This is a very strange moment in the Church year, don’t you think?
Here we are smack dab in-between Ascension Day (when we remember the Risen Jesus returning to the nearer presence of God) and Pentecost (when God the Holy Spirit openly descending upon the Church). It is a very strange, in-between time!
So, was this gathering of Jesus’ people merely a Church-in-waiting. Or worse, was it a church asleep? Was this very young, very small Church described in Acts today merely “on hold” waiting for the Spirit to come and kick them into gear? Not at all!
The great theologian Paul Tillich once wrote that the whole history of the Church can be understood as a movement between charisma and order, an oscillation between activity and rest, and where these meet (or are in tension) is where the Holy Spriit lives!
This is helpful in sorting out the paradoxes that arise when we compare the various Gospels on this moment in the life of the early Jesus movement.:
Matthew’s Gospel shows us Jesus giving out marching orders--go into all the world, proclaim good news and baptize new Jesus-people.
Luke remembers things a tad differently. In Acts 1:4, the apostles are told to go to Jerusalem and to “stay in the city, where they will receive power from on high.”
Which, if you look at the themes of each Gospel, is kind of strange.
Matthew organized his Gospel like a little Torah with Jesus setting out a new law, but he recalls the Great Commission as Jesus’ last words on earth—Go into the world to baptize and teach!
Luke, on the other hand, who is all about the movement of the Spirit and the flames of Pentecost, talks today in Acts about the disciples having committee meeting to get organized!
And John spends serious Gospel real-estate reporting Jesus’ prayer that the ones who have encountered the eternal logos live in a community that mirrors Jesus in their common life.
So, perhaps, the time between the ascension and Pentecost was really a grace-filled, active moment in their life together. Could it be that once again God is challenging our expectations?
The Anglican priest John Wesley, who founded the Methodist branch of the Jesus Movement, talked a lot about grace in his preaching and teaching. The great hymn “Amazing Grace” summarizes Wesley’s teaching quite well.
Wesley taught that grace is the active, dynamic action of the Holy Spirit. Today in Acts we see “prevenient grace,” the grace that goes before us and readies the heart and mind for the “saving grace” that strangely warms our hearts and sets them on fire. We are next led to “sanctifying grace” which comes as we grow in holiness of life and into the full stature of Christ.
We’ll celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit in power next week. But today’s lessons remind us that the Holy Spirit didn’t just hang out in the bull pen waiting for her turn at bat! While yakking and praying in tongues is exciting and might make what we hear today seem kind of boring—it is the same Spirit moving each time!
All through Acts we see this pattern of how the Spirit works: Moments of great energy and moments of prayerful rest. After they draw straws to choose Mathias (order) then Pentecost happens (charisma)!
Soon the fast-growing early church discovers that the widows and orphans are being left behind. So, they stop and decide how to care for each other (order), appointing the first Deacons to care for the neediest among them (charisma).
Then they go into the entire known world, bringing in people they never imagined into this new young church—Gentiles who never knew about Judaism who want to follow Jesus! And that charismatic innovation will cause them to stop and figure out how to include Gentiles who loved Jesus and were filled with the Holy Spirit just as much as they did!
Acts shows us that even in the earliest church, they had to learn both charisma and order. They needed charisma to enliven. They needed order to make sense of the charisma.
We learn that the Holy Spirit is more than the power of God to excite, the Spirit of God also brings order out of chaos. The dynamism of God both creates and nurtures. It is neither destructive nor accidental.
The Sunday after the Ascension (today) and the Feast of Pentecost (next week) together teach us this basic truth of Christian life: the constant cycle between charisma and order is where the Holy Spirit shows up!
Charisma gives us the gifts of the Spirit which are our gifts of ministry. The fruit of a life lived in the Spirit shapes and re-shapes our character. The power of the Spirit energizes us. Charisma creates vision and energizes Christian living.
But charisma alone can be chaotic and disruptive. Jesus was always calming down erratic disciples and chaotic spiritual expressions in the form of demons or demagogic religious leaders.
We need order. We need grounding in community, and a steady rhythm in life. Order provides us a framework within which to grow. That is why Christians need a rule of life—a framework within which to build our spiritual lives. In our culture of impatience for anything except the next new thing, we need to hear, mark, learn and inwardly digest scripture, sacrament, and prayer.
But order alone can be stifling. Jesus told that to the religious folks of his day all the time! We need the spirit’s action to nurture and activate us.
The whole life of the Church throughout history can be seen as this movement between charisma and order. And in the tension where charisma and order meet is where we find the Holy Spirit!
Another of my spiritual heroes is a woman named Frances Perkins. She come from a wealthy New York family and one day witnessed the terrible fire at the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory in Greenwich Village. Dozens of women and children died because the workers were locked into the burning building with no escape. This experience changed her and she went to Columbia University to become a social worker. From there she worked to reform labor laws, end child labor, promote tuition-free public education. As FDR’s secretary of labor, she was the first woman cabinet member and invented social security, food stamps, and during World War II, she organized both industry and labor to function effectively together. She was a faithful Episcopalian of the Anglo-Catholic variety, who received Communion at least weekly, and took retreat every single month with a group of Episcopal nuns. As a lay person she preached in New York City and Washington churches on the direct link between prayer, the sacramental life, and a life of service.
Frances Perkins’ life and ministry demonstrated how both charisma and order reveals the Holy Spirit.
In the book of Acts, after the drama of resurrection and ascension, the Spirit caused the disciples to stay in the city where they prayed and chose a new apostle. And then the Spirit stomps on the gas and drives them into the world, speaking a variety of languages and exercising a variety of spiritual gifts. And then they come together to raise up people to care for widows and orphans. And so it goes… charisma, order, charisma, order… and in that movement, we see the Holy Spirit at work, moving forward the Gospel of Christ with grace and power.
Our worship and sacramental life, our study of scripture and our common prayer, our parish life in community sets the stage so that the Spirit can work in us in power. The Spirit is manifested in how we feed the hungry, care for the poor and the lonely, how we pray and worship, and do all the fun stuff together!
God’s grace prepares us, changes us, teaches us. The Holy Spirit uses our craving for order and our hunger for charisma to ignite us, and our parish community! And in that rhythm of rest and action we become vital messengers of Christ’s life-changing grace and world-changing power!
Here is a video of the Liturgy for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2021 at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater. (YouTube)
Here is a video of the Sermon only. (Vimeo)