Finding Joy on a Long Weekend
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 23, 2021
Readings: Romans 5:1-8; Proverbs 8:1-4; 32-36
“It is a marathon and not a sprint”, a ministerial colleague of mine in Nova Scotia said to me this week. Of course, he was talking about COVID-19 and how we have all had to endure something that has gone on much longer than many of us anticipated. He did say, however, that there were times when he felt, because Nova Scotia and the Atlantic bubble had been successful, that they had actually reached the end, that they had it defeated, only to find it come back in a variant. He said that they feel the longevity of this just as much as those of us who have been shut down for many months. It seems to have been longer, like a marathon, not a sprint. And he opined about how we had discussed this last year, and felt that by the fall of last year, things would be opening. Well, here we are, wondering the same thing this year.
In some ways it has been shorter than people imagined. By that I mean, because of the vaccines, because of the rollout of those, because of the discipline that has been shown in many quarters, things are a little bit better. Either way, though, it’s been a marathon and not a sprint, and we’re still in it.
I know Lori, as a marathoner herself, has commented that speed is one thing but when you're in a marathon, you need endurance to go beyond the wall and to keep going. Endurance is a tremendous virtue. And it’s endurance that we have needed and will continue to need as a society and as a Christian church, as we go through the next few months. Endurance is one of our greatest virtues.
A couple of days ago, I received an email, and in it there was a letter from the organisation Nation at Prayer. Nation at Prayer is a group that provides prayer for members of parliament, and legislatures across the country. It is a non-partisan resource to help people across political party lines deal with their faith, and simply to be a source of prayer for them. They do wonderful work. In the letter were paragraphs that really hit me, especially in the light of what I’ve just said about endurance. This is what was written:
Endurance that is a life-sustaining, life-empowering, much to be desired quality acquired so often through experiences, which are least desired or welcomed. How impactful are the lives of those who’ve endured through great challenge? Medical and healthcare workers, emergency service workers and educators are among the most noteworthy.
But one thing is certain: there is no shortcut to developing endurance, and when fuelled by the Holy Spirit, endurance can be life-transforming. How often the Apostle Paul encouraged, prayed for and commended others for their endurance.
From 1 Thessalonians 1, we remember before our God and Father your work, produced by your faith, your labour prompted by love and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
What a gift to know that in every situation, we can be given extraordinary overcoming endurance through hope in Jesus. That is both a gift and a promise to be asked for and received.
Well, this is Pentecost Sunday, the day that we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit, as promised, upon the apostles as they gathered in Jerusalem. It empowered them to go into the streets and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ with boldness and courage. It transformed the way that they lived with each other and how they became a community that supported one another in love. It had been promised by Jesus, and now is being fulfilled. They endured, the Spirit came, but the work had only just begun.
The coming of the Holy Spirit was a seminal moment in the history of the apostles, and it is one we all look back on now and recognise the power of the Spirit to transform lives, and the world, and to validate the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. A powerful moment. It seems to me, as was implied in the Nation of Prayer essay, that there is a connection between the coming of the Holy Spirit and the gift of endurance.
In today’s passage from the book of Romans, Chapter Five, after this great passage about peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, Paul turns to the issue of suffering. He said, “Suffering produces endurance; endurance, character, and character, hope that does not disappoint, through the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Suffering, endurance, character, hope; through the power of the Holy Spirit. Endurance matters. Endurance is needed in our walk with God. It is important for us to have this gift right now.
A few weeks ago, some of you will recall, I preached a sermon entitled “Keep Going”. That was the moment when Jesus, before his ascension, promised the disciples that they would receive the Holy Spirit, and they were to go and wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to come upon them.
Today Pentecost is now the fulfilment of that promise. They waited, they rested upon their faith in Christ, for the coming of the Holy Spirit. They endured that time of uncertainty, and now the Spirit came and poured into them and baptised the with fire, wind, and with power. Endurance matters. The coming of the Holy Spirit matters. Particularly in times when our faith is tested, in times of difficulty, or seclusion. There can be no harder time, certainly in my memory, than what we’ve gone through over the last year and months, where we haven't been able to meet, except for a few weeks in the fall. For us to maintain and endure in our faith, throughout all of this, has been, I believe, a gift. A gift that strengthens, a gift that renews. But it is not a gift that we can simply rely on or rest upon. It must have a goal. Endurance must have a goal, and the goal is the hope of the work of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit is the fulfilment of that goal and of that hope.
In writing in his commentary on the book of Romans, the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth said that the nerve centre of this passage, is not in human capacity, but in the capacity of God’s purpose and hope. You see, endurance is not dependent upon us alone. It is not just a matter of the will; it is something that is given us in order that we can continue the work of Christ. It might mean that there are setbacks, and these setbacks do, I believe along with the Apostle Paul, create within us character, and character, hope. But hope also to depend upon the love and the power of the Holy Spirit. Endurance is a gift from the Holy Spirit.
I had a fascinating phone call last week with someone I’ve known for more than 30 years. He reminded me in this phone call that it was30 years ago this very month that we left Harvard Divinity School, having been visiting scholars for a term. He reminisced about those times, and it was lovely. It reminded me of another story one of the fellows who was there at the time told that was deeply inspiring. A decade before, he had formed a Christian rock band. In those days Christian music were very popular, not only in churches, but also in general – Amy Grant and others had made it so. He decided to form this band, and it was an unusual band in that it was very inclusive. In fact, his drummer was a First Nations Christian. He really thought he was going to become a Christian singer. After months, and months, he managed to get invited to small churches of various denominations: Congregational, Baptist, even Episcopalian, but they were all very small groups, and he felt that his career was going nowhere, and he didn’t know what he was going to do. They were also running out of money; how could they keep going as a band to worship and serve Jesus Christ? He felt this was his divine calling.
He was invited by a local pub to sing, and he said to the pub owner, “Are you sure? We are a Christian rock band with a Christian message. Are you sure it’s going to fit the pub?
The pub owner says, “Oh, don’t worry about that, no one ever really listens to the band, they're just background music.” Well, that sure didn’t help his ego and his sense of call, did it? But they continued and they endured, and they prayed about it and they felt that they had a mission. One day they were in Winston Salem in North Carolina and they were in a church, with quite a few people there. There was a real buzz in the town, and a real buzz in a congregation, and they thought, “Wow, we’ve really hit the big time here. Everyone’s excited to see us.” So, they sang, and he gave his own personal testimony of how Christ had given him great strength in his life. It’s a wonderful story. But evidently, after it was all finished, they felt that at least they’d been able to do this, but that they should pack it in now. Until two weeks later when he received an envelope, hand-written. In it a little card that card said, “I want to thank you for your testimony in music today. I found it deeply rewarding. Let’s stay in touch. Blessings in the Lord, Billy Graham.”
Billy Graham had been in that church at Winston Salem and they developed a relationship. He sang at different places because of that connection. Now he was at Harvard Divinity School, developing his theology of church and music. He’d endured; he’d had a real sense that the Holy Spirit was calling him, and even though it seemed to be going nowhere, because of the power of God’s Spirit, he kept going, only to ultimately be rewarded, and find his hope.
Endurance matters, keeping the faith matters. The Holy Spirit matters.
One of the great challenges of our time, I believe, is that we have relied, and continue to rely very heavily, on government. We have needed government to help guide us, and whatever form of government people have been in, and however well or badly they’ve managed to handle it, regardless of the level of government, I think we do need to acknowledge how hard it must be to govern during a pandemic. There should be some humble thankfulness for what has been done, as imperfect as it might be. But let’s be under no illusion, it is not governments who, by their actions, can ultimately save us. It is not them who can give us that inner gift of endurance. In fact, they can have our support and our encouragement, but it is something more than that.
Writing in the present age, Soren Kierkegaard said:
Insofar as one may speak of authority in political, social and disciplinary connections, or of using authority. Authority is only a transitory factor, a passing thing which either vanishes later in time, or vanishes insofar as time and earthly life are transitory factors which disappear with all their differentiations.
He went on to say:
As a subject, it is my duty to honour and obey the king with undivided heart. But religiously, I feel strengthened by the thought that essentially, I'm a citizen of heaven, and though I should ever meet the king after death, I shall no longer be bound to him by the ties of obedience or a subject.
I'm a citizen of heaven. His number one. His number one connection was with God. And that is the case for us right now. I do believe that in a time of uncertainty, while we can be faithful to our government and follow their lead and their guidance, in our own hearts, in our own lives, in our own walk with God, we need the power of the Holy Spirit to endure. It is not something we can do on our own.
Philip Yancey, in his wonderful book, What’s Amazing About Grace, made this distinction, similar, I think, to Kierkegaard in tone, but very contemporary. He said:
A government can shut down stores and theatres on Sunday, can be the law, but it cannot compel people to worship. It can arrest and punish KKK murderers, but cannot cure their hatred, much less teach them to love. It can pass laws making divorce more difficult, but it cannot force husbands to love their wives and wives their husbands.
It can give subsidies to the poor but cannot force the rich to show them compassion and justice. It can ban adultery, but not lust, theft, but not covetousness, cheating, but not pride. It can encourage virtue, but not holiness.
You see, the inner life, the life that is driven by God, is the life that has the gushing, the infilling of the Holy Spirit. We talk about this in the church every time we baptise a child and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be on a child. At confirmation we lay on hands and ask for the power of the Holy Spirit. At ordination we remember the laying on of hands and the confirmation of the Holy Spirit. Beyond those formal things, there is ultimately a need in our lives to open ourselves to the intimacy and the immediacy of the power of God’s Holy Spirit. When you think about it, God who is the Creator of the universe, God who is the Wisdom spoken of in that wonderful passage in Proverbs, God who has come and given power to the earliest Christian community, this God, the Holy Spirit, can come into our lives as well.
If we want endurance in our lives, then it seems to me we need to open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is God’s great agency, the great source of power, and a little joy on a long weekend. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Amen