The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 21 May 2006
Acts 10:44-48 [NRSV Text from BibleWorks]
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
EASTER PEOPLE BAPTIZE
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
At one time I owned a copy of a thoughtful little book entitled Western Theology. The author, an Episcopal priest from Texas, used the colorful imagery of the old West to depict the difference between a Church devoted to maintenance and one devoted to mission. As I remember, the Holy Spirit in the parlance of the book was described either as a cautious banker in the maintenance schema or as Wild Red, an explorer and guide, in the mission schema. I can’t say more than that, because someone “borrowed” the book and never brought it back – one of the reasons I don’t like to lend books whether knowingly or not.
The author’s thoughts on the Holy Spirit aptly sum up why so many Lutheran churches all over the northern world are dying while so many so-called Spirit-filled churches are not. We Lutherans tend to sniff through our up-raised theologically patrician noses and point out how sloppy the theology and preaching is in those “Schwaermer” (enthusiast) congregations is. And, no, we shouldn’t be simply awed by the numbers; after all, Hitler did draw crowds at Nuremberg. And, our Roman Catholic friends do consistently have larger, more ethnically diverse, and more vibrant parishes without hitting the sawdust trail.
BUT while the staid Lutherans set goals and task forces and denominational strategies for opening up the ethnic gene pool, the so-called Spirit-filled churches simply bring together white, black, Latino, and even Asian parishioners week after week all across North America. The crowds tend to be bluer collar, the expectation that the Holy Spirit can and does change lives more common. Wild Red is blowing through the worship, the preaching, and the teaching. Passion for God is exuberantly evident.
We Lutherans like our Holy Spirit to be very banker-like – mediating grace through very carefully ordered and not-too-emotional sermons and sacraments. The Lord Jesus may tell us in John 3 that the Spirit blows where He wills, and here in Acts 10 the Holy Spirit may not wait until people are baptized to fall upon those that have heard the Word of God, but the Lutheran Holy Spirit seems to have long since come to His senses. If a Lutheran congregation manages an adult baptism now and again and has one or two “ethnic” faces in the pews, the pastor may well be asked to lead a workshop on how to duplicate such fantastic results.
When we Lutherans “raise up an ethnic pastor,” we put that person on a seminary faculty or in the evangelism department at headquarters. The Holy Spirit as cautious banker helps us map five-year plans to fill ambitious quotas. For instance, eighteen years after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America set a goal of 10% “minority” membership, we have inched up towards 3%. Meanwhile the so-called Spirit-filled congregations keep expanding and growing.
When the same ELCA denominational and academic leaders do wonder if the Holy Spirit could possibly be Wild Red, they compound the problem of an aging membership by deliberately offending the ELCA’s overwhelmingly traditional base by pushing liberal sociopolitical issues as if that were the Spirit’s work. In the book of Acts, thousands respond to the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are gathered into the Church. In the ELCA, thousands respond to preaching by leaving by the back door.
Meanwhile in the southern world, as in the so-called Spirit-filled churches, the Holy Spirit as Wild Red sticks a bit closer to the plain sense of Scripture. When Wild Red leads the people of God into all Truth, He doesn’t play hermeneutical games with Scripture to try to make it justify sinners with a gospel tailor-made to our experience. Wild Red actually convicts sinners of unbelief and corresponding disobedience. People repent of their experience that Scripture condemns, and something akin to having a new heart and a new mind actually begins to happen. The new convert is excited that Christ Jesus has died for her or his sins. She or he actually tells family and friends something like, “Come, meet the One who told me everything I have ever done” (cf. John 4).
Throughout the northern world, the Lutheran churches are more and more moribund. The North American Lutheran churches lead the way in worship attendance with perhaps 30% weekly at worship, which means that more than 2/3 of North American Lutherans are choosing to live by a different gospel weekly. In the European Lutheran mausoleums led mostly by employees of the state, it is even more laughable to call the 98% that stay away from weekly worship “Christian.” As Luther remarked, anyone that doesn’t commune at least four times a year ought not to be called a Christian.
Is there a Wilhelm Loehe today anywhere among the Lutheran churches of Europe or North America? Is there anyone out there among the Lutherans that has been so seized by Wild Red that he can challenge and inspire the Holy-Spirit-as-cautious-banker mentality of denominational and academic leaders with a renewed commitment to raising up pastors with a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Should we be looking to the southern churches to convert the mostly lost north? Should we be attending to what the Holy Spirit is doing in churches that are not so smugly devoted to attrition and death?
My Baptist father used to tell me a story from his childhood in the late teens and early twenties of the twentieth century. It seems that one Sunday his pastor had a casket placed in the front of the nave. The pastor’s sermon was particularly blunt, and, at the end he asked that the ushers direct the worshipers pew by pew to file past the casket to see who it was that was killing the congregation. When they looked in the casket, a mirror reflected back the face of the very one responsible.
A few years ago my then bishop’s wife told me about her trip to England. She toured so many marvelous cathedrals and churches and came to the opinion that most were English history museums. Couldn’t something similar be said of our churches?
In our oldest northern church buildings, you can learn quickly who used to be the pastor or who used to be the musician there. We can find memorial books and plaques that tell us who gave the stained glass windows, the instruments, and the various altar appointments. We can see a wall filled with the faces of former pastors and long-gone confirmation classes. Our hymnals and pew Bibles may even tell us who the benefactors were. But in most of our churches, you can open the doors and see fewer and fewer people, because the Holy Spirit is not a cautious banker like the so many of us preachers and so many of us Lutherans in the pew.
There is, again, a caricature of Wild Red that blows through quite a few churches today. The preachers preach a Zeitgeist gospel of affirmation in which Christ doesn’t need to be crucified for sinners and sinners do not need to repent. The musicians put on a campy MGM send up of Christian worship. The people there love the experience of being loved and titillated and affirmed just the way they are. They go home justified in their sin, and the churches “amuse themselves to death” (in Postman’s words). It is as if the cautious banker were sent to a plastic surgeon for a face lift and a self-absorbed psychobabbler for happy pills. But Wild Red is absent because sinners are not convicted of sin and the repentant are not raised up to new life in Christ.
So then what does this mean for us Lutherans particularly in the north?
Like the circumcised believers in Acts, we northern Lutherans need to be astounded that the Holy Spirit as Wild Red is still turning the world upside down through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Sinners are being preached into hell by the Law and driven to the Good News of God’s Son Jesus crucified and raised for sinners. People are coming to faith in Jesus Christ and lives are being changed by the preaching of Law and Gospel, and even adults are begging to be baptized. If that’s not happening in our churches, then we need look no further than the mirror in the casket.
Like those crazy Spirit-filled Gentiles in Acts, we northern Lutherans need to rediscover the depth of our unbelief and disobedience – even if that’s not politically correct – and recognize that we are hungering and thirsting to hear the old, old story of Jesus and His love with every bit of the passion atypical of staid Lutherans. We need to run, not walk, to the waters of baptism and drown our old Adams and Eves with all their evil desires and narcissistic makeovers. We need to be raised from the dead and filled with a Wild Red passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ – as if it makes all the difference in the world. And it does!
This is most certainly true.
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel D. Zumwalt