Reflecting on the Presence of the Spirit

Below is the transcript of the sermon I preached January 26, 2014 in our home congregation of which i am an elder.

Click on this sentence if you would prefer to listen instead of read, or both!

As each sermon is a moment in time and experienced with others in the room, some of what it is is lost in transcripts.  For example, I embedded a little teachable moment in the beginning of the sermon on the role of the Holy Spirit where I claimed I did not prepare for the sermon, reasoning that “the less I prepared, the more room for the Spirit to move.” In simply scrolling through the transcript, you already see that I obviously did prepare, so the teachable moment is less effective.  I do hope and pray that the heart of the message of this sermon would be helpful in guiding your reflections on faith, the nature and actions of the Trinity, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  The sermon series in our congregation was “God With Us.”

Because the focus of our series right now is “God With Us,” and since part of God’s presence is the Holy Spirit, I decided I wouldn’t prepare for this sermon.  I figured the less I prepared, the more room for the Spirit to move.

So here goes…

My granddad, a Church of the Brethren pastor, spent most of his years in rural areas, and along the way he did normal things pastors do:  he participated in parents dedicating  babies and small children to the Lord, he baptized, he married persons starting a lifelong covenant together, and he buried those who passed away.  Sometimes he shared leadership responsibilities with other pastors in those ceremonies.  Out in the country in Virginia, there’s a specific kind of Baptists that you find sprinkled around in many rural areas called “Primitive Baptists.”  Primitive Baptists believe deeply in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and so the practice of preaching in their worship gatherings and in funerals and such is that the Pastor opens the Bible to a random place, reads the passage, and preaches then as the Spirit carries him along…In theory…

In practice, my granddad told me, over multiple encounters with these Primitive Baptist preachers, it didn’t matter what Bible passage they turned to, or what the event was, their messages tended to revert to common themes; “hobby horses,” my granddad called them.  After awhile, my granddad says, you pretty much knew what they were going to say every time you heard them.

Which raises several important questions;

Does a lack of preparation typically clear out space for the Holy Spirit to move, or does it enable someone to clothe their personal hobby horses with “Holy Spirit” language?

And in that vein of thought, doesn’t that language of us “getting out of the way of the Holy Spirit” seem really binary and pretty bleak; that we can only be channels of the Spirit’s movement if we’re “out of the way”?  Do we really have that little to offer?  Are our brains, our time, our work ethic, our energy, our imagination, barriers to the movement of the Holy Spirit?

I share this story and ask these questions as a roundabout way to make my first teaching point,

First, to tell you that I indeed did prepare for this message, and

Second, as some beginning thoughts to help us consider what it means for “God to be with us” as his people.  Along the way this morning I hope to address from my perspective what I hope are better ways of thinking about God and our role in what God desires to do in this world.

I think first, it is important to state a deeply historical faith statement; that we as Christians worship a God who is expressed in a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We observe in the Scriptures that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God; that in order to carry out the works of the kingdom, he sought intimacy with his Father to do what he saw him doing, and that after his death and resurrection he left his disciples with the promise, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”

Now, any reflection on the Trinity is bound to fall very short of any worthy explanation.  We cannot fully explain God.  Ultimately we reach the limits of our thought and imagination and simply must declare God is ultimately a mystery.   And this final truth of mystery is not a confession of frustration, but ultimately one of wonder.  We are drawn into exploration of God that can never be finished, into a relationship of intimacy with God that can never draw too close, into looking for signs of God all over our world, preparing ourselves to be surprised and delighted when we find this mysterious work of God at play. I watched a video online this week that captures that sense of mystery, awe, surprise, and delight entitled “Murmuration.” Let’s watch it together.  (Click on the link to see the video)

I love my mom’s reflections on this video, as she said, “I do believe those starlings are dancing before the Lord!”

And yet, while God is ultimately a mystery, God has chosen to reveal himself to us in very concrete ways.   While we can never fully know God, we can indeed encounter God, behold God.  We are a part of a community of God’s people that goes back thousands upon thousands of years, and along the way that community has received gifts of beholding God.  Those encounters form the foundation of our faith; Abram beheld God in the burning bush, Hagar beheld God in the desert with her son Ishmael, Moses beheld God on Mt. Moriah, the people of Israel beheld God in God giving the law, Elijah beheld God in the fire consuming the altar, Ruth beheld God in the generosity and care of Boaz, Gomer beheld God in the patience and open arms of Hosea even as she pursued other lovers, and humanity received its most authoritative, most powerful, most complete glimpse of God in Jesus of Nazareth.

The story continues afterwards, of course; Dorcas beheld God through God using Peter to resurrect her from the dead, Saul beheld God on the road to Damascus, the executioners of Cyprian of Carthage beheld God in his courage and care for them as they ended his life, the emperor of Rome beheld God in the radical generosity and care for the poor exhibited by the house churches in Rome, a random woman in Detroit, I believe, beheld God in Dave Barr’s prayer after God gave him her number to call, and the story goes on…

As we consider God and come to conclusions about God, it is our responsibility to consider all these other stories of beholding God as instructive and authoritative for us.  I would strongly suggest that we prioritize those stories above our personal experiences, giving the collective weight of history and millions of people the respect they deserve.  In particular, we are to give the strongest weight to Jesus, the clearest, most concrete representation of God we will ever encounter.  We proclaim Jesus as Lord and Teacher.  We commit to wade deeply in the gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and consider Jesus, asking questions like, “What did he do?” and “Why did he do what he did?” and “What did he teach?” and “What did he expect  from his followers?” and “What claims did he make about God?” and “What claims did he make about humanity?” and any number of other questions.

I want to make the centrality of Jesus clear when it comes to our consideration of “God with us,” because, I’ll be honest with you, the ideas of God as Father and God as Spirit are pretty spongy and vague in comparison.  What I mean by that is many people make claims that God is speaking to them, or God is directing them to do something. In particular, I feel really burdened and disquieted by recent teachings of prominent teachers in the charismatic and the mainline communities about the “Spirit.”

There is a growing sense among charismatics, driven by prominent leaders, that if there is a conflict between what one senses the “Spirit to be saying,” as contrasted with the written word in Scripture or tradition, that we are to give priority to what we are experiencing.  As an open charismatic myself, and a member of this church that is part of the Vineyard (in the charismatic movement), I find this teaching disturbing.   Some charismatic leaders have used this teaching, to prioritize our lived experience as the most reliable guide of truth, to justify strange manifestations whether they be physical (like uncontrollable laughter or barking and things of that nature) or something in the room (claiming there is gold dust or feathers from God in the air).  At best, persons find themselves prioritizing the gifts and the experience more than the giver, and at worst, persons place themselves in the position of God, when their experience runs contrary to the heritage of the church.

It has also become popular recently with mainline folks, specifically with Phyllis Tickle, to talk of what she calls the “Age of the Spirit.” Tickle first mentioned this in her “Great Emergence” book published in 2012, and literally just published this month a book called, drum-roll please, “Age of the Spirit.”  Upon deeper reading, it seems Tickle primarily drew from the ideas of Joachim of Fiore and Harvey Cox to make the central claims of a new “Age of the Spirit.”

Joachim lived back in the 1200s, and wrote of what he called Trinitarian ages in the earth; the Age of the Father (corresponding to the Old Testament), the Age of the Son (represented by the advent of Jesus, the New Testament, and following), and the Age of the Spirit (when humanity was to come into direct contact with God, reaching total freedom).

Harvey Cox took those ideas several hundred years later and reworked them into the Age of Faith (embracing teachings of Jesus), the Age of Belief (rise of control, doctrine, orthodoxy), and the now-unfolding Age of the Spirit (release from religious dogma and embrace of spirituality).

Based on those earlier thoughts, Phyllis Tickle has written about the Age of the Spirit, which she suggests began in 1906 at Azusa Street, and she describes it in a rather grandiose way,

The Trinity comes now near to the promised realization of its intention.  It comes, as it said it would.  And what we saw and feared in the image of Father, what we saw and embraced as Savior-brother, we now know as Spirit and cling to as Advocate, even as it has said of itself from our beginning.  Now, without need of image or flesh, it comes, and we receive it, as in the last of creation’s ages.Emergence Christianity 208

There is a big emphasis on “now,” “we now know as Spirit.” For Tickle, the focus is really experiential.  When you read her books, the term experiential comes up time and time again.  And Tickle really teaches that the Spirit is deeply experienced, and when one’s deep experience runs up against doctrine, or orthodoxy, or some other written or similar authority, that we, however reluctantly, must trust our experience above other influences.  And she theologically dignifies this belief by calling it the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I think you’ve already gathered that I find an approach like this; whether it be a charismatic obsession with signs and wonders, or the more straightforward liberalizing influence of Tickle; that prioritizing the experience  of what one believes to be the Spirit above all other authorities is very very dangerous.

In Trinitarian terms, these charismatic teachers and Tickle are really setting the members of the Trinity against one another, or at the very least, suggesting they’re working in separate and at times contradictory ways.  I mention these teachings as a warning for us to really ask questions to ourselves individually, as a church body, and as the larger body of Christ: do we serve God, or do we serve the Spirit?  And by the Spirit, we mean, our personal feeling of what is right and good and true.  Where do we draw our authority from?  How is “God with us?”

I say this primarily because the Scriptures tell a story that humanity, which was created “very good” as the pinnacle of God’s creation, placed in a leadership role over all of the rest of God’s creation; used that great gift and made it subject to our pride, our selfishness, our destructive impulses.  We called this new movement on our parts “freedom,” where we dictated the boundaries of our behavior and desire. We took the gift of leadership under the reign of God and became convinced we were instead dictators of our own realm; answerable to no one, with our decisions subject to the whim of whatever we happened to desire.

Yet the Scriptures welcome us into the narrative of seeing the beautiful, faithful methods God has used to win us back to what we were created for.  God first called a man, Abram, then formed a family, then a nation.  As the story progressed, each subject was reminded that they were “blessed to be a blessing,” called to proclaim of the light and wisdom of God in a world gone amuck.  God the Father didn’t do this.  God, what we now know as the Trinity, did this.  There’s language of God’s Spirit all through the Scriptures at a time when God was implementing what we see as a very restrictive system of laws to give Israel guidance.  Then, in the fullness of time, when God decided Israel was ready to leave childhood and grow into adulthood, God became flesh.  In Jesus, God was calling Israel into its deepest identity and giving a clear, human picture of what we were created for.

Jesus had authority over those who followed him.  As we saw in the gospel reading today, when Jesus called, the fishermen left their nets and followed him.  In their discipleship to Jesus, his followers heard teaching that was at once deeply freeing and compassionate and also deeply restrictive.   They were set free and forgiven by the grace of God.  That grace constrained them into very specific boundaries.  They could not treat their enemies the same as they used to.  They were to reject the desire for selfish power over others, the desire for prestige.

Jesus modeled this for them.  And he modeled this for them by honoring God’s law, while reinterpreting it and bringing it to completion.  Along the way, instead of it being all about him in the Age of the Son, he sought intimacy with his Father, and he breathed the lifegiving Spirit of God on his disciples.  He was not operating in opposition to the Father, and wasn’t simply an intermediate stage to the Spirit.  The advent, teachings, and expectations of Jesus were the most full expression of God we will ever see.

As some other wise people have taught, Jesus is the final revelation of God. There is nothing that we know about the love and care of God that we do not know through Jesus Christ. As Torrance puts it there is not a different God behind the back of Jesus Christ. Because the Father has chosen to reveal himself in Jesus Christ we are to pay attention to the Son.  Biblical scholar Dale Bruner illustrates the relationship of the Spirit to the Father and Son like this: He writes “Jesus” on a board, then, himself portraying the Holy Spirit, he steps behind the board, reaches around it, and points to Jesus.

Now that is the harder, more exhortation side of my message.  I want to shift to considering how God includes us in God’s unfolding purposes.  As the Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the churches in Rome, “thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance.  You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

The beautiful thing about discipleship lived in obedience to God is that it is all about reclaiming our previous position in creation.  God created us, gave us authority, and called us to work deeply with Him for the good of creation. God desires for us to be co-laborers, to listen for where God is moving, and to join in that healing, redeeming work.

The gospel is the rejection of human beliefs at both extremes: God’s goal isn’t for us to “get out of the way” as if our humanity is something so dark and limited that all we can do is step back in order for God to move.  And God’s goal most certainly isn’t for us to act as though our personal or larger cultural experience of truth is God’s truth.  The gospel is about God redeeming our story, and through our repentance and obedience we recapture what we were created for, which is to participate in the healing of God’s world.

 And as human beings, as the pinnacle of God’s creation, placed in leadership over all the rest, when we’re working from that proper place of humility, that potential of that redemption is infinitely powerful.

If we grasp this message, I believe, and some thoughtful historians look back some several hundred years from now, we would be astonished to see how God used us.  But the beginning, for us, does not come with some sort of grasping for power and influence, but rather in falling to our knees in repentance, and in tears proclaiming that we do not know the way, that we are lost, that we are blind, that our instincts and our experience are untrustworthy, and that God can show us the way again.

A couple years or so ago, I became very concerned that personally I was approaching life in a more reactive way with my faith.  I was seeking to minimize risk, hunch my shoulders down, and just march forward as best I could.  Because so often we can respect and value ourselves less than others, it wasn’t necessarily my story that caused a big change.  I saw several marriages of persons in our community fall apart, I saw my friends really struggling through issues of addiction of various sorts.  I had long conversations with some of my friends with beliefs that were clearly crippling their lives.

I felt overwhelmed.  In a way, the relational intimacy we experience here with VC can be paralyzing at times, as it’s much harder to hide our pain, confusion, and conflict.  So when painful things happen, the pain is more deeply and widely felt. Conversations and hugs helped one another along the way, but I began to consider how we could be more proactive about addressing these issues; really more proactive about taking seriously the presence and power of evil at work among us.

Thankfully, we are part of a Vineyard movement that has an open-handed posture toward the power and potential of the Holy Spirit, and John Wimber was a wise leader who modeled well that posture.  He welcomed the power of the Spirit without an obsession about signs and wonders that to some should follow its presence.  He warned against manufacturing a spiritual experience by working ourselves into a frenzy or chanting repetitively until we fell into a trance.  He instead taught to “dial it down” and just be open-handed toward God. He offered a simple, Jesus-oriented sense of discipleship.  As a charismatic Christian, then, John prayed for people, with a comfort level with the Spirit that helped him to sense when to speak, when to be silent, and always willing to participate with God.

I nurtured a vision from several years ago, then, that we as VC could be proactive like John in addressing the sin, brokenness, and pain in our lives through intentional healing prayer.  I don’t have grandiose ideas about what this will look like.  I think it will naturally fit into other ministries of our church as Pastor Joshua leads us.

I do know that our Healing Prayer team has already seen God moving in some wonderful ways; we’ve seen people being able to weep as they tap into their deep pain, we’ve seen physical healing of hips, and progress with backs, we’ve seen how this is a process with no easy fixes, we’ve seen a friend set free from the affliction of two demons, and we have seen one another growing in how God uses us in prayer.

This, to me, is God with us.  We trust our Father, we obey and follow Jesus, and we listen with increasing sensitivity to the work of the Spirit.  We don’t serve three Gods, and we don’t get to pick the one we like the most.  We kneel before God in thankfulness and humility, and rise to serve in love.  God has something for us to do, calls us to participate in the healing of the world, and we have much to offer.  Let us seek to lean into this promise together as a people.

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