6/8/2014 sermon: “Head or heart?”

Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection
Text: Acts 2:1-21
Day of Pentecost

Head or heart?

I have a question for you today: Are we to worship God with our heads, or our hearts?


We know, don’t we, that the correct Anglican answer should be “Yes!” But often we are Anglicans because, somewhere in our lives, we have been asked to leave our brains behind. So we are reluctant to claim both. But, being people for whom worship often is first and foremost a rational act, let’s start with some “brain stuff,” some “head stuff.”

Have ever heard of the First Great Awakening? The First Great Awakening was what historians call a series of religious revivals in the American colonies and in Europe between the 1730s and the 1770s. Historians say that this was a new Age of Faith that arose in response to the Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was, above all, logical, and suggested that we could reason our way to God. The First Great Awakening (and one that came later) involved a sudden and powerful experience of God, an experience that often was quite emotional, rather than reasoned.[1]

In fact, the First Great Awakening was characterized by what is called “religious enthusiasm.” People were so overcome by the experience of God that some fainted, or cried, or shouted with joy.

There seemed to be a method of evoking this kind of response to God. The preacher would give an emotionally charged sermon, pumping in a lot of energy and graphic details to convince the people that they were all going to suffer horribly in the life beyond unless they surrendered to God. There were altar calls and thousands of people would come forward and dedicate themselves to God.

God swept through the Presbyterians in the middle colonies and the Congregationalists in the northeast. The people who experienced God in this way opened a seminary (one that we now call Princeton, by the way) a seminary to teach preachers how to invoke God’s Spirit among the people. This school sent missionaries to share their renewal of Spirit with the South.

In Virginia, where Anglicanism was the state religion, the churches which later would be called Episcopal responded vehemently: “We do NOT worship God with our emotions,” they said, “but rather in a seemly and orderly way. Worship,” they declared, “was for the brain, and for a whole community, not just a personal experience.”

And yet, those who were awakened by the Holy Spirit during the Great Awakening began to teach Native Americans and enslaved people how to read the Bible and began to work for the freedom of enslaved people, making a direct connection between the Great Awakenings and the abolitionist movement.[2] However, so strongly did we Anglicans, we Episcopalians, feel that worship properly belongs only in the rational sphere, that we did everything we could to stop the Great Awakening.

Well, I’m not here to give you a history lesson. Because there was at least one earlier Great Awakening, an Awakening that occurred shortly after Jesus had left this earth. During THAT great awakening, Christ Jesus sent his Spirit to his disciples. This was not a rational act. The bystanders tried to make intellectual sense of what had transpired, and all they could come up with was, “They are drunk.” In other words, the coming of the Spirit of God is a feeling, an assurance, of God dwelling in us and is working through us.

In our first lesson and in our gospel reading, we hear two accounts of how God turned Jesus’ bewildered, fearful disciples into people who literally changed the world. Jesus’ disciples were not the elite. They didn’t even have posh clothes, until God clothed them in his Spirit. Jesus’ disciples weren’t powerful people, until God gave them his Power. Jesus’ disciples weren’t obviously qualified to change the world, but—with God’s Spirit—they did just that.

How did Jesus’ disciples change the world? If you are looking for a rational explanation, you aren’t going to get one today. Today is all about an experience, an experience of the risen Lord. So let’s follow the experience of Jesus’ disciples:

  • They ran away from Jesus on the cross.
  • They were afraid, bewildered, and heart-broken at Jesus’ death.
  • But somehow, having experienced Jesus in life, they still believed in him, even though, rationally, they knew that he had died.
  • And their belief opened up their awareness that the material world of space and matter is not all that our five senses perceive them to be.
  • With this new, God-given perception, they discovered that Jesus was still with them, is still alive and available to them.
  • Then this risen Jesus taught them how to find him always, starting with scripture, extending all the way from his cross and then to their experience today on the first Pentecost: Being activated to do God’s work in the world, they used the Power of God to accomplish what God had given them to do.

A week ago Thursday, on Ascension Day, Jesus told his disciples that they would receive God’s Power. What was their response? They gathered in THE Upper Room where they had shared Jesus’ last meal, and they continued that meal with him there. The part that intrigues me is that they “worshiped with great joy.” Well, “with great joy” is just another way of saying, “with God’s Spirit.” So what happened on Pentecost wasn’t something new, really. What happened on Pentecost was more like an “amping up” of the disciples’ ability to perceive God at work in our lives, through their emotions.

I began with the Great Awakening for a reason. In the mid-1800s, right here in Virginia, we Anglicans chose poorly. And, as a result of this Great Awakening and a subsequent one, we dealt ourselves out of much of the work of the Spirit in forming our country. The Presbyterians who chose AGAINST the Awakenings left their church and started another denomination called Unitarianism. The Anglicans who chose FOR the Awakenings left their church and founded Methodism as a separate denomination. And the Baptists received tens of thousands of new members.

Today, though, we have another chance. God is powerfully at work in his Church, calling us to a new expression of love and worship of God through his son Jesus. I think we are being asked this question over again, “Head or heart?”

Today the Pentecostal Churches—the heart churches—are growing greatly, and yet God’s Spirit is powerfully with us right here in our Anglican Church, our Church of the Resurrection. The Holy Spirit manifests itself each Sunday right here at our altar, through our music, in our great joy unexplained by our lot in life, and by our willingness to be broken open in major ways to do whatever big thing God is calling us to do. God IS calling us; make no mistake about that. The signs are large and all about us.

The only question is what our response will be. Will we be so addicted to perceiving the world only through our brain, that we overlook what is experientially obvious?

So I ask: “How will you, how will we, collectively and individually, allow ourselves to be set on fire to do the work that God is giving us to do?”

“Head or heart?” The only acceptable answer is “Yes!”


[1] Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening in Virginia, Encyclopedia Virginia, http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/great_awakening_in_virginia_the#start_entry , accessed 6 Jun 2014.

[2] Robert W. Prichard, A History of the Episcopal Church, Rev ed. (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Pub., 1999), 59.

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