“Poor in Spirit/Pour Out Spirit”

Acts 2:1-21

First Presbyterian Church of Jamestown , New York

The Reverend Thomas A. Sweet

May 31, 2009


“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

                                                                         -Matthew 5:3  

“…I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…”

                                                                      -Acts 2:17

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The mind is a wondrous thing, isn’t it?  Who knows how it works and how it makes the associations it makes.  But, as I was reading our Pentecost passage this week and got to the part where God says, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh...,immediately into my mind, with no conscious volition on my part, flashed the first of the beatitudes of Jesus:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  P-o-o-r in spirit/p-o-u-r out Spirit…and with a little firing of the synapses in my brain or a prompting of the Spirit or whatever happened, a sermon is born.  

Heaven, when it is referred to in the New Testament, very seldom refers to a celestial rest home.  Heaven in its biblical usage almost always is meant to connote union with God, an existential at-one-ness with the God in whom we live and move and have our being and thus, also, a felt oneness with all of life.  The kingdom of heaven to which Jesus referred in his beatitude is an experience of life in which our bond with God is so solid, so secure, so illuminating, so unitive as to alter and transform the way we see and think about and interact with the world.  

Such a heaven is not and, in fact, cannot be gained through our own straining and striving.  It is offered to us freely, poured out as it were on all flesh, and we need only to supply the appropriate vessel to receive it, to be filled by the divine gift.  That vessel, as it turns out, is humility.  

One of the defining parables of Jesus is his poem about the tax collector and the Pharisee.  You remember it, don’t you?  That I am not misusing the parable in my favor can be seen in Luke’s introduction to it: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  In other words, Jesus, too, is making the case for the primacy of humility by citing its opposite.  

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven (so poor in spirit was he), but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled (and then presumably be put in a place where they can receive the gift of heaven), but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).  

Those who trumpet their own accomplishments do not want the heaven of oneness with God.  They are content with the rewards their own efforts and achievements garner.  Or, to say it another way: “Self-proclaimed virtues are tainted virtues at best.”  To whatever extent we are full of ourselves, we use up space that God’s poured-out Spirit could fill in us.

A few years ago, one of my and our friends, the Reverend Stephen Phelps, who taught several of us the practice of meditation, preached one of the finest sermons that ever has graced this church’s one hundred seventy-five years.  His sermon was called “The Sent-Down Man.   Maybe you remember it.  It was based on another of the parables of Jesus.  The parable advises that when you go to a wedding banquet or a dinner party, you ought not to sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by the host; and the host who has invited both of you may come to you and say, “Give this person your place,” and then in disgrace you have to move to a lower place.  Rather, when you are invited, sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.”  

In his magnificent sermon, Steve said that though our tendency most often is to try to climb higher and ever higher in our lives, that path finally is doomed because (1) there always will be someone who can climb higher than we can and (2) eventually we will fall.  Next to Bear Stearns or Chrylser or General Motors, the cross of Christ might at one time have seemed to be ineffectual or irrelevant, but it is not the cross that is passing away.  Just so, Steve told us, there is a passageway to the heaven of life.  It is the path of going lower.  “On this path, there is no end but God, for no matter how low another creature has fallen, you, by the grace of God, can choose to go down a step lower, to be sent down, to serve…the stairway to heaven goes down”  (Stephen H. Phelps, “The Sent-Down Man,” First Presbyterian Church, Lent 2007).  

The reason this is so is because, in going lower, you stop making more of yourself and instead we begin being made, being made by the pouring out of God’s Spirit on us into the image of the Sent-Down Man we call Jesus and onto the road that has no end but God.  

St. Paul had been set on such a road, and so he wrote to the Philippians that they should “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in (the Sent-Down Man), that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:3-8).  

When, in the sixth chapter of the Old Testament book of Micah, the people Israel approach the prophet and ask how they might come to God in a way that will be pleasing to God – “shall we come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old…will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or with tens of thousands of rivers of oil…shall I give my firstborn…” – the prophet answers, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good: what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8)  

Humility is the chalice into which we receive the wine of God’s Spirit that the Pentecost God pours out onto all flesh.  How often have we read that first beatitude – “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” – and thought, with some pride, “That is not me”?  We have thought that being poor in spirit is a deficiency when it is, in fact, a necessity if we are going to experience the heaven of oneness with God and life.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  

Sometimes we have a hard time summoning humility in our lives but often life itself finds ways of humbling us.  Those times are fraught with ache and anguish, but they also can be our salvation if, in their wake, we are more modest about our invincibility and independence.  Thus, they can become times for opening heart, mind, and soul to the poured out Spirit of God.  

Heaven, as the Bible mostly talks about it, is our participation in God’s life and thus our lives take on an eternal dimension now because God is eternal.  Eternal life is not something outside of us conferred on us on some distant day if we somehow are judged to have lived “good enough” lives.  Eternal life is no more and no less than our participation in God’s life that God makes possible now by the pouring out of God’s Spirit.  “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us.  Melt us.  Mold us.  Fill us.  Use us. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us.”  Pentecost is the celebrations of the means by which we participate in God’s life and that is what the Bible calls heaven.  That is why we need not fear “…though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though the waters roar and foam, though (even) the (financial) mountains tremble in their tumult” (Psalm 46:2-3, adapted).  When, through humility, we receive the poured out Spirit, God is in us and we are in God.  

One last thing:  The Spirit of God by filling persons builds community and communities.  What an extraordinary time it is to be alive.  We can continue to kill each other with our endless wars and in our arrogance wipe out other species and in our hubris despoil the earth.  And yet, on every continent, a revolution in and for human dignity is arising that is beginning to knit a sense of community among us as wide as the world and is renewing our ties to the earth.  I believe this new morning in the world is none other than the work of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh.  Bravado and braggadocio have had their day on the world’s stage and they have failed us.  Contemporary Parthians and Medes and Elamites – residents of Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan and China and Mexico and America and Pakistan and Cuba – all are beginning “in their own languages and ways” to open themselves to the healing hope of humility and thus are coming to embrace the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of God, by whatever name it is known to them.  

Poor in spirit/God’s poured out Spirit – that is the Pentecost combination that gives life…to you, to us, to the world.  

The Spirit of God still is being poured out on all flesh.  My pastoral counsel?  Receive it!  


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