Monday, May 20, 2013

A Study in Spirit

The scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:14-17 and John 14:8-27.

Contrary to popular belief, and even to what he himself said, Sherlock Holmes did not use deductive reasoning often. Deductive reasoning is reasoning from general principles to tease out specifics. It is what is usually done in math. If I know that all the angles in a triangle must add up to 180 degrees, then I can deduce the degrees of any angle in a specific triangle if I know what the other 2 angles are. Holmes rarely worked out the solutions to mysteries that way. What he usually did was use inductive reasoning, that is, collect as much data as one can and then formulate a hypothesis that explains them all. That’s why he made precise observations of things at the crime scene. He could use them to build up a picture of the criminal. His next step was to test his hypothesis to see if it is correct. In A Study in Scarlet Holmes know that the first murder victim was poisoned. When he finds a box with 2 handmade pills at the site of the second murder, he figures they must be poisonous. He cuts one in half and mixes it into milk to give to an ailing dog his landlady wants to put out of its misery. The animal continues his labored breathing while Holmes gets increasingly anxious about his theory. Then he gets a flash of inspiration, cuts the 2nd pill in half, gives that to the suffering beast and it stiffens and dies. Holmes then modifies his hypothesis. The murderer offers his victims a choice of pills and leaves ultimate justice in the hands of God.

Science uses both methods of reasoning. In the hard sciences, which are math-dominated, principles like relativity are explored logically and predictions are made on the basis of them. Then experiments are performed to see if what should happen according to the deductions does in fact happen. In other cases, such as geology, sediments, fossils, and formations are studied and a picture is built up of how they must have come to be that way. Volcanic lines of undersea mountains led to the theory of tectonic plates and continental drift. A worldwide layer of iridium at a certain strata of sediment led to the hypothesis that a huge meteorite, the source of the iridium, hit the earth. And the timing of that impact coincided with a massive die-off of many species, including the dinosaurs.
Theology uses both methods as well. Take the principle that God is just. That means we can know certain things about how God regards murder, cheating, theft, dishonesty, oppression and other social sins. That’s deductive reasoning. But if we check the data, we see that God does not always fully punish those who act unjustly. Right off the bat, Adam and Eve are told that disobeying God regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil means "in the day that you eat it you shall surely die." But they do not die. Looking at how he treats other sinful people like Jacob, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, etc. we see that God does not mete out strict and swift justice all the time. Is he therefore unjust? Or should we use this new data to modify our hypothesis? That is, that God is not merely just but also merciful. That we can arrive at by inductive reasoning.

Pentecost is the celebration of God pouring his Spirit out onto all believers. And the peculiar thing is that the Spirit of God is most vaguely understood of the persons of the Trinity. So I thought we could do a little inductive reasoning to build up a picture of who the Spirit is and what he does.
In our account of Pentecost, we see the Spirit manifested as the sound of a violent wind and as tongues of flame resting on each Christian. In both Hebrew and Greek the word for “spirit” is the same word used for wind or breath, both of which are powerful but invisible. The symbolism of the tongues is fairly obvious in the light of what happens. Fire in the Bible symbolizes both illumination and purification. So we are being signaled that God’s Spirit, while invisible, is powerful, giving the ability to communicate God’s word or prophesy, to enlighten and to purify the hearers.

To Jews, this would be familiar since they thought of the Spirit primarily as the “Spirit of prophesy,” bestowed on prophets and leaders, like the judges. But God is doing something new. He is sending his Spirit not merely to the elite but to all who receive Jesus as Savior and Lord. We are told that there were about 120 believers who met together, possibly in meeting rooms that were available at the temple. When the Spirit fills them they start to speak in other languages. Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims there for the harvest festival of Pentecost, one of the 3 major religious feasts of Judaism. And falling about this time of year, it was one of the easiest to get to because the late spring weather made travel less hazardous. That’s why there were Jews from every part of the Roman Empire nearby.
It must have been a cacophony but each person was able to pick out his native language. Still, the phenomenon was strange and some onlookers wanted to dismiss it as the exuberance of a bunch of drunks. So Peter gets up and addresses them in a language all of them knew, either Aramaic or more likely Greek. This is not drunkenness, he says, but the fulfillment of prophesy, spoken by God’s Spirit long ago.

Let’s turn to our passage from Romans to see what more we can learn of the Spirit. In chapter 8 Paul has been contrasting living according to our natural inclinations or flesh and living by the Spirit. In verse 11 he writes”…and if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead has made his home in you, then he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you.” If God’s Spirit is living in us some things follow. As he says in verse 14, “…all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Just as we say things like “Henry Ford was the father of the mass produced car” the Bible also uses the term father for “person who originated something.” We don’t use the term “son” in the same way these days, though, to mean “one who follows in the direction or spirit of an endeavor.” The Bible does, however. Jesus Christ is the Father’s only begotten Son; that is, coming from him and of the same kind as him. Jesus, you could say, is God’s natural son. But others in the Bible are called “sons of God”, such as angels, and holy men and women, because they followed in the Spirit of God. Occasionally, a Davidic king was called a “son of God.” But just as God poured out his Spirit on all believers in Christ at Pentecost, so, too, by virtue of having the Spirit of God within it, we are children of God. We are God’s adopted children, made his out of his love.
Paul continues, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” What does he mean by “spirit of slavery”? Based on the context of what he had written just before today’s passage, it would be slavery to sin and death. And the fear would then be fear of sin, of what we can do when we are led by our baser nature, and fear of death. If we let our natural inclinations rule us, death is what awaits us. But if we are led by the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the grave, we have no need to fear death. As it says in our Psalm, “…you take away their breath and they die and return to dust. You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.” The Spirit is the source of life and resurrection. As we say in the Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit is the giver of life. God puts the giver of life inside us!

There is a comic book coming out in October called “Death Sentence.” 3 people develop a genetic mutation that gives them superpowers but also gives them just 6 months to live. The point is to explore what people might do with great powers and a limited amount of life. Our position is almost the opposite. We may not be able to fly or lift buildings but we have eternal life. Having the fear of death lifted from us frees us up to do great things for God. Sadly too few Christians really live as if they believe Christ conquered death. They let earthly considerations such as “What will others think of me?” or “This is too risky!” or “This makes me uncomfortable!” get in the way of following Jesus and doing the right thing. Just this last Friday law enforcement officers honored those who have died in the performance of their duties. Most cops will not die in the line of duty. But they know that when they take their oath to become cops, such a death becomes a real possibility. In the same way, when we decide to become Christians, Jesus said we must disown ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. The cross is an instrument of death. Most of us will never be called upon to lay down our lives for Jesus but we must remember that it is a distinct possibility. Yet at our baptism or confirmation and every Sunday here we say we believe in “the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.” Death is to us not an end but a change, like having our baby teeth come out and our adult teeth come in. What is lost is small, what is gained is better, and our life, supplied by the Spirit, the giver of life within us, goes on regardless.
So lead by the Spirit, we lose that fear. What do we gain? “…you have received a spirit of adoption.” We become children of God, with all the rights and privileges that go with it. In the Greco-Roman world Paul lived in, adoption meant all past debts and relationships were cancelled. The adopted child was now  exclusively defined by his new relationship with his father, whose heir he became.

Paul goes on to write, “When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” “Abba” was the Aramaic equivalent of “Papa.” It bespeaks the intimacy with God we enter into when we become his. Just as Jesus called his Father “Abba” in the garden of Gethsemane, we can now think of God as our loving Father, whom we can speak to with a close and intimate love.
And Paul continues, “…if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…” Imagine that: we are joint-heirs with Christ! He will rule as the firstborn but we will rule as well. When God’s kingdom comes, when his will is done on earth as it is in heaven, we will be kings and queens in that kingdom. Of course, we will not lord it over each other because of our king Jesus’ example of washing his followers’ feet. We will be servant-leaders, loving each other as Christ loves us.

Paul adds, “…if in fact we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Again he is talking of self-sacrificial love, love that gives all rather than takes all. Because in the topsy-turvy kingdom of God, giving of yourself, taking on the pain of others, is more glorious that taking as much as you can and letting others suffer if necessary.
Finally I want to turn to our gospel and see what Jesus says about the Spirit: “…I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.” Again he says, “…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The Greek word translated “Advocate” here was a legal term. It meant something like “character witness,” a person who will speak up for you against accusations, an intercessor. It also meant a person who gives you strength and encouragement. It meant counselor and consoler. So Jesus is telling us that not only will the Spirit be our teacher but he will be on our side when we are under pressure. He will strengthen and encourage us and stand up for us.

So from our inductive study of these 4 passages we find that the Spirit is powerful. He gives us enlightenment, teaching us everything we need to know about God and reminding us what Jesus told us. He gives us the ability to communicate the good news about God in Christ. He relieves us from the fear of sin and death because he is the source of life and renewal and resurrection. He makes us children of God, giving us an intimate relationship with our heavenly Father, and makes us his heirs. He backs us up, strengthening and encouraging us, interceding for us, consoling and counseling us.
So why do we have such a vague idea of the Spirit as opposed to the other persons of the Trinity? I think, as C. S. Lewis suggests, it is because the Father and the Son are, in a sense, outside us. The Father is God above us, our goal. Jesus is God beside us, leading us. The Spirit is God within us, illuminating our minds, purifying our souls, setting our hearts on fire. We have a hard time picturing him as we would our own mitochondria, T-cells and DNA. He is God working behind the scenes, repairing and doing maintenance, lining up the equipment we need, reminding us of what we need to do or say or think about, doing what needs to be done, most of the time quietly. And occasionally, when called for, at a Pentecostal moment of time, making a ruckus, blowing away the cobwebs in our Christian life, fanning the flames of our love for God and prompting us to speak out for Jesus like we’ve never done before. 

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