Spirit–centered Progressives?

By Bruce G. Epperly

Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Imagine yourself in those first weeks following the resurrection of Jesus, utterly overwhelmed by the events of Holy Week, the Empty Tomb and the Wounded-Risen Teacher and Savior, and the forty days of companionship with Jesus before he left them to dwell in a different dimension. Everything they believed about reality was overturned and their previous images of God shattered and deconstructed. Living daily with a world of surprise and wonder where the only thing they expected was the unexpected. These first followers of Jesus had little doctrine but they had one another and so they gathered to pray, to keep the story fresh, and await the next surprise.

Listen once more to the words of Acts 2:1-21. Let them sink in for a moment.
How would you have felt if, in this prayerful space, fire and wind descended?
How would have felt if, for just a few moments, the spirit carried you away with her inspiration and you heard God’s voice speaking through yours…driving you and the rest of us out in the streets, sharing lively, life-transforming, good news for everyone?

As I ponder this fluid and agile post-Easter, Pentecost community in light of our current faith communities, one of the faults I see in mainstream and liberal Christianity, including my own faith, is that we expect too little from God and expect too little from ourselves…we place limits on what is expansive in God and ourselves. Although we, as the children of the Enlightenment, affirm a fourteen billion year process of cosmic evolution, accept the results of C-T scans, recognize that germs can be a source of illness, and ponder the infinities of the universe, galaxy upon galaxy, we still tend to harbor small and ineffectual images of God. While we may feel uncomfortable with television faith healers or persons who pray at the drop of the hat for anything from recovering from cancer to getting a parking place at the mall, our own visions of God have often placed God outside of the world, more or less irrelevant and uninvolved in our daily lives. Faith healers, charismatic and Pentecostal Christians, and energy workers are too far on the other side of rationality to make sense in our one-dimensional world of control. But, perhaps, there is something we progressives can embrace in the Pentecostal experiences of Jesus’ first followers; something that will enable us to be spirit-centered and imaginative, and vital and lively progressive Christians.

Now, while rational religion is essential and we need to reflect seriously and critically on our beliefs and their impact on our communities and the planet, we would do well to remember that the great faiths of the world emerged out of extraordinary spiritual experiences – Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bo tree, Moses’ encounter with a burning bush, Mary and Joseph’s encounters with angelic beings, Mohammed’s experience of God’s voice speaking through and to him, and Jesus’ unity of spirit with his Parent, revealed in healings, transformation of nature, and the resurrection. Without mystical experiences and surprising releases of power and energy, none of the faiths we hold dear would have emerged. Surely there is more to reality than the self-limiting rational mind can experience in our lively god-filled world of spiritual adventures.

On that Pentecost day, the first followers of Jesus embodied a lively mysticism that was ethically and theologically sound. Their ecstasy was not just for themselves but was aimed at extending the experience of God’s presence to all persons of all nations and ethnicities, “everyone who calls on the name of [God] will be saved.” God’s presence forced them to affirm a “democracy of the Spirit,” which embraced young and old, companion and stranger, socially welcome and outcast. They discovered in their ecstasy that the universe, beginning with their experience of life in Jerusalem, was God-filled and God-inspired.

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I shall pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.

No one is left behind! All are touched by God; and are awaiting our witness to awaken them to their holiness and giftedness in a realm that excludes no one. All are welcome in the glorious circle of love that embraces humankind in all its wondrous diversity!

The Pentecost experience is expressed in the theological language of Romans 8:22-26. Here the scope of healing and salvation is extended far beyond the human race to embrace all of creation. Creation has been wounded and is crying out in pain: as the Paul notes, “we know that the whole creation is groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for…the redemption of our bodies.”

The words of Romans 8 affirm that the Holy Spirit is not just the possession of born again Christians, Pentecostals, Progressives, or even human beings; God’s Holy Spirit moves through all things, seeking their healing and partnership. For us, in this moment, the only place to experience salvation is right here and now…and if there is everlasting life, we will share it with groaning creation – persons of other faiths, dogs, cats, fireflies, and dolphins – in a great and holy adventure that dwarfs our imagination.

And, this brings us back to humankind and our spiritual lives – how true are the words of the apostle Paul – “we do not how to pray as we ought.” We seldom get the big picture, are oblivious to the law of unintended consequences, interpret reality and other persons, too often in terms of narrow experience, and regularly fail to look beyond our own self-interest. We need guidance! And deep down, Paul says, we are getting it, “the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” A still small voice speaks within us – reminding us of our holiness; inspiring us in challenging times; giving us perspective; and enlightening us to the reality that although we are at the center of God’s care, so is everything else. All centered, all loved, all guided by divine inspiration.

God loves us and inspires us passionately and gives us revelations and inspirations, made to order, intimately bestowed, and all we need to do is wake up, ask for guidance, and the Spirit will give us everything we need.

So, today, I’m preaching to myself and to you…Think big theologically, expect great things spiritually – for yourself and all creation. You can embrace evangelicals and Pentecostals and still be progressive; you can affirm God’s truth in other faiths and be a spirit-centered progressive; you can challenge all forms of exclusionary behavior and theology and have a lively sense of God’s Spirit; you can affirm a cosmos made up of billions of galaxies and a wondrous cosmic and evolutionary adventure and have a personal relationship with Jesus; and you can pray for things small and large – always expecting “miracles,” revelations of God’s presence and power – and partner with God in bringing forth justice, abundant life, and healing in all things.

God’s Spirit is praying with you and within you, guiding each step, and giving you and everyone else energy and insight beyond your imagination. Watch, listen, pray, gather as a family of faith: do you feel the wind? Do you experience the warmth? The Spirit is with you.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements. Now retired, he served as co-pastor ofDisciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA, an open and affirmative, progressive and emerging congregation.