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?


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 Jürgen 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.

17 May 2009

Come, Creator Spirit: I. Advocate & Friend

John 14: 15-30

6th Sunday of Easter/ 17th May 2009

Pentecost will be here in a few weeks. How are you getting ready for it? When we celebrate Christmas, the season of Advent sets the tone; our “Alleluias!” on Easter morning come after forty days of Lenten preparation. In a few weeks, Pentecost– the day the Holy Spirit came in tongues of flame and power, the day that signals the birth of the church (!) – will be here and gone and most of the world won’t even notice. It’s generally overlooked in the liturgical calendar. You won’t find Hallmark cards for Pentecost at CVS, and the chocolate industry has yet to stake its claim on the holiday. Although Cadbury or Russell Stover could profit a bundle on white chocolate doves for Pentecost. For the most part, it’s overlooked.

The church really misses out on something profound when it neglects the significance of this day, when it disregards the coming of the Holy Spirit, when it doesn’t attend to what we call theologically, the person and work of Holy Spirit. The great German theologian, Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) summed up the situation when he said, the Holy Spirit is “the orphan doctrine of Christian theology.” This is ironic, given that the Holy Spirit was given so that we wouldn’t be orphans! We’ve made the Spirit an orphan instead. The doctrine of the Spirit was never “stabilized” or defined by the Councils of the early church. For example, the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. produced a creedal statement that clearly defined our belief about Jesus, but at the end, almost as an afterthought, it tacked on, and we believe “…and in the Holy Spirit,” with no elaboration.

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is vexing and complicated, difficult to pin down, like the wind itself. What we mean by the Spirit, questions of his or her (never ‘its’) identity and purpose have plagued the church from its inception. When we hear about“Holy Spirit” we might think right away of those charismatic types, jumpin’ and screamin’ and carryin’ on. We think of effusive emotional displays that make many a-Presbyterian quiver in their pews or run in the other direction. We think of Pentecostals speaking in strange tongues and snake-handlers and miracle-workers. We think of Pentecost itself when the Spirit appeared in tongues of fire and confused tongues of Babel were united in the hearing of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The nineteenth century progressive theologian, David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), described the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the Achilles heel of Protestantism.[1] It’s our most vulnerable point, primarily because we don’t know what to make of the Holy Spirit.

Renewed interest in the Holy Spirit has come about recently through the publication of William Young’s runaway best-seller The Shack.[2] God – actually the three members of the Trinity – plays a leading role in the narrative. The protagonist, Mackenzie Allen Philips is summoned to the scene of a horrific tragedy in his life and meets God there. The author intentionally messes with our stereotypical images of God – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For example, the Holy Spirit is depicted as an Asian woman named Sarayu. Sarayu is a Sanskrit word meaning "to flow,” it also means wind, air, or that which streams (it’s the name of a tributary to the Ganges River). It’s a clever title for the Spirit, which can be translated from the Greek (pneuma) as wind, breath, or air. What has surprised many readers is the author’s notion that the Holy Spirit (indeed, God) can be understood in personal terms, and in the context of a relationship. That the Trinity is understood as a relationship and that God relates to people, to us, relationally, person-to-person, face-to-face, seems to come as a shock to many. But that’s how the first Christians understood the Holy Spirit. The fact that so many are surprised by a personal, relational image of God speaks volumes about how our images of God have become so stale, uninteresting, impersonal, even boring.

I know there are lots of questions about this member of the Trinity. Who is s/he? What was the Spirit sent to do? What’s the Spirit’s relationship with Jesus? Is the Spirit still at work in the church? In our lives? In the world? How do we know?

This morning, at the start of this series, I want to turn to John’s gospel. Although we rarely read his words on Pentecost Sunday, he has much to say about the Holy Spirit. John gives us two important images or metaphors: Advocate and Friend. Just before he died, Jesus prayed to his Father and asked God to send an advocate to his disciples. Then, Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. Although he knew he would leave them, he would not leave them orphaned or alone. Someone would come to their aid.

Jesus’ intent is embedded in the use of this one Greek word for “advocate,” paraklētos or paraclete. And what on earth is a paraclete? Well, English is not going to help us very much. It’s really untranslatable. The old King James Version rendered it Comforter. But that’s not a good translation. Some translations use the word Helper. It means more than a helper. So who Jesus is sending to his disciples?

Paraklētos refers to someone who is called in. However, it’s the reason why the person is called in which gives the words its significance. The Greeks used it in a variety of ways. “A paraklētos might be a person called in to give witness in a law court in someone’s favor, or an advocate called in to plead the cause of someone under a charge which would issue a serious penalty; [or] an expert called in to give advice in some difficult situation, or a person called in when, for example, a company of soldiers were depressed and dispirited to put new courage into their minds and hearts.” That’s what a paraklētos does. A paraklētos is always someone called in to help in a time of need. Yes, this is the role of a comforter, but the paraklētos does more than just assuage our fears and hold our hands. The paraklētos helps us to live, to do something we don’t think we’re fully equipped to do. The Spirit as paraklētos “takes away our inadequacies and enables us to cope with life.”[3] But more than just cope, thrive – thrive in a way of being that reflects the glory of Christ. The paraklētos is the one who comes up alongside us and walks with us and urges us forward, like a friend. The paraklētos is given so that we might never feel alone in the work God calls us to do. He bridges the apparent absence with the very presence of God. He’s a Spirit who abides with us and within us.

But where are we going? Why do we need an aid, an advocate? What is Jesus asking us to do?

It’s quite simple, really. In a word: love.[4] It’s about love. The context for Jesus’ teaching about the Paraclete in John 14 and 15 is love. Just prior to our verses this morning, in love, Jesus prepared his disciples for his departure. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me (15:1).” He is God’s way to truth and life, therefore follow him. In love, we are invited to keep Jesus’ commandments. And in chapter 15 we find Jesus’ new and greatest commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love than this (John 15:12-13) – and nothing more difficult. It’s all for love that Jesus sends the Paraclete in order to equip us, to help us keep the commandments, to love God and love one another. It’s in love that Jesus provided us a way for us to follow and to serve. Without the assistance of the Holy Spirit it is impossible to truly, authentically love as Jesus loved. Without the assistance of the Holy Spirit, it’s impossible to really love God. The Spirit is sent to help us fulfill his sublime mandate, “Love one another.” For that’s what Jesus’ friends do – and if we love him and love God and love one another, then surely we are his friends, and he lives in us and we in him. He abides in us and we abide in him. Christ actually dwells in us in through the Spirit and we indwell his presence in the Spirit. And love is the linchpin, the connector. In the fourth century, Augustine (354-430) said the Holy Spirit is the connecting spirit of love; Karl Barth (1886-1968) in the twentieth century said, he is the “mediator of communion,”[5] she is the vital connector that links us with the love and presence of God.

In this year celebrating the birth of John Calvin (1509-1564), we need to remember that Calvin one of the greatest theologians of the Holy Spirit the church has ever known. Calvin saw the role of the Holy Spirit as the One who unites us to Christ so that Christ’s life can be poured out through our lives, who unites us with Christ’s love so that Christ’s love might pour out through us. He wrote that Jesus Christ remains of object of “cold speculation…at a great distance from us” unless and until we are united with him. And “it is only in the Spirit that he unites himself with us….”[6]

It’s in love that Jesus sends the Spirit. Because the love that Jesus embodied with his life and now commands us to live with ours cannot be actualized through any effort of human will or effort. We mustn’t think that Jesus would command us to love, then not equip us for this task, and then judge us for not living up to this standard. That would be abusive. Yet, so many believe this is the way it is.

Christian love is not realized by trying really hard to be nice or tolerant or accepting. It’s not simply expressed as an act of will, because, as John Calvin stressed in his writings, there’s no area of our life that is not susceptible to the destructive forces of sin. Apart from Christ every effort to authentically love another is hindered by self-interest and fear. Jesus’ kind of love does not come naturally – if it did there would have been no need for Christ. We could then suffice on our own. But we can’t and that’s why we need help.

The Spirit compensates for our inadequacies, comes to our aid in trying times, gives us a pep talk when we feel discouraged and sad and tired and feel like given up; who lives within us and beside us and walks with us, who urges us on and invites us to risk loving – even the unlovable among us and within us; who releases a power within us that is ours, yet not ours; who frees us to thrive in the freedom of Christ; who encourages us to forgive, to accept ourselves and accept others with whom we differ, to make peace, to be reconciled, to let go of the past and embrace a new way of living that we could never achieve on our own. We need the Holy Spirit to live in love and with faith and with hope. The life Jesus calls us to, both individually and together as a church, cannot be realized without the work of the Holy Spirit. Left to our own devices, resources, skill, insight, will, and understanding, or reason we will inevitably fail and fall – and we do.

But the Spirit lifts us up and takes us by the hand and says, Come. The Spirit lifts us up and pushes us from behind and says, Go. It’s in love that Jesus sends the Spirit so that we can really be Christ’s disciples. Before he died he told his disciples, I do not call you servants, but I call you my friends (John 15:15). The Paraclete comes as friend to everyone who seeks to be his disciple. As friend, he never gives up on us (never), never forsakes us or leaves (never), and never leaves us orphaned or alone (never), but comes to us again and again as a constant companion along life’s way.

Can you see why the Spirit as Paraclete is more than Comforter? It can include this, because the Spirit supports us and assures us and consoles us in our grief and reminds us of Christ’s love. But we must never forget that the Spirit is sent in order to equip us to do Christ’s work in the world, to continue his mission and therefore the Spirit urges us forward. The work to which Christ summons us is bigger than all of us combined – and we therefore need help. There’s always a forward-looking dimension to the Spirit’s work, calling us to face not the past, but the future Christ sets before us. As Advocate and Friend, the Spirit might actually challenge us with new situations and circumstances, even throw us into places of conflict where we are invited to grow – and to grow up, leaving our childish ways behind us. The Spirit might open up new vistas and horizons in our lives we never thought we would ever see and reveals a road that leads to that new land or maybe invites you to cut a new path, a new way that doesn’t at present exist. As Advocate and Friend, the Spirit wants all of us to grow up into Christ, so that Christ might be fully formed within us and among us, the Spirit wants us to grow up, to see us thrive as mature sisters and brothers in Christ that embody Christ’s love. Growth, change, development, transformation – all words associated with the Spirit, yet the very same words and experiences we’re reluctant embrace because they’re difficult and risky. I’m beginning to wonder if this resistance to the Spirit – and what the Spirit will actually do with us and take us – isn’t at the root of our disregard for Pentecost, or even talking about the Holy Spirit.

The good news is this: we’re not left to fend for ourselves. When Christ calls us to follow, to love one another, wherever our walk takes us, we’re not left to fend for ourselves. We don’t do this alone. Christ loves us too for much that.

[1] Cited in George S. Hendry, The Holy Spirit in Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 12.

[2] William P. Young, The Shack (Los Angeles: Windblown Media, 2007).

[3] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. II. Introduction by John Drane (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 194-195.

[4]Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:“We can harness the energy of the winds, the seas, the sun./ But the day man learns to harness the energy of love,/ that will be as important as the discovery of fire.” - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), “A Song of Hope in a Changing World”

[5] See George Hunsinger, “The Mediator of Communion: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” John Webster, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 177-195.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), III.i.3, III.i.2.