Sermon notes for 3 Easter, 2017
Scripture: Acts 2:14a, 36-41
What drives our actions as Christians?
I don’t mean what drives our actions as human beings, full stop. I think we can probably arrive at a number of acceptable answers fairly quickly when we reflect on that. We’re driven by wants, needs, appetites, fears, frailties, sins, hopes, dreams, virtues and so on. That’s true of everyone.
But what drives our peculiarly Christian actions?
Is it our conscience? Perhaps in part. But what inspires our conscience toward particularly Christian actions in situations where acting like every other human being who is not like Jesus would be so much easier?
I love the movie Inside Out, and its depictions of emotions. I love it even more because it gives me a chance to use one of my favorite words: homunculus. A homunculus is a tiny person. In philosophy the term is used to describe an idea that there is a little person or persons in our heads who drive us around like biological robots–at least in a manner of speaking. In various psychological and philosophical theories it’s used as an example that poses the problem of infinite regression. If there’s one little person in our heads, then who’s in their head, etc.
In Inside Out there are a series of little homunculi who drive characters in the film around. Each one represents an emotion. They stand at a console in the character’s heads, and work together to operate the person. It’s quite brilliant. But only as a metaphor or analogy. No one who worked on the film, I presume, believed there were actual little people in our heads. They even admit that they had to leave some things out. They show the emotions, but not reason. Reason was in early drafts of the script. If I remember correctly, one of the writers said they had the idea of having Reason thrown out the window by Anger. But it didn’t work. They had to leave it with just the emotions. And it works. The film is, I think, a fantastic way to visualize emotional development, and the way our emotions drive or prompt us to certain actions. But emotions do not and cannot explain everything about us. They don’t explain our reason or our logic. Oddly, I’m not even sure emotion is a good descriptor even of the deeper aspects of things like love, commitment, hatred and so on.
There is more driving us.
What drives us as followers of Christ? What pushes us beyond our emotions, beyond our reason, beyond our simple human capacities?
In our lesson from Acts, we hear more from Peter’s sermon after the coming of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost. Peter is laying it all on the line to his listeners. You remember last week, he pointed out that they had crucified the Lord. The crowd and religious leaders with the “lawless” folks–that is the gentiles, the Romans–had conspired in such a way that Jesus, an innocent man–more than that: the Messiah–had been executed. Peter reiterates the charge in today’s portion:
“‘Therefore let the entire House of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?'” (Acts 2:36-37)
Peter doesn’t pull any punches. He nails them again. “This Jesus whom you crucified…” This isn’t a compliment sandwich. Peter isn’t following the accepted patterns of how to get a crowd on your side. Jesus. An innocent person. Crucified. And you, Peter says to his hearers, are responsible. And yet they don’t respond with anger. Miraculously they respond with regret. “When they heard this, they were cut to the heart.” Actually, they’re responding with more than regret. This is conviction. This is repentance. “What should we do?” they ask.
They want to know, given the charges against them, what should they do? What can they do?
Peter tells them. And the amazing thing is this: before they are even told what to do, and what will happen when they follow the Apostle’s instruction, the work of God is already manifest in them.
Be Baptized–every one of them–in the name of Jesus Christ.
That’s what they can do. And when they do, Peter tells them, they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Of course, the Spirit is already at work. We know the Spirit is at work with Peter and the other Apostles, including, by the way, Mary the mother of Jesus. It descended on them like tongues of fire and a mighty wind. It was hard to miss. But something inspired the hearers as well. They were cut to the heart. They wanted to make amends. They wanted to repent, they just didn’t know what that entailed. Peter tell them.
Their actions, from before the time when they converted, was prompted by the Holy Spirit. Did all of them convert? We don’t know. We do know that scripture tells us 3000 were converted in a single day. We know that some among them at least, were convicted enough to ask Peter what they needed to do. That was evidence of the work of the Spirit. And for those who were Baptized, who died with Christ and rose with him, they could look for more of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
That’s what drives us as Christians. That’s what drives our peculiarly Christian acts. They’re inspired. We’re inspired. We’re filled with the breath of God, and we act accordingly.
Consider: the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism at the beginning of his ministry. The Spirit descends upon the apostles and empowers them to preach and teach in ways they never imagined. The Spirit speaks to the hearts of the listeners and prompts remorse and repentance. The Spirit animates the Christian life.
God breaths out, we breath in. And we go to work.
Repentance is a beginning.
–That frees us from bondage to the past, while encouraging us to redress wrongs.
Baptism is a beginning.
–In it we are buried with Christ, and Christ now lives in us.
—In it we receive the Holy Spirit
Receiving the Spirit is a beginning.
–Not an end point or an end goal, but a beginning.
—A beginning that equips us to grow more and more into the likeness of Christ.
—-To follow the great commandment to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
—–To fulfill the mission of the Church “to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ” (BCP 855).
We don’t talk about the work of the Spirit enough. Especially as it is the Spirit that Jesus promised to send us as a comforter, an advocate. Because it is the Spirit that intercedes for us with sighs and groaning too deep for words when we cannot articulate our needs or concerns ourselves.
When human language fails us: There is the Spirit.
-When human love fails us: There is the Spirit.
–When human capacities of any sort fail us in our efforts to follow Jesus: There is the Spirit.
We see the work of the Spirit in this selection from Acts: The Spirit indwells the apostles, the Spirit inspires the preacher, the Spirit works in the hearts of the hearers, the Spirit inspires repentance, the Spirit is the gift of repentance in Baptism, the Spirit then works the work of God in and through human beings who become agents of the divine calling.
And what does this agency of God accomplish in us?
The Catechism tells us “The Holy Spirit is revealed as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ” (BCP 852).
It is in growing in the likeness of Christ that we become able to be reconciled with one another. We must be reconciled to God first, and as we are drawn closer to God, and we receive the gifts of the Spirit, we are equipped to fight the alienation that separates us from one another, even as we are being drawn together by the love of Christ.
The Holy Spirit, in other words, is not only the animating force of the Christian life, in doing this, the Holy Spirit becomes the animating force of God in the Community of God’s people. It is not a whim that the Church follows the discussion of the Spirit in both the Nicene Creed and in our Catechism. Community itself is a gift of the Spirit. It would not endure without the Spirit, even as we would not endure in the Christian life without the comfort, advocacy, and intercession of the Spirit in our own lives. As Peter says of the entire gospel: “the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39). God does not call people to a life of solitary faithfulness, without encouragement, without assistance, without bearing witness to the faithfulness of others. God calls us together. And this too is the work of the Spirit.
By the Spirit we are called to repent, to follow, to bear witness to, to imitate. And all as we gravitate toward one another, becoming Christ’s body in the world, becoming members of the collective Body of Christ, existing within the body, even as Christ lives in each of us. As John’s gospel recounts Jesus saying “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20).
So what drives us to the peculiar actions that characterize the Christian faith? The Spirit drives us, as the Spirit drove Christ into the wilderness, and beyond.
And as the Spirit’s work was revealed in the solidarity of Christ with us, descending upon him in his baptism, where he threw in his lot with sinful humanity to “fulfill all righteousness,” so too does the Spirit drive us to unity and solidarity with God and with one another:
We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation (BCP 852).
The Spirit is at the center of our Christian lives. The presence of the Spirit is a witness to the promises of God. We really shouldn’t shy away from talking about it. After all, it is the Spirit that prompts us in all these things.