Sermon – April 3, 2016

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyReceiving the Spirit

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As Abba, God, has sent me, so I am sending you.’ After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” — John 20:20b-22.

Some of you have heard me mention that in 1986, thirty years ago— a year before I met Bonnie— I did a three day battery of psychological and skills testing. Or as I like to call it, “Three days of ‘Tell me, what does this ink blot mean?’” In all seriousness, the point of these tests, this kind of testing, is to assess the skill set of an individual to see if those skills are being effectively used.

To say the least, it was an intensive, multifaceted process. And, certainly, the reason anyone does this type of skills testing is to help that individual better understand and cope with and interact with the world.

Now, one of the cautions offered to me about both the results which were presented and the very process itself, was do not— under any circumstances— think in terms of this three day experience as being finished. It is not.

I was told that I would still be thinking about what was presented to me and the challenges ahead of me and the work ahead of me for many, many, many years. They said you will be processing what you did and what you heard about yourself and what you learned about yourself, indeed, for many, many, many years.

That sentiment is still true these thirty years later. I still, occasionally, reflect on the insights I gained from that experience. And because I still think about what happened, because I reflect on that experience, I still, occasionally, make new discoveries about how I interact with the world. In short, the experience equipped me with tools for life, helped me move forward, be renewed constantly if I chose to use the tools. (Slight pause.)

You have probably heard me say this before also. Three years before I entered into that process of skills testing, in 1983, my mother died. It would be foolish of me or anyone else to say the experience of the death of a parent or any loved one does not linger with us for many, many, many years.

Despite the fact that this was thirty-three years ago I still think about it— still, occasionally, reflect on it. Sometimes I think about something in my family history and realize I don’t know about it in detail that history.

And so, I am given to wonder if either my late mother or my late father, who died in 1998, or my grandparents whom I knew might know, might be able to tell me about some information concerning my family history. But the finality offered in an answer they might have is just not available.

Hence, all I have is a reflection about something I will probably never know with certainty. And perhaps the finality I seek— some form of definitive answer— is in truth artificial, an illusion.

I suppose that says we all like closure. We all like finality. But is that simply what we like, as opposed to what we need?

Is it possible that the idea of process— living through some time, through space, through experience— is it possible that process is the only thing that is real, the only thing of which we can be certain. Perhaps process is not just a different way of looking at and assessing life. Perhaps it is the prime way of looking at and assessing life. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the Gospel According to the School of John: “The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As Abba, God, has sent me, so I am sending you.’ After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Slight pause.)

There are three distinct sections in this reading. The first two, the encounter of the disciples with Jesus but without Thomas and the later encounter with Thomas, are clearly tied together and part of the same story.

I maintain the third section, that part that says (quote:) “Jesus did many other signs— signs which are not recorded in this book” can be seen as a lynchpin for the story of Thomas. It offers instruction on why and how the story about Thomas and the disciples are of import. Why? How? The Spirit, you see, kept moving.

There is a great American heresy. (There are probably a number of great American heresies, but let me point out just one.)

This particular great American heresy says once an incident has passed it is complete, final. There are no more effects. As that relates to faith, many American Christians might express that heresy using words like this: “I was born again on April the 3rd, 1997 at three o’clock in the afternoon.”

The implication of that sentiment is straightforward. Everything is now complete, done, finished. The possibility that the Spirit of God might be still active and working and moving feels negated because this event is named and resides at a specific time in the past

And that time is now over. And I think we hear those kinds of statements because many of us see the Gospel stories being as located in the past.

But the words we heard from the Gospel today are not meant to illustrate an event in history. To take a narrative approach to the resurrection, to say it happened once, long ago, is simply an inaccurate way to look at what we Christians claim about Jesus.

The resurrection is not just an event that happened. It is an event that changes everything for all people for all time. The point of the resurrection is that Jesus lives and that Jesus lives, now. The point of the resurrection is that the Spirit is alive and dwells among us, now.

What is, perhaps, even more important is this: because of the resurrection, because the Spirit dwells among us, we are invited by God to learn from our experience of God. Because of the resurrection, because the Spirit dwells among us, we are invited by God to change.

Because of the resurrection, because the Spirit dwells among us, we are invited by God to process. Because of the resurrection, because the Spirit dwells among us, we are invited by God to grow. (Slight pause.)

Today, as we do monthly, we celebrated the Sacrament of Communion. Sometimes the Sacrament is referred to as a re-enactment or a commemoration of the Last Supper.

But what if each time we celebrate the sacrament we are invited to learn something new for today by our participation? What if we learn something new for today about our bonds with one another?

I believe the Spirit invites us to learn something new for today each and every day. I think the Spirit constantly invites us to live in the Spirit and into the Spirit. (Slight pause.)

So, what does it mean to live in the Spirit? What does it mean to live into the Spirit?

It means we are invited to be renewed. It means we are invited to develop and to hone who we can be, who we are willing to be, to fully be the one who God invites us to be. And this means, I think, we are invited to change. This means, I think, we are invited to grow.

Things are not static, ever. And living in and into the Spirit also means we are invited to see the world as God sees it. This is a world in which peace is possible.

This is a world where freedom can be a reality. This is a world in which equity is not a dream. This is a world in which the love God offers reigns.

This is a world whose boundaries are limited only by our willingness or lack thereof to participate in the Dominion of God. The Dominion of God— what is the Dominion of God? The Dominion of God is the world not as we see it. The Dominion of God is the world as God sees it— active, changing, alive, growing— a world of hope, a world of peace, world of joy, a world of love. Amen.

04/03/2016
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Speaking of American heresies, as I was earlier, let me offer another one. It is often said God is the answer. Think about this: what if God is not an answer but God is a question, perhaps even an open ended question? Or if the Spirit of God lives, rather than God being a question or an answer do we simply need to be in dialogue with God? Does that dialogue invite us to grow in the Spirit? Or is thinking about being in dialogue with God too uncomfortable, too challenging?”

BENEDICTION: Go out in the compassion and love God provides. Praise the deeds of God by the way you live. And may the steadfast love of God and the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.

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