Tag: Holy Spirit

The Helping Spirit of God – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday — Romans 8

Romans 8:22-27 New Revised Standard Version

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

****************

                When
you think of the Holy Spirit, what comes to mind? Do you think about the Spirit who comes as a mighty wind on Pentecost empowering and inspiring a community that had recently lost its leader to carry out a new mission in the world? (Acts 2:1-21).  Do you think of John’s Paraclete, who comes alongside us and serves as our advocate (John 14)? What about the Spirit who helps us in our weakness? Might all of these references serve as descriptors of the Holy Spirit, the one whom Jesus promised to send to empower the church in its ministry of proclamation (in word and deed)? (Acts1:1-11). So, who is the Holy Spirit of God?

                Here in Romans 8, Paul speaks of the Spirit in cosmic terms. The world is groaning as if in labor pains, ready to give birth to something new. That new thing includes our adoption as children of God and the redemption of our bodies, but it’s not just individual followers of Jesus, it’s the cosmos itself that is looking forward to the day of its redemption, that begins with the redemption of the children of God. In other words, Paul speaks of looking forward to the dawn of the new heaven and new earth. It is the Holy Spirit who facilitates all of this. Therefore, those who are in Christ are the first fruits of this new creation.

                Since this is a Pentecost reading the focus is on the Holy Spirit. Paul isn’t looking back to Pentecost Sunday. Instead, he is looking forward to the moment when God’s cosmic purpose will be revealed through the Spirit. While Paul has an eschatological vision in mind, he knows he’s writing to people who are concerned about their present state of suffering. The new creation might be in the process of breaking into this realm, but it’s not fully present. So, suffering remains part of their reality. It remains part of our reality as seen in the ongoing challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. While suffering may be part of our reality, the reading begins in verse 18, with Paul telling the Roman church that he doesn’t consider the present sufferings worth comparing to the glory that is about to be revealed to them. This statement is a reminder that Paul’s theology is eschatologically oriented, so his word of encouragement suggests that the present suffering is temporary, while the glory to come is permanent. That is why our groanings serve as a prelude to our adoption and the redemption of our bodies. All of this is rooted in the work of the Spirit who intercedes on our behalf. In this, there is a similarity to John’s words about the Paraclete, our Advocate.  It should be noted that all of this is something to be hoped for. That which is hoped for is not seen yet. Thus, we still endure suffering until that time when we will experience that adoption as children of God and the redemption of our bodies. The good news, however, is that the Holy Spirit is present with us speaking on our behalf.

                The Holy Spirit, as Paul suggests here comes alongside us to assist us in our times of weakness. He couches this conversation in a word about the nature of prayer. Although the NRSV suggests that Paul’s audience might not know how to pray, his focus isn’t on the method of prayer (how). Rather it is a question of content.  Paul writes that when we do not know what to pray, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf “with sighs too deep for words.” For some in the Christian community, this is understood to refer to glossolalia (speaking in tongues). In other words, this would involve a Spirit-inspired prayer language. More likely this is a matter of the Spirit connecting with our inner thoughts and feelings, our groans. Remember that the intercession of the Spirit in verse 26 follows upon Paul’s discussion of creation’s groanings, as well as our own groanings as we await in the Spirit, as the first fruits of the Spirit, our adoption, which is the redemption of our bodies.

                So when it comes to praying in the Spirit, the intent is that in times of suffering we may not have the right words to say to God. We may not know how to express our concerns and our needs. All we can do is groan, and the Spirit translates those groans into a word to God. George Montague suggests that this idea that the Spirit serves as an intercessor was new because “the ruah of the Lord in the Old Testament was never sufficiently personalized or personified to be a separately operating entity, and certainly not toward God as in the case here.” Prophets interceded (Ex. 32:11; Amos 7:2) as did angels (Tob. 12:12). In addition, here in Romans 8, “the heavenly intercession is attributed equally to Christ (8:34) and to the Spirit (here)” [Montague, The Holy Spirit, p. 211].       

                When we read a passage like this, which speaks of the Spirit, many of us, rightly so in my view, read it through a trinitarian lens. In saying this, I also need to note that I don’t believe Paul had a fully developed trinitarian theology. I believe the foundations are there, but it would take a few centuries before theologians, like Basil of Caesarea, began to pay significant attention to the Holy Spirit. The formula is there early on as seen in Matthew 28, but the definition would take time to develop. Nevertheless, if we read it through a trinitarian lens it’s not as if the Spirit is a separate entity acting on its own. Rather the process of intercession and redemption all takes place within God’s being. A trinitarian reading of the passage also suggests that the transcendent God is present within us through the indwelling of the Spirit. It is as the Spirit is present within us that our groans are translated to God’s understanding of the creation.

                The message here is that as wait for what is hoped for, redemption and adoption, we know that we are not alone. The Spirit of God is with us and within us.  This is part of the Pentecost message. It is this presence that strengthens us for the journey that empowers our witness to the world. So, we pray, Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me” [Daniel Iverson, Chalice Hymnal, 259]

*********

For more on the Holy Spirit and life in the Spirit see my Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, (Energion, 2013).

Which Baptism? — A Lectionary Reflection for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Acts 19)

Acts 19:1-7 New Revised Standard Version

 

 

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— 7 altogether there were about twelve of them.

********

            As Christmas gives way to Epiphany, the moment when in the liturgical year we celebrate the coming of the Magi to offer gifts to Emmanuel, we begin to add to the story of Jesus. When we come to the first Sunday following Epiphany we’re invited to celebrate the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. On this particular Sunday, which we call Baptism of Jesus Sunday, we have the opportunity to reflect on our baptisms and reaffirm them. As we look back on our baptisms, we can acknowledge that some of us were baptized in infancy. Others of us were baptized at a later moment, usually upon profession of faith. Some were immersed and others had water sprinkled on them. Then there are those, like me, who have been baptized a couple of times, just to cover the bases.   

            In my lectionary reflections, I’ve been focusing on the second lectionary reading, which normally draws from one of the epistles/letters. However, on occasion the stipulated reading dips into the Book of Acts. On this occasion, the reading comes from Acts 19. This reading is paired with the reading from the Gospel of Mark, which takes us to the Jordan, where we find John the Baptist preaching and baptizing. It appears that he is drawing quite a crowd. These people, according to Mark have come to confess their sins and begin life anew. The baptism that John proclaimed spoke of repentance in preparation for the coming of one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Yes, while he baptized with water the one who followed him would baptize with the Holy Spirit. It was after this, according to Mark, that Jesus came and was baptized by John. When he came out of the water, Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased’” (Mk. 1:4-11).

            The reading from Acts 19 also speaks of baptism, and both the baptism of John with water and baptism with the Holy Spirit come into play. The passage begins by telling us that Apollos, who had been in Ephesus, where he was further instructed by Priscilla and Aquilla in the way of Jesus, was now in Corinth (Acts 18:24-28). Paul, who had been in Corinth was traveling to Ephesus. When he arrived in Ephesus, Paul encountered persons whom Luke calls “disciples.” Paul asks these “disciples” if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. This question suggests that like Apollos, they were believers in Jesus. However, they answered Paul by saying “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” This exchange, and what follows, raises an important question. Who are these “disciples”? What is the nature of their relationship with Jesus? They claim that, like Apollos, they had received the baptism of John. Paul responds by telling them that while John baptized with water for repentance, Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit (as John had foretold). This led them to be baptized by Paul in the name of Jesus.

            This is where the reading from Mark, and its parallel in Luke 3:15-18, come into play. Paul draws on the story told by both Mark and Luke that while John’s baptism focused on repentance, the baptism of Jesus brought the Holy Spirit. What is interesting here is that, according to Luke, Paul baptized this group of twelve believers in the name of Jesus, something that is not recorded of Apollos, who also had only the baptism of John. There is no evidence that Jesus rebaptized disciples of John who followed him. So, why this group?   

            What is interesting here is that after Paul baptized this group of twelve disciples in the name of Jesus, he laid his laid hands on them, at which point the Holy Spirit came upon the group. This conferral of the Holy Spirit was confirmed by the act of speaking in tongues and prophesying—much like what happened with the household of Cornelius (Acts 10), though in the case of Cornelius the Holy Spirit fell upon them before baptism was offered (and didn’t require laying on of hands). In this case, the laying on of hands suggests a separate ritual from baptism, even though in Acts 2, the gift of the Holy Spirit was linked to baptism. So, we’re left with a wide variety of ways in which the Holy Spirit comes upon these early disciples in the Book of Acts. Sometimes, as with Acts 2, it is connected with baptism. Sometimes the Holy Spirit falls on people even before they can confess faith and be baptized (Acts 10). Then there is the time when baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit are two separate events. First came the baptism of a group of Samaritans who embrace the message preached by Philip, which is followed by the conferral of the Holy Spirit at the hands of Peter and John (Acts 8). That case has served as a foundation for the rite of Confirmation, which in some traditions is administered by bishops, while baptism is an act that priests and deacons can perform. All of this suggests that the Spirit acts as the Spirit decides! That should give us pause before we become too “dogmatic” about the method and timing of baptism.

            In this encounter, the emphasis is less on baptism and more on the Holy Spirit. The act of being baptized in water is important, even foundational, but it is the gift of the Holy Spirit that truly transforms. Whether the Spirit comes upon a person before, during, or after being baptized, the important point is that to be in Christ is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Now, that doesn’t mean one must speak in tongues or prophesy. In I Corinthians 12 and 14, Paul lists tongues and prophesy as possible gifts, but insists that they are not the only gifts of the Spirit nor are they necessarily the most important gifts (for more on this topic see my book Unfettered Spirit). A passage like this can be useful in initiating a conversation about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Here in Acts 19 Paul reiterates the promise of John that with Jesus comes the infilling of the Holy Spirit. If we follow this into Paul’s own letters, we gain insight into what that means. There are the gifts, but more importantly, there is the unity of the body of Christ, for as Paul writes to the Corinthian church: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ, for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor.12:12-13).   

Image attribution:  Scott, Lorenzo. Baptism of Jesus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56877 [retrieved January 1, 2021]. Original source: https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/baptism-jesus-33953.

Transformed, Gifted, and Called to Service – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12A (Romans 12)

Romans 12:1-8 New Revised Standard Version
 
12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
***********

                My friends, if you are followers of Jesus, present your bodies to God as living sacrifices, which is your spiritual worship. Be transformed as well by the renewal of your minds, so you can discern what is good, acceptable, and perfect. This call to offer our bodies and allow for our minds to be renewed includes the word “therefore.” In using this word, Paul seems to be telling us that what is to come is rooted in what he had written previously about God’s grace and righteousness. What is to come is rooted in Paul’s word of assurance to Gentile Christians that in Christ they get to share in the blessings that come with adoption into the family of God. So, now offer yourself to God. Make yourself useful. Think properly of yourself, because in God’s realm there’s no room for narcissism. So, think correctly of yourself and don’t be conformed to the things of this world, for you are numbered among those who have been transformed by the renewing of your minds.

                The way I read the call to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, is that Paul is reminding us that God wants our bodies as well as our minds. There might even be a bit of a warning, reminding these followers of Jesus that they might face persecution and even martyrdom as a result of their decision to follow Jesus. So, what does mean for us, living in the 21st century? How do we offer our bodies to God in a way that is an act of spiritual worship? Whatever the case, for Paul there is no distinction between the body and the Spirit, even as he reminds them and us not to be conformed to this world. As we consider Paul’s message here, it is wise to remember that he not only speaks to individuals, which is the common way for moderns to read texts like this but also to communities. Thus, as Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes, the word Paul offers here applies to the whole community, which “needs to discern and to enact together the will of God” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 206].

                In considering Sarah Lancaster’s word here about the community discerning together the will of God, I’m reminded of the title of David Gushee’s important book about the inclusion of members of the LGBTQ community in our congregations. He deliberately chose the title Changing Our Mind to reflect the corporate nature of this transformative moment.  So, he writes that the reason why he uses the singular “mind” rather than the plural “minds,” “because I believe the question that matters is whether the collective mind of the Church universal can and ought to change. The issue is not whether some Christians as individuals change their minds, but whether the Church universal will or should change its mind collectively. And that takes disciplined reflection together, in community, with all hands on deck making their best contribution” [Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind: Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians with Response to Critics,  Read the Spirit Books, (Kindle Locations 473-476)].

                If Paul is writing not just to individuals, but also to communities as a whole, we can consider together what it means to belong in a community that Paul defines in terms of a body (as he does in 1 Corinthians 12 as well). In this community, there is no room for the ego because God assigns us to our duties through gifts. Know this, that in the body not every member has the same function. To say that doesn’t mean that some functions are more important than others. It simply means that we all have different gifts that enable us to fulfill our roles in the community.

                Paul’s discussion of gifts is much briefer here than in 1 Corinthians 12, but it is sufficient for its purpose. Paul reminds us that in the community we all need each other. As a pastor, I should know this. As the author of a book on spiritual gifts, I should be even more self-aware. However, I too cannot only seem myself as indispensable but act as if everything depends on me. To embrace this message of spiritual gifts is to think “with sober judgment.”

                What is true of congregations, and our place in them, but could this be extended to the church as a whole? Might we look at our diversity in terms of worship and governance and even theology as expressions of how the body is gifted and called? Therefore, we needn’t compete with each other. As one who has embraced an ecumenical vision, this is a welcome idea, for as Rochelle Stackhouse suggests “To apply the words of Paul throughout this passage to each of us n our roles in the body of Christ brings us to a sobering reflection on the dysfunctional body that may impede the enactment of God’s will in the world today. Reflecting on ecumenism within Paul’s framework of body metaphor brings hope and possibility to what too often seems an enterprise fraught with struggle.” [Feasting on the Word, 378].

                Returning to our relationships within a congregation, we can also take from this a reminder that in Paul’s mind to be a follower of Jesus is not a solo activity. We’re supposed to do this thing called Christianity together. I know it’s not easy. Congregations are made up of imperfect human beings. If we look around at the gathered community, to use a different metaphor, from a Christmas TV show, the church may be similar to the “Island of Misfit Toys.” And yet, in God’s grace and wisdom, this unique collection of individuals is incorporated into the one body of Christ, which is empowered by the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12, in a lengthier conversation about spiritual gifts, Paul reminds the community that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Gifts of the Spirit are not intended for individual use. They have their place in the community, which is called to bring good news to the world.

                So, let’s use the gifts that God has given to the church: if “prophecy, in proportion to faith;  ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching;  the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness” (Rom 12:6-8). If we include the references in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, we can expand the list. And in my estimation, and as I’ve tried to demonstrate in my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, even this expanded list doesn’t cover all the possibilities. All of this begins in God’s grace, but for it to fully express itself, we will need to offer ourselves up to God as a living sacrifice. To conclude, to gain a fuller understanding of these gifts and their role (our roles) in the body, I will recommend reading Unfettered Spirit.

               

 

Living in the Spirit – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5A (Romans 8)

Romans 8:6-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 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, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 

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.

************

                As I write this reflection, the world is caught up in a deadly pandemic that threatens to take the lives of perhaps millions of people. It is a moment when fear is rampant, and for good reason. Most faith communities have suspended in-person services and are looking at a wide assortment of alternatives so that they can keep in touch with each other. (Even if faith communities might have exemptions from some of these regulations, it is unwise to flout them!) In this moment in time, how do we speak of flesh and Spirit, death and life? This is especially true for those of us who are called to preach. How do we address Paul’s message about flesh and Spirit, death and life when death and the prospects of death seem to be very real?

                According to Paul, setting the mind on the flesh is death, while setting the mind on the Spirit is life. By flesh, I don’t believe Paul means the body (he’s not a gnostic). Instead, as C.K. Barrett notes, flesh “in this context means a mind from which God is excluded” [Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 158].  When Paul speaks of setting the mind on the flesh, it would probably be best to think in terms of a mindset. In this case, to have a fleshly mindset is to live a life that is focused on pleasing one’s self at the expense of living for God. Might we call this spiritual narcissism? As Sarah Heaner Lancaster suggests this is a question of allegiance. Thus, “there is no neutrality. One either lives for God or not, and by not living for God one displays loyalty to another dominion.” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 134]. In doing so, we settle for lesser things, which ultimately leads to death. Right now, I think we might consider this a warning against taking unwise actions that could lead to our deaths or the deaths of others because we don’t think the warnings about Covid-19 apply to us.

                As we ponder the message of the passage and Paul’s emphasis on the Spirit, it is important to remember that he has a very strong pneumatology. He envisions the church living by the Spirit, making use of the gifts of the Spirit (charismata) in such a way that the body of Christ is built up. We’ve not reached that point in the letter, but in chapter 12, Paul speaks of spiritual gifts and their use in the community: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function,  so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom. 12:4-6a). Thus, if we are to live by the Spirit, then we will bring into the community the gifts given to us by the Spirit. We do this not to necessarily benefit ourselves, but so that the body of Christ can be built up until we reach the fulness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). This is what it means to live in the Spirit—follow the way of love (1 Cor. 13).

Paul is known to offer dualisms in his presentations of the gospel, as do other New Testament writers (especially John). When we consider this contrast between flesh and Spirit, death and life, we might think in terms of the old and new age, a contrast that is true to Paul’s theology. As he writes in 2 Corinthians 5, the old age has passed away, and the new age has broken through into the world. Like what we have here in Romans 8, Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians 5, has an eschatological orientation. Paul is clearly envisioning a major transition point in history that is centered in the cross and resurrection.

                While the lectionary reading begins in verse 6 of Romans 8, we should keep in mind the opening words of the chapter, which opens with the declaration that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:1-2). It is this promise of forgiveness that sets the tone for this word concerning the relationship between flesh and spirit. The Spirit sets us free from the grasp of the flesh.  The path forward has been set, but the choice is ours as to how we engage with it.

                The focus here is, of course, living in the Spirit. To be in Christ is to live in the Spirit. It is to live in a state of transformation marked by the resurrection. The body may be dead, but the Spirit lives. Perhaps this is where we should focus. After all the Resurrection of Jesus is an eschatological event that inaugurates the new age of the Spirit. We may still live an embodied life, but our destiny is defined by the Spirit and not by the flesh. The promise here is that Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us.

                The reality is that death will come to our mortal bodies. That is a given. But there is the promise of the resurrection. We’re not yet at Easter, and right now, as I write, in-person Easter celebrations remain in doubt. Nevertheless, the promise of resurrection is there, giving us hope even in times of distress.

 

Life-Giving Breath of God – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday

Life-Giving Breath of God – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday

Ezekiel 37:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

37 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.”

 

***************
                When it comes to the church, the future can look bleak. At least in Europe and North America the church is retreating in the face of an ever more secular world. Christendom appears to be dead. While Christianity retains vestiges of the old ways, it has lost much of its cultural/social influence. There are those who cling to the stories of past glory and try to worm their way into positions of influence. It happens on the right and on the left. Where once the church was the religious face of empire, it has been replaced by other figures. Therefore, a more appropriate image for the church’s place in society might be exile. Thus, the words of prophets like Ezekiel can resonate, speaking words of hope to us in these challenging times.
The prophet Ezekiel is known for his imagery, and none of his images are as eye-catching as the valley dry bones. This image is an animator’s dream fulfillment. But what message does it convey? What did Ezekiel’s original audience take from it, and what does it offer to us as we gather on Pentecost Sunday? What word does it deliver concerning the life-giving presence of God, which blows into the community on Pentecost Sunday bringing life where once death seems to reign?
Pentecost Sunday is understood by many in the church to be the birthday celebration of the church. We wear red and perhaps make worship a little livelier. There’s no place on this day for sad faces. It’s a day to party, because the Spirit descends upon us, empowering our witness to the risen Christ, who now sits at the right hand of the Father. Life is restored, where death had reigned.
The story of Pentecost appears in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. It is a well-worn text that offers insight and encouragement. But what does Ezekiel offer us? What word does it speak to us? Perhaps the word it speaks is that there is life in the midst of exile. The word from Ezekiel challenges triumphalist visions, while providing us with a foundation to hear the promise of the life-giving Spirit that moves through the community empowering our witness.
The Pentecost story begins some ten days after the ascension of Jesus. The disciples (150 of them) are gathered in what we know as the “the upper room.” They appear to be praying, as they had been instructed by Jesus (Acts 1). Jesus had promised to send the Spirit, all they had to do was wait. When the Spirit came upon them, they would experience renewal and new life, and would be empowered to preach the good news to the world, moving from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. All they had to do was wait. Finally, on the Day of Pentecost (a major Jewish festival), the Spirit fell upon the disciples. They began to preach. Revival broke out. People responded and were baptized (some 3000 according to Acts). Thus, the church is born, and their mission begins, one that extends to us (Acts 2).
                The first reading for Pentecost Sunday comes from Ezekiel 37 (unless you choose to read Acts 2 in this spot), which speaks to a people living in exile. They are discouraged, wondering if they will ever return home. In other words, they have experienced death. God gives to Ezekiel a word to share with the people of Judah in the form of a vision. He is taken in the Spirit to a valley filled with dry bones. This is Israel. It is a nation of dead, bleached bones. Would the nation be restored? Or would they live out their lives in exile, a people without a country. God says to Ezekiel—prophesy to these bones. Tell them to let God’s breathe enter them so that they might be restored to life. So, Ezekiel did as he was told. He called for the four winds to come and breathe life into the bones. The winds came, and the breath of the Spirit filled the bones. They began to come together. Life returned to the bones. To those who doubt that life can be restored to Israel, Ezekiel is directed to say to the people: “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.”
                What word do we hear from Ezekiel on this Day of Pentecost? Is there a word of hope here for the church that is, it would seem, experiencing exile? Christendom has died, at least in Europe and North America. Churches are experiencing difficult times, with aging congregations, declining attendance, and financial challenges. There is a sense of hopelessness creeping through the church. We see it expressed in a variety of ways, including grabs for power or sense of resignation. So, what work of the Spirit should we expect in our age? Are we that valley of dry bones? Is there a wind of the Spirit present that will fill us with the breath of God?
                The church may never again reach the levels of power it once wielded, but that does not mean that there is no hope. The days when the church defined the public square is over, but God has not been banished. We still have voices to proclaim the glory of God. We can call upon the four winds, inviting them to fill the valley of dry bones, bringing to life communities that can embody and declare the glory of God before the world. As John McClure puts it: “The story of dry bones takes place at the intersection of human weakness and divine power. It reminds us that God’s power is made great in our weakness, and that the power of the church wields is not the power of the sword, but the power of God’s Spirit working through the Word proclaimed” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year B, p. 255].

                The church is called to proclaim and embody the Gospel. We do this in a variety of ways, but ultimately this is about the Spirit, who empowers and guides us in this work of God. We are participants in the proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed, but ultimately this isn’t about us. It’s about the Spirit. Yes, Ezekiel played a role. He spoke the words. He called for the winds. But it was the Spirit and not Ezekiel that gave life to the bones. It is the Spirit who gave life to the church on Pentecost and on every day of every year. With that we go forth with hope.

Elkan, Benno, 1877-1960. Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55841 [retrieved May 14, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Collantes,_Francisco_-_The_Vision_of_Ezekiel_-_1630.jpg.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

 

Boundary-Breaking Spirit – Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6B (Acts 10)

Acts 10:44-48  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

***********

                The full story of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, and his household, unfolds over two chapters of the book of Acts. We have been given just a snippet of that story by the Revised Common Lectionary, but this snippet is powerful. It is a reminder that the one who pours out the Spirit on the church is the initiator of mission, not us. It is also a reminder that the Spirit of God is in the business of breaking through barriers and boundaries, whether religious, cultural, or social. Standing in the center of the story that lies before us is the Spirit of God, who fills a Gentile household, giving to each of them something that had been given to Peter and his community on the day of Pentecost. That would be the gifting of tongues, which in this case becomes a sign of inclusion. Where there was once a barrier separating Jew and Gentile, the Spirit broke through and set the stage for what was to come.

Continue reading “Boundary-Breaking Spirit – Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6B (Acts 10)”