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Text: Acts 2: 1 – 21
New wine wouldn’t necessarily be more alcoholic than old wine. It would be sweeter, because there would still be a lot of sugar the wild yeast hadn’t fully fermented and turned to alcohol, but at the same time the alcohol wouldn’t have had time to evaporate off in the desert heat. What it would have been is cheap. Bottom shelf, 5 dollars of body-less overly saccharine grape juice. The type of wine for people who would be drinking at 9 o’clock in the morning, is the implication.
Stigmatization of alcoholism aside, which is unfortunately far too prevalent, I like the metaphor of the Holy Spirit being like new wine. Newly made and intoxicating.
The Holy Spirit has been called “the forgotten God.” She is mentioned so much less frequently in books of theology than God the Creator or Christ the Son. She is invoked in church sermons so little that just the idea makes you sit upright. In many churches, She is relegated simply to part of a formula—“in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” “who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit,” “Send, O God, your Holy Spirit”—there are so few prayers directly to Her. And She complicates our understanding of the triune God: Father and Son, we get, but who is this third person who is not Mother or Daughter?
And, bluntly, the things She is said to do are weird. Gifts of the Holy Spirit—charisms, tongues, prophecy, healing—these don’t fit in with our orderly, well-behaved church. They make people act like they’re drunk at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning. Even taking bread and wine and turning them into body and blood. That’s just . . . weird. Have you ever thought about how weird what we do here is? Not just communion, but the singing, speaking things in unison, listening to me rant. It’s very weird. It makes us seem like a bunch of weirdos.
That’s what authenticity does; it makes you look weird. Or, at least, it makes us afraid that we look weird. We are so scared of being seen as we truly are, that we will hear the scoffing, “They are filled with new wine.”
And so, the Liberal church, at least, in an effort to seem “normal,” has too often given up the Holy Spirit. We will talk about Jesus, and make him appear to be as normal as possible emphasizing his teachings. We will talk about a Creator, but as a more abstract force of love rather than an immediate intervening love. And we will mention a Spirit only as it relates to being “Spiritual,” rather than a real breath of God we feel in our lungs, our hearts, our bellies. We will leave Her to the Pentecostals and Charismatics and other “weird” Christians.
Theologian Phyllis Tickle, in one of her last books before she died, had this idea that every 500 years or so, the Christian church undergoes a drastic change in how it sees itself in the world, in its theology and doctrine, and in its very relationship with God. Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer called it a “great rummage sale”, where the church looks at all the spiritual and religious stuff it has accumulated and asks, in the words of Marie Kondo, “Does this spark joy?” And gets rid of the stuff that doesn’t.
First, there was Jesus and the emergence of Christianity. 500 years later, the church established itself as the continuing institution of Europe as the Western Roman Empire collapsed and the Eastern Empire declined. 500 years after that, there was the Great Schism between east and west, setting up two very distinct flavours of Christianity. 500 years after that, there was the Protestant Reformation, as well as the end of the church’s political dominance as the idea of a nation-state emerged. And now, 500 years after the Reformation, we are looking at the church’s decline in cultural relevance, challenges to religious understanding of the nature of the universe by science and technology, a reckoning with the church’s institutionalization of colonialism, racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia; but on the other hand, new understandings of our faith are emerging.
Tickle said that the new age of Christianity would be built upon the predominant power of the Holy Spirit. The new church would not be a church that talked about obedience and piety, not about individual salvation by believing in Jesus Christ, but upon the work of love and justice through the power of the Holy Spirit. She, the forgotten God, is the God for our time, for our church that is wondering what we are going to do, for us, a people who feel like old assumptions are no longer true. She is the God for a dying world, a failing system, and a broken people, because She is the God of newness.
It’s a bold claim. We have so little language for the Holy Spirit. So little way to talk about how She works in the world. Part of that is by design; God transcends our language and the Spirit is especially known not by words but by works. The work of the church in the world, the work of transformation in our hearts, the work of justice in the world. In quiet moments, in the feeling of a cool breeze on your skin, in what John Wesley called the strange warming of the heart. That is how the Holy Spirit is known.
On the other hand, the Holy Spirit is known in words; She is in fact known in so many words that a single language cannot contain her and the people hear the Apostles speaking in every possible language.
Fun side fact: It isn’t in the text, but Christian art through the centuries has had Mary, Mother of Jesus, there with the Apostles receiving the Holy Spirit and also being given the gift of tongues and prophecy. If you’ve been paying attention to some of the paintings I put in the PowerPoint, you’ll see her. She is one of the Apostles.
Especially in the wake of COVID, where we have had to look at what is and is not the essence of church, where we have had to try and adapt when there are so many things we cannot do. We’re looking hopefully to the end, to when we will come back, but even when we come back, it won’t be the same. We will have lost some things and we will be feeling grief at those things we have lost.
We, the church, to grow out of this moment, we have to rediscover our mystical, spiritual core. One of the things I’ve always felt about mainline Protestantism, the United Church in particular, is that, as wonderful as we are, we’re too . . . “thinky.” It is certainly not a bad thing to be intellectual, but its only one piece of the puzzle that is an experience of God. We look sceptically at a more “spiritual” understanding of God.
But if we are moving into an age of the Holy Spirit, and if we are living through a transformative time in the church, I think one of the big things we have to leave behind is the desire for “respectability” and “normality” that had us ignoring the Holy Spirit, that had us afraid of scoffers who said, “They are filled with new wine.” It was something that was integral to the society church the United Church used to be, with orderly meetings and social groups and official membership. But it relied on the church being a relevant social institution; it no longer sparks joy.
We, who are disciples, apostles of Christ, need to be a movement of the Holy Spirit. Her power is continually poured down on us day after day, and if we don’t use it, what are we doing?
I think what I am going to do is dedicate the next year of my ministry, including my preaching, as a Year of the Holy Spirit. We need to focus on Her creative, transforming power, because whatever emerges out of this COVID moment, whatever our world becomes, we have a part to play in it as those sent by Christ, but we will have to do it with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Whatever is going to emerge out of this moment, it will be a kind of movement of the Holy Spirit that will transform the church and will transform each of us as well.
So I’ll talk about the Holy Spirit a lot We’ll explore being a Spiritual people a lot. I encourage you to think and to pray and to try and live in the Holy Spirit, who came down on you at your baptism, who has poured out Her power upon you. Yes, you. How can we orient our lives and our faith around this mysterious, undefined, indefinable third person of the Trinity, who is our God as surely as the Father is God or Jesus is Lord?
It might seem “weird,” but we live in weird times, and weird times call for weird people. That’s the essence of Peter’s speech to the scoffers around them. Everyone, young and old, male and female, of every race and tribe, has a part to play in God’s new creation. No more can there be exclusion on the basis of language, or race, or gender, or sexuality, or ability. No more can there be a respectable religion that doesn’t have any of those people in it. Something new is beginning now, and it will change the world, and it will change us.
Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle in us the fires of your love. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Amen.