Tag: Holy 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.

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                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.”

 

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                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.

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                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.

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