Posts Tagged ‘Spirit’

1 JOHN 5:1-6

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

Not with water only but with the water and the blood. In the seventh verse we read that “there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” Something of a trinity, don’t you see.

We might interpret these three as representing the three essential transformations that Jesus underwent in his hero adventure as world savior. As we all enter this world, we pass through the water. The membrane that holds us in the amniotic fluid of our mother’s womb suddenly breaks, and out we rush with the tide. Jesus, too, was “born of a woman,” as Paul acknowledges.

Having heard the call of God in his life, Jesus went on to commit himself to the divine purpose – so completely that he died on the cross for the sake of the gospel and in solidarity with the suffering multitudes of the world. There’s the blood. And when, in that moment we cannot describe in mere literal meanings, the disciples experienced the spirit of Jesus in their midst and later within them each, Jesus was transformed yet a third time.

First as one of us, then as one with us, and finally as one in us.

JOHN 7:37-39

37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

The author of the Fourth Gospel was very careful in setting his portrait of Jesus inside a framework that revealed both his messianic relevance to Judaism and his universal relevance to the human spiritual quest. By reconstructing the “life and message” of Jesus into the Jewish yearly cycle of festivals, the author translates his significance in terms of Deliverance, Covenant, Atonement, and Kingdom of God – the major phases and layers in the identity of his people.

Water is a powerful archetype throughout the Bible – from the primordial waters of chaos, which according to Genesis is the only thing God did not create, and the streams that flowed through the garden of paradise; to the parting sea that made way for the Hebrew fugitives; to the cool refreshment that sprung from a rock in the desert; to the Jordan River that marked their entry into the Promised Land; and on into the numerous uses of water in daily hygiene and ritual purification before meals and sacred ceremonies.

There is every indication that Jesus took inspiration for his kingdom movement from the OT prophets, and his greatest influence was Isaiah. The Bible book by the same name actually spans almost two centuries, with the themes of the eighth-century BCE “First Isaiah” taken up and developed by “Second Isaiah” during the Babylonian Exile (c. 540 BCE), and then further adapted by the so-called “Third Isaiah” after the exiles returned to Jerusalem  (c. 525 BCE). The major lines of concern for all three writers have to do with social justice on behalf of the poor, suffering, and marginalized populations of empire.

In Isaiah 55 (Second Isaiah) we read:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live.

This sounds very much like what the Fourth Gospel has Jesus say as he calls out into the marketplace. As the religious ceremony is wrapping up and people are on their way home, Jesus invites them to an experience that is inwardly deep (the heart-center of faith, longing, and love) in contrast to the public liturgy of the festival.

External religion is not sufficient to satisfy human spiritual need. No matter how interesting or necessary religion can make itself for the individual, however many relevant services it can offer the religious consumer, it cannot save us or make us whole. The difference between (outward) religion and (inward) spirituality is like the difference between using water to wash dirt off your skin and taking a long drink after working hard in the sun.

PSALM 104:24-34, 35b

24 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.
35 Bless the Lord, O my soul.
    Praise the Lord!

One of the great themes of Pentecost is represented in the dynamic metaphors of breath and wind – Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus. The thing about this force is that you can’t see it directly, but only its effects. It’s impossible to grab hold of it or pin it down, though you can “catch” the wind to harness its power. Spirit is elusive, unpredictable, and spontaneous. It might even be dangerous, if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Our terms respiration, perspirationinspiration, expiration and aspiration all derive from this root-word spirit. In the ancient world, breath and wind were not understood scientifically as biological and climatic functions, but rather lent themselves intuitively to mythological representation. The wind on the water and in the trees was pictured as the breath of God moving and animating creation. This wind/breath wasn’t a function but a force in its own right, the creative force of God’s will and purpose.

In this passage, the poet contemplates this generative breath of God filling forms with life and returning to him upon their extinction. All of creation, then, moves according to the rhythm of divine respiration. The Genesis myth recounts the beginnings of humanity, when Adam (whose name is derived from earth or ground, adamah) was fashioned by God like a clay figurine and brought to life only when the Creator breathed his own spirit into the human form.

This metaphor of breathing existence into being is much more embodied than some later ideas in religion, which would separate cosmos and God into natural and supernatural realms. The challenge then would be to devise ways of getting the two together again. In the early traditions, on the other hand, the metaphor of creation and extinction as rhythms in the respiration of God acknowledged the organic connection between them.

ROMANS 8:6-11

6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Earlier the point was made that resurrection is different than recovery, revival, or resuscitation, in that it involves not just a “return to life” but a transformation through life to a higher level of freedom, fulfillment, and joy. In myth and literature it is commonly represented metaphorically in the raising of a dead body back to life, but what resurrection symbolizes is much more than a mere miracle.

We also learned that in Hebrew anthropology (view of human nature) the familiar split of body and soul, favoring soul as the real and immortal identity of a person, has no support. (The split and bias towards the soul came into Western thinking from the Greek and oriental cultures.) Hebrew thought regarded “soul” (nephesh) as the temporary and inherently conflicted “agreement” of two more primary things coming together, body (basar) and breath (ruach). These two “things” were later abstracted in Hebrew thought into matter and spirit,”or the material and spiritual principles coming together in and as the living person, or soul.

Paul considered these principles as opposing forces, acting on the personality from “below” (flesh, body, instinct) and from “above” (breath, spirit, wisdom). While the soul (ego, person) is the product of these two forces coming together, it is also where they are experienced as counter-forces pulling the soul in one direction or the other. So Paul would sometimes speak of life “according to the flesh” and life “according to the spirit,” by which he meant two opposite ways of living depending on whether your focus and commitment are on the “lusts” of the flesh or the “gifts” of the spirit.

So, you can give in to the flesh and allow the cravings and lusts of the body to drive your life (to selfishness and ruin, in Paul’s opinion), or you can surrender yourself to the spirit and allow the will and wisdom of God to guide you. Attachment to a life according to the flesh only brings suffering in the meantime, to the extent that its cravings can never be fully satisfied, and catastrophe in the end, since the body must eventually expire. And yet (as Paul sees it) this is where each of us is, until we can open ourselves to the breath (spirit) of God and be filled with new life from above.

We must “die” to the flesh and be “raised” in the spirit. That is resurrection.

EZEKIEL 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Resurrection is a metaphor found throughout world mythology, and likely originated in early agricultural societies where local economies looked with expectancy to the return of life in the spring. Stories across cultures tell of the god or goddess who dies or is taken into the underworld in late autumn and rises again in new seedlings and green shoots.

Because his people had languished for so long in Babylonian captivity, the prophet Ezekiel saw them as having lost their chance at fulfilling God’s destiny for them. Back home in Jerusalem, his contemporary Jeremiah was working out this same grief and struggle for hope on behalf of those who had been left behind in the city’s ruin. Although their contexts were different in that regard, both Jeremiah (at home) and Ezekiel (in exile) were searching for signs of divine presence and purpose in the midst of human suffering.

What can you say to a generation whose faith in God has been drained of life and left strewn on the ground like sun-bleached disjointed bones? Other writings of this Exilic period (587-538 BCE) – the Book of Job notable among them – had already fallen into disenchantment with the god who protects the righteous and punishes sinners. This generation was barely old enough to remember, and many of them were not yet even born, when the foreign army of Babylon had invaded their land, toppled the city walls, devastated the temple, taken their leaders away in shackles, and left the “tree of Jesse” (the father of David and his royal line) a mere lifeless stump.

How can you give hope to a people who can’t even remember what home was like? There are no commitments left behind that they can look forward to picking up again, no nostalgia under the ashes that can be poked and stirred and fanned back to life. It’s as if they need to start with an absolutely new beginning, with a new cycle of time, a fresh creation and their own identity.

                                                                                        

Resurrection, then, is more than a recovery of what might once have been. Its literal meaning has to do with “being raised up” from a state of profound discouragement, hopelessness, paralysis or death. This literal meaning is widely used as a metaphor of an experience that is widely contemplated across the world religions, of not just coming back to life as it was, but transforming to a new quality, vibrancy, or fullness of life.

The help his despondent generation, Ezekiel had to first get them together – thus the sound-imagery of rattling bones clicking together, the sight of flesh covering skeletons, and of  the ground cluttered with corpses. Only with the body thus reconstituted could the breath (spirit) animate it with life and new hope.

We need to be reminded that Hebrew anthropology did not accept the oriental and Greek idea of a body-soul dualism. For the Hebrew, “soul” is the unique individuality of a human being, a synthesis of a material principle called body (basar), and a spiritual principle called breath (Heb. ruach, Grk. pneuma, Lat. spiritus). Once the breath leaves the body, it is dead and the individual soul simply ceases to exist.

Unlike their cultural neighbors farther West (Greeks) and to the East (Hindus), the Hebrews didn’t engage in speculation over the metaphysical status of the once-embodied soul. The metaphor of resurrection for the Hebrew, then, wasn’t just about getting a departed soul back into its former body. It was an event of new creation! God is starting again with a fresh word: Let there be!

This was good news for a community that had all but given up.

 

PSALM 15

O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

This can sound a lot like “works righteousness,” a term used by Protestants against what has been perceived as the merit system of Catholic Christianity. Even though the list of virtues is unarguably beyond the abilities of any of us – who can “live blamelessly,” do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart all the time? – are we being led to believe that moral performance is the key to eternal life?

Actually, this is yet another place where religion has reversed the proper order of cause and effect in the spiritual life. We must not assume that the psalmist is a booster for works righteousness (just as it is wrong to assume every Catholic is).

More likely, and if the writer of this particular psalm is David, then almost certainly the “good behaviors” that are listed and praised are to be understood as manifestations of a healthy communion with God, rather than as prescriptions for getting in God’s good company. Causal order in the spiritual life is always inner to outer, soul into body, purity of heart bearing fruit in a life of moral commitments.

We might say that the shift by which a person becomes aware that life must be lived from the inside-out is the critical step from religious duty to spiritual calling. It’s no longer about fitting in, defending the tradition, bowing to orthodoxy, or “pleasing God,” but is instead about living authentically, loving expansively, and allowing the gracious presence of Spirit to live through you.

MICAH 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

One of the dangers that religion has had an impossible time avoiding is the temptation to think that its sacred symbols, ritual performances, and doctrinal formulations somehow qualify its members for God’s special favor.

The elaborate superstructure of religious tradition, architecture, and orthodoxy can become so impressive as to eclipse the metaphysics of spirit altogether. Consequently the holy Mystery and gracious Presence at the heart of all things can get lost in a view obstructed by the self-glorification of a belief system.

As often as religion has fallen to this temptation of an inflated self-importance, there have thankfully arisen the clear lights of men and women who knew better. In the biblical narrative we can find Abraham stepping away from the polytheistic practices of his countrymen, Moses grinding up the golden calf idol of the impatient Israelites, Amos exposing the systemic violence and inhumanity in the government programs of his day, and later Jesus defending human dignity and demonstrating God’s love in the face of a religion too fixated on being right to be concerned with doing good.

The prophet Micah was another one of these clear lights. In his day (a rough contemporary of Amos in the southern nation of Judah) so much of religion had collapsed into becoming little more than blind ceremony. People had been made to believe that giving the right sacrifice, on the right day, and in the right way, earned them merit in God’s eyes.

                                                                                  

What are sacrifices – and, we might add, what are buildings, writings, rituals, sacred objects, appointed officials, liturgies, and even tradition itself – but the “mechanics” of spirituality?

None of these things are that mystical current of creative power and love we call Spirit. Their role is to serve as vehicles for Spirit, icons of Spirit, witnesses to Spirit, and even bearers of Spirit, but never its substitutes or permanent containers. The problem, of course, is that Spirit is essentially ineffable (beyond words) and our brain (at least our left brain) is incessantly verbal.

Add to that the ingredient of our egos – that nervous bundle of insecure, guilt-ridden, and control-fixated self-consciousness – and you have the recipe for fundamentalism. Soon enough, we have made God in our own image: self-righteous, judgmental, vengeful and violent.

As one who “speaks for” God (Gk. prophetes), Micah confronted the dying system of his religion with the fresh winds of spirituality. What does God want of you, but to work for equality, practice charity, and cultivate your relationship with Spirit? Notice how these virtues and disciplines fit together in an organic whole: our journey deeper into God produces loving-kindness in us, which seeks to build a safe, fair, and just society for all.