My son paid the latest Mad Max movie probably the biggest compliment any movie can get: it made him want to go out and drive in a stock car race. In other words, it got under his skin. It made him want to do something in the spirit of what he's just seen. I remember as a kid having the same experience, watching “The Three Musketeers” and then wanting to fence in that same elegant and athletic way.
Every creative person wishes that what they make—films, paintings, music, poems, sculpture, dance, even sermons—would both stay with the audience after it's over and better yet, inspire them to respond in some positive way. Most creative people have a moment when what they saw or heard or read something that gave them the desire to do the same thing. Something about it electrified them and they said, “I want to do this too.” Things that resonate deeply with people have a lasting effect on society.
For most of us though, the initial spark we get from an experience tends to die out. We want to be an artist as a child and when we become an adult, we rarely if ever draw or paint anything. We all have had in in the rooms of our childhood musical instruments or science kits or crafts or notebooks or tap shoes that gathered dust, relics of passions that died.
What kept Christianity going? Part of the reason is the resurrection of Jesus, as I said at Easter. There were many others who called themselves messiahs. Their movements died when they did. But Jesus' movement did not. His followers didn't either go back to their old lives nor switch to following the next messiah to appear. They insisted that Jesus rose from the dead. And they insisted on it even when it got them killed. The resurrection of Jesus explains what made the disciples go from frightened men hiding in a locked upper room to fearless proclaimers of the good news of the risen Christ and his offer of eternal life.
The other part of why Jesus is still finding followers today is the subject of this Sunday's lectionary: the Holy Spirit. Human passions fade. Our enthusiasms evaporate. Jesus could have become merely of interest to historians and philosophers after a few generations, his movement as removed from current influence as Mithraism, a popular religion of the Roman troops.
But God sent his Holy Spirit into those who opened their hearts to Jesus in order to transform them into his children and to equip them to do the work he has given us to do.
In the Old Testament God sent his Spirit chiefly to the leaders of his people and to prophets who often chastised those leaders when they led the people astray. But under the New Covenant, God sends his Spirit to all who are in Christ. As the Spirit gives physical life to all God's creatures, so too he gives us new spiritual life. The Spirit gives us the ability to trust in God, to obey him, to repent, to pray and to praise God. He produces in us the spiritual and moral qualities we call the fruit of the Spirit. He puts God's love in our hearts and binds us to Christ and to other Christians. The Spirit reminds us of what Jesus taught us and leads us to the truth.
Without the Spirit, Christianity becomes merely a religion, a cultural artifact made up of rules and customs and structures and innumerable factoids to archive and argue over. The Spirit makes our faith a living thing that grows and reproduces itself in others.
We can quench the Spirit, according to Paul, and I think that during the dark periods of the history of the Church, that's exactly what people do. Because the Spirit can be a headache for those who like to have everything nailed down and categorized and compliant. But the Spirit is like the wind, as Jesus pointed out, moving where it will and disturbing what we have neatly laid out and organized. The Spirit prepared Peter to extend the gospel to the Gentiles by giving a vision of unclean animals being lowered from heaven so he can eat them. This went against the kosher laws that Peter, a good Jew, observed. He had to receive that vision 3 times. And he still wasn't convinced until the Gentiles he was preaching to began to speak in tongues. That was when Peter truly realized that his narrow idea of who made up the church had to be changed.
When life stops renewing itself, when the cells of the body stop replacing themselves, we die. The Spirit gives life and that means we must expect change. Not everything changes. I no longer look like I did as a child but I still have one head, 2 eyes, 2 arms and 2 legs. But I am bigger, my brain is bigger and I hope my thought processes are better adapted to understanding this world. In the same way, though the church must grow not everything will change, but it must get bigger and think bigger and better thoughts. Its heart must expand as well. We are commanded to love everyone and if you are at all perceptive, you realize that is a bigger and more complex task than we used to think. In fact, it is too big for us to do on our own. But with God's Spirit working within and among us, nothing is too big, nothing is too hard, nothing is impossible.
Let us pray.
Holy Spirit of the living God, source of Pentecostal fire, purify our souls, illumine our minds, and set our hearts on fire for the God of love revealed in his son Jesus that we may ignite this same spark in others and keep the flame of the faith burning as a beacon to all who love the light. We ask this in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever. Amen.