Sermon: The Spirit On Us All

The Day of Pentecost, 8 June 2014 – Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put the spirit on them!”

Ancient stories have something to tell us in the postmodern world. That’s a truism of Christianity, and we see it in the stories we hear this morning. The first one begins with the greatest leader of the people of Israel being exhausted. And well he should be. Moses never wanted this job in the first place. He’s a shepherd, really, not a leader of people. When God chose him to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he had to overcome crippling self-doubt to answer God’s call. Convincing Pharaoh to let the Israelites go took all Moses’ limited powers of persuasion. Bringing the people safely through the Red Sea and now the wilderness has been grueling. Only with God’s help has he made it this far––but every time he goes off to pray and connect with God, the people come up with new, inventive ways to be unfaithful to God, and Moses has to shape them up again. The cost he has paid is high. Burnout creeps ever closer to him, and he knows it, he knows he is this close to collapse. The latest round of whining––this time about the food, of all things, how much better the food was in Egypt––is more than he can take. He goes to God, exasperated, and starts an epic rant. “Why have you treated me so badly? Why did you make me responsible for these people? I cannot carry them all. If this is how you’re going to treat me, go ahead and put me out of my misery. I can’t take any more.” God listens, and God says, “Gather seventy elders of the people of Israel. I will take some of the Spirit that I have given you and share it with them, so that you do not have to bear the burden of leadership alone.” So Moses does, so God does, and the gift of the Holy Spirit comes to the elders of Israel.

The Spirit is lively, unpredictable, disturbing. It shakes the established order of things. It threatens the powers that be. Discomfort with that potential for disruption is clear in the way the Book of Numbers tells the story. The seventy elders prophesy when the Spirit comes upon them, but Numbers makes sure to say it happens only once, and they don’t do it again. Numbers is really uncomfortable with Eldad and Medad, who seem not to be part of the seventy but receive the Spirit and prophesy anyway. People who aren’t supposed to receive the Spirit receive the Spirit, and God only knows what they might do. Joshua wants to shut them down immediately. But Moses is grateful, even encouraging. His burdens have lifted because the elders have stepped in to share them. He says simply that he wishes all the people would do the same.

There is a tension between holding on to power and being open to sharing it, between one person having all the gifts and gifts given to everyone. For all that Numbers wants Moses to be the strong leader with all the gifts, the story points to a different reality: the Holy Spirit is poured out upon many people. The rewards and burden of leadership are shared. A role that exhausts and burns out one person becomes doable, even delightful, when many people do it together.

“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put the spirit on them!”

That reality is also evident at Pentecost. After Jesus ascends into heaven, the question of leadership naturally arises among the disciples. After Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and his death, the Twelve are down to the Eleven, and they select Matthias to join their number. Then there’s the issue of who is going to lead the followers of Jesus after Jesus himself is no longer with them. You might expect that a movement so centered on one charismatic leader would look for another charismatic leader to step into that role. But that’s not what happens. The twelve apostles are gathered together, and the Spirit falls on all of them. The lively, energetic, disruptive Spirit comes to all twelve of them.

And not only to the twelve––Peter points to the words of the prophet Joel. God proclaims that the Spirit will be poured out on all people, every tribe and language and people and nation, male and female, young and old. All people will prophesy and see visions and dream dreams. All people share in the gifts brought by the Spirit. Later on Paul describes those gifts as wisdom, faith, knowledge, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking tongues and interpreting tongues. They aren’t limited to any group; they aren’t given to just a handful of people. The Spirit is given freely to all. The gifts are given freely to all.

The abundance poured out for all frees the apostles to be the kind of leaders Moses was. In both times, there was no competition to see who is the most gifted, who has the biggest share of the Spirit. There is enough for everyone. And there is no need to guard leadership jealously and let only certain people, or the right kind of people, into those roles. All the gifts the community needs are present, spread among the members. There isn’t much room for ego or a need to be in charge in this way of being in community. But Moses and the apostles are honest enough to admit they can’t do it all on their own, and because of that, they find the colleagues they need are already with them.

“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put the spirit on them!”

As it was in the camp of the Israelites, as it was on the day of Pentecost, so it is for us. We receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, when the sign of the cross is made on our foreheads and we are told, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” The Spirit pours out its abundance of gifts on each one of us. It’s not only the clergy who are given the gifts of the Spirit; it’s all of us. And by virtue of your baptism, you have a role, you have a voice, you have gifts that strengthen the church.

Churches did not always have this view. For centuries, the church believed that leadership was the role of the priest, and specifically of the rector. You may be familiar with this model, which we might call “Father knows best”; he (it was all men back then) made decisions, chose people to implement them, and listened to people in the pews only if he wanted to. It wasn’t universal, but it was pretty common. Episcopalians officially turned away from the Father-knows-best model when the current Book of Common Prayer was introduced in 1979. Its liturgy of baptism draws us back to the practice of the apostles and of Moses. The Holy Spirit falls on all people in baptism; gifts are given to all people in baptism. And all people, by virtue of their baptism, have the right and responsibility of leadership in the church.

This was a major change for many parishes, and we are still working on truly living it out. That’s true for us at St Bede’s. You called me to bring a more collaborative leadership style to what had been a pretty top-down system. And over the past nine months and a bit, we’ve begun to collaborate more, to lift up and rely on the gifts of all of us. We have changed the way the vestry operates; we meet to share ideas and resources and to have frank, open conversations about the life of the parish, with each vestry member carrying out important ministry between meetings. Altar Guild members have begun taking greater initiative in planning our worship alongside clergy and musicians. The Children’s and Youth Ministry Team––a team, not one person––is bringing new vision to the way we nurture and form young members of our community. We’ve made real progress, and there is more yet to come. For that to happen, we need you––your skills, your wisdom, your experience, the particular gifts the Holy Spirit has given you.

The same Spirit that rested on the seventy elders and the twelve apostles also rests on us, guiding us to use the gifts the Spirit has given us to love and serve God and God’s people. Because all the Lord’s people are prophets, and the Lord has put the Spirit on us all.

Numbers 11:24-30; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Acts 2:1-21; John 7: 37-39

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.