The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
The Barrel - Home Page | Resources | Sermon Illustrations

Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2003-2004

The Mistaken Quest for the Spiritual Life
Year C - Baptism of Our Lord Acts 8:14-25

Silent retreats, meditation centers, and labyrinth walks are just a few of the many forms and methods that people are using in their quest for a deeper spiritual walk. People are searching for a state of inner peace, a respite away from the nagging ring of their cell phone, the empty chatter of meaningless conversation, the unrealistic demands of the corporate world and the relentless requests of family obligations. They are seeking a release from the tension and stress created by the high pace and pressure of living in modern society. They are also seeking meaning and fulfillment. Capitalistic materialism while offering the opportunity, it has failed to deliver the promise of happiness. People are beginning to understand that without a healthy spiritual life the pursuit of happiness through temporal means leads only to futility.1

The Church should rejoice in this new found interest in spirituality. We do not have to engage in the fruitless arguments to prove the existence of God or the possibility of a spiritual world. But we should also be cautious in our own pilgrimage for not every form of spirituality is beneficial. The story of Simon the Sorcerer illustrates that spiritual power can be duplicated and imitated for evil purposes. We should show discernment and wisdom in our quest for a deeper experience with God and a greater understanding of the spiritual life. In his narrative account of the Samaritan's conversion, Luke provides use with many insights that should prove helpful in our journey of faith.

The story begins with Phillip leaving Jerusalem to escape persecution. While Jesus told the disciples to go into all the world, they remained in the Holy City for several years after the Master's death. Jerusalem was there home. It offer safety and security and besides they had never done it that way before. To overcome their spiritual lethargy, God sends persecution upon the church, especially upon the Hellenistic Jews. These Jews had grown up outside of Israel. They did not have the same respect for the Jewish establishment or the Temple. They failed to conform to many of the social customs. They spoke with strange accents. So the religious leaders aimed their hostility at them. These Hellenistic Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, were arrested and imprisoned, some were even killed.

To escape this persecution, Phillip goes to Samaria and preaches the Gospel. He also produces many miraculous signs and wonders. Impressed by his power and convinced by his message, the Samaritans believe and are baptized. When this stunning news reaches Jerusalem, the apostles send Peter and John to verify it.

We cannot fully appreciate the gracious act of love this constituted without considering the history of Jewish Samaritan relationships. The people of Samaria and the people of Israel were related in their religious and biological heritage but had become two distinct ethnic groups. During a period of captivity, the Samaritans had intermarried with Gentiles and resettled in an area north of Jerusalem. The construction of their own Temple inflamed a passionate rivalry and an irreversible division with their Jewish relatives. The Jews considered them outcasts. They would allow them to convert to Judaism but such conversions were rare because it would have been tantamount to denying one's own people. For Jews to visit or instruct the Samaritans would likewise have been consider a betrayal of Judaism.2 Under normal circumstances, the possibility of a Jew visiting a Samaritan would have been as likely as Betsy Devos, the chair of the MI Republican party, inviting Democrat Jennifer Gramholm to her Grand Rapids estate for tea and Bible study. But something had happened in the lives of the NT church that enable them to put aside their bigotry and reach out to their sisters and brothers. By their gracious deeds of love, the Samaritans experienced the fullness of the Holy Spirit.

Samaritans come in many forms. They may be from a different ethnic background. They may be a different race. They may also be just as white, just as anglo and just as protestant as we are but their personalities, their lifestyle, their habits create barriers between us. We are uncomfortable in their presence. They may be our neighbors or our fellow workers. We try to be cordial to them but still keep a safe distance. We do not socialize with them. We have never tried to develop a friendship and most certainly, we have not invited them to church. 

God sent persecution onto the Church in Jerusalem because it was allowing their bigotry, fear and lack of faith to thwart their evangelistic calling. What is he going to have to do in our lives to compel us to bring the gospel to our Samaritans?

We are called to go, not wait, to invite and welcome. The fullness of the Spirit may not be offered to some until we are willing to overcome our hesitation and discomfort and display our gracious love.

Three characteristics of spirituality in the 21st century are mesmerizing effect of novelty, the synthesis of various religious traditions and a consumer oriented approach. Bored by the familiar, people are seeking experiences through new and different traditions. Protestants, Catholics and even Jews are exploring Buddhist mediation, or Islamic mysticism. Young people who were raised in staid, highly structured religious traditions are attending contemporary seeker friendly services that play music with a syncopated beat, substitute liturgical prayers with drama and replace the hymn book with a projector and screen. Ironically, there is now a movement in reverse. People who have attended informal worship services for many years are feeling an emptiness in the lack of structure. They are searching to recapture a sense of mystery and awe buy attending churches that offer a liturgical worship service that includes responsive readings, chants and extended periods of silence.

Notice the contrast between our culture and the Samaritans. Rather, than reject Peter and John's visit for a more novel, consumer friendly gospel they submitted to the authority of their tradition. Eugene Peterson understands the temptation of taking consumer approach to spirituality by warning that 

an appetite for God is easily manipulated into a consumer activity....There are entrepreneurs among us who see the widespread hunger for spirituality as a marketplace and are out there selling junk food. The gullibility of the unwary who bought relics from itinerant monks in the Middle Ages-splinters of wood from the true cross, finger bones from the saints, a few pieces of thread from Jesus' seamless robe-is more than matched by North Americans in matters of spirituality.

Spirituality is not the latest fad but the oldest truth. Spirituality, the alert attention we give to a living God and the faithful response we make to him in community, is at the heart of our Scriptures and is on display throughout the centuries of Israel and the church. We have been at this a long time. We have nearly four millennia of experience to draw upon. When someone hands you a new book, reach for an old one. Isaiah has far more to teach us about spirituality than Carl Jung.3

My friends, we have a rich tradition offers us much guidance and wisdom in our quest for God. It is a tradition that is based upon the teaching of Scripture. Before we venture into the new and the novel, let us make sure that we have submitted ourselves to the heritage of our Reformed faith.

In 1906, a group of Christians were meeting for Bible study and prayer at 214 Bonnie Bray Street in Los Angeles, CA. They were seeking a fresh empowerment of the Holy Spirit. On April 9th, the Spirit of God fell upon them with evidence of speaking in tongues and began the modern Pentecostal movement. Ever since that night, Christians have hotly debated the role of the Holy Spirit and the importance of the gift of tongues in the spiritual life. Pentecostals will often use this passage to support their view. They will argue that Peter and John would not have known that the Holy Spirit had come upon the Samaritans unless they had spoken in tongues. While that may have happened, Luke does not explicitly mention that the Samaritans spoke in tongues. Yet, something did take place that was verifiable. Something happened to the Samaritans that was so noticeable, so unexpected, so obvious, that the only way that Peter and John could describe it was to compare it to their own Pentecostal experience.

Presbyterians are uncomfortable with their emotions, especially the public display of them. We think less of people who are "emotional." We accuse them of being out of control, or irrational. Sometimes I wonder if Presbyterians assume that God is also devoid of emotion. Faith without an emotional expression can easily become a legalist religion. When the Spirit moves in a congregation, everyone knows it.

Unfortunate we have limited are descriptions of the Holy Spirit in song to a quiet voice, a gentle dove or a peaceful calm. This is contrary to the Scriptural descriptions of the Holy Spirit. Whenever the Holy Spirit is mentioned in Scripture it is associated with chaos, power, the dramatic, earth shaking presence of God.

Some may contend that when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism, John the Baptist saw a dove descend. But we should also remember that a voice from the heavens spoke. That voice was unmistakable. Jesus knew that it was the voice of His Father. It made a dramatic impact on his life and mission. 

Michael Green affirms this throughout his landmark book, I Believe In The Holy Spirit. Green says that the presence of the Holy Spirit was always unambiguous that the defining mark of the NT church was a living experience of the Spirit in the lives of the disciples. It is more than just an emotional experience. It is an encounter that produces wonder and joy; that compels praise and worship; that brings compassion and concern for others and the desire to bring the good news of Christ to everyone.4 

Any religious experience may be fabricated to look authentic creating embarrassing abuses. We should avoid these types of abuses but we should never avoid a deeper encounter with the living God.

We should commend those who recognize that the pursuit of happiness will not find its fulfillment in the temporal toys of this life. We should be encouraged by those who long to embrace an intimacy with a transcendent Divine. But we should be cautious about the means and methods of these spiritual pilgrims. Luke tells us that an authentic spiritual experience are given through our gracious deeds of love, received through our acts of submission and displayed through transformed lives.

1 David Briggs, "Quest for spirituality has many looking within" The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 01/01/2004, Online:, January 10, 2004.
2 Keener, Craig S., and InterVarsity Press. The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament, Ac 8:12 . Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
3 Eugene Peterson, Subversive Spirituality, (Grand Rapids MI:William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 40. 
4 Michael Green, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, (Grand Rapids MI:William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1975), 216-217.


Send a note to the Pastor

Crossroads Presbyterian Church
1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390