Archive for August, 2015

JOHN 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

4b “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

What is the primary task of the Holy Spirit according to the New Testament? Before we answer that, let’s back up to ask what the Holy Spirit is up to in the larger witness of the entire Bible. It was the Spirit of God that hovered over the primordial waters of Genesis. The Spirit of God was understood to be the vital principle active in the budding, leafing, flowering, fruiting, pulsing, breathing, and procreating diversity of living things.

On Sinai, it was the Spirit of God that descended in thick cloud and thunder with the commandments for political order and prosperity. Through the prophets this same Spirit spoke words of advocacy on behalf of the poor, orphaned, and outcast. We remember Joel, who envisioned the day when the Holy Spirit would be released upon all flesh, with hope born anew in the hearts of people everywhere regardless of age, sex, or social standing.

As revealed in Jesus, the Holy Spirit was shown to be earnestly searching for a deep and universal faith of the human which was also a fundamental faith in the human, in what the human can become and accomplish in the name of love.

In such broad strokes we can discern a kind of progression in the work of the Holy Spirit through the course of time. Creative energy, vibrant abundance, moral conscience, human compassion, universal salvation, and unconditional forgiveness – there is a clearly observable forward advance to this adventure of the Spirit.

The New Testament itself is ecstatic in the belief that with Jesus (Spirit = unconditional love and forgiveness) history has reached its fulfillment. And although a final and complete redemption is perhaps still a ways off, even now creation and we ourselves groan inwardly from the labor pains of a new day dawning.

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JOHN 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

4b “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The apostle Paul says that “the Lord [Jesus Christ] is the Spirit” present in the worshiping community. Although the distinctions that would later be formalized in the doctrine of the Trinity were not yet clearly defined in the New Testament, we can see their evolution through the decades of the first century.

Initially the Holy Spirit was understood to have come upon Jesus, anointing and empowering him for his ministry. Then, as the influence of his personality and unique vision grew in the faith and mission of the early Christian movement, the Spirit became increasingly identified with (the spirit of) Jesus himself. The reader may recall that later in this same Gospel (20:22) the risen Jesus breathes into the community of disciples the Holy Spirit, which by now is seen as his spirit living within them.

Apparently there were some in the early Church who wanted to “hold on to Jesus,” who, in other words, couldn’t let go of the fact that Jesus as they knew him was no longer with them. It was necessary for the first Christians – as it still is necessary for every Christian – to evolve from being followers of Jesus to becoming bearers of Christ. As long as they continued to look back and review the material of their tradition, they were impeding their own growth and advancement into the future frontier of world mission. “If I do not go away, the Advocate will not come.”

Sometimes you’ve got to let go in order to grow!

ROMANS 8:22-27

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We might be tempted to dismiss Paul’s language as so much poetic flare – all this talk of creation as “groaning in labor pains.” To what end? we ask. Does he mean to suggest that the universe is a womb of sorts, and that something presently hidden from view is about to be delivered forth?

The birth event, what Paul calls “the redemption of our bodies,” must therefore not be interpreted along some modern-day evangelical lines to suggest that our salvation is a rescue out of the world – as if the infant is really being saved from the mother rather than given forth from and through her. Paul’s concept of redemption is more consistent with the theory of evolution, where life, mind, and soul emerge and are produced out of simpler and more primitive forms, than it is consistent with the popular Christian (Puritan-evangelical) notion.

Furthermore, the intimacy with which the Spirit of God is involved in our groanings, our hopes, and our weakness, challenges our orthodox beliefs concerning a deity who swoops down and spirits away repentant souls to heaven. In a real sense, religious orthodoxy is the womb within which the human spirit gestates and matures. All our assumptions and dogmatic beliefs must eventually open up to release us into an experience of mystic union with The Holy One.

PSALM 104:24-34, 35b

24 O Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
    creeping things innumerable are there,
    living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
    and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

27 These all look to you
    to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
    when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
    when you take away their breath, they die
    and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
    and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
    who touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
    for I rejoice in the Lord.
35b Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!

In what we earlier referred to as the brokerage of orthodoxy that religion over time tends to become, the idea of God is typically rather distant and sterile, without power and drained of mystery. God is “up there” somewhere, above the turning world as its maintenance supervisor and moral judge. This is where the many countless “idols” creep in, filling the space of daily life concerns and providing people with a link to something of supernatural yet tangible value.

The psalmist’s view of God is rather unorthodox in the way God is seen as related to the process and diversity of life on earth. Not as detached, up and away from the swarming and fruiting living forms, but as the present source of oxygen, food, and every necessity of survival and flourishment. Clearly the Divine Life is the very matrix out of which all this pours forth, expands, differentiates, and is fulfilled. Earthquakes and volcanoes are the tremble of reverence the earth has for God, who is properly considered not as one above and outside the universe, but as the very ground of its being and abundant diversity.

In our day, what has become of this Divine Reality underlying, energizing, and redeeming all things? Have we settled down with something less than God?

ACTS 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

When Peter raised his voice above the blend of voices giving praise to God, to address the skeptical few who were wanting to pass off the entire event as drunken disorder, he cited the prophet Joel who long ago had seen this day approaching.

Joel had lived in a time that was spiritual stagnant in many ways, with the institutional structures of religion effectively suppressing the deeper life and hope of the common people. In pure and challenging language, the prophet pictured a future day when God’s Spirit would no longer be domesticated by the bridal and harness of conventional religiosity, but would break out upon all people in wild and creative energy.

For the prophet Joel this was both good and bad news, depending on who was considering it. To those in power, especially the priests and other brokers of orthodoxy, this vision was a portent of disaster – “blood, fire, and smoky mist.” No more would blessing be distributed retail by a religious management, or forgiveness the reward for submission to due process. For the great majority, the coming day promised new release from old burdens and access to God that was both direct and personal.

What Peter and the rest were witnessing, they believed, was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophetic vision. God came through the cathedral ceiling to dwell among and within “the little people.”

ACTS 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Although our symbolism of Pentecost centers on the images of wind and fire, a closer reading of the story reminds us that the experience came with the sound “like a rush of violent wind” and with divided tongues “as of fire.” In other words, the moment brought an experience that was inherently ineffable – beyond words and essentially strange, only like this and similar to that.

This acknowledgement of fundamental mystery is at the heart of authentic religion, arising as it does out of a sense or feeling or intuition of being supported in our very existence as humans by a reality outside the grasp of our understanding and control. When God revealed to Moses the Law, the blueprints for the tabernacle and its furniture, along with the conditions of the covenant, the text tells us that “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire.” What was it, exactly? There’s no saying.

The sights and sounds of Pentecost are the signs and effects of a much deeper experience, something that touches and exhilarates the devotional center of our human spirit. That cosmopolitan congregation, speaking in the many tongues and dialects of the earth, was testifying as one voice to “God’s deeds of power.” When people move from argument to confession, a New Spirit is released in the world.

ACTS 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

This picture of “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” would have, for those deeply familiar with and formed by the great story of the Bible, evoked a contrasting image from the Book of Genesis. We are told in chapter 11 of Genesis that “the whole earth had one language and the same words,” and that earth’s peoples conspired together to build a high tower whose top would invade the heavens.

When God observed what they were doing, however, He confounded their effort by fracturing their shared language into a multiplicity of confused tongues. Unable to communicate, and therefore no longer able to cooperate, the building project had to be abandoned. The vast community of earthlings subsequently fell into its familiar divisions of languages and nation-groups, alienated increasingly from each other by barriers of speech, thought, custom, and belief.

The author of Acts intends to set up a very deliberate contrast between the primordial fall of the human population into divisions and this latter-day event of world unification at Pentecost. From out of the wellspring of native tongues came a shared confession, of a truth-experience that transcended the diversity while at the same time celebrating it.

JOHN 17:6-19

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

Early Christians were “resident aliens” in the Roman world of their day. In the opening decades they were known as “followers of the way,” the gospel-way of life as proclaimed and embodied by Jesus. As far as appearances go, these Christians didn’t necessarily look any different from your average Greek, Roman, or Jew. And they shared with everyone else many of the basic needs for security and success in this world.

The difference came in the matter of significance, where life’s ultimate value and meaning cohere and find their ultimate reference. For the rest of the world (we’re obviously speaking in generalities – a dangerous thing to do) the ultimate reference of life’s significance was (and still is) in the authority of the tribe or state. Fashion – what all the others are thinking and doing and wanting and wearing – dictated one’s priorities and set the standard for “the good life.”

Under the influence of the gospel of Jesus, and with his spirit inhabiting their hearts and community, the Christians detached their devotion from the power of fashion and transferred their loyalty to a “higher power.” As their energizing ideal, the kingdom of God provided them with new priorities, and with new values to support those priorities. And because they refused to simply step in line and turn the gears of politics, economics, and religion-as-usual, the world could not control them.

As it had hated the good news of Jesus – liberty for the captives, sight for the blind, hope for the poor – when he had proclaimed it, the world now hates his disciples who courageously carry on in his name.

JOHN 17:6-19

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

As the author of the Fourth Gospel sees it, the reception of Jesus by his disciples provided a clearing through the silt where the anchor of hope could fasten into the bedrock below. Technically speaking, God’s Life, Life, and Love – the great themes of John’s Gospel – become revelation only when the veils of human ignorance, spiritual lethargy, and moral indifference are pulled aside in moments of personal faith.

Until then, the glory and voice of the Divine continue unabated  but without penetration, like the blazing sun above dark, heavy clouds. Once the veil parts, however, a connection is made, the energy is absorbed, and dormant seeds come to life and take root. That’s how it happened  in the first century: Jesus came, veils were removed, spiritual power and hope were released, and the thing took hold. You and I are descendants of that New Genesis in the first Christian community.

As descendants, we are inheritors of the faith treasures of long ago. But we are also progenitors in our own right, for the faith we hold today and test against the challenges and crises of our age will be what our children inherit in their turn. The revelation isn’t “once upon a time,” but here and now. God’s anchor of hope must take hold in our hearts. We are the present-day bearers of an eternal gospel, having received the liberating Word of God and looking for our moment to speak its truth.

JOHN 17:6-19

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

Here we confront again the questions of theodicy. The term comes from two Greek words, theos (god) and diké (justice), and names the moral struggle in religiously thoughtful human beings over the relationship between the goodness of God and the injustice of human suffering and evil.

Where’s the benevolence of God, we must ask, in bringing Judas into being as a condemned man from the very beginning? As “the one destined to be lost,” was Judas without freedom to choose otherwise? Did God circumvent the betrayer’s free-will in something of a manual override, canceling out the very capacity that made him most human? If so, then how could Judas be held accountable for his actions? Is it just for God to damn a person who had no real choice in what he did? Finally, is such a God worthy of our worship?

No doubt, we are interrogating early Christian theology with questions that were not as critical and pressing then as they have become for us now. The old answer to Job’s protest against the suffering of human innocence – “Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his? (Job 40:9) – amounted to a suppression of the human cry for justice. In the ancient world it was not below God to do whatever he wished, however diabolical and inhumane it may be. Once the world discovered that “God is love,” the questions of theodicy have exercised the faithful.

One wonders if our condemnation of Judas has amounted to a betrayal of our own humanity.