May 6, 2018: Stories of the Spirits by Alisha Fung (Acts 10: 44-48)

It has been such an honor to be worshipping with you, learning from you these past few months and to be here on my last Sunday.

As most of you know, we started a Humans of Canadian Memorial project in January, an idea I stole from the Humans of New York media phenomenon.

The concept of the project was to gather the stories of you, the congregation, and share them through our media posts in hopes of getting to know the stories that have moved and shaped this church – indeed the only thing that does.

And our passage from Acts is constructed much the same way: it is often seen as the story of the apostles, but it’s really the story of the Holy Spirit.

Acts takes us through the movement of the Gospel taken first to the Jew, then the Gentile and the rest of the world.

It is a story of the spirit that is not limited or conditioned but flows freely and shares the love and salvation of Christ even in the most unexpected places.

And in the midst of Easter, as we continue to meditate on the resurrected Jesus and how this event has reordered creation, I wonder at the stories of the spirit we are missing, the pieces of hope and of resurrection we aren’t hearing because, as good Vancouverites, we’re keeping to ourselves?

A few weeks ago I was writing a paper on reconciliation and the history of the United Church. As you might know, the United Church was involved in partnering with the Canadian government in order to reform indigenous culture and religion to western Christianity through residential schools. It was in the belief that, by our human strength and wisdom, we knew what was best for indigenous people. Turning them away from their “heathenism” was the best thing we thought we could do. The thing was, we actually weren’t horrible, callous people. At the time we thought this was how we could be faithful.

However, it was because of this understanding that Christians believed they had a monopoly on truth and bore the weight of bringing the story of the resurrected Jesus to Canada. This blinded us from seeing what was really at work: we idolized our own works and our own stories over the stories of our neighbours. And, whether we knew it or not, we had started to deny and disown the reconciling love of Jesus’ resurrection. And only when it was too late did we realize that what we intended for good turned out to create physical, emotional and spiritual trauma to our indigenous neighbours for years to come.

We have since been on a long journey towards reparations, repentance and reconciliation with our indigenous neighbours but it has only just begun. But there was one story that has stuck with me since writing this paper.

It was years later in the 90’s when a Cree man who attended a residential school as a child shared his story.

One of the most painful dimensions of his residential school experience was not the physical harm he had received by being stripped from his family or even the abuse he suffered at the hands of western Christians, but the fact that no one was willing to receive the gifts which he, as a Cree boy, had to offer.

The gifts, values and stories that he carried in his heart and life were ignored and, as a consequence, he felt robbed of his identity and relationship with creation. Unlike us and our ancestors, Peter in Acts is surprised by truth and recognizes that he does not have the monopoly on it. But maybe it’s because he started off with humbling beginnings. Don’t get me wrong, Peter had every right to be a little bit arrogant.

Jesus calls Peter out alone and says in Matthew 16:

“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

How could that not get to your head?

But the humbling beginning I’m talking about is right before Jesus’ death when Peter disowns and denies Jesus three times. So why would Jesus build his kingdom on someone he knew would deny him three times over?

But this phenomenon is not unusual for God.

We see it time and time again in our Hebrew scriptures: God picking the least, the most fallible to bring about God’s kingdom:

Jacob the youngest son becomes the father of the 12 tribes of Israel; Joseph, the youngest of 11 brothers, is blessed by God with prophecy and saves Egypt from famine; Moses the younger brother who killed an Egyptian, ran away for 40 years, and had a “speech impediment” was used to lead the Israelites out of Egypt; and David, the youngest of 7 brothers, is chosen to defeat Goliath and become king.

But the thing with these stories is that those who were the least, the most humbled, recognized it and were willing (no matter how reluctant) to listen to the movement of the Spirit. That’s what makes these stories so great in the end: their listening is honored by God and their stories are forever remembered. And so I wonder when Peter was speaking to the crowd, whether he would have noticed the spirit come upon them had he not been listening? I don’t know about you but I’m one of those people that gets my news from Facebook.

As much as I know that the news I get is pre-selected according to my ‘like’ history, I can’t seem to bring myself to a real news site.  And as I wondered why, I realized that I can’t take that much bad news in one go. I need a picture of a sunset, a cat fail video, or a philosophical quote sprinkled in between the new tragedies that have occurred while I’ve been sleeping.

The stories that we hear in the media day after day, moment after moment can leave me paralyzed and the world that I live in can start to feel more distant and estranged. And I start to wonder where the spirit is. But Peter isn’t discouraged in the face of the suffering that surrounds him.

If anything, he has learned to lean in closer to God, even when his friends are being persecuted and killed. He pays attention to the visions he has received and where the Spirit is moving in the life and stories of those around him.

And this is where we find our verse in chapter 10:44-48:

“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.”

Working on the Humans of Canadian Memorial stories gave my just a glimmer of what kind of world we could live in if we all took the time to listen to each other’s stories and watch for the movement of the Spirit in our neighbours.

As an introvert, I don’t tend to go out of my way to have coffee or a beer with someone but this project not only forced me into unlikely conversations but unlikely friendships.

I slowly learned to listen to the work and the beauty of the story of the Spirit in the life sitting in front of me.

I started to lessen my hold on my sense of truth and my understanding of life in Christ to hear the very real stories of the Spirit that worked in ways I would never have imagined. But most surprisingly, I started to learn how important it was to shut up. And this is the essence of the Acts of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit came and descended onto all people and Peter was paying attention: he was still talking when the Spirit descended on the crowd and at once dropped his sermon and became much more interested in baptizing all these people. He didn’t even hesitate.

This part’s really cool: up until that point in Acts, Peter had thought non-Jewish people were ritually impure and unworthy of joining Jesus’ family. But, by the guiding of the Holy Spirit into the house of a Roman soldier, full of non-Jewish people, he was able to see that the Spirit blows where it will and even comes onto non-Jews.

I wonder what our history would have turned out to be if we had listened to the Spirit amongst our indigenous neighbours?

If we didn’t come to this country with a preconceived notion of what truth and culture should look like but prepared to let go of it in the face of our neighbours. If we were willing to be changed by the stories and the lives of our neighbours. Would reconciliation already been lived out? And in our own lives, if we paid attention to the people and opportunities around us; would we see that the circles we run in aren’t there by chance or by our own strength but led by the Spirit?

And if we did, how would that change the way we lived our lives?

But these questions aren’t worth asking unless we’re willing to be changed by them. We can’t possibly hear the story of the Spirit that’s sitting beside us unless we realize that we are not complete beings without being moved by these stories, by exchanging our stories and creating new stories together.

I’m sorry to break it to you, but we don’t have a monopoly on spirit and we certainly can’t possess it. The Spirit is always moving and we must keep a keen ear to hear it in order to shape a new narrative, one that is different from the news on our facebook pages or the lies we tell ourselves that keep us numb to the spirit altogether.

The beauty I have witnessed in experiencing your stories has changed me – how could they not? But I wonder at the stories that haven’t been shared yet, that are kept inside, hidden by shame, fear and inadequacy.

What spaces have we created that silence our neighbour?

How does our narratives trump the narratives of those around us?

And how are we becoming deaf to the spirit?

If the early apostles didn’t listen to the story of the resurrection of Jesus and had the courage to share this story despite the threat of death, we certainly wouldn’t be sitting in these pews today. The resurrection calls us to consider our own stories and the stories around us, making us curious to follow these threads of new life and new birth.

But how willing are we to be changed by our neighbours, so that we can enter into new life and new birth ourselves?

Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t call us to a monopoly on land, on culture or truth but to lean into the humble and self-emptying narrative of the spirit. The resurrection shows us there is a new way of listening that promises new life.

But it involves listening to unexpected neighbours in prostitutes, Samarians and tax-collectors; it involves dying to our pride, our egos and our truths; and it invites us to new life.

Even if we’re like Peter and have denied and disowned Jesus time and time again, Jesus has still built his foundation on us.

All we have to do is stay awake, listen deeply and be surprised by the Spirit.