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Back to Basics: The Holy Spirit

September 29, 2019 Sermon
Back to Basics:
The Holy Spirit

First Scripture Reading:  Genesis 1:1-2
1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Second Scripture Reading:

John 14:15-17
15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

Acts 1:6-8
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

 

Message – “Back to Basics: The Holy Spirit”

In his letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul utilizes an amazing image to help make a point about Christ’s Universal Church.  The image is that of a human body. A human body has many parts, and the body needs ALL those parts doing their job in order for the body to function OPTIMALLY.  Which means no part of the body is more important than any other. And which means we should respect each part equally. And which means we, ourselves, should not desire to be a different part of the Church body than the part God has made us to be.

It’s a great metaphor.  I can remember standing before a youth group as a youth minister with a Mr. Potato Head toy – one of those toys that looks like a potato and has little holes into which you can insert all the appropriate appendages of the body wherever you want – I can remember showing a youth group a Mr. Potato Head toy that had nothing but ears:

  • No mouth
  • No eyes
  • No hands
  • No feet
  • No nose

…just ears, and asking how well a person configured like that Mr. Potato Head would function.  None of them thought that Mr. Potato Head would function optimally. They did mention he would probably be able to hear very well…but he wouldn’t be able to TELL anyone about what he heard or DO anything himself in response to what he heard.

Why am I telling you this?  It sounds more like the introduction to a sermon about the Church than it does a sermon about the Holy Spirit, doesn’t it?

Well, I want to take Paul’s metaphor for the Church and apply it to what WE, members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) specifically and mainline protestant congregations in general, have done with God.

We say the word “Trinity” (one God in three persons), even defend the concept of Trinity with a passion…but I wonder sometimes: have we by our emphasis in word and deed assembled in our faith a Godhead that includes more parts Father and Son and very little, if any, parts Holy Spirit?  If so – if we’ve de-emphasized Holy Spirit in proportion to the other persons of the Trinity…even just a little – have we built our faith upon an ever-so-slightly mis-conceived and off-balance understanding of God? Only you can answer that for yourself. When it comes to God – your studying about God, your relating with God, your spiritual disciplines, even the way you think and talk about God – when it comes to God, do you give priority to one or two parts of the Godhead?  I can, however, answer for the mainline Church as a whole. I’ve even found a term, a phrase, out there – called Holy Spirit Atheism – which is being used to describe this phenomenon in another corner of the universal Church. One author described the term, claiming it does NOT mean that Christians don’t believe the Holy Spirit to be divine but rather that “many Christians think and act as if the Holy Spirit did not exist” (Daniel Horan, Systematic Theology professor at Catholic Theological Union, in The National Catholic Reporter.)

If you do wonder if you’re even a little off-balance in your approach to the three persons of the Trinity, the last two Back To Basics sermons – the ones about God the Father and Jesus (aka Christ the Son) – in conjunction with today’s sermon – about the Holy Spirit – will hopefully give you the tools you need to get things in better balance.

Today, much like I’ve done the past two weeks when discussing God the Father and Jesus, I will help you explore and consider what you believe about certain fundamental aspects of the Holy Spirit and why what you believe matters in the regular course of your life.  

Aspect #1 – With God since the Beginning.  That’s right, the Holy Spirit is eternal, which…makes sense.  Every part or person of God must be eternal, right? And yet, so many Christians I talk to describe the Holy Spirit as a New Testament thing.  Which is why our first reading comes from the very FIRST two verses of the Bible.

Honestly, I don’t get translators sometimes.  For example, why do they translate this thing that swept over the face of the waters – the waters of the deep being what in these verses appear to have pre-existed God’s creating work – why do they translate this as “a wind from God”?  Y’all, the word is the Hebrew “ruach”, a word that can mean wind…and breath…and spirit. So we’ve got to use context clues. Hmm. Let me think. Before God started creating, what might have existed:

  • The wind of God?
  • The breath of God?
  • Or, the Spirit of God?

I hope you can see that this is a description of God’s Holy Spirit…regardless of how it’s translated.

Indeed, God’s Spirit is directly referenced so many times in the Old Testament, I lost count at around 100 before I decided to give up trying to count them all.

OK…why does this matter?  Theologically, it matters because it calls us to understand God’s Holy Spirit as having been active a LOT longer than most of us think…which means we can go back further than the New Testament if we want to study and understand this third person of the Trinity.

But it also matters for LIFE.  If you’re struggling to understand how God’s Spirit works in your life, if you’re struggling to find the kind of guidance you need, and references to God’s Holy Spirit from the New Testament just aren’t speaking to you, there are other stories to consult:

  • You can go back to the Exodus journey and learn about how God’s Holy Spirit called, guided, and empowered a great artisan, woodcrafter, and metalcrafter. 
  • You can turn to the book of Numbers to see how God’s Holy Spirit interacted with Moses and the Seventy Elders of Israel to help the nation through a difficult time.
  • You can turn to the book of Judges to see how God’s Spirit empowered and guided judges to turn God’s people away from disaster and back toward God.
  • You can find out how God’s Holy Spirit worked in the life of King David, the greatest king in Israel.

Y’all, the Old Testament, this huge narrative portion of the scriptures, it’s filled with stories of God’s Holy Spirit interacting with people.  Perhaps when you read the stories of those people, something about THEIR story will connect with YOUR story, and you will as a result become better acquainted with how and when and why God’s Holy Spirit interacts with YOU in life.

Aspect # 2 – Advocate, Helper, Comforter…Forever

In the NRSV translation we read a while ago, Jesus tells His followers He will send an Advocate, God’s Spirit, to be with them forever.

There’s soooooo much going on in these words; I’ll try to share a little.

For starters, the word that gets translated as “advocate” means a whole bunch of things:

  • The Spirit is an advocate and intercessor, in that God’s Spirit will support us, be on our side, root for us, that kind of thing.  Isn’t it amazing to think of a very part of the Godhead cheering for us, rooting for our cause? Even when we stumble and fall, imagine God’s Spirit as a cheerleader rallying us to goodness, even greatness.  It’s a powerful image.
  • The Spirit is also a comforter.  It’s one thing to have a cheerleader, but it’s another thing entirely to have a comforter: One who can be with us when we hurt, when we mourn;  One whose mere presence can help us get through. 
  • And the Spirit is a Helper.  This is maybe the most difficult and at the same time most powerful image of Holy Spirit.  It’s difficult because of the implied role reversal: aren’t WE supposed to be God’s helpers instead of the other way around?  And yet, God’s Spirit is described as a helper, providing the ASSISTANCE we need when we can’t get the job done on our own. And it’s the most powerful because, well, is there anything we CAN’T do when the Spirit that hovered over the deep waters at the beginning of creation and brought everything that is into being stands up for us and says, “I got this”?

So there’s quite a bit about this word that gets translated as “Advocate”, but there’s even more going on in the rest of the sentence:

  • You might have noticed that I used the words “we” and “us” to describe whom the Spirit advocates for, comforts, and helps.  That’s because these words from Jesus were NOT personal to the individual; Jesus was NOT speaking to the singular you. No. He was speaking to the plural you, to the totality of believer/followers, to what we call today “the Universal Church”.  In other words, the Spirit advocates, comforts, and helps us in our common endeavors of continuing Jesus’ ministry, not in pursuing the individual desires of our hearts. Even when Jesus said, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you”, Jesus was using the plural “you”; Jesus was talking about the Church.  This is IMPORTANT. If you’ve ever wondered why the Spirit doesn’t do what YOU want it to do, doesn’t speak to you about your individual concerns, maybe it has something to do with this COMMUNAL nature of God’s Holy Spirit.
  • Oh…and then there’s this word “forever.” You don’t have to worry about waking up one day and having God’s Holy Spirit decide to abandon the Church. Absolutely, positively, WILL NOT happen.  Which means, even when things look a little grim, even when growing numbers of people are choosing something other than Christianity, even when our culture seems to be descending into chaos and the ethic of selfishness seems to be taking control, DON’T WORRY.  You didn;t wake up into a world in which God’s Holy Spirit left or took a break. That didn’t happen. That won’t happen. It has been promised in advance!

Aspect #3 – The Spirit Guides Us Into Truth

This aspect of God’s Holy Spirit might not seem so obvious from our  scripture readings, but it’s evident elsewhere in scripture and connected to our reading from John’s gospel.  Just a few chapters later in John’s gospel, Jesus would continue with what began here, saying: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”  In the same breath, Jesus even suggests the Spirit can show us the future, things to come. As it turns out, it’s pretty much just what it means for the Holy Spirit to be “the Spirit of Truth”; this phrase in its original form is a way of saying God’s Spirit can reveal divine truth to us, can show us the best way in any situation.  Y’all, if you open yourself to God’s Spirit, you can truly come to know God’s will for you. And WE can do so as congregation.

Might this be important for living?  Wouldn’t it be nice to know how to choose what is best when you/we face a difficult decision?  God’s Holy Spirit can and will show you/us.

Which brings me to Aspect #4 – God’s Holy Spirit is Accessible ONLY to Those in God’s Kingdom.

As a pastor, this is the most difficult aspect of God’s Holy Spirit for me to explain in the course of my ministry.  When people come to me and ask me WHY they can’t seem to grasp what God wants them to do, why the Spirit feels inaccessible to them, I KNOW the answer, and yet I also know the answer won’t sit well with most Christians.  But Jesus told us: “the world cannot receive [God’s Holy Spirit], because it neither sees him nor knows him.”

I have to admit these words DO seem like a bit of a catch-22.  It seems as if you’ve got to know God’s Spirit to live into God’s kingdom, but you cannot receive God’s Spirit to know God’s Spirit unless you’re ALREADY living in God’s kingdom.  Well, maybe it’s not that complicated. Maybe all you need is to do everything you can do to let God rule in your life…even WITHOUT the Spirit’s guidance, and THEN you will receive the Spirit’s guidance, so it’s not a catch-22 after all.

Is this important to daily life?  Well, yes…if you want the Spirit guiding you to know the best paths in life.  If you don’t want the Spirit’s help, if you don’t want what’s best, I suppose these words won’t matter so much.

Aspect #5 – Power…for you, for us.

In Acts, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would provide power to followers of Jesus.  Granted, Jesus was speaking plurally, communally, rather than singularly and personally. However, elsewhere in the New Testament, we learn that this power conveys individually, as well.  God’s Holy Spirit provides real, demonstrable power to those who receive God’s Holy Spirit, power to do things well beyond the capability of people who live in the kingdom of the world, power to do things for the common good that will accomplish the goal Jesus provided in our reading from Acts 6, meaning power that equips us to be Jesus’ “witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”

I’ve known, I’ve seen, I’ve experienced this power in Jesus’ followers:

  • I’ve known people who could tell you, definitively, whether anyone or anything or even any suggestion was in accordance with God’s will or in accordance with some other will..and they were always right;
  • I’ve known people who could lay their hands upon an incurably sick person and pray…and that incurably sick person – incurable by the world’s standards – would be healed;
  • I’ve known people who had no education beyond maybe a year or two of high school, who could barely read, but who KNEW, just knew, the kinds of things that can be learned only through years of dedicated post-graduate theological education;
  • I’ve known people who see needs where others see nothing out of the ordinary.  I’m not talking about seeing a person on the side of the road who everyone else passes by.  No, I’m talking about seeing pain that’s buried deep in people’s souls that no one else even knows exists…and then going up to those hurting souls and beginning a healing dialog;
  • I’ve known people who make everyone around them BETTER.  Some of these folks are just so willing and eager to provide assistance, even when they appear so tired that anyone else would just retreat from the world for a while and recharge…but these folks HELP instead.  And some of these folks are gifted to ENCOURAGE, to speak words and perform deeds that strengthen others to use their gifts for God’s will when those others seemingly have no strength left.

Does it matter to know that people have gifts, have power from the Spirit?  Does it matter to know that YOU have gifts? It matters…if you do what you’re supposed to do with this knowledge.  Everything in life is easier, better – for ALL of us – when we’re all living, acting, doing, even speaking out of our giftedness.  

For example – at an individual level, when I talk to people who I sense are living out of their giftedness, they usually tell me things like:

  • I never get tired when I’m doing this;
  • I feel like I’m doing what I was MADE to do;
  • I can’t even understand why people find life to be a struggle, when for me life is such a joy; 

And at a communal level, when I see a congregation’s leadership starting to get tired and exhausted, I know what’s really going on.  It means some of those leaders, and so many others in the congregation, are not utilizing their gifts, not acting out of their giftedness.  Often, it means some of those leaders, and others in the congregation, are trying to act out of someone ELSE’S giftedness instead of their own.  But that’s not the way it works. The Spirit gives us each a power or two or three. And it doesn’t work so well when we try to use someone else’s gift instead of our own.

(PAUSE)

Which brings me all the way back to where we started today: Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, and Paul’s image of a body: a human body has many parts, and the body needs ALL those parts doing their job in order for the body to function OPTIMALLY.  

My friends, when we focus too much of our attention on any person of the Godhead, the Trinity, and too little on any other, it’s not God who will end up performing less than optimally; it’s us.  It’s us as individuals, and it’s us in community. It’s time for us to give due attention to God’s Holy Spirit:

  • Who has been with us since the beginning and will be with us forever;
  • Who Advocates for us, Comforts Us, Helps us, and Guides us into Truth;
  • Who Gives us power to do things that seem impossible, impossibly AMAZING, according to the ways and standards of the kingdom of the world;
  • And who can only be accessed when we CHOOSE to live in God’s kingdom and receive it;

Amen.