Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Descending Like A Dove

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 1:29-42:

Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism from Matthew, at the end of which we are told that the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon him.  This week we hear a similar account, except that this time it is John the Baptist who is reportedly telling the story to us, before moving into telling us John’s version of the calling of the first disciples.  Next week we move back into Matthew’s account with Jesus calling the first disciples there, and so I am going to hold off on talking about the calling until next week, and instead we are going to look at the Holy Spirit, because that is one of the questions I hear a lot is who and what is the Holy Spirit.

Now for those of you who grew up using the King James Bible, or liturgies based on the King James, you probably know of the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost.  That is still the language we sing as part of the doxology each week after the offering is received (praise father son and Holy Ghost).  The term was changed for several reasons.  The first is that our understanding of ghost is a little different from that of the 17th century, and we don’t want people either thinking of something scary or even something nice, like Caspar the friendly Holy Ghost.  The second reason is that spirit is sort of a closer approximation to the Greek and the Hebrew terms that it is being used.

One of the reasons we don’t understand the Holy Spirit is because the church has not always been very clear about it.  In the Nicene Creed, which was the church’s formalization of Trinitarian theology, in which we say that there is only one God, but God has three parts, it originally said “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”   That is what is still contained in the Apostle’s Creed, but that doesn’t really give us any information.  Later at the Council of Constantinople in 381, this was added to so that it included, “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the father and the son, who with the father and son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.”  In the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church, we state that we believe in “The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.”  Those are a little fuller statement, but they have more to do with the Spirit’s relation in the trinity rather than about what the Spirit does or how we experience it.

Although the Gospel of John says that the Spirit comes after Jesus has left the earth, the presence of the Spirit can be found throughout the scriptures.  In the first creation story, we are told that the wind, or breath, or spirit of God swept across the waters.  In the second creation story, and yes there are two very different stories of the creation, God breathes life into Adam.  We are told that Joshua, Gideon, Deborah, Samson, Saul, and David were all said to have received the spirit of God, and David’s last words even begin, “the Spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.” (1 Sam 23:2)  Of course that is what the prophets also tell us, that they have received the Spirit of God, that the words they speak are not their own but God’s.  (Isaiah, Spirit of the Lord is upon me) The Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures, along with participating in creation, leads and guides God’s people.

Before I begin writing each sermon, and before each worship service, I ask for God to fill me with the Spirit, to guide and lead me so that what I proclaim might be what God needs for us to hear.  Sometimes this is successful and sometimes it’s not. There are times when I can clearly feel like I am being inspired by the Spirit in what I am doing.  There are times in which I want to say one thing, but I am instead being drawn to go in another direction.  When I let go of where I want to go, and instead allow that other force do the work, those have been some of my best sermons.  After one of those messages a member of my congregation asked me for a copy so she could pass it on to her children.  Normally that’s not a problem since I am a manuscript preacher, but I told her that I couldn’t  gave her a full text because I had gone off the script, to which she said, “I could tell you were off script because it was really good.”        If you’ve ever been reading scripture, or thinking about something else, and have suddenly come to an understanding that you had never seen or thought of before, that could be the movement of the Holy Spirit.  When we pray each week for guidance in leading us and showing us what God is calling us to do and to be, this is this aspect of the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Because the New Testament is written in Greek, rather than Hebrew, the word they used for Spirit is Neuma.  Because Greek and Hebrew are both gendered languages, that is the words have genders assigned to them, Neuma is masculine.  But in Hebrew, Ruach is feminine, and so there has been some arguments about how to refer to the Spirit.  Some use exclusively masculine language and call the Spirit he, others use non-gendered and simply refer to the Spirit as it, but traditionally the Spirit has been referred to as she.  The Spirit has taken the feminine.  I know that will probably be shocking to some of you, and we’ll actually explore this a little more in a few weeks when we get into prayer, but let me give you another analogy.  French is another language that is gendered, and so a waste basket is feminine, but if you were to write a sentence would you refer to a garbage can as she or as it?  That’s right, as it, and so just because a word takes one gender over another does not mean that the object itself is that gender.  So you will hear the Holy Spirit referred to using male, female and gender neutral language, and all of them are appropriate and yet inappropriate at the same time.

You will also see or hear many different metaphors used for the Holy Spirit.  The two most prevalent are the dove and fire.  At Jesus’ baptism we are told that the Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon him.  The dove symbolizes the peace of the Spirit.  At Pentecost, when the disciples were filled with the spirit and began speaking in tongues, it was represented not only as wind (Ruach, Neuma), but also as tongues of fire.  In the cross and flame, which is the United Methodist logo, the flame represents the Holy Spirit.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, often used this metaphor and talked about setting himself on fire with the holy Spirit in order to spread the message.  The spirit has also been shown as water, especially in relation to the water of baptism, remembering that we are reborn by water and the spirit.  The Spirit is also sometimes represented with a cloud and light.  At the transfiguration, the cloud descends on Jesus on the mountaintop. (Moses and Elijah)

So the Holy Spirit is found throughout both testaments, but the church still had to identify all the roles she played in people’s lives.  As was already mentioned, one of those roles is that of mediator, of giving wisdom and the words of God.  But the Spirit also beckons.  It calls us to be in relationship with God long before we are ever aware of such a need.  Within Methodism this is called prevenient grace, the grace that goes before.  It is the movement of the Spirit which makes us aware of God’s desire to be in relationship.  In addition, the Spirit beckons us in other ways as well.  If you have ever had an experience in which you thought that you needed to call or see someone, or that you needed to be somewhere, and at the end you thought “that was a God thing,” that was the power of the Holy Spirit moving in our lives. A colleague recounted a time early in his ministry when he was working in his office and he kept getting this feeling that he needed to go see one of his parishioners who was a shut-in.  He kept putting it aside, but finally decided he needed to follow through, and when he got to the house he knocked on the door, and heard the woman say “Come in David the door’s unlocked.”  There was no way she could have seen him come because she was in her bedroom, and he hadn’t called before going over, so his first question to her was how she knew it was him, and she said “Because I’ve been praying for you to come for three days.”  Of course the reason she wanted him is even better.  She told him that the light bulb in her bedroom had burned out, and he was the youngest person she knew who could replace it, and so that is why she had been praying.  Now if you need me, please just call, because I will be honest I am not always good at hearing the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life.  So the Spirit beckons.

The next thing the Spirit does is to convict us of our need for God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives, leading us to justification.  If you’ve ever felt sometime that the word of God was being driven into your heart that is this movement of the Spirit.  If you’ve ever been in worship, or someplace else, and felt as if everything was directed just to you and that you were hearing exactly what you needed to hear, that is the power of the Spirit.  Now hopefully in every worship service we will feel the movement of the Spirit.  Of course it doesn’t always happen, but that is one of the goals, to feel God’s presence and to identify it as the Spirit.

The Spirit transforms us.  One of the things that baptism does is to invite the Holy Spirit into our lives.  After we baptize someone we lay hands on them and pray that for the power of the Holy Spirit to enter into their lives and to live with them throughout their days, and when we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives then the Spirit moves us to sanctification, that is to living each day more and more like Christ.  The Holy Spirit transforms us and allows us to do and to be things that we would not be able to do by ourselves.  In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul says that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. (Gal. 5:22-23)  Those are certainly things we should be striving for, or at least I hope we are, but we receive them not through our actions but through the work of the Holy Spirit.  In addition, in 1 Corinthians, Romans and Ephesians, Paul highlights other gifts of the spirit, which are not exhaustive, but include wisdom and knowledge, healing, prophecy, the speaking of tongues and its interpretation, ministering, teaching, giving, leading, and compassion (Rom 12, 1 cor 12, eph 4).  But what is crucial to understand is that these gifts are not to us for individual use, but for the good of the community

The Spirit also comforts us.  She acts as our advocate, consoles us, encourages us, and uplifts us.  One of the words John uses in reference to the work of the Spirit is paraclete, which literally means “called to one’s side.”  If you remember the old poem called footprints in the sand, in which someone has a dream in which they see footprints in the sand representing their lives and there are two sets of prints, one the persons and the other God’s, but the notice that in the most difficult times that there is only one set of prints, and they wonder why.  And what is the response?  Because it was in the most difficult times that God carried us.  Well that is the Holy Spirit, it is the paraclete the one who is called to our side who walks with us every day, who comforts us and guides us, who leads us and carries us.  Again, when we pray for God’s guidance it is the Holy Spirit who says “this is the way to go, this is God’s will for your life.”

And the Spirit equips us to be able to do that.  God has a will and a plan for our lives, but we are not called to do or to be anything that God does not give us the gifts and graces to do.  As was just mentioned, the Holy Spirit gives us the fruits of the spirit in order to accomplish the tasks that are set for us.  We are not told “Go do this” and then left completely alone.  Instead when we accept God’s will in our lives then we will begin to notice that what we have been called to do we can accomplish not because we are amazing individuals, although we certainly are, but instead because God through the Holy Spirit has equipped us to carry out those tasks.  Now deciding what the fruits that we have been given are can be difficult, and we will take some time later in our time together to address how we come to understand what God has called us to do, because the Holy Spirit equips us to do God’s will in the World.

Finally, the Holy Spirit empowers us.  When Jesus ascends into heaven he tells the disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” (Acts 2:8).  The word for power here is dynamus, from which we get the word dynamic and dynamite.  It is a power that makes a difference, not just in our lives but in the world, it is a power which cannot be contained or controlled and must be shared, or exploded as the case me be, which Jesus says we do by being witnesses to the ends of the earth.

When we talk about God in our lives, of feeling God’s presence, and being directed God, or being comforted by God, this is through the power of the Holy Spirit.  But, outside of Pentecostal and charismatic churches, most of us don’t want to be doused in the Holy Spirit, this is the time in which we say just a sprinkling will be fine, we don’t want to be immersed in the Spirit,  because quite frankly it scares us, it leaves us feeling a little bit out of control.  We’ve seen some of the things that happen among Pentecostals, who proclaim the power of the Holy Spirit, and we think it’s a little weird and we think, well if that is what it means to have the Holy Spirit then I think I’ll do without, or maybe just take a side portion don’t give me the whole thing, because I like being in control of my life and having a say.

But to accept the power, the dynamus, of the Holy Spirit does not mean that we have to become Pentecostal.  John Wesley would tell us that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not the goal of our life with God, as many Pentecostals would say, but is instead merely the beginning.  Religion cannot be merely a thing that takes place in our heads, because that is an empty religion, it must be experienced and lived out, which is what the Pentecostal movement was seeking.  They wanted an experience of the Holy Spirit in their lives, but a religion that is only experience is empty as well.  Jesus tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with what?  All of our hearts, and all of our souls and all of our strength and all of our minds.  That really was part of the genius of John Wesley and the foundation of the Methodist movement was to be able to combine the heart and the head, the experiential and the intellectual.  That is our heritage.  We have gone astray at times but we are called to understand religion intellectually and at the same time to be able to immerse ourselves in the Holy Spirit who mediates, beckons, convicts, transforms, comforts, guides and equips and empowers us, to be able to set ourselves on fire so that others might come to watch us burn.  The Holy Spirit is the manifestation of God in our lives, and through that power we come to know Christ, to accept Christ, to live like Christ and to be empowered to proclaim Christ to the ends of the earth.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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