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Saturday, February 18, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: Who Is the Holy Spirit?

Transfiguration B

Romans 8:9-17

9But 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.

10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If 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. 12So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

John 16:12-15

12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13When 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. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

How many times have you been converted? I suspect that most of us have been converted at least several times: I know I certainly have. When we talk about conversion in church, of course, we tend to mean our conversion from not following Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior to doing so. For some of us that happens in one moment, in a dramatic and life-reversing choice and/or event. For others of us, especially those of us who have never known anything but life in the church, that can be a long process, like the change from childhood to adulthood. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said that conversions were both instantaneous and gradual. What’s important is not the speed, but the fruit of that change.

There are some other conversions. Some of you who are older have had conversions about the issue of race relations. We’ve had conversions about the role of women in the culture. We’ve had conversions about whom we include in all kinds of ways. There are political conversions, cultural conversions, sports conversions, even culinary conversions: as a child I hated liver, and now I love it, especially when Doris Parsley cooks it.

I know today is Girl Scout Sunday and last week was Boy Scout Sunday, but I hope it applies to these young women for me to say that three of my early changes of life and heart had to do with Scouting. I have always been an idealistic romantic, and the ideals of Scouting caught fire in me when I was very young and still burn brightly. When I was elected to membership in the Order of the Arrow – a fraternity of honor campers – I took with absolute seriousness the Order’s commitment to cheerful service to others. OA was my first experience with mission work, and my father, who wanted me to be a pilot, never understood why I abandoned flying lessons while in high school because I found going to camp every other weekend doing service projects more fulfilling. My second conversion in Scouting was during Senior Patrol Leader training, when I became a believer in what Scouting calls Patrol Method – which trains young men to operate as a patrol and not as individuals, and equips them to lead the troop, rather than have the adults lead the troop. My third Scouting conversion came from attending the World Jamboree, then the Swedish National Jamboree, and then the U.S. National Jamboree in three successive years. I saw there a vision of a worldwide brotherhood united by common ideals and experiences. It was a short step from those conversions to my conversion to Christ and to ministry, and I am absolutely convinced that God was working in me through Boy Scouting to bring me to faith.

Scouts talk about the Spirit of Scouting­ -- a set of ideals and experiences that transform life. So, during my senior year in high school, when I became active in a very dynamic church youth group and went with them on a retreat, language about how the Holy Spirit fills and transforms a life that has been surrendered to Christ sounded very familiar to me. When I bowed my head in the middle of a cheesy movie and gave my life to Christ, there were no angel choirs, fireworks, or dramatic emotions, but over the next few months I felt my interests and priorities and commitments slowly changing. Something was changing in me, from the inside out. And that continues to churn, more than forty years later.

As I said at the beginning of the service, it’s revealing that we have so few hymns in our Hymnal about the Holy Spirit. Mainline Christians have well-developed understandings – for the most part – about God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ, but we tend to be weak in our understanding of the Holy Spirit. Historically, that’s where Pentecostalism comes from – it was a movement in the late 1800’s that sought to give equal attention to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. All generalizations are false, but Roman Catholics tend to emphasize the work of God the Father as Creator and Law-Giver; Protestants tend to emphasize the work of Christ the Savior and Lord; and Pentecostals tend to emphasize the transforming work and experience of the Holy Spirit in the believer. This is why Catholics, Protestants, and Pentecostals need each other: all the members of the Body need each other, just as God is One, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, from Genesis to Revelation, is the power of God at work in the Creation. In the very beginning, the Spirit Wind of God is moving across the waters, creating all that is. God breathes – the Greek and Hebrew words for Spirit, breath, and wind are all the same – life into human beings. The Spirit Wind of God blows back the waters of the Red Sea so the Hebrews can escape slavery. The Spirit descends upon the prophets so they can speak God’s Word of judgment and of forgiveness. The Spirit descend upon Jesus at baptism, claiming him; the Spirit Wind blows upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost giving them power to proclaim the glory of God. And in Revelation the Spirit flows like water from the throne of God, making all things new. It is absolutely essential to understand that the Holy Spirit is not a New Testament phenomenon – the Spirit is with God from before the beginning.

The idea of the Trinity – that God is One, and is three Persons called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is a hard thing to grasp. As I have re-read some ancient texts about the Trinity this week, I’ve also been reading a new biography of Albert Einstein. That combination has been providential (pun intended). Einstein had to do some hard mathematics to get to the General Theory of Relativity, just as the early church fathers had to do some hard theology to define how we understand God. But both Relativity and the Trinity say the same thing – that reality is like a dance in which everything influences everything else. Einstein said that time influences space, and space influences time. Neither one is first – they dance with each other. In exactly the same way, in God creation and salvation and transforming presence all dance with each other. When we experience forgiveness by the indwelling and transforming Spirit of God, we are a new Creation. And when we are re-created, we forgive beyond ourselves and share the Holy Spirit to transform the world.

That, in part, is what St. Paul was saying in the first lesson today – that the Holy Spirit enables us to die to ourselves and live to God. When we do that, we find ourselves transformed from fearful slaves into joyful children of God. That new life enables us even to suffer for the sake of the gospel, because we know that God will always win in the end. One of the great mistakes Christians make about the Holy Spirit is to believe that the Holy Spirit is only active in committed Christians. If that were so, how would anyone become a Christian? One of the hymns in our Hymnal says I sought the Lord, and afterwards I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me. The reason the vast majority of Christians in the world and in history practice infant baptism is because we believe that God is working all around us and even in us long before we ever know it or cooperate with it, to bring us to life in Christ. Then, once we surrender to God, we can move with the Spirit, instead of against it.

Finally, see how, in our second lesson, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit always acts in union with the Creator/Father and with the Redeemer/Son. In the first Letter of John, this becomes more clear: there are all kinds of spirits at work in the universe, and not everything spiritual is good or Godly. There are spirits that tell people to kill their loved ones. There are spirits that tell people to wreak vengeance upon the world. There are spirits that tell people that they don’t need anyone else, that they are their own gods, that they can hole up in their own self-contained universe and ignore any truth external to themselves. By this you will know the Spirit of God, 1 John 4:2-3 says: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the anti-Christ. Anything that claims to be spiritual but is not consistent with the flesh and blood concerns and teaching and life and death of Jesus of Nazareth is not from God. Any so-called Spirit that does not connect us with the hungry and the poor and the lonely and the lost; any spirit that does not draw us from our isolation into community; any spirit that does not compel us to pour out our lives in works of justice and mercy is the spirit of anti-Christ, no matter how exalted its name or loud its voice. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit all dance with each other, and invite us into their waltz.

My conversion to the Spirit of Scouting filled me and prepared my for my conversion to the Spirit of Jesus, who continues to disturb me and move me and comfort me and upset me every day. Who is the Holy Spirit? He is the movement of God -- Creator, Savior, Healer, Judge, Comforter, Disturber – from the beginning to the end, within and without, calling and equipping you to dance with Christ, and with all his people.

Shall we dance?

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