Who is the Holy Spirit?
2008-05-04 by Alan Meyers
Who is the Holy Spirit? A joke that was current years ago had it that the Spirit was "the forgotten man of the Holy Trinity." The churches used to have little to say about the Spirit. That situation has changed considerably since the great success of the Pentecostal churches and the surge of the charismatic movement in the older denominations in recent decades. Whether or not they are members of those groups, more Christians now are conscious of the reality of the Spirit. Still, the arrival of Pentecost each year gives Christians an opportunity that should be welcomed to remember this greatest of God's gifts, and to reflect upon the Spirit's activity in the life of God's people.
Who is the Holy Spirit? The Church turns again on Pentecost to the locus classicus for answering this question, to the second chapter of Acts. The other readings for this Sunday will also support our search for understanding.
1. The Holy Spirit is the one who makes it possible for someone to know the full truth about Jesus, through a real, personal encounter with the living Christ. "When the day of Pentecost had come," Acts tells us, "[the followers of Jesus] were all together in one place." What were they doing while they were together? It is hard to avoid the supposition that they were talking about Jesus their Master, only seven weeks before crucified, dead, then risen, and ascended into heaven. Their minds were still whirling. What did it mean? What was the significance of all this, for them, for God's people Israel, and for the world?
Suddenly, as they talked together, they were filled with the wonder and the mystery of it all. They came to a new sense of the salvation God had accomplished in Jesus. They felt the living presence of their Lord, invisible now, but more real and more powerful than ever, and through him the presence of God. Their joy reached critical mass, and exploded into action. They knew they were in the Spirit of God.
The Greek word for "spirit," of course, is "pneuma," the same as the word for "wind." As the wind picks up dead leaves or grains of dust and moves them around as though alive, the followers of the risen and ascended Jesus felt themselves moved and given new life by their Lord. Remembering the experience later, then, they recalled it as a mighty wind that filled the place where they were meeting (Acts 2:2).
They experienced the Spirit also as fire. Fire in the Old Testament is one of the signs of the presence of God (Gen 15:17; Ex 3:2, 13:21, 19:18). A personal theophany happened to every individual there: "Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them" (Acts 2:3). Every disciple was in the grip of God. The Spirit formerly had been an experience of prophets and special charismatic heroes like the judges. Now, the wish of Moses was granted: all the people could be prophets, all possessed by God's Spirit (Num 11:29).
They described the divine fire as "tongues" no doubt partly because of a specific effect the Spirit had on them: they began to speak. They had been talking before among themselves about Jesus. Now, they were able to speak with such power and conviction that even people who knew nothing previously about Jesus could understand. People from far away heard the disciples speaking as though in their own native languages about God's mighty deeds, that is, about the cross and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:11). People from all over the world found themselves starting to be gripped by the same Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus.
The idea that the Holy Spirit is the one who reveals the truth about Jesus in and through believers is found clearly in today's lectionary reading from 1 Cor 12:3-13: "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit." Paul's main point in this famous passage seems to be, however, that different followers of Jesus will witness to him in different ways. "There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit." In the churches we usually connect this, rightly, to the idea that some people sing in the choir, some serve on the congregation's governing board, some teach Sunday School, and so on. We could, however, see in it a corrective to the common tendency among Christians to assume that there is only one way of expressing the truth about Jesus. In my undergraduate systematic theology course we examine a variety of metaphors that have been proposed for understanding the work of Christ. The ideas of satisfaction and substitutionary atonement are not the only ways this can be approached. We can also understand what Jesus does as an act of self-giving throughout his life, self-giving that leads to the cross but does not begin there. We can see his work as revealing the love of God. There may be value in many different metaphors for gaining insight into this great mystery. A student recently balked at this, saying that we need to make up our minds: surely there is only one way of understanding the Doctrine of the Atonement? Pentecost may show that student that he is wrong. The unity in Christ that the Spirit creates is a unity in diversity.
More thoughts tomorrow.
Our guest preaching blogger is
2008-05-04 by CJ Teets
Alan Meyers, a Professor of Religion at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. He is a Presbyterian minister who served as a pastor for nine years earlier in his career, and now serves as Parish Associate at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri. Welcome back Dr. Meyers.
Power and Witnesses
2008-05-03 by Michael Usey
Jesus answers the last dumb question of his disciples by warning them off speculating on future times known only to God: “God knows the answer, but you don’t get the answer yet.” This warning, along with the reproach of the two men in white, ought to keep us from all that Left Behind craziness that keeps too many Christians obsessed, not with the work of Christ, but with an unhealthy infatuation with his return. The irony of this is of course that those most focused on the return of Christ are the same ones not doing what Christ himself said we ought to do to prepare for his return. Go figure.
Furthermore, Jesus tells them that they will receive power and be his witnesses. This is, as David Moessner has pointed out, an outline for the rest of Acts: Pentecost, then the flow of witnesses from Jerusalem to Judea, then to Samaria, and finally, Rome, not the end of the earth but the navel of the first century world. As we know from Pliny’s letter to the Emperor Trajan (C.E. 111), Christianity was first an urban movement, spreading from city to city, as Acts will bear out.
Here are two points to consider. First, any power we have is not our own. We celebrate the Ascension because we are no different from the early church that gathered around this story from the beginning to hear what they needed: the news that they were going to receive power. We celebrate this day to be reminded that we have no power of our own and never have.
This is a point we preachers can and ought to develop, since we live in a culture obsessed with power—military, economic, political, and even—as we have seen this week—religious power. The very good news of ascension is that we will receive power from the living God. We will channel this untamed power of love; we will become, by the Spirit’s grace, a window to God’s wild love. Windows can be large or small, clean or dirty, but we are surely windows all. We are conduits of the unpredictable God.
Most everyone in ministry has had the experience of someone saying, “The bible study you taught while I was in college changed my life,” and you not only don’t remember the person saying it to you, you don’t even remember teaching the bible study. Recently the local Habitat picked up a phrase of mine to use as slogan for their new capital campaign. They said I’d said it in one of my sermons, but for the life of me, I never remember writing or saying it. I thought about correcting them, but then I wasn’t sure. A year later, I came upon an old stewardship sermon I had preached, and sure enough there was the phrase in question. To me, this is the surest indication that ministry is not about us (something Jeremiah Wright needs to be reminded of) and that our power is from God. As Martin Luther said, God rides the lame horse, and shoots the broken bow. Lame and broken, that’s all of us.
Secondly, we are to be his witnesses. As you know, the Greek for witness is marturos, the origin of our word martyr. Acts bears out this connection, of course, that many who bear witness become martyrs, with Stephen the first. Thom Long has made the notion of witness the cornerstone of his theology of preaching, and rightfully so. We in North American Christian churches need to have a serious discussion how to be an effective witness. Many of us have felt the effect of so-called “witnessing” which was only thinly veiled diatribe, debate, and lecture. Fundamentalist churches have odd seminars on witnessing, the process of which has turned “witnessing” into a bad word for non-fundy Christians. Unfortunately in response to such abuses, many in our churches have left the idea of bearing witness entirely out of their faith. We need to find a way to both be and tell the good news. The famous words of St. Francis are still true: Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words. Surely to be good witnesses we must both be the good news and tell it. Toyohiko Kagawa, the famous Japanese Christian who worked in the post-WWII slums of Kobe, said repeatedly that the order is now significant: that we must first be the good news before we tell it. Too true, but we should also find a way to share with someone in a caring, thoughtful way, “Look, I keep screwing up my life, but God in Christ keeps straightening me out.” I don’t have the answers to this, but I know it is time to have this talk with our congregants.
"Lectionary Homiletics" Highlights
2008-05-02 by CJ Teets
Michael Usey, our guest blogger, has given us much to soak up. I found stunning the idea of Mary as, not just Theotokos, but Theodoulos. Scroll down to read all of Michael's blog entries, as well as some insights about Ascension Day from Tom Steagald.
Also go to Free Samples from Lectionary Homiletics to read Anna Carter Florence's “Preaching the Lesson” article for this week. Week after week she leads us outside the box while keeping us focused on the cross.
Craig Vondergeest shines his words upon the basic truth that many of us fail to understand and/or are quick to forget: God reveals God's glory through Christ. We ache for a glimmer of God's glory, our eyes straining toward thedistance, when Christ stands right next to us.
“Scripture and Screen”
Given that the gospel features Jesus – of all beings – praying, Fritz Bogar suggests that prayer might be a fruitful way into the passage. Bogar then recalls the movie Election, which shows three of the main characters each engaged in prayer about the upcoming election for school president.
One character, Tracy, prays that she will win the election because doing so will help God's will to be done. Of course, what she really wants is her own will.
Another character, Tammy, pretty much just rattles off a list of things she wants, including for Tracy to lose.
Finally, Paul asks to win but also asks for God's will to be done and for God to forgive his sins.
Eloquently Rosemary Beales' sermon “The Voice” teaches us that there is something motherly about Jesus' high priestly prayer in his concern for the disciples. Beales suggests that the disciples may have heard that voice when they got together after the ascension. Further, we hear that voice in various ways through one another.
I will use the Ascension and Christ's prayer for oneness as starting points for proclaiming the unifying presence imbreaded in Holy Communion.
Rising from the tub and toweling off, I am
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Absence and Presence
2008-04-30 by Tom Steagald
I suggest that anyone dealing with Ascension read the seventh chapter of N.T. Wright's Surprised By Hope. He maintains that a spiritualized sense of Ascension, rooting perhaps in a spiritualized or Platonic notion of Resurrection (and the two doctrines are both interlocked and yet separate truths) leads to all sorts of problems, theological and missional. Not least, it robs Incarnation of its import--Jesus' body was incidental to his essential or real identity.
The affirmation and celebration of Ascension (yes, we need a day!) lets us affirm that, while Jesus is perceived as absent, and is in fact absent, Jesus is sacramentally, missionally and universally present in ways we often do not recognize. He says that our residual Enlightenment notion of space as a receptacle (we have traded a three-storied universe for a one-story ranch style!) robs us of the belief and consequence of Heaven and Earth being tangentially related in such a way that Jesus can be and is simultaneously present to all people in all places.
This understanding of the Ascension also gives the Sacraments their fuller significance and meaning.
For my part, I am still dealing with Ascension and the National Day of Prayer.
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