- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

Excerpts from a sermon given yesterday by the Rev. Roger L. Berner at Trinity Lutheran Church in Bethesda, Md.:

The Holy Spirit loves company. The good news of today's celebration of Pentecost, the church's birthday, is that the Spirit is for everyone. God's Spirit breaks down every human distinction: nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status and age.
The Pentecost story [Acts 2:1-21] so clearly tells us that there were people "from every nation under heaven." The Spirit ignores our other distinctions as well. See how Peter quotes from the prophet Joel: "Your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, and your young men and your old men shall dream dreams." Sons, daughters, young and old. "Even upon my slaves," the prophet says, "I will pour out my Spirit."
We so often resist the work of the Spirit. For more than 400 years Lutherans refused to let women serve as pastors, but God's Spirit broke through. Now we have the fuller witness of the Gospel from both men and women.
It is tempting to speak of having the Spirit individually. We say, "She has the Spirit." But the Spirit is never alone. Before Pentecost, God's Spirit worked through special chosen people, such as a judge, a prophet or a king. With Christ's victory over death at Easter, the Spirit is now being "poured out on all people." The Spirit loves company, and the workshop is a gathering of believers. The Spirit comes through a company of faith, the church. The Spirit is for the world, not against it.
St. Paul tells us that, "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit." We are born and filled with the Spirit through the sacrament of baptism. Like our physical birth, this spiritual rebirth is a gift to us from others. In both of these births we can do nothing to make them happen. Absolutely nothing. We cannot earn or deserve the Spirit of God. As Luther's small catechism says, "I believe that I cannot, by my own understanding or effort, believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him."
In other words, we believed not through our own insights or emotional experience. The catechism says, "The Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith." The Spirit, we see, is calling, gathering and enlightening us in the company of others. As John Donne wrote in his sonnet, "No man is an island." The Spirit and Christian faith are always personal but never private.
And finally, the Spirit brings the company of forgiveness. The church's only authority is the forgiveness of sins. The Spirit gifts us in a variety of ways, some with wisdom, others through knowledge. But they are all given for the purpose of building up and encouraging one another. All these gifts are for the purpose of proclaiming and living the forgiveness of sin. This is the peace, or "shalom," the Jesus gave at Easter. He breathes on them, giving them all the Holy Spirit to forgive sins.
We receive the Holy Spirit, but we are still human. We are tempted to used these gifts for our own power and control of others. The devil comes to use, as he did to Adam and Eve, and tempts us to proclaim our purpose as something other than giving and forgiving. When the Spirit's gifts are distorted for private advancement, we see individuals, congregations and denominations claiming authority to exclude and condemn. This is indeed the "sin against the Holy Spirit," distorting our authority.
But the Holy Spirit calls us back from our own ways, back to the company of faith, where our selfish desires are transformed. We find ourselves gathering, being enlightened as we give and forgive in a variety of ways, to all people.

Next week: a sermon by the Rev. Clevester Wimbish at Community Bible Church in Capitol Heights

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