Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rethink: the Holy Spirit

The very first Muppet movie has a scene near the beginning with Kermit and Fozzie Bear traveling in a balloon. Meanwhile credits are flashing on the screen. A technical credit like "cinematography" or "sound" or "best boy" (whatever that means) pops up and Fozzie asks his friend if anybody ever reads those names. "Sure," replies Kermit, "They all have family." The joke works just as well today when, at the end of one of Hollywood's big blockbusters, what appears to be the entire population of Silicone Valley scrolls up the screen for the last 10 minutes of the film.

But the fact is that without all of those people the latest action movie would be filmed on the director's iPhone, showing the actors in their street clothes in front of a green screen battling nothing. As an amateur actor I know how hard the behind the scenes persons work and how vital they are to getting a play on. But in live theatre, they get less recognition than the folks who put digital monsters into films.

Of the members of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the most shadowy and least understood. And part of that is because the Spirit is the behind-the-scenes person of the Godhead. God the Father and Jesus are featured prominently in major speaking roles, whereas the Spirit is working in the background, setting things up, illuminating things, relaying communications, and making sure everyone is properly equipped to do their job. He acts like one of the koroku or black garbed stagehands that flit around the stage during a Kabuki play. They aren't supposed to draw attention to themselves as they hand the actors what they need, change the scenery and pull one costume off an actor to reveal a second one that makes clear his true nature. Like them, the Holy Spirit is both vital and invisible and it's hard to define the scope of his functions.

Ask an ancient Hebrew about what the Spirit does and he would say that the Spirit fills great men and women to do extraordinary things for God. Remember when we said that 3 types of people were anointed: prophets, priests and kings? Well, at their inaugural ceremonies they were anointed with oil but they were supposed to be anointed with the Spirit as well. The Spirit gave them the strength, wisdom and courage they need to do the task set before them.

Often being filled with the Spirit made a person prophesy or speak God's word. Frequently being filled with the Spirit made a person feel ecstatic. In fact, Israel's first king, Saul, on the day he was anointed, was told by Samuel that he would join a band of prophets and "then the Spirit of the Lord will possess you and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person." We'll return to that.

So in the Old Testament God's Spirit indwells a few people given special work to do, either to speak God's word or lead God's people. But there were prophesies in Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel that in the Messianic age God would pour out his Spirit upon all people. The typical interpretation of this was that it would happen at the end of the present evil age, after the Messiah had defeated all earthly powers. So the world in which this would happen was seen as a very different place than our everyday world.

The Spirit was active in Christ's life before his earthly existence, of course. Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. At the start of his ministry, he was filled with the Spirit. It empowered him to heal and preach. But this was expected. Jesus was, people thought, a prophet at least and to some he was the Messiah. They expected him to be filled with the Spirit. So in what ways did Jesus make people rethink what they thought they knew about the Holy Spirit?

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus spoke about the Spirit to his disciples for quite a while. Jesus said that because he was going away, he was sending another Comforter. The use of that word today is unfortunate. At the time the Bible was first translated into English, "comforter" meant not merely one who consoled but one who brought with him courage ("con fortis" in Latin). It was an attempt to translate a Greek word that has no single English equivalent. Parakletos means literally someone who is called to one's side. As William Barclay points out, it could be someone who is an ally, a counselor, a helper, a character witness, or an advocate. Basically, the Spirit is God standing by your side ready to help you in whatever capacity you need.

And the remarkable thing is that Jesus is promising this not just to the disciples. As foundational members of the Kingdom they may be considered great men like those of old. But Jesus promises the Spirit to all his followers. In John 14 he says, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them." In other words, the indwelling of the Spirit is given to all who love and are faithful to Jesus, not just to leaders.

This is the first major idea that Jesus wants us to rethink. The Spirit of God is not something reserved to just a few. It is promised to all of God's people.

But remember that the prophets said the Spirit won't be poured out until the end of the present evil age and the beginning of the Messianic age? Obviously, evil has not been eliminated so how can the Spirit be available to all? Jesus in speaking of the Kingdom of God spoke of it as being in the future but he also talked of the Kingdom being among or in us. How can it be both future and present? The clue is his comparison of the Kingdom to a mustard seed that is tiny but eventually grows into a huge tree.

When is a war won? When the tide of a key battle irrevocably turns? When the enemy surrenders? When the peace treaty is signed? When shall we say a new tree originates? When it breaks through the earth? When the embryonic plant cracks through the seedcoat? When the seed is buried in the earth? When the seed develops inside the fruit hanging on its parent tree?

There is always an period between the conception of something and its emergence as a fully realized creation. Looking back one can see that it was in a sense present, if only as an idea or DNA or a force, at the very beginning and throughout the whole process. The seed of the Kingdom of God was planted by Jesus and started growing right then and there. Just because it hasn't reached its full height and width doesn't mean it wasn't and isn't a reality. The Kingdom was and is and is to come. The Messianic era had begun even though the present evil age hadn't ended everywhere and in everyone. Despite the overlap, the tide was turning.

The Spirit was poured out upon the church at Pentecost. It is God's gift to all believers. You don't have to be a candidate for a special position or ministry to be anointed. The Spirit's empowerment is available to all Christians.

This leads to another way in which Jesus made people rethink some major ideas about the Spirit. In his day, the temple in Jerusalem was considered the only place where a man could encounter God. On the Day of Atonement the high priest went behind the veil and entered the presence of God in the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood of the bull sacrificed for the people's sins. The Samaritans did something similar at their rival temple. Yet when the subject comes up, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that the time is coming when those who worship God will not worship in Jerusalem or some other place but will worship in spirit and in truth. Just as the temple of Solomon was destroyed, Jesus foresees the fall of Herod's temple. But that's OK because there will be no need for further sacrifice after him. And people need not look to some geographical point or man-made building to enter into the presence of God. As Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians, "you are the temple of the living God." In Ephesians he says, "In him, the whole structure is joined together and grows together into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together in the Spirit into a dwelling place for God."

For Christians, God is no longer some remote deity in a fancy building on a mountain; he is in us, among us, standing by our side ready to help. We are portable dwellings for God and together a magnificent temple. Or to switch to another of Paul's metaphors, we are the Body of Christ. As he was filled with the Spirit, so are we to be. As he was the embodiment of the Spirit of God's love, so should we be. As the Father and the Son are one in the unity of the Spirit, so Christians are to be one, just as Jesus prayed after his last supper.

We fall short of that, of course. Because of sin and because we do not think to pray and inquire of and wait upon the Spirit in our decisions, as they did in the early church. Read through the Book of Acts and you will find that before every major decision, the church looked to the Spirit for guidance. Jesus' favorite title for the Holy Spirit was the Spirit of truth, because the Spirit reveals the truth and guides us to the truth and convinces us of the truth. It was the Spirit that lay behind every push to bring the Gospel to the gentiles. It was the Spirit who led Ananias to heal Saul of Tarsus, a mortal enemy of the church, because Christ had called him to be an apostle. It was the Spirit who guided Saul, now Paul, on his missionary journeys as he planted churches. It is the Spirit who distributes gifts to all Christians and who brings to maturity his fruits in our lives. It is the Spirit who grants us access to God and who prays for us when we are unable to articulate what we need.

When King Saul was filled with the Spirit, Samuel told him he'd become a different person. And that's what the Spirit seeks to do with us. "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation." The Spirit works in us to make us the person God intended us to be. The Spirit sanctifies us. He purifies us so we can serve God. And our service is part of God's recapitulation of his creation. God created the world and pronounced it good. We have turned his earthly paradise into hell on earth. But unlike some popular preachers make it sound, God is not itching to destroy the world. He wishes to redeem it, to resurrect it, to recreate it. Just as we will one day have new and better bodies, God's goal is a new heaven and a new earth, not totally discontinuous with the present ones anymore than Jesus' resurrected body was totally unlike his mortal one. And we, as Christ's Body, are his agents in that global transformation. The Spirit, who hovered over the waters at the original creation and was God's power active in creation, will be active in the new creation, working through us. God wants to pronounce everything very good once again.

There is a lot more to the Spirit's work than we can touch on in these few minutes. If you want a short book chock full of good Biblical teaching about the Spirit, may I recommend William Barclay's "The Promise of the Spirit," to which I am much indebted for the material underlying this sermon.

We are dealing with how Jesus made humanity rethink everything, including humanity itself. That is what we'll look at Wednesday. But right now I want you to ask yourself some questions this Lent. In view of the fact that the Spirit is in all Christians, does that make you rethink how vital your role in the church is? In view of the fact that God's Holy Spirit dwells in you, does that make you reconsider how you think and speak and behave? In view of the fact that the Spirit is working to recreate the world, does that make you rethink the nature of your work and outside activities? In view of how the Spirit drove the ministries of Jesus and Paul, does that make you rethink your reluctance to share the good news of Jesus Christ?

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