The Spirit in Uncertain Times
This sermon draws in a few places on the ideas in a book by L. William Countryman: Calling on the Spirit in Unsettling Times.
[Jesus said to Nicodemus]: Do not be surprised when I say: You must be born from above. The wind blows where it pleases; you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Let me tell you about Philip. He was one of the first deacons in the early church, chosen to oversee practical tasks – such as the food roster for the widows in the community. After the stoning of Stephen, and the following persecution, the Christian Jews dispersed out from Jerusalem. Philip ended up in a Samaritan region. You'll remember from the story of the woman at the well, that Samaritans and Jews so hated one another that they were not meant to drink from the same cup. But, in this town Philip preached the good news and healed many people, and they gladly received the message of Christ. Then, the Spirit guides Philip onto the road between Jerusalem and Gaza, where he has an encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch – a man from a place and a culture even more foreign to Philip than Samaria. Philip leads this man into an understanding of the gospel and the Eunuch is baptised. Then the Spirit snatches Philip away.
How dramatically Philip's life changes – from pastoral care worker in Jerusalem, to miracle working preacher and itinerant evangelist. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit – life opens out into surprising change and encounter.
What it is crucial for us to realise when we read about these beginnings of the church is that these men and women had no textbook, and no instructions. They did not have any written form of the Christian message, no creeds, no gospels, no doctrine – just some stories and sayings of Jesus passed on from the Twelve and others who were there. Some of them may have seen Jesus in his earthly ministry, but most wouldn't have. They did not have any of the New Testament letters. When Philip is doing his thing among the Samaritans, Saul/Paul was still a church-persecuting Pharisee. He hadn't written any of the things that the church relies on so heavily today.
What these first followers did have was the story of their ancestors, from Abraham onwards, and the big narratives of Exodus, Wilderness, Land, Temple, Exile and Return, they had their psalms and wisdom teachings, and the challenge and promises of the prophets. And most importantly, they had their individual and collective experience of having been Born from Above. They had tuned into the frequency of God's Spirit, they were putting roots down into living water, they encountered the Risen One among them in their community life, and especially in the breaking of the bread.
This same Spirit was teaching them to read their foundational story in a new way. That's why the Jewish leaders were so outraged, why Stephen was stoned, why the persecution began.
Their story still had the same shape – liberation and saving justice. But now, the story was all oriented around a person. The commitment to the promised land, to the temple, to the law, to the practice of sacrifices and festivals – all these things were giving way to a new experience of God's utter nearness through the Human One – Jesus – and through the gifts and leading of the Spirit.
This group of early Christians completely reinterpreted their received inheritance in the light of the lived experience of Christ present with them through the Spirit. And some of the things they were being asked to do as a result were deeply uncomfortable for them. There was nothing in Philip's scriptural or cultural inheritance – as he understood it – that made it okay to go and hang out with Samaritans and Ethiopian Eunuchs. Even Jesus in his humanity had said he'd only come for the lost sheep of Israel and told the Twelve to do likewise: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10.6)
Of course with our hindsight we can see that the seeds for a wider understanding of the good news of Christ are present in the OT scriptures. But these very early disciples didn't have hindsight. What they did have was a life and faith-changing experience of the Holy Spirit, which made them able to be 'feathers on the breath of God' rather than monuments to a fixed understanding of the past.
Every now and then, throughout history, the church forgets this starting place and wedges its way into a cul-de-sac. It starts rigidly adhering to ways of being and believing that are no longer Good News. In our time, due to the many and varied shapes of Christianity throughout the world, there are a number of different stuck places. Some of the church is stuck in a sterile traditionalism. Some of it is stuck in terrible power dynamics that have led to abuses. Some of it is stuck in irrelevance, or in cynicism, or trendiness, or in chasing after wealth, extraordinary signs, and ever larger buildings. Some of the church is stuck in a self-righteous moralism, and a narrow biblicism. All of them claim the truth, and the signature of divine approval on their particular husk of Christianity. But the gospel of the liberator Christ has gone AWOL from many of them. Happily, I believe that the grace and mercy of God has not gone completely from the church in any of these manifestations. But, we are in a time where some things need to change – at least in the West.
This is the backdrop against which our particular little manifestation of the church – Cityside – is also experiencing change- in leadership, but also in our self-conception, and our desire to wrestle a bit more consciously with what kind of community we want to be. It's a bit like trying to swap people from one life raft to another in the middle of a white water river. The current is swirling around us, and our safe vessel has people standing up and sitting down and wobbling around.
In these kinds of times I think we all need to breathe. Deep breaths of God's Spirit, who is after all, the Breath who animates our physical bodies every moment, and the Breath who holds us all together in unity, and the Breath who flows through our community and the wider church.
And then, when we've breathed deeply for a while, we need to remember something crucial. That the church is God's church. That all we need to do is feel the wind at our back, and let it blow us where God wills. And to hang on tight as things we thought we knew or understood get torn down, and a new shape emerges. Just as the very first church didn't have a textbook, we don't have a blueprint for the practices and core images that will release the good news of Christ for us and others in this century. We have a lot more than they did – 2000 odd years of people giving it a go in different ways that we can learn from (otherwise known as 'tradition'), and the whole New Testament for a start. But the main thing we need to depend on, in a way that those first Christians were absolutely forced to depend on, is the living Spirit, who will guide us, if we allow her to.
To receive this guidance, there are some things we have to be aware of.
- Living by the Spirit will always lead us into new ground, where familiar landmarks are gone, and we don't always recognise the territory.
The Scriptures resonate with the renewing actions of God. Just as things look hopeless, lost, dreary or futile, a word of change blossoms. Just a few examples...
I Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore if any one is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Revelation 21:1-5. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away... for the former things have passed away. . . . Behold, I make all things new.”
Ushering in the new is what God's Spirit does. However, there is much within ourselves, and many within our churches, who are happier with how things used to be. In fact, every time the Spirit leads the Church into a new place there are those who will speak against it in the name of Christ, because they do not recognise the change as authentic to what they have known.
The Church, as well as being the Body of Christ, is also a fallible human institution. We get stuff wrong all the time. And one of the things that institutions do, alongside conserving what is good, is getting in the way of what is new.
What we need to understand about God's Spirit is that she is absolutely free. The Holy Spirit is not bound by the institution, and is able to work beyond it and outside it. If we, within the church, want to be part of the new thing that God is doing in our time, then we also need to be free: to evaluate our sacred cows, and to question again our picture of what the church ought to be and look like.
Two of the great gifts that we hold in the church are our gathered worship life, and our holy scriptures, the Bible. These gifts continue to be precious, but we must never mistake the gift for the Giver. When we are in relationship with God, and open to the Spirit, then the practices of the community and our interpretation of Scripture fall into their proper, secondary, place in the scheme of things. We are then open to reinterpretation and re-imagination as the Spirit goes about her work of transformation. We need to be wary of the idolatry that elevates these guides to the level of Divinity. The Spirit has not given us one way of church life, or one theology as a package for all time – we need continually to be in the habit of questioning and re-visiting what we thought we knew.
This, I think, is what Jesus meant when he talked about sewing a new patch on an old garment, or putting new wine into old wineskins. (Matthew 9) When our own hearts and minds are being transformed, and when our wider culture and society is shifting, then we need new light on our sacred texts, and new ways of gathering together, to give expression to this change.
So that's the first thing – the new work of the Spirit often asks for new work on our part in renewing our theology and our corporate spirituality.
- When we are guided by the Spirit, lived experience comes before theological judgements. We need to learn to judge things by their fruit.
Once, when Jesus was warning his disciples about false teachers, he gave them this guideline to help them discern the work of the Spirit from words that did not lead to life. "You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.…” (Matthew 7)
The thing about fruit is, it doesn't grow overnight. It takes time for the blossom to form, for the fruit to bud and ripen, before you can taste and see whether it is good or bad, whether the fruit is consistent with the spoken message, or actually creating harm.
When we are following the guidance of the Spirit, there are times when we will follow an invitation to act on a nudge or a hunch, watch what happens, and then engage in theological reflection on the outcomes. I think this is what Jesus encouraged in sending out the twelve, and the 72, on short excursions to proclaim the good news and heal and cast out evil. This is what happened in the early church when the Holy Spirit just 'descended' on people – Gentiles!! - and the church had to respond by shifting its understanding of who God favoured and how God works.
In this time, my feeling is that 'It is written' needs to give way to 'This is what we are seeing on the ground.' It doesn't mean we don't do theology, or that we don't allow the Bible to guide our practice. But it means sometimes the act of risky compassion or new practice will come first, and the evaluation will come second.
But what is good fruit? Excellent question.
- Good fruit looks like Jesus, who was the image of the Invisible God. The Spirit always points to Jesus the Christ. Any theology or practice that does not draw us closer to Jesus, or offer us a life-giving image of Jesus, is probably not born of the Spirit. Having said that, the image that emerges might be very different from one we're familiar with, and the meanings of his life and death and teaching might be radically renewed by our praxis. But still, whatever we come to recognise as good news will need to be able to be traced back to him, and to encounter with his risen Presence.
- Good fruit looks like liberty, healing, deliverance and people being set free from the shackles of personal sin and systemic evil. This is what God has been doing from the beginning. It's the meaning of the Exodus event, the intention of the Law and sacrificial system, and ultimately the meaning of the Christ event. The new creation is both free and holy.
- Good fruit is communities transformed to greater love, trust, and unity, rather than division or suspicion.
- Good fruit will be recognised by the littlest and the least more swiftly than the privileged and the powerful.
So, that's the second thing – the new work of the Spirit can only be discerned by tasting the fruit of experience, not by working it all out in advance in accordance with the experience of the past.
- We need to learn how to practice discernment.
If you've been paying attention so far, and you've been around the Church for more than five minutes you are no doubt thinking 'but for heaven's sake, everybody claims the Spirit for their own brand of theology and church practice, everyone can find a spiritual sounding reason to support their particular hobbyhorse. This is all so subjective. Where is the objective common ground!?'
Yes. It's difficult isn't it? And often those who feel most apt to claim the Holy Spirit anointing their own feelings and opinions are those who preach a gospel that seems a million miles away from how we might understand the liberating work of Christ.
I think the first thing to acknowledge is that subjectivity is okay. It has always been with us. It is not recent, but it has probably been disguised or ignored more effectively in previous eras. If anything, that's what post-modernism gifted to us, an appreciation of everyone's bias, including our own.
But having said that, learning to see in the dark is a well worn path. It's just not been well publicised by those people who want to tell you that their version of the truth is the only one. The Spirit will indeed lead us into truth, but that truth might emerge from some difficult inner wrestling. We are more likely to make progress as we pray with the Scriptures, in the presence of the Christ, than if we try to use them to prove doctrine or as a moral blueprint.
There is common ground – as I've already said, the Spirit first and foremost reveals Jesus to us, and will bring out emphases of his life and identity that are most needed in our particular moment. The Spirit also illuminates the Scriptures, and guides us into new interpretations for new times.
But also, one of the tasks of Christian maturity is to practice discernment. That word is a difficult one for some of us. But it's a word that we will have to re-claim if we wish to see and hear together with our inner eyes and ears, which is where we experience the call and guidance of the Risen One. It is extremely hard to sift between what is our culture, what are the various inner voices we have within us, what ideas we're clinging on to because they make us safe or give us power, and what is actually the still, small voice of God. But I believe that is what we are asked to do, in community. Be wary of anyone who claims mastery in this area – it's a slippery place to live and we are all prone to self-deception. Anyone who doesn't acknowledge this is probably furthest from true discernment. Having said that, discernment of spirits is one of the spiritual gifts that was recognised by the early church, and given their lack of external supports to guide the life of the church at that time, you can see why that might have been a crucial gift for their circumstances. Maybe it is also a crucial gift for ours – though we might need to give it a different name.
Here are just a few brief indicators of what I would expect to see in a discerning church:
- Mind and heart are integrated – there is space for thinking and feeling, and also that 'knowing' that is deeper than both.
- Prayer is comfortable with silence and listening, not just speaking.
- We are not embarrassed to talk about those key moments in our life together when we feel a lifting of energy, deep spiritual connection, or a sense of God with us.
- We are able to listen to each other's stories without defensiveness.
- We trust and value each other's spiritual integrity, their own relationship with God.
- We are familiar with the Scriptures, most particularly the symbols, characters, and patterns of images that recur through the whole of Scripture, not just our favourite verses.
- We have learned to recognise God's peace and leading in our own lives, and are willing to name that.
- We put people ahead of convictions or ideas, recognising in humility our capacity to get things wrong.
- We desire the gifts of the Spirit, learn to name and understand them for our cultural context, and call them forth in each other, allowing them to guide our community.
So that's the third point – the new work of the Spirit is discerned inwardly, in the heart, by a community can recognise the Christ in themselves and each other.
I realise that there is too much here to absorb in one sitting. If any of this has resonated for you, then I invite you to reflect on these things some more over the coming weeks, and as always feel free to talk to me to clarify or question what I'm saying. I'd like to leave us with a short piece of a poem by T.S. Eliot:
“In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks
Where the bricks are fallen
We will build with new stone
Where the beams are rotten
We will build with new timbers
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each.”
T. S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock