manage to stop it.  We are frustrated, perhaps despairing of ever stopping some behavior, some habit, which if not self-destructive, makes our lives miserable.

 

In last Sunday’s epistle reading from the Book of Romans (7:16-21) we heard St. Paul tell us. “Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.

 

If these words of Paul’s are not dark enough, he goes on to say in the closing verses of this chapter, “22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.”  Paul admits his problem, indeed our problem, but he is unable to stop it, as are we.   He is a slave to sin.  If that word bothers us, then let us say he is a slave to being at odds with himself, others, and most importantly with God.  There is a war going on with him.  We know the feeling.  He describes himself as “wretched.”  What is he do?  What are we to do?

 

Now, if Paul stopped here, it would indeed be a very dark place, a hopeless place where we are miserable victims of ourselves.  Paul, though is not only a theologian, he is also knows how to build a plot, as well as any novelist or filmmaker.  In the very next chapter, Romans 8, suddenly the morning sun rises and the vampires that feed upon us are vanquished.  What does Paul say?  The Protestant Reformation began with these words: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Did you hear that?  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

 

Before we go to sleep on those words, we need to wake up and realize that this verse may contain the most important words we can appropriate to ourselves.  Imagine, imagine not being under condemnation.  Imagine not ever getting down on ourselves.  Can we?  Imagine never saying to ourselves, “I am sorry, I failed, I am unworthy, I am stupid, No one likes me,” and all those self-demeaning words we lay on ourselves from time to time over what we did or who are, as a result of having broken some rule, some law by which we try to live.

Imagine having that kind of freedom where we not only like ourselves, but love ourselves, and you know what happens?  That liking and loving ourselves translates into liking and loving others. (So, we are not talking about unbridled selfishness here.) No longer are we judgmental of others.  No longer are we judgmental of ourselves.  When Jesus says, “Judge not that you be not judged,” (Luke 6:37) what He really is saying is that we judge others because we have already judged ourselves.

In other words, what St. Paul is talking about here is freedom, being free.  How many burdens are we carrying this very moment—so many that we might wonder how we can keep going.  At the foundation of those burdens is the fear of condemnation if we don’t obey some rule.  You know what I mean?  At this juncture, we may recall Jesus’ words to us from last Sunday’s gospel.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart,and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”   Paul has not only heard these words of Jesus, he has come to know the truth of them by his own experience, and so can we.

 

So, what has happened to make this possible?  Is this business of no condemnation simply a matter of some kind of psychological insight?  You know, “Gee, I finally understand,” or is there something more to it than that?  Here’s a statement that may shock you.  Without the Pentecost event the resurrection becomes another mere matter of history like the parting of the Red Sea.  It is just another remembrance.  Whereas it is important not to forget the past, the remembrance of the hamburger we ate last week is not going to satisfy our hunger today.  Spiritually speaking, the remembrance of what happened two thousand years ago, the resurrection, is not going to uplift us today. Where does that leave us?

 

Paul immediately addresses this question in the second verse of the epistle reading today.  What did he say? “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” Now, we are talking about something.  Now, we are talking about something in the present, today’s hamburger, or in the words of the Lord’s Prayer—our daily bread having been given to us.

 

This is why and where the Pentecost event becomes so important, in fact essential.  There is no Christian faith or Christian without it.  In the mystery of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, setting us free from the law of sin and of death, in its place the Holy Spirit came to reside in us—Pentecost.  Our baptismal covenant (p. 308 of BCP) inadequately gets at this when the priest says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever” What has been the result of this substitution?  This is what Paul explains in the subsequent verses of today’s epistle reading.  Hear it again.

 

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

You see, it is the flesh that condemns us, and not the Spirit.  Why is that?  One basic answer is that the flesh is limited.  Because it is limited it cannot offer grace that unmerited favor by which we come to know no condemnation. Now, I suspect some if not most of us may be thinking, “Well, okay.  I suppose that sounds good, but where does that leave me?  Where is my hamburger?”  Good question!  Is there something we are overlooking? Is it time we try something else?  How, indeed, do we live into no longer feeling condemned as a result of increasingly living into the Spirit and not in the flesh?

 

As some of you may know, I will be teaching one of the courses for our Wednesday morning series this coming fall.  The subject of my course is “Ministering in the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.”  The text for this study is a book written by the Episcopal priest, Dennis Bennett, entitled Nine O’clock in the Morning.  If you have heard about the Charismatic movement, well, this book has been credited with starting it.  What was it that Bennett re-discovered that took the world by storm?

 

It has been, perhaps, thirty years since I last read the book.  In preparing for the upcoming class I am reading it again.  The book is autobiographical in its format. Bennett shares that: “I was happy in my work and had plenty to keep me busy with my growing church.  Inside, however, I went on getting drier and drier (he is, of course, speaking of a spiritual dryness).

 

In my congregation, too,” he continues, “I saw that while people were being helped, lives were rarely being changed.  Because I had, for the most part, lost my personal awareness of God in my life, I wasn’t able to lead the people of the congregation into that kind of awareness.  I was propping them up, counseling them, encouraging them, being a ‘poor man’s psychiatrist,’ and teaching them about God, but something was seriously lacking.  God wasn’t becoming real enough to them to make any noticeable changes in their lives.  Their religion was a mild sedative to make their lives more palatable, rather than an experience that would drastically change them. Suppose,” asked Bennett, “there was something more, to this whole business of Christianity, and we were missing it?”

 

Around this time Bennett met this young couple, John and Joan, who came to church all the time on Sundays, during the week, and even to special events.  Curiously, they looked happy (despite being in church).  When asked why they turn up all the time looking so happy, they answered, “We’ve been baptized in the Holy Spirit.”  Stranger yet, they claimed to have spoken in tongues, whatever that is.  Being a good Episcopal priest, Bennett decided to do a little research into this Holy Spirit baptism.

He found that in the New Testament there are about 242 references to the Holy Spirit.  In Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8, (the very chapter we are in this morning) the Holy Spirit is mentioned sixteen times in the first fourteen verses. “These early Christians,” writes Bennett, “were continually talking about the Holy Spirit; He certainly was not vague to them.  They talked as though He told them what to do and where to go and what to say (p. 15).  They were specific about the Holy Spirit; they didn’t confuse Him with the Father or with Jesus.  Another thing that caught my attention in the Bible,” notes Bennett, “was that the early believers had a clear-cut experience of receiving the power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 16).

As Bennett continued to research and study the subject of the Holy Spirit and His benefits, if you will, he came to describe himself in this way: “I was like a starving man circling a table on which a delicious-looking feast is spread, watching the people seated at the table obviously enjoying the food, all the while trying to make up his mind whether it is really safe” (p. 23).

 

The day finally arrived when Bennett was ready for the Holy Spirit.  He was at the young couple’s, John’s and Joan’s house.  “What do I do,” he asked them.  “Ask Jesus to baptize you in the Holy Spirit,” said John. “We’ll pray with you, and you just pray and praise the Lord.”  Bennet clarified, “Now remember, I want this nearness to God you have, that’s all; I’m not interested in speaking in tongues.”  “Well,” they said, “all we can tell you about that is that it came with the package!”

John laid his hands on Bennett’s head and began to pray.  He was speaking fluently in a language Bennett did not understand.  Bennett describes his experience. “I began to pray quietly.  I prayed out loud for about twenty minutes.  I was just about to give up when a very strange thing happened.  My tongue tripped, and I began to speak in a new language.  It had grammar and syntax; it had inflection and expression—it was rather beautiful” (p. 25).

 

Over the next several days Bennett continued to practice this new language God had given Him.  As he did, something began to happen.  “My heart began to get more and more happy,” he writes.  “The Presence of God that I had so clearly seen in earlier days to be the real reason for living suddenly enveloped me again after many, many years of dryness.  Never had I experienced God’s presence in such reality as now.  It might have frightened me, except that I recognized that this was the same Presence of the Lord I had sensed when I first accepted Jesus; only the intensity and reality of my present experience were far greater than anything I had believed possible.”  Bennett, subsequently asked John and Joan, “Do you mean to tell me that a Christian can feel like I do?”  They nodded, all smiles.  “That’s what we’ve been talking about” (p. 29).

 

The baptism of the Holy Spirit not only allows us to experience God’s presence in a powerful way, He not only makes us happy, He also empowers us to stop it—stop those impulses, those desires within us that cause us pain and distress.  Remember the fruit of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23).  Obviously, the fruit cannot be experienced if we feel under condemnation.  In other words, there is more for us, more God, more Jesus, and more Spirit if we would only ask and not be afraid.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.