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The Spirit's Glory

Sermon - 6/04/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 8:18-27

The spirit is moving among us in many ways this morning, and we continue in that spirit as we share this text for reflection, from Paul's letter to the Romans, the eighth chapter:

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

I've preached on this text a couple of times before, not that I would expect that anyone might remember that J, but I never have in the context of Pentecost.  And it is a text typical of Paul, and especially the letter to the Romans, that is full of meaning.  It's a loaded passage, all kinds of deep theological concepts -- impossible to completely unpack in 1 sermon.  So this morning I simply want to focus on the work of the holy spirit, and this idea of creation waiting for redemption from that work.

Reading this text in light of Pentecost, when the church was born and that spirit was poured out onto the first disciples, casts this passage (for me) in a whole new light that changes even the way that I see Pentecost.  Typically, I think we celebrate Pentecost in the church as a time of church renewal, by and through the spirit.  So we come this morning with all of our bright red and yellow (I hope you noticed my color-coordinated tie -- you'd think that Leitha, who does our decorations, was in cahoots on that, but that's the working of the spirit, you see, that it came together so well this morning).  But if I understand what Paul is saying to us, such an understanding -- that it is the church's holiday, that it's all about the church -- totally misses the point.  So pay attention.

Because Pentecost represents the birth of the church, we tend to view the holy spirit as the possession of the church.  Something that is found "in" church (we hope).  Or that the church passes on to new believers.  When nothing could be further from the truth.  As Jesus tells Nicodemus - 'The wind blows where it will, you neither know from whence it came or wither it goes'.  So too with the spirit.  And Paul says that God knows the mind of the spirit, suggesting that we cannot know it.  When we are lost and confounded, it is the spirit that intercedes for us with a sigh too deep for words.

In other words, we do not speak for the spirit, the spirit speaks for us.

Do you know the sound of that sigh?  I suspect you do.  The sigh that unloads the weight of the world and the worries of a lifetime.  I'd like to try that out this morning -- I'd like to invite you to sigh with me.  To simply take in all of the stress of work.  All of the worries (not yet, that looks like a yawn out there J) that you have of the world, your family.  I want you to just take all of that in and on the count of three to let it out.  Are you ready?  1 - 2 - 3.  Aaaauuuuugggghhhhh.

Doesn't that feel good?

You see that's the sigh that's too deep for words.  It says it all.  Note -- what did you have to do to express that sigh?  You had to breathe!  You had to take a breath in, a big breath to then let it all out.  And what is breath?  In the Greek, breath is the same word as spirit.  That is the spirit of God that we breathe in.  It is the wind that moves across the face of creation in the creation story.  It is the spirit of God that Ezekiel speaks about that gives breath, new life, to those bones that are brought together in that vision of the valley of the dry bones.  That is the breath of life.

My thanks to JoAnne Flanders this week that brought to my attention the interview in Eugene Weekly a couple of months ago with Mason Williams, that intensely creative son of Eugene who wrote music and poetry, comedy, and appeared in many creative endeavors.  Product of the baby-boomer generation, I'm just curious whether or not our younger folk are aware.  Who can tell me (under the age of 30) the piece of music for which Mason Williams is most known?  Classical gas!  And the T.V. show he is most associated with?  The Smothers Brothers!  Kids are going 'Smothers who?'.  Great comedy show in the late 60s & early 70s.  

In that interview in the Eugene Weekly, Mason Williams said:  "I want to be more like God was in the beginning.  In the beginning, God had a creative life, and along came religion, and then he had a career.  When you have a career, you are living your life through institutions, not the full spectrum of living that's out there".

Now who knew in addition to being a comedian and a songwriter, he's also a theologian?!  And I suspect that is a bit of the comedian in Williams, poking fun at religion, this notion that God had a career.  But he has a good point.  God is most alive in that creative spirit which is not bound to any institution or limited by the confines of career.  The creative spirit of God is all about bringing the full spectrum of living to life.  I want to come back to that point in just a moment.

But first I have to take note of one more quote from the same interview -- I notice JoAnne didn't underline this one J -- later in the interview, when he was commenting on the sorry state of television, and he said:  "You're in this kind of stupor, just sitting there absorbing things.  It's kind of like being in church".  I sure hope he wasn't talking about this church!  If that's what church is like here, just take me out and shoot me now, put me out of my misery.

The greatest sin a church can ever commit, I am convinced, is not heresy, it's not debauchery, it's not even blasphemy, but rather it is to be boring.  Which is the same as 'stupor', in that what it means is that you have a lack of cranial activity, right?  If there is one single reason why the mainline churches are dying, I think that's it.  Because if you're boring, you have no creativity, you have no spirit, you have no gift of life.  I sure hope that's not us.  I want us to be engaged, alive, thinking Christians, filled with that spirit of creativity and life.

And that is what Pentecost is about.  It's the spirit of life given to the church, the fresh wind of creation, the breath of God, the spirit of fire.  Whatever you want to call it, I assure you that on that first day of Pentecost, when it had blew amongst those disciples and they were so caught up in it that people thought they were drunk, I guarantee you that there was nobody there on that day who would have said "it's boring".

So in that spirit, let me pose this question, first posed by my good friend and biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan (who else?!) -- it may be a little over the edge, but it'll get us thinking -- "Is your Christian faith more like sex, or more like politics?"

Oh, we don't talk about that in church -- politics, you know J.  Don't look at me, they took my prostate out J.

I mean, that'll get you thinking, right?!  In other words, is it a private affair just between you and God, or is it something that involves the whole public, done out in the open in front of God and everyone?  And I hope you know that here I'm talking about politics, OK, otherwise we're in real trouble and you better come see me J.

The problem is, I think, we've made religion a private affair.  It's just between me and God, and rarely do we discuss it outside of church.  Certainly not something to do in public.  And that's why I like those comments that Robin made in that video, about taking your faith into the secular world.  

And so in addition to being boring, churches become an irrelevant activity of consenting adults kept out of the public view.  And if there's one person who I think is trying to change all of that, among many who are, but one is Bishop John Shelby Spong.  He was here a week-and-a-half ago, and as I said last Sunday, we had about 25 of us who went to hear his lecture, and about 20 of those gathered on Wednesday evening to talk about what they heard, and to de-brief it, and to talk about the implications of that.  And one of the outcomes of it is that we're going to have a book study on his latest book, "The Sins of Scripture".  We're going to start that in the next couple weeks, so if you're interested in that and haven't already E-mailed me about it, let me know.

And that's a good start.  But a book study is not nearly enough if we are to even take a small part of Spong's challenge to the church seriously.  So listen to what he has to say in his next-to-last book, "A New Christianity for a New World", in which he confesses his faith, and he outlines his hope and vision for the church:

God is infinitely real to me.  Jesus is for me, not only a God-presence, but the doorway into the reality of God who is beyond my capacity to understand.  I am a person of prayer, which for me means contemplating the meaning of God as life, love, and being and acting that meaning out.  I am a person with deep ethical commitments, which for me means becoming an agent of life, love, and being to every other person through both individual and corporate behavior.  My hope of heaven lies in the ability to share in the eternity of God, who is the source of life and love and the ground of being.

In this new understanding of God, churches will cease being behavior-controlling institutions and become institutions dedicated to the empowerment and expansion of life.  Worship will become the celebration of the power of God, who is present in the heart of life.  Christian education will become the search for truth rather than the indoctrination of the faithful.  Life in community will be important because it will help free us to live fully, love wastefully, and be all that we are capable of being.  

Thus Christianity becomes not something to be believed, but a faith into which we must live a vision that stands before us, inviting us to enter.

Sounds a lot like Mason Williams talking about God before God became institutionalized.  And Spong concludes:

Thus the agenda of the future of the church is not to impose its "truth" on anyone, but to work for the realm of God in every arena.  To enhance the life of all.  To expand the love for all.  And to encourage the being of all.


In the final analysis, Pentecost, you see, has nothing to do with the renewal of the church, really.  Except perhaps as the first fruits of this new creation of the spirit.  Pentecost, instead, is about the transformation of all creation.  It's about the spirit of God moving across the face of the world since the beginning of time.  To bring the most possible life and goodness out of all being.  It's not about us, about the church.  It's about God's world and the ways in which God is at work in it.  Creating and transforming, birthing and redeeming.

There was a time when we could say the church was the first fruit of that work of the spirit.  Whether we are now, or will be in the future, depends on our openness to that creative, life-giving spirit that blows with the wind.  That works among us like tongues of fire.  That breathes with a sigh that is too deep for words.

And if we truly are open to that spirit, then we will be like God at creation -- working for the realm of God in every arena, to enhance the life of all, to expand the love for all, and to encourage the being of all.

May it be.


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