Acts 2:1-4, Galatians 5:22-26
Somewhere from one out of ten to one out of five Americans defines themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. Most strictly speaking, this means that the person does not have any organized religious affiliation; in some cases, even defines herself as agnostic or atheist. However, if you are spiritual but not religious, you nonetheless find a need for a pursuit of that which is other, that which is holy, that which betters the self and serves the whole.
For many within the organized church – and if you’re sitting here right now, you’re within the organized church – the spiritual but not religious designation is cause for concern or even outright despair. With the notable decline in Americans who attend church with any kind of regularity, describe themselves as having any religious identity, or engage in any sort of continuing faith practice, it can be easy to look at something like being “spiritual but not religious” as part of the death of the church. Many think we should fight it and condemn it and attack it and anyone who uses that word combination to describe themselves.
But let me stop you right there. “Spiritual but not religious” will not kill the church. No matter what a poll or survey or empty seat next to you might say, the church, body of Christ, cannot and will not die. We believe in a resurrected God, in a Christ who came as one of us to conquer death for us. If the church which bears his name dies, it will only be so it can be resurrected yet again. We trust in God’s promises for life – for us and for all the beloved in Christ, including for Christ’s own church. Fear has no place in a Christian’s heart.
So, now that we’ve set fear and condemnation aside, what are we to make of reduced church attendance nation-wide, of statistically significant growth in those reporting no religious affiliation in their lives, of the increasing groups like the spiritual but not religious who would rather find their own path to goodness than to take our word for it? What are we to say to our young people who will leave our churches and homes in the fall and find out they are a distinct minority, and must figure out how to explain what it even means to have Christian faith?
What if we looked to this very day on the church calendar for guidance? Today the church celebrates Pentecost, the third largest celebration of the Christian faith after Easter and Christmas. Unlike those two holidays, there is no Pentecost decoration section at Target, no rows of special Pentecost candies at CVS, no feature in People magazine for how to throw the perfect Pentecost meal. This holiday will only be celebrated in Christian communities.
On this day, the Christian church recognizes the gift of the Holy Spirit, the promised gift of God that would be Christ’s abiding presence with his church. On this day, we celebrate that the earliest apostles were gifted with the ability to speak other languages, not as an expression of personal, ecstatic piety, but rather so that faith could be preached in every language, to every people, at all times, in all places, in all circumstances, with all confidence and joy. Today, Christians celebrate the gift of power that is the Holy Spirit and receive the reassurance that the same Spirit continues to work in our hearts and in our world today.
Depending on your religious upbringing and personal style, you might have a little more trouble putting that truth into action in your life. Lutherans have often been accused of Spiritphobia – of not knowing what the Spirit is or does or, for that matter, being a little nervous of people who like to talk about the Spirit too much. But look at this reading from Galatians today, just one of many descriptions of the Spirit’s work among us: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” It reminds us “if we live by the Spirit” – and we do – then “let us also be guided by the Spirit”. In other words, let these fruits of the Spirit’s action guide us as we live our faith.
It’s why I’m not bothered by the designation of “spiritual but not religious”. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. That means I will claim all things that draw together in love, sing of joy, work for peace, abide in patience, serve in kindness, give with generosity, persist in faithfulness, insist on gentleness, and in all things, act with self-control. Whenever I see these things at work in the world, I know them to be the work of the Spirit. Not only that, but I claim them as the work of the Spirit. I will not be quiet and self-congratulatory about it. I will loudly and boldly and publicly point to them as God’s work in this world through the power of the Holy Spirit.
When the Spirit first came to the disciples, as we heard in our reading from Acts, it came so that all people could hear God’s word in their own language. The Spirit came to help us claim God’s action in our lives and in the world with boldness and power. When you see the fruits of the Spirit at work, when you live them out in your own life, you will not be silent. You will point to them, name them, and share them with others.
Whenever you watch nations set aside self-interest and work so that conflicts will end, lives will be saved, and their citizens can live in peace, you celebrate and proclaim the work of the Spirit. Whenever a person decides to give in generosity to the work of the church, you celebrate and proclaim the work of the Spirit. Whenever a volunteer persists in advocating for the cause of those whose voices are not heard, faithfully serving her neighbor, you celebrate and proclaim the work of the Spirit. Whenever two people speak with gentleness and respect about each other, even when their religion or race or economic background pit them against each other, you celebrate and proclaim the work of the Spirit. Whenever a public servant chooses to measure her words, respect the eighth commandment to not bear false witness against her neighbor, and exercise self-control, you celebrate and proclaim the work of the Spirit.
Last week, the book of Galatians reminded us that we are all children of God through faith, that there is nothing that divides us, that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Today it reminds us to be likewise unified in the way we live by the Spirit and are guided by the Spirit. We will not only live as God calls us, but we will point to and rejoice in the ways the Spirit works in the world, no matter what label someone puts on it. Because the Spirit is at work in this world, in your life and in mine and in the life of this congregation and the world around us. The church may be the only place we’ll celebrate Pentecost, but it isn’t the only place we’ll find the Spirit working. Thanks be to God. Amen.