31 May 2009

Come, Creator Spirit: III Giver and Renewer or Life



Acts 2: 1-21 & 2 Corinthians 3: 17, 18

Pentecost/ 31st May 2009


Happy Pentecost! Happy Birthday to the Church! That’s how this day was explained to me when I was a child. Pentecost is the birthday of the church. It’s the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples “like a rush of a violent wind,” giving them the ability to speak in many languages. What they spoke was the good news about Jesus. Peter stood up to address a crowd and proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ, a message that spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. We often associate this day as the “birthday” of the church. In the church that raised me we always had a large sheet cake, a birthday cake after worship to mark the occasion. My brother, Craig, and I were often the first at the table.


One of our young theologians was walking to Hillcrest Elementary School with her mother this week and saw our sign board on Frederick Road noting Pentecost. Mom said, “Oh, you’ll miss church this week because of your slumber party.” To which the wee one said, “oh great!” Mom said, “Well, you’ll miss birthday cake (I think).” To which the wee one said, “Birthday cake?” “Yes,” her mother said, it’s Pentecost and the church’s birthday.” To wee one asked, “How old is the church?” “Ummmmm,” said her mother. To which the wee one said, “I guess the church is “she” so I shouldn’t ask her age!”


At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit breathes new life into despairing disciples which propels them outward toward the world with a revolutionary message of God’s transforming love. The Holy Spirit takes disparate people, strangers, people alien to one another, separated by cultural differences, particularly language, and communicates with them a message that pulls diverse groups of people together into one people, into Christ’s new people, a new community of people – an ekklesia – a church, called out from the crowd to be Christ’s witness in the world.


What strikes me in readings Acts is the way the Holy Spirit is an agent of creation, creates a church, forms a people. Two weeks ago we saw how the Spirit is both Advocate and Friend; last week we looked at the Spirit as Teacher. On this Pentecost Sunday, I want to lift up for us the Holy Spirit as Giver and Renewer of Life. As one who gives life, the Spirit is an agent of creation. The Spirit formed something new that wasn’t there before – a new people, a new community. The Spirit is like an artist who can imagine and envision new possibilities in old, stagnant, hopeless situations and then encourages us to venture forward to that place. The Spirit forms new men and women out of men and women who are broken and have lost their way, which need to begin again. As Paul said, “Everyone in Christ is a New Creation.” The old life is past, behold we have all become new (2 Corinthians 5: 17).


The Spirit is the agent of creation and recreation. The Nicene Creed describes her as “the Lord and Giver of Life.” Across the centuries theologians have understood this to mean that the Spirit as Lord is constantly at work as the giver of life, it’s not an occasional thing where the Spirit drops down into our ordinary lives, renews us for a season and then goes away. The Spirit is at work sustaining every moment of creation. This was the way John Calvin (1509-1564) saw things. “The creation was not just the utterance of a rational fiat upon the part of God, which then left created being with an existence in itself…. He thought of creation as continuous and as continually depending upon the communication of the divine Word, in such a way that it was maintained in being, and governed by God…Man is a created being, in body and soul, and utterly dependent upon from moment to moment. Calvin used to think of humans as “being consumed and renewed every instant of one’s existence, for we are continuously being called out of non-being into being and life by the Word and will of the Creator, the Lord of life and death.[1] In other words, every second of our lives is dependent upon the movement of the Spirit giving us life. Should this cease all would collapse into nothingness. We would simply cease to exist if God were to withdraw God’s Spirit from us. All of existence, every moment is sustained by the one who called and continues to call us into being.


The Spirit is the presence of the Resurrected Christ, who embodies the life-giving power of God, who seeks to gives us life – not just in the life to come, but life now – and who longs to give us the freedom to receive and welcome the life God wants to give us. Decades before Luke wrote his account of Pentecost, Paul described the work of the Spirit this way: “Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3: 17,18).” Freedom from sin, freedom to grow up into the people Christ calls us to become; freedom for life within the will of God; freedom to follow the way of Christ – despite whatever others might say or do to us. As Paul said elsewhere, “For freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1).”


One thing I want to lift up is the Spirit as Creator. The Holy Spirit is that agent of life who wants us to come to life in Christ and discover in that relationship a freedom that is beyond measure. One of my favorite quotes is from the early church theologian Irenaeus (c.115-c.202) who said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” God is glorified when human beings come to life, more life, become fully alive. In ancient Greek there are two words for life, bios and zoe. Bios refers to natural life. Zoe is supernatural life, abundant life, life of meaning, of significance. For example, when Jesus described himself as “life,” he wasn’t talking about bios, functional life, but abundant, life-giving, life.[2] Sadly, many are satisfied with only bios. It’s zoe-life that we’re missing: God’s life. The Spirit, deep at work with our human spirits, as the “inner teacher,” is Someone who wants us to come alive, to move toward the kind of life, zoe-life Jesus embodied and offers to us.[3] Even though we know to be human is to be mortal and that biologically-speaking none of us will forever, zoe, God’s life can grow and thrive despite the limits of bios, of biological life. Zoe is God’s life that grows even in the face of death and wants to give us life in the midst of a world that’s trying to steal God’s joy from us.


Why? Because of grace. For, you see, there’s so much in this world that wants to rob us of life, of true, authentic life – which is also robbing us of the freedom promised in Christ. The poet T. S. Eliot (1889-1965) asked a question in the Four Quartets, that questions that never ceases to haunt me. He asked, “Where is the Life we have lost in our living?”


The glory of God is the human being fully alive. The Spirit is that agent of creation, the life-giver who wants to help us. When human beings are fully alive, are coming alive, God is glorified. So we’re invited to open our hearts and minds – our spirit – and yield, to “cooperate,” as the early church used to say, with the Spirit.[4]

How do we do this? How do we know where God is leading us? One of the things I learned anew on my sabbatical last year was that in order to live, even thrive we need breathing space, living space. We can’t grow when we’re in confined, cramped spaces. Life in Christ is not confining, or cramping. That’s why life in the Spirit has been described as a vast, broad place where there is no cramping.[5]


In the space granted by the Spirit we are free to reflect upon our lives and discern the Spirit’s movement. This is what I do; I try to ask myself these questions. Sometimes I’m good at offering answers, other times I’m not. Nevertheless, in the questioning, in the wrestling with the Spirit, that God’s presence is known.

· What’s giving you life? What’s taking your life away? What is draining, slowly sucking the life out of you?

· What’s calling you into greater life, greater meaning, greater purpose? What’s drawing you away?

· In what ways are you being drawn closer to Christ? And what’s drawing you away from him?

· What is allowing you to make a deeper connection to Christ? And what’s severing the connection? What’s cutting you off from life?

· What do you sense trying to take root in your life, coming to life in you, through you? And where are you pulling up the roots? Where are you hindering growth?

· Where are you growing in your capacity to love and receive love? What’s hold you back?

Prayer:

Come, Holy Spirit, Lamplighter, midwife of change, comforter, advocate, teacher, disturber, inspirer, giver of life. Come, fill us and your church with gifts the earth can neither produce or afford. Come, fill our lives with that rich mixture of peace and restlessness, calm and enthusiasm, which are hallmarks of your holiness. Come, Creator Spirit. Come, breath of life. Come, fire of love. Come, power of hope. Come and lead us into your life. For the sake of Jesus Christ and the glory of God. Amen.[6]



[1] Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007) on Calvin, Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1965), 103-104.

[2] See John 14: 6, for example, or in John’s Prologue when he says of Jesus, “In him was life (zoe), and the life (zoe) was the light of everyone (John 1: 4).”

[3] Cf. quotation from the worship bulletin: “Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles,… -- wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work.” Walter Kaspter, The God of Jesus Christ, cited in William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 64.

[4] Basil of Caesarea (330-379), On the Holy Spirit, cited in Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993), 37.

[5] See Job 36:16, and J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Fortress Press, 1993), 42-43.

[6] Prayer for Pentecost (adapted) from The Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1994), 443.

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