We are blessed in the American Baptist Churches to be a very culturally diverse denomination. When I attend denominational events, I experience all kinds of worship services – African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American – worship services that are nothing like the traditionally white, New England worship services that I am familiar with. It is both an enlightening and a disquieting experience to attend a worship service markedly different from that which you are used to.
This was brought home to me when a friend of mine attended a denominational event and was exposed for the first time to a Hispanic worship service. When the pastor preached, he was loud and expressive, larger than life. The music and the singing were also very energetic, loud and expressive. There was a band with an electric guitar and drums and microphones. The service was filled with sound and energy.
This type of worship service can be a little overwhelming the first time it is experienced. And that is what my friend felt: a little overwhelmed. She began to think that if that’s what the Holy Spirit looks and feels like, then the services she was used to, which are quieter and more contained, must not be filled with the Holy Spirit.
I can understand the way she felt. I had felt something like that when I had first attended the worship services of people of other cultures. While others around me were lifting their hands in the air to praise Jesus, and were responding to the preacher with “Amen” and “Hallelujah” and “Yes, Lord Jesus, yes” I began to feel like there was something wrong with me. How come I wasn’t moved to lift my hands in the air and shout? Did I not feel the Holy Spirit? Was I spiritually dead? Had my culture lost its connection to the Spirit? Was that why we were quieter and more contained when we worshipped?
I thought about this for some time and I finally came to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit expresses itself in countless ways. Energy and movement aren’t the only ways to feel and respond to the Spirit. I thought about the centuries of monastic worship, which is meditative and contemplative. If you’ve ever read what the medieval monks and nuns wrote or if you’ve ever listened to the music they sang you know without a doubt that they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
What I began to understand is that the Spirit of God is extremely flexible. It’s like the consummate traveler and the ideal guest. It can go anywhere and fit in everywhere. “You have a lively culture? Then I’ll be lively. You have a quiet culture? Then I’ll be quiet. I’ll come into your culture, and your church, and your family, and your mind in whatever way I can. It’s not important how I get there, just that I get there.”
That’s the beauty of the Spirit of God: It makes no distinctions. God loves everyone and wants to be with everyone. There is not one way that the Holy Spirit expresses itself – there are countless ways.
So, if the Holy Spirit can express itself in countless ways, how do we know when it is present? If we consider the scripture passage I read today, we will discover that there is one clear sign when32 the Spirit was present. In the passage, Peter states, “The Spirit told me to go with the [three men sent from Caesarea] and not to make a distinction between them and us (Acts 11:12).” The “them” in this case would be the Gentiles, and the “us” would be the Jews. At that time, it was considered “unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile (Acts 10:28).” Even though this was the case, God had shown Peter, through a dream, that he should not call anyone profane or unclean (Acts 10:28). So Peter went with the Gentiles to the home of a Gentile and, while he was preaching to them about Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were there and they were baptized.
When Peter arrived in Jerusalem after this astonishing event, the Jewish Christians criticized him for going to Gentiles and eating with them. But Peter was very clear about what God had been doing through him and the Gentiles: He knew, without a doubt, that God was breaking down the barrier between the Jews and the Gentiles. Peter was not to make a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, and neither was anyone else to make that distinction. What we learn from this story is that when the Spirit is present the barriers that separate us from each other break down.
Often, there are barriers between the different kinds of Christians. Liberal Christians and fundamentalist Christians are often uncomfortable with each other. Intellectual Christians and emotional Christians are often uncomfortable with each other. Rich Christians and poor Christians are often uncomfortable with each other. Along with the discomfort there can be criticism. You’re different than I am and that makes me uncomfortable and so I criticize you. You make me nervous, and so I separate myself from you. I create a barrier between us to protect myself because I don’t trust you because you’re different than me.
When the Spirit is present those barriers break down. We feel the Spirit of God, which makes no distinctions among us, and that Spirit begins to infiltrate our minds, and hearts, and bodies, almost like a drug – a drug that wipes away the discomfort and the fear and the criticism and the barriers. We begin to think, and feel, and see with the mind, and the heart, and the eyes of God. We begin to know, and feel, and see the truth – the truth that we are really no different from each other. We are all human beings. We all experience the joys and the sorrows of being human. We all experience the love and loss, health and sickness, abundance and scarcity, birth and death of the human condition. And we all need others to rejoice or to weep with us when we rejoice or weep. We need sisters and brothers to walk the journey of life with us. When the Spirit is present we understand and feel and see the unity that exists underneath all of those barriers we’ve constructed between us. And we let the barriers go. And we are united into the family of God that we are already but that we just haven’t been able to recognize.
It doesn’t really matter how the Spirit expresses itself – loud or quiet, energetic or calm, with the openness of a dog or with the stealth of a cat – it just matters that it does express itself: that it moves among us, dissolving the barriers we’ve constructed, allowing us to see our essential connectedness as members of God’s family, walking in this world together in joy and in sorrow, in health and in sickness, in richness and in poverty, for better or worse, until death us do part and we await the time when we will meet again in God’s kingdom when it comes in its fullness. So let us revel in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, as it moves among us and in us and through us, by the grace and for the glory of God. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, June 4, 2017, Pentecost Sunday.