The Passion of the Holy Spirit
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 14, 2020
Readings: Acts 4: 23-37, Genesis 1:1-8
Last week a friend of mine defined for me the word “passion”. I was talking about passion narratives within the Bible, and my theologian friend said, “Well, passion is a numeric.”
I said, “What do you mean by a numeric?”
He said, “It is one fourteen, one ten.”
This had me scrambling, thinking of all the different books in the Bible that had a hundred and fourteen verses in it.
He sat back and roared with laughter and said that was the outcome of the Raptors final game of the NBA a year ago this weekend. He said, “Now that was passion!”
We talked about how the city was so full of joy and life, and the millions of people lining the streets; all colours and races and types of people were represented. It was a time of joy and passion. I think it was very much like Browning’s great poem, Abt Vogler, where it says that passion left the ground and was let loose in the sky. It was as if somehow this tremendous sense of praise, joy, and passion took over the city. People were enthralled and given a sense of praise and adulation. A memorable occasion for those of us, particularly from Toronto.
The more I thought about that notion of passion, unity, collectivity, the more I thought about that very first Pentecost period, where the earliest Christians were out in the city of Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. In today’s passage from the Book of Acts, there is this moment where Peter and John return to the Christian community after they were involved with other disciples helping, for example, a lame man walk, and you can see that in Chapter Three.
They once again proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus as being the cornerstone of their lives. They were engaged with the community, but they did so from the point of view of their faith. They were passionate. However, they didn’t always receive a warm welcome. New members were added to their congregation, new people came along and committed themselves to Jesus Christ, but they also faced opposition. They had political and religious opposition. They were interrogated: “By what power do you do these things?” They were asked. They answered, “Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the power, and the power of His Holy Spirit.”
When they returned to the community, to the believers gathered, they didn’t hold onto their grievances about being interrogated. Rather, they talked with joy, worship and praise, that their word had been heard in the streets, that people knew about the power of Jesus. That people who were hurt, or had an illness, had been healed. This was the sense of joy and passion they had, and it was palpable, it was part of who they were, it was sincere. But where did their passion come from? When we look at the Raptors, we know that we’ve seen it on television, or in the games themselves. We know who won, we know who lost, and everyone wore ball caps and jerseys with pride. We know where that came from, but where did the disciples’ passion come from? What was its source? Well, we’re given a clue, and there are two types of passion here. There is the passion that comes from above. Clearly, the disciples were passionate because they believed and were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. They knew that their source of power came not from themselves, but from God, and that this great passion, this emotion was such that they had to express it.
It was also rooted in something deeper than just an emotion. It was rooted in their conviction. You see this in the words of Peter and John. It comes from their sense that they have received the Spirit, which is the Spirit of God. It is not just a spirit, or a spiritual moment, or a moment of ecstasy. This is God the Creator acting amongst them. They quote from Genesis, Chapter One, this notion that God is the Creator. This formless world was given form when the Spirit, the ruach of God, moved upon the waters, and therefore the world was created. It acknowledges not so much all the functions and deliberate steps that Creation took, it talks more about the power of the Spirit being the source of that creation. It came from the very Spirit of God Himself. The similar expression is there in the Psalms, in Psalm 104, it talks about the Spirit as the Creator. So, the disciples were filled with this ruach, filled with this Spirit, but it was the Spirit of the God who had created.
Today we’re celebrating in a beautiful way, the blessing of the pets. We weren't able to do it in April because of COVID-19, so we’re doing it virtually today. You will see photographs of some of our congregation with their pets. It’s a way for us to acknowledge that the created world is greater than ourselves, and that God is the Creator of all things. We even sing, “all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” The passion that those disciples had, came from the very power of the Creator, and that gave them the courage to proclaim their faith. Oh, how powerful that is.
It was passionate in another sense. We talk about passion as the passion of Christ. We talk about his death as The Passion. We use literature and language and music to describe that passion. At the heart of what the disciples believed was that the connection between the power of the Holy Spirit and Jesus was so intimate, so borne within this Trinity of God, this wonderful bond, that when they proclaimed Jesus, the Spirit worked. When the Spirit came, Jesus was acknowledged.
That is why they ascribe to Jesus the very power of healing. That it is in the power of the Risen Christ that they're able to do what they do. They were passionate because they had the passion of Christ risen in their lives. That’s what Pentecost is all about. But you know, over time – and I think it’s natural – churches and cultures move far away from that passion. It’s almost as if, rooted in our DNA, particularly in the Western world, is the sense that passion isn't something that should be adored or praised. We’re affected by the Enlightenment, which elevated reason above passion. You could see it in the writings of Alexander Pope, who said that passion replaces reason, or pushes out reason. As if passion is a negative thing, but reason is a purely positive thing.
That carried its way through the language of the Enlightenment and philosopher. It’s almost found and wormed its way into our culture and our understanding: Let’s not get too passionate about our faith, let’s be reasonable about everything, as if somehow reason is always the greater good.
Voltaire had something striking to say about this. He questioned the notion of passion, and he noted on more than one occasion his sense that the fanaticism of passion, even within the religious sphere, is something that should be removed. He wrote this – and I know that many people ascribe to Voltaire’s ideas:
Which is more dangerous, fanaticism, or atheism? Fanaticism is certainly a thousand times more deadly, for atheism inspires no bloody passion, whereas fanaticism does. Atheism is opposed to crime and fanaticism, whereas fanaticism causes crimes to be committed.
He’s really having a go here at the Church, and sure, there were times when fanaticism led to bloody things. We all know that. There’s a history of it, but to denigrate passion, as being fanatical about something, then juxtapose it to reason, or even atheism, loses the essence of what those early disciples had. Their passion came from God, and that passion drove them, not to bloody conflict, but to something much greater: A love and a compassion and a justice that they enacted in the world.
So, the church was founded on passion. While reason certainly comes into a lot of our discussions – as it should – the faith is not unreasonable, it is passion, and the passion of God that is at the heart of things. That’s why, when they came back to visit those people who were the earliest disciples and followers of Jesus, they worshipped and they prayed. Worship isn't something contrived. We put a lot of time and effort into planning worship here, like today’s service. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it has to come from within, it has to be stronger than that. It’s not just the planning of words or sacraments, it’s the power of the Spirit that moves within those things that is really powerful. No one put this clearer than John Calvin. When asked “What is the right way of honouring God?” He said:
To put all our trust in Him, to study, to worship Him all our life by obeying His will. To call upon Him whenever any need impels us, seeking in Him salvation and whatever good things can be desired. And lastly, to acknowledge Him with both heart and mouth to be the only author of good things.
Calvin was so right. It comes from within. It comes from the power of the Spirit, to acknowledge Him, and we need to do that in our lives as well. We don’t need to always have formality in worship as if it’s something that we manipulate. It comes from the Holy Spirit working within our lives.
Nearly twenty years ago, I was the guest preacher at a three-point pastoral church here in Ontario. I went around to the three congregations and I remember we had a luncheon afterwards, and the members of the three congregations came together for the lunch – it was terrific. But there was one lady who was anxious about the future of the church and her congregation. She was bemoaning the fact that the United Church seemed to be declining and she was worried about the future. Then she said something that I really didn’t know how to take. She said that maybe rather than having a guest preacher, we should be putting a tombstone on the front lawn.
Oh my, I'm not sure how to take that. But I tried to encourage her, I talked about passion and how it’s not something that we can just take control of ourselves, but that we need to open ourselves to the power from above, that that’s really where real passion comes from.
Then she smiled and she told me a little story. She said, “That reminds me of a story of three brothers who were cub scouts, and they went down to the lake. One of the little ones fell into the lake. The two others ran home and told their mother, ‘unfortunately our brother has gone into the lake, and we were worried for him. Every time we tried to give artificial resuscitation, he kept getting up and running away.’”
Maybe sometimes, in our sense of the Church, we just need to know that the power of the Spirit is there, and to rely on the Spirit. This is not an excuse for inactivity or commitment, but the recognition that the Spirit is at work.
There’s one last thing that I notice. They also had a passion from below, and by that I mean as a community of faith. They were moved by the Spirit to do things amongst each other. To take concrete steps to care for each other. We’re given a sense within this passage that those people who were in need within the Christian community – and I referred to this last week – were supported and encouraged by the other members of the community, that where there was a need, the need was met. So much so that one of the great leaders of the early church, Barnabas, sold some land to ensure that those in this fledgling Christian community were looked after. There was a commitment, a dedication, a cost to be borne for the help of the other. This isn't necessarily a political manifesto, although it can certainly help us understand ways to look after those in need, but it was a way in which the community was shaped by the Holy Spirit.
This was one of the key ingredients of the very earliest Christians, and it’s one of the things that made them so attractive. They lived in accordance with what they believed. They recognised that if God is the Creator of all things, then what they have belongs ultimately to God.
Right now one of my friends, one of the people that I’ve admired the most, is stepping down from all forms of ministry and work. For years, he was the CEO of Young Street Mission, and his name is Rick Tobias. Rick is a wonderful human being – he’s been acknowledged with honorary doctorates in different and various seminaries and universities for his work. In honour of him I went back and looked at a speech he gave to parliamentarians in 2016. Now, here is a man who, most of his life served people in the greatest need. He said that the thing that really moved him, was the Scriptures. When he read them again from the eyes of his experience of caring for the poor in Toronto, the Holy Spirit, convicted him of this sense of the Spirit’s work and how Scripture reaffirms it.
Just a clipping from that incredible speech. He said:
I didn’t know that the Scriptures had words about our responsibility to care for the dependent poor, the welfare recipient, the poor that we don’t like to like. And yet this strong word about how we care for them came.
I wasn’t sure that we had to worry about those who were dispossessed, maybe in Canada’s First Nations. To be dispossessed means you lose your stakehold, you lose your position, you lose your voice ultimately within society. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that there were words on how we care for orphans and widows, how we care for people who have been involved in a refugee crisis. I can't imagine what was going on in the heads of people who were having to flee from Syria to go to another land.
I discovered that there are two hundred references in Scripture that talk about immigrants, foreigners, aliens, refugees, people who are not our people. Because I realised that the multitudes that followed Jesus were predominantly poor and in need.
I didn’t know that Paul taught his followers that they were to work, so they would have to give away to others, maybe the highest theology in the Scriptures. I didn’t know that James spoke harsh words to early Christians for their failure to engage people in poverty. There’s a lot I didn’t know.
He goes on to talk about the influence of the Holy Spirit in bringing him to this realisation. And look what his life led to.
My friends, the passion of the Holy Spirit also comes from below. It comes from seeing need, it comes from the Spirit’s love and compassion for the world, causing it to change, to repent of its sin, to turn once again to the Almighty.
Those early Christians had passion. They didn’t need a basketball, they didn’t need a hoop, they didn’t need something artificial to give them a sense of worship or praise. They had the Spirit and the Holy Spirit was their passion. May the Spirit be ours too. Amen.