Archive for January, 2004

The Spirit of Proclamation

Sunday, January 25th, 2004
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Luke 4:14-21

Proclamation is not the job only of preachers. You might get that impression from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he details many different jobs in the Church, like different members of the one Body of Christ. Preaching is one job among others. Actually, Paul said that God appointed a number of ranked offices, beginning with apostles, then prophets, then teachers, then deeds of power, gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, and finally various kinds of tongues. The first three, the offices of apostles, prophets, and teachers might all count as proclamation in related senses.

Lest we preachers take too much comfort from this high ranking of our supposed spiritual gifts, we should remember that Paul goes on immediately to say that there still is a more excellent way, outranking apostles and the rest, namely the way of love. The spiritual gift of love is far more important for the Church than preaching, miracle working, healing, and the rest. Love is a spiritual gift desired for all Christians, in fact the distinguishing spiritual gift of Christianity itself. That the Church, the Body of Christ, has kept its offices running more or less efficiently throughout history, while so often failing miserably at love, is a bitter sadness. With regard to preaching itself, although not every Christian is supposed to have a pulpit, every Christian does proclaim faith, or lack of it, in everything said and done. I’ll come back to this.

The text from Nehemiah describes heavy-handed proclamation. Ezra the scribe and Nehemiah the governor have brought the Israelite leaders back to Jerusalem after the exile, sorted the families and rebuilt much of the Temple that had been destroyed. Then at the request of the people, Ezra read to them from his version of the Torah, from early morning until noon on the first day of the seventh month after their return. He explained the Torah to them—it was in Hebrew and they spoke Aramaic—and the leaders told the people to rejoice, for the day of the first reading of the Torah with the people back in Jerusalem is holy to God. What was proclaimed was not only, or most importantly, the words of the Torah, but the fact of God’s victory in bringing the people of Israel back to their promised land where they had the opportunity, denied them in exile, to live according to their law. Christian proclamation is something like that: despite appearances to the contrary, God is present in saving ways and all we need to do is to live out salvation. Every town and homestead is a Christian Jerusalem.

Of our texts, Psalm 19 has the over-the-top proclamation: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” Day and night are like heavenly choruses that antiphonally proclaim God’s handiwork. If only we could hear the music of the spheres!

The text on which I wish to focus, however, is that from Luke in which Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah. What Luke says he reads, actually, is not exactly like anything in Isaiah as we have it; it is closest to Isaiah 61:1-2 or perhaps 58:6. Jesus’ proclamation has two moments. First he reads the scripture, which is a witness to God’s word to Israel. Then he preaches a sermon about it.

In his text, Isaiah claims that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. Why? The reason is that he has been anointed “to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the lord’s favor.” This is to say, if someone has been so anointed to do these things, the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, or her. We might be inclined to think that the causation goes the other way—if the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, then you are anointed to proclaim these things. Without the Spirit, you can stay home. But Jesus quotes Isaiah, accurately, to the effect that having the job is what brings the Spirit.

The job itself, of course, is to proclaim a reversal of terrible conditions: the despair of the poor, the incarceration of captives, the loss of sight, the bondage of oppression, a people forgotten by God. Isaiah wrote that he himself had been anointed to proclaim these things, and therefore was blessed with the Spirit of the Lord. Jesus cited this text to pass these points on into the Christian Gospel, which in turn everywhere and always proclaims hope for the poor, freedom for captives, recovery of sight, freedom for the oppressed, and a people beloved by God. Jesus chose this passage from Isaiah to make this point. He reinforced the point in many contexts of his preaching, for instance in the Beatitudes, or in saying that the last will be first and the first last. Jesus’ intent was not to say only that Isaiah in ancient times had been anointed to proclaim these things. Rather, those things are worth proclaiming whenever and by whomever.

Jesus’ sermon after the reading was dynamite and it got him in trouble, as next week’s lectionary Gospel will relate. The whole sermon was one sentence: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Period. That is, Jesus himself is anointed to proclaim the reversal of terrible conditions, and because of that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. Whereas it was pious to say that Isaiah had the Spirit of the Lord, it was blasphemous for Jesus to claim it for himself. The novelty in his sermon was not in the content of the proclamation; after all, that was at least as old as Isaiah. The sermon was radical because it claimed the Spirit of the Lord for Jesus.

Now Jesus did not say that only he was anointed to bring good news. In fact, every Christian is anointed, by virtue of baptism, to proclaim these and the other points of the Gospel and, in so proclaiming, the Spirit of the Lord will come. This has astonishing meaning for us today. It is not enough to look back on Jesus and quote him as he quotes Isaiah. To be disciples of Jesus we need to call down the Spirit of the Lord on us by our proclamation, among other works.

The Spirit of the Lord so often seems to be sleeping in our time. If we are a consumerist society, and we are, it is because we think we have to buy something to get the satisfaction that the Spirit of the Lord should bring. If we have a global economy that rewards successful greed despite the fact that the poor are made poorer by that, and we do, it is because our conscience has been made deaf to the Spirit’s proclamation. If we tolerate a government that lies to justify its greed and murderous exercise of power, and is supported mainly by people who admire its machismo, and we do, it is because the spirit of the world has blocked out the Spirit of the Lord. If we fill our leisure hours with entertainments that are vacuous of any
critical edge of prophetic thinking, and that cover over our consumer madness, greed and false patriotism, and we do, it is because we want to drown out that prophetic voice that we have known in our heart since Isaiah’s time.

Our land is filled with the poor, while we roll back taxes that might help them. The stalags of Guantanamo are filled with captives who defended their country against our invasion, and prisons across America are filled with people whose hopelessness sustains a culture of crime, while we tout our political righteousness and legal due process. Across our country and around the world are legions who are blind, sick with AIDS and other devastations, victims of natural disasters and the follies of ethnic and factional wars, while we complain about the high price of health care and spend billions to go to war. Millions of people are oppressed by traditions that do not respect them, by governments that steal from them, by poverty that blights their soul. Millions are oppressed because of their race, their gender, their age, or their sexual orientation. Millions are oppressed by a global economy that makes the poor poorer and rewards the rich who are best able to compete. In the face of this oppression we take false pride in democratic freedom that often means little more than freedom for avarice. Surely the Spirit of the Lord is sleeping!

Perhaps I exaggerate. That’s common among preachers. Many people do have powerful emotional experiences of the Spirit, or of some spirit that feels religious. Twenty years ago those things I have been complaining about would have been attributed to rampant secularism. But it has been religion that has been rampant, here as well as in those parts of the world that seem most troubled. Emotional religion truly vents psychic pressure and gives singular discipline and direction to people in the midst of confusion, both of which are good psychological functions. Sometimes whatever vents psychic pressure and disciplines chaotic life, however, is taken for true religion. Not every spirit that fires enthusiasm is the Spirit of the Lord. Terrorists are filled with some spirit. Many seemingly spirit-filled Christians are complacent about the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed and still think they have the Lord’s favor. Without the careful and conscientious discernment of spirits required for distinguishing the Holy Spirit from counterfeits, religion filled with spiritual emotion is dangerous. Jesus’ point was that the Spirit comes because of special behavior, in this case preaching good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor. One very important test among many for the discernment of spirits is whether they witness to God’s justice as the prophets laid it out.

Now Jesus’ sermon on Isaiah was not the whole of his message nor is it the whole of the Christian gospel. Perhaps even more important is the message of the way of love as the right way to live in the Kingdom of God, as the proper context for speaking and doing justice. Moreover, the Christian gospel is not only Jesus’ personal message but a way of life lived in orientation to Jesus. Christians follow out the Way of Jesus and this includes faith in his person as well as his message.

Nevertheless a certain priority resides in the proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor, namely that it is proclamation about and for others, not just ourselves. Although we should proclaim the whole of the Church’s life and work, too easily that can degenerate into concern for only the Church itself. The Church can be itself only when it lightens up on its own concerns and empties itself for the poor, the captives, the blind, and oppressed. Seek the proclamation that brings the Spirit of the Lord: that determines whether the spirit at hand is the Lord’s Spirit.

The poor, the prisoners, the afflicted, and the oppressed cry out for the Spirit of the Lord. My friends, by Christ’s mercy I beg you to awaken to the Holy Spirit. Do that by proclaiming God’s justice and the rest of the gospel. Preaching is not one job among others, as Paul’s Corinthians text might suggest. To be baptized is to be anointed to speak out for justice and the whole gospel. Speak plainly to your friends. Inform yourself so that you speak with wisdom. The real issues of justice are very complex, and general symbols such as the poor, the captives, the blind and oppressed go only so far. A Great Awakening of the Spirit must be filled with intelligence and light. Reject any form of religion that does not demand the utmost of critical questioning and inquiry. Anti-intellectualism is a sure sign of a spirit other than the Lord’s. Three weeks ago I preached about the witness to Jesus beginning with the Three Wise Men. A Great Awakening of Spirit is not only a matter of understanding and speaking. It is also true enthusiasm, a joy in the experience of God that moves us to moral improvement, holy community, and a rush to the ecstasy of being filled with God. Two weeks ago I preached on Jesus’ baptism, the one where he brings the Spirit and fire. A Great Awakening of Spirit is not only understanding, speaking, and enthusiasm. It is also a celebration of God’s work, indeed victory, in the Christian life. In John’s account, the first thing Jesus did after he had gathered the core of his disciples was to take them to the wedding party at Cana. Of course it took the disciples a long time to learn that discipleship is a party, because it sure didn’t seem like that. Jesus was crucified and most of them were martyred. But the wedding at Cana prefigured the marriage of God and the people and celebrated what those who are awake in the Spirit know, that God brings us home, already has us at home, where the crown of thorns is really a victor’s laurel wreath. A Great Awakening to the Spirit is not a simple thing, is it?

Nevertheless I call you to it. Perhaps the next step for you personally is not a profession of faith, or an ecstatic religious experience, or the joy of being taken up into God’s work. Perhaps the next step is proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor. Speak it, and your actions will follow. Speak it as an anointed proclaimer, and the Spirit of the Lord will be upon you. Seize the Spirit and let it glow. Make your faith something serious, and you will find yourself accompanied by others who also are seeking and finding the Spirit, for that will be God working within us all. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

A New Awakening

Sunday, January 18th, 2004
Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

The undergraduates in Chapel today probably like John’s story of the wedding at Cana better than did the very sober Christians of my youth. What do we learn from the story? First and most obviously, Jesus liked to party. The names of the married couple are not mentioned, and we can assume from the story that they are friends of Jesus’ mother rather than Jesus himself. Cana is nine miles from Jesus’ home, and that is a long walk if you don’t like parties for strangers for their own sake. We know from the story that Mary too liked to party, because she was the one who had been told by the steward that the wine had run out. We learn from the story that Jesus didn’t want to use any special powers but did so because his mother insisted, sort of a caricature of the relation between a Jewish mother and her son. Not only were Mary and Jesus not teetotalers but we don’t see much of the discipline of moderation. If we suppose that the host had ordered and served the wine he expected to be sufficient for the party, then Mary and Jesus must have been having a good time, which they wanted to continue, for them to want to make more. Now if you calculate six water jars holding 20 to 30 gallons apiece, filled to the brim, that’s between 120 and 180 gallons of top quality wine from Jesus the Good Vintner. It’s a good thing they had a nine-mile walk back home. Psalm 104 says that among the great things of creation God made wine to gladden the human heart, and this must have been a glad party to end all parties, even if the married couple seem peripheral to the story.

Nevertheless, the sober Christians of my youth were somewhat uncomfortable with this story, and with good reason. Whereas wine might have been the preferred beverage in rural Galilee because they didn’t have much clean drinking water, we know the damage drinking can do when drivers drink, when excessive drinking ruins health, when inappropriate drinking ruins work, projects, friendships, and families; we know alcoholism to be a serious disease, something not at all understood in Jesus’ time. It might be strange to hear me say in this instance that you should not do what Jesus did but rather what the University says: don’t drink if you are underage and drink in careful moderation if you are old enough; know also that a little alcohol might lead you to do things you wouldn’t do when sober and for which you nevertheless are responsible. So why then is this over-the-top party story in the Bible, especially at such a pivotal place in John’s Gospel?

The clue is in the first four words of the first sentence: “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.” The third day from what? It was the third day from the calling of the core disciples, whom Jesus then brought to the wedding. John’s Gospel has a different account of the calling of the disciples from Matthew, Mark, and Luke who describe a seaside calling of fishermen. In John’s account, Jesus went to be baptized by John the Baptist at Bethany, near Jerusalem. There he met two disciples of John the Baptist whom the Baptist sent to get acquainted with Jesus. One of those was likely John, the brother of James, by repute the eventual author of John’s Gospel, and traditionally identified with the Beloved Disciple. The other was Andrew, Peter’s brother. The two disciples of John the Baptist were so impressed with Jesus that Andrew found his brother Peter, who apparently also had been involved with the baptizing phenomenon, and brought him to Jesus. The next day Jesus left the Jerusalem area for Galilee and found Philip, who was a neighbor of Andrew and Peter. Philip then found Nathaniel who confessed Jesus to be the Son of God and the King of Israel.

It was three days after Philip brought Nathaniel that Jesus took his new band of disciples to the wedding at Cana. John does not record that Jesus took them first to a mountaintop for an exhilarating new experience, as happened later at the Transfiguration. He did not take them off to pray. He did not preach or lecture to them, or take them to a communal meal. The first thing he did with the disciples, according to John, was to take them to a wedding party and make sure they enjoyed it.

John’s Gospel differs from the others in being the last written and having the heaviest theological interpretation. Although John is likely to be the most accurate historically, it is written from the standpoint of people who already know the end of the story. The end of the story, as John tells it, is that Jesus has triumphed over the world, that he made a place for his disciples with God, that he himself is with God and has sent the Holy Spirit to be with his followers forever. The point of John’s Gospel is that God has triumphed in Christ and that God’s Holy Spirit is with the people to see them through. So God’s victory should be celebrated right off with a party. Although the disciples could not understand it at the time, Jesus initiated their ministry with a celebration of God’s victory. That the party celebrates a wedding, with an unnamed bridal party, prefigures or symbolizes the marriage between God and the God’s people. The real bridal party is God and Israel, God and the disciples, God and the Church, indeed God and the whole world including the Gentiles.

The story of the wedding in Cana is the first of a series of increasingly complex and startling miracles that Jesus performs in John’s narrative, ending with the raising of Lazarus from the dead and finally Jesus’ own resurrection. All along the way people who do not understand Jesus slowly come to do so. Remember poor Nicodemus who thought he had to return to the womb to be born again in the Spirit? The closing scene of John’s Gospel is the fish breakfast Jesus cooked for his disciples after they thought he was dead. He healed the spirit of poor Peter who had denied him three times by getting him to say three times that he loved Jesus. He told Peter to feed those whom Jesus loved. Peter asked Jesus about Jesus’ special relation with the Beloved Disciple, and Jesus responded to the effect that it was none of Peter’s business because Jesus’ relation with each person is different, a poignant lesson with which to end the Gospel.

Now I am not asking you to believe in miracles, turning water to wine, multiplying loaves and fishes, healing the sick, or raising the dead. What to believe about miracles is a very important topic for another time. But I am asking you to live in God’s time after the first party. Or rather, regard this time as our party of the Christian life, even if our time look like anything but a party. This is our time, like the disciples in their time, for learning what it means to be God’s people, and we shall make foolish mistakes before we get it down. Living in God’s world is not what we might expect. Great armies do not come down to drive out the Romans or protect us from terrorists. Too many Christians defend racism rather than remove it. The Christian movement is not a government that rules with righteousness; in fact it has to live subversively with governments that usually are not righteous, as the early Christians did. The strong and proud are not our real leaders, the humble and poor are: witness Martin Luther King, Jr. In so many ways, the Christian life is lived contrary to all expectations of victory and greatness. Resurrection to spiritual life is obtained through spiritual crucifixion, through suffering the blind and evil powers of the world, and through keeping the faith when all hope is given up. Dr. King was a martyr.

How do we awaken to this strange, up
side down story of Christianity? We’ve heard it so often it no longer startles us. Many answers to that question exist. Sometimes world events shock us so that we ask with new urgency what it means to be a Christian. I remember the shock of Dr. King’s assassination, and with several other ministers in my area preached on the Grapes of Wrath the next Sunday. The events of 9/11 and the war in Iraq have had that effect for many. Sometimes a vision of the poor lets us see Jesus. Sometimes we meet a person or group who startles us to awareness of the seriousness of Christianity. For many of us, it takes a tragedy such as the death or serious illness of someone close. What I want to urge today, however, is none of these stimuli from the outside. I ask instead that we turn inward and inquire how it is with our souls. Isn’t that the question you should ask of your best friends, in order to be a friend yourself? Of course such questions are embarrassing, and only the best of friends can ask that question straightforwardly. But asking the question of ourselves does not involve embarrassment, only confusion, shock, sometimes grief, and sometimes joy.

“How is it with my soul?” is a very Methodist question. Last week I urged us to not settle for being what John Wesley called an “almost Christian.” Wesley preached a sermon in 1741 called “The Almost Christian” in which he distinguished that from the “altogether Christian.” An almost Christian has what Wesley called the “heathen virtues” of morality and a strong regard for justice, truth, and giving assistance or charity to one another. An almost Christian also has the “form of Christian godliness,” by which Wesley meant living by the stringent moral code of the New Testament and participating in all the means of grace in the Church, including private prayer. From the outside, an almost Christian can look very like an altogether Christian. But what is lacking, he said, is inner sincerity. When we look into our soul, you and I, do we recognize deep sincerity?

Sincerity, Wesley said, involves three things. First it involves genuine love of God, not sentimental feelings of gratitude but genuine love. Loving God is very difficult, because God’s creation involves destruction as well as construction. Second, sincerity involves loving our neighbors, not just behaving charitably toward them, not just being good to them. Sincerity involves genuinely loving them, which is a disposition of the heart that can be difficult when our neighbors are our enemies. Third, sincerity involves real faith in the inward heart. By faith, Wesley did not mean just belief, although true understanding is part of faith. Wesley had a quaint way of making this point. He said that devils, because of their supernatural knowledge, know the truth of all the Christian history, witness, and doctrines, including that Christ had died for their salvation. Yet they are still devils because their hearts do not accept that salvation. What the devils lack, perfect theologians that they are, is the inward acceptance of God’s saving love and the rejoicing, the returning of God’s love, and the loving of neighbor out of the excess of joy.

This brings us back to the wedding at Cana. An altogether Christian, sincere in loving God, loving neighbor, and rejoicing in the convictions of faith, knows that discipleship is a party. We usually don’t understand how it is a party—coming to understand how it is, is part of discipleship. It usually does not look or feel like a party—most of Jesus’ disciples were martyred and he himself was crucified. Our own lives are filled with many confusions, failures, betrayals of others, of ourselves, of our ideals, of our Christ, just like Peter’s. Yet in loving God in total sincerity, and loving neighbors in total sincerity, and abiding in the deepest faith in which God dwells wildly and joyfully, the altogether Christian knows that this life is a party given by God. It is our very own wedding party.

Wesley knew his sermon had a little trick to it. Most of us are not anywhere near being even an almost Christian. We aren’t very moral, truthful, just, or even fully observant of the forms of the Christian life. The point is that if we get the sincerity, that which distinguishes an altogether Christian from the almost Christian, then the virtues of the almost Christian will come along in time. Begin with the sincere love of God, the sincere love of neighbor, and the sincere faith that God’s love and power for salvation already resides in your heart, and all the rest will be added through the practices of sanctification. Love and faith come first, and they are available now.

So I ask you about your soul. Do you find there sincere love of God and neighbor, the joyful faith in God’s love and power? That question might take a long time to answer. I invite you into the Christian life in which that faithful sincerity can be awakened and made to glow. More specifically, I invite undergraduates to come to the Marsh Room downstairs this Tuesday and following Tuesdays from 5:30 to 6:30 to become what Wesley called a “Band,” a group for spiritual discernment and formation. We will pray, begin a spiritual discipline, and work to increase our ability to love God and neighbor, and to dwell in joyful faith. Our purpose is not psychological analysis or the invasion of personal privacy; people will be free to speak or not and can leave any time. Our purpose is mutual help and accountability in the pursuit of the spiritual life, beginning with care for the question, how is it with our souls? All undergraduates are invited. If others who are not undergraduates would like to begin a Wesleyan Band, which is not a musical organization, please contact the Chapel office.

Back to the wedding at Cana. Given that Jesus was instructing his disciples to become aware of the love of God and the fulfillment of being a disciple within God’s world, I’m sure that the Good Vintner used the 30 gallon containers and made a full 180 gallons of the very best wine. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Baptism of the Holy Spirit

Sunday, January 11th, 2004
Isaiah 43:1-7

Psalm 29

Acts8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Today is the first Sunday after Epiphany in the Church calendar and it celebrates Jesus’ baptism when, according to Luke, he was blessed by the Holy Spirit and the voice from Heaven said to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” My own baptism was not half so spectacular, I can tell you. I was nine and remember vividly going to the chancel rail with my parents in the Methodist Church in St. Louis where I grew up. The minister was saying words I didn’t understand, and when he dipped his hand in the bowl of water and pressed it down on my head, the brittle Stay-Comb hair fixer my mother had slathered on my unruly mop shattered and crackled with a most upsetting sensation of something breaking. That was not an epiphany, although I wish I still had the hair.

The text from Luke actually makes reference to three baptisms. First, John the Baptist was conducting a revival with mass baptisms for repentance and cleansing from sin. Second, Jesus, who came to John for that Baptism, was uniquely revealed by the Spirit and Word to be the Son of God. And third, although first in our text, John says that Jesus himself will bring a baptism not of water but of Spirit and fire. These three different references to baptism all have significant meanings as they have been developed within the Christian tradition. Christian baptism, of course, is not literally any of these, except perhaps the last; rather it is the ceremony of initiation into the Christian life, into membership in the Church. I believe that we need a new awakening of the meaning of our baptism, not that those who have been baptized need to be baptized again, but that we need to catch the Spirit and fire of what it has meant all along.

The first meaning of baptism is obvious from the symbolism, namely a washing away of our sins. Sin is symbolized as dirt, uncleanness. Many Christians, especially those called “Baptists” (not unexpectedly) believe that a person needs to be totally immersed. Like John the Baptist who called upon people to repent of their sins, and baptized them in the Jordan only after they had repented as a symbolic act of making them clean, many Baptists and others today believe that only people old enough to understand what they are doing and genuinely repent should be baptized, a custom called “believer’s baptism.” Other Christians, however, note that the cleansing from sin is an act of God and not a reward for repentance. So they baptize infants who are presented by their parents. Whatever kind of original sin a baby might have inherited, and there are many conflicting beliefs about that, it is washed away with the ritual and the child is incorporated as a full member of the Christian community. The parents, godparents, and the whole household of God are charged with the education of the child in Christian piety. Whether of infants, nine-year olds, or hardened repentant sinners, baptism means that the baptized people ever after are members of the Christian church, for whom other Christians have a responsibility, regardless of whether they carry on congregational membership, moral seriousness, or Christian belief. No one ever needs to be baptized twice.

Let me tell you then that if you have been baptized, and yet you feel burdened by guilt, that burden is unnecessary. You might well be guilty and something should be done about that. But you should not be burdened by the guilt or let it keep you from God. The author of Colossians wrote “And when you were dead in trespasses . . . God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2:12-14) Remember the verse from Horatio Spafford’s hymn “It is Well with My Soul”: “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.” If you feel such a burden, then take your baptism seriously, renew the baptismal vows that you made or that were made for you at your baptism and participate in the full grace of the Christian community. If you have not been baptized, enter into the process of becoming so. At Marsh Chapel our Easter Vigil service will include the baptism of new members of the Body of Christ and the renewal of baptismal vows of those who would like that. Please talk with one of the deans of the Chapel if you want to participate. The second sense of baptism is deeper in meaning, if such a thing is possible. In this sense, baptism is going down with Jesus into the waters of death, and then rising from those waters in resurrection. The author of Colossians wrote to the people of that congregation, “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through the faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” When John the Baptist put Jesus under the waters of the Jordan, like returning to the primeval chaos before creation, that prefigured Jesus’ death. When Jesus rose from the waters and the Holy Spirit descended, like the divine wind in the beginning, that prefigured Jesus’ resurrection. When we Christians are baptized we die with Jesus to the old life of sin and rise with Jesus to the new life, the new creation, in which we are already embraced eternally with God. The author of Colossians went on to say, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:1-3) I pray that you have a musical ear for these wonderful symbols of the Christian faith.

Of course the resurrection of life in baptism, enjoyed by all Christians, does not mean the end of daily life and its problems. The author of Colossians goes on to say that resurrected Christians should put to death the old patterns of sin and put on the new ways of God: “But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with a new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all!” (Col. 3:8-11) As baptized Christians, dead to sin and raised to new life in Christ we don’t have to worry about sin’s burdens or the fear of death. Our only concerns now are sanctification and holiness. We have the Holy Spirit, God’s creative power present throughout all creation, to discipline and guide us.

The third meaning of baptism follows precisely from this. John the Baptist said Jesus would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire. I suspect from other things he said that John thought that Jesus would be an even fiercer judge than he himself had been. But the subsequent Christian understanding of Jesus’ baptism in the Holy Spirit is more complicated than moral judgment. It means at least four things, I believe.

First, baptism in the Holy Spirit means that God is with us in the process of sanctification in which we put aside our old bad habits one by one and take up the habits of new life, as described in the las
t Colossians passage. What does this mean in practice? It means that the creative power of God is all around us, in the renewing powers of nature, in our bodies’ natural healing processes, in the natural desire of people to help, and in our own love of life. Many things hold us back, especially feelings of guilty unworthiness. But we have died to those things and are free for God’s renewing power to run through us like a river.

Second, baptism in the Holy Spirit is in all the things of religion, especially the Church, which provides patterns of good life, symbols to connect us with redeeming powers, congregations of people with whom life builds up all who participate, scriptures to read, theology to contemplate, service to render others, songs to sing, dances to dance, and messages to preach to witness the Spirit in our lives. What does this mean in practice? It means we need constantly to be alert to the discernment of the true Holy Spirit in contrast to the tempting spirits of evil, for we all know that religion can be harmful, the Church sometimes advocates destructive patterns of life, symbols can be used demonically, congregations can be dysfunctional, theologies can lie, service can be manipulative, songs can destroy the spirit, dances can become marches, and testimony can preach hate. The Christian life collectively and individually is a constant critical discernment of spirits, measuring their claims by the fruits of the Holy Spirit. With our own spirits alert, the Holy Spirit can be discerned in the incredibly rich resources of the Body of Christ such that our new lives have powers to heal the world as well as ourselves.

Third, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in which Christ baptizes us manifests the love of God toward us, patient, kind, and lovely. When Jesus was baptized, the divine voice called him “My Son, my beloved” and, as we are grafted onto Christ as branches of the true vine, we become aware of being beloved children of God. This is celebrated in our public worship. In the ancient Church the communal enjoyment of the blessings of God’s love in the Holy Spirit was expressed sometimes through ecstatic speaking in tongues, and many Christian congregations experience that today. Even more God’s love can be felt in the depths of our hearts as our spiritual discipline teaches us to be silent and still. The life of prayer, meditation, and contemplation in private, often guided by a spiritual director, can lead to profound experiences of God’s loving, correcting, comforting spiritual vitality. As Augustine said, when you go deep enough within your own soul you find not yourself but God. Divine ecstasy means being beside yourself, which can take place in charismatic worship as well as in profound contemplation.

The fourth meaning of Christ’s baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is the genuine ecstasy of turning from glorying in God’s love for us to our loving God as our beloved. If we are truly created in God’s image, and God is the great lover who creates the world and redeems creation, then it is not enough for us to receive God’s love. We fulfill God’s image by loving as God loves. We can love the creator in all things created, for which the shorthand expression is loving our neighbors. And we can love the Creator God as our beloved. Loving God is not exactly like loving another being, because God is the depths of our own hearts, the ground of our being. But loving God is not loving only the God in us. Through the Holy Spirit, which is God in us, we can love the Creator of the entire cosmos. This is not easy, because that Creator gives us suffering and death as well as all the graces of life. Probably we have to hate God before we can love God seriously. When we do take God as our lover, our beloved, our own sense of self sinks to insignificance. The fire of sexual ecstasy has long been the best symbol for the ecstasy of loving God. When the Holy Spirit brings us to love God, who can say whether it is we giving ourselves to God in the Spirit loving us, or we in the Spirit loving God, or God loving God in us, or we loving the creation in God? Please groan in the Spirit to be God’s lover, for it is part of baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire.

I have represented these four meanings of being baptized in the Holy Spirit and fire as if they were separate, yet they are intimately connected and grow into one another. Personal sanctification, communal holiness, personal and communal experience of God’s love, and the ecstasy of loving God are integral parts of the one fire of Christian life. The light that came into the world in Christ brings our misdeeds to life and cleanses them: it leads us through the death of our old selves to new life of holiness: it sets us aglow with the power of sanctification, communal holiness, the experience of God’s love, and the ecstasy of loving God. In that light we can turn from our self-concerns and live for others as free friends and lovers of God. The appearance of Jesus makes all this possible.

If you are a Christian whose sense of your baptism has fallen asleep, I invite you to wake up. Do you long for cleansing from sin, for going through death to true life, for sanctification, holy community, the knowledge of God’s love for you, and the ecstasy of loving God? Then become a Christian in a serious way. It’s time for a Great Awakening of the Holy Spirit in us and in our land. Do not settle for being what John Wesley called an “almost Christian.” Like Jesus, come to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Wise Men

Sunday, January 4th, 2004

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

Welcome to the New Year, 2004. I hope that you all enjoyed the holiday season and that the diets you swore to four days ago are still in effect. My wife and I spent much of the holiday with our daughter and her husband in Washington, D.C. It was a time of great religious services, wonderful gatherings of friends, lots of relaxing conversation, and almost non-stop eating, hence our resolutions about the belt. I thank Dean Meredith Ellis for taking the pulpit last week. We all know, of course, that the holiday season is very difficult for many people and look for ways to ease their pain. We hope that 2004 will bring a global peace that eluded us last year, as well as a sense of direction in a world that seems to be based on greed, from the nation’s geo-political extremes to our personal habits.

For Christians today is not only the first Sunday of the new year but more importantly, Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany celebrates the appearance of Jesus Christ to the world and the traditional text is the story of the three wise men who were the first strangers to pay him homage.

Wise men were not in good supply in the first century and, even with the recent addition of wise women, we still suffer from a short supply in the twenty-first. Late-modern society requires a good education, especially in technical fields, yet too many of our people lack the education even to be steady unskilled laborers. Democracy requires both a broad background and a refined capacity to learn new things and evaluate competing opinions, yet too many of us are merely parochial and cannot understand issues more complex than our immediate environment. Happiness in personal life requires knowing how to take satisfaction in our lives, in the lives of others, in the arts, the sciences, and public affairs, yet consumerist culture persuades us that satisfaction is impossible without more commodities. Our nation wields enormous economic and military power to impose the government’s will on others, yet without understanding from the perspective of those others what would be genuinely good or bad for them. Our cultural wisdom seems to be asleep! Thanks for letting me vent as a professor!

My particular concern as a Christian pastor is with the short supply of wisdom in our religious life. One of the glories of our age is the magnificent advance in scientific understanding of nature, yet too many popular theologies ask us to believe what we know to be false. Another of our glories is a fantastic explosion in the plastic and visual arts, literature, poetry, drama, dance, and music, fed by a wonderful confluence of world cultures and freed from the pieties of both Enlightenment rationalism and dogmatic religion, yet popular theologies insist on a simplistic picture of human nature we know to be false. The rock bottom conviction of the Christian faith is that the world is God’s creature, yet popular theologies ask us to believe in a God so small that the breadth and depth of creation cannot possibly be God’s creature. The human predicament addressed by the Christian faith is that our hearts are sinful, yet too many theologies simply aim to make us feel good. Jesus Christ asks us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, yet too many theologies say it is belief that counts, or conspicuous membership in so-called Christian culture. Jesus Christ asks us to love our neighbors, to love those different from ourselves, the poor and culturally excluded, indeed to love our enemies, yet too many theologies say we should love first the Church. They say we should think for the Church, act within the Church, be first of all for the Church, because the Church is what Stanley Hauerwas calls a band of “resident aliens,” God’s people enduring a foreign land. To the contrary, the Church is a bearer of God to the world, the Church is for the sake of the world, the Church should invite all the peoples of the world into the hospitality of God, as Henk Pieterse says, not into the limited hospitality of the Church.

The result of too much sleepy theology is that the Christian movement is split by culture wars between conservative and liberals. It falls prey to patriotic enthusiasm when those aliens and enemies should be its loving concern. It neglects the poor and needy. It fails to see what God’s hospitality would be for those of other cultures. It fails to engage the infinite passions of our heart with God rather than self-interest. It leads us to believe that the limits of the relevant world are what we can own and control. It blinds us to the shattering criticisms that the arts make of our defensive self-images. It alienates us from the understanding of God’s creation, which is the beginning of true piety. It presents us pictures of a domesticated God when God in fact is wild beyond measure. Too many sleepy theologies have made the Church unwise. The official way to say this is that the Church has lost the Mind of Christ.

Of course I exaggerate. The Christian Church has many wise thinkers and leaders. So do other religions. Nevertheless wisdom does not now inform the Church in the complex ways needed because we seem to have a childish terror of the complexities of life. Too many believe we need a simple theology, because people are simple. So instead of thinking through the complexities and ambiguities of cultural life we sell the simple falsehood that you just need to sign up with the conservatives or liberals. Instead of the painful process of coming to see through the eyes of others, we half-guiltily advocate our own tradition as the only way. Instead of tracing carefully how our social system makes some people poor we promote feel-good charity. Instead of patiently inquiring what form of religion would be salvific for people different from ourselves we let ourselves believe a one-size-fits-all piety will do. Instead of stretching our minds to know God through the vast reaches of space and time, and to love God with a love that overcomes disappointment and death, we think of God as a nice, just king who will make things come out all right according to our conception of rewards. We settle for puny, simplistic symbols even though the divine logos with which we are given to think dares to think the unthinkable.

The Epiphany story in the Gospel of John reads something like this: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. . . What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. . . . He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who
received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” We need a new Awakening of wisdom for Christianity to be true to its light, its Logos. Otherwise we cannot be born of God, only of some simplistic fake god.

Now you surely have a sense of humor about this, knowing that I am a professor of philosophy, religion, and theology and am preaching from a university pulpit. What else can a person such as I say? Most ordinary parishes would not tolerate such a plea for more responsible Christian intellect. They would say my stance is elitist. But remember that Jesus’ first devotees were the three wise men from the East. The Epiphany of Christ was first to the wise. The wise were the first to enlist. Remember also that the First Great Awakening, in the 18th century, was started by people like John and Charles Wesley at Oxford, gathering fellow students for prayer and a mission to the poor; the leader of the American side of the First Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian, whose last job was to be president of the college we now call Princeton. The Second Great Awakening, in the 19th century, took its start at Yale under the leadership of Yale’s president, Edward’s grandson, Timothy Dwight. If a Third Great Awakening should come from a university, that would not be surprising to those who know the importance of wisdom for loving God.

Christian wisdom to awaken our time must embrace all that can be known in the university and elsewhere, else we fail the Logos from which we have our being. Of course our knowledge is fallible, often little better than well-entrenched hypotheses; this holds for theology as well. For this very reason Christian wisdom should seek out any domain of inquiry that might correct it. That theology is best that makes itself vulnerable to correction from every angle, adjusts itself to
well-taken criticism, and steadies itself through learning from all sources of knowledge. I myself am convinced that most theologies that have had any currency whatsoever have had an important truth for someone in some context; theologies conflict with one another, and
become genuinely false, when they are generalized beyond those contexts. Sometimes in desperate prayer, an image of a domesticated God is just fine; but a domesticated God cannot be creator of this wild cosmos. The theological job of Christian wisdom is not so much to pick one theology to defend against all others, as happened in the First and Second Great Awakenings, as it is to understand the different contexts in which different symbolic expressions are true, and the contexts in which they are false. Genuine theology embraces and articulates all the ways in which God can be engaged truly, and guides the people in all of their contexts.

I have not been talking about the difference between a wise intelligence and a foolish or stupid intelligence. Rather I have been complaining about a sleeping intelligence, and calling for an awakening of that intelligence. The Christian tradition, like most others, is filled with wisdom that once was awake and vital. My complaint has been that many of those who should have been awake and vital with Christian wisdom—others can speak for other traditions—have been asleep. Christian wisdom has become too disconnected from the sciences and arts, too inward looking when it should make itself vulnerable to the world, too defensive of past identity. Sleeping wisdom leads to foolish behavior. I ask for a revitalization of Christianity in the twenty first century starting with an awakening of wisdom to its role, a role that engages the best we know, that embraces all those whom we should love, and that rejects simple ideas that merely reflect our own image back at us in favor of the complex inquiry that lets us find the image of God in the infinitely dense creation. To be born of God is to love the light and Logos of God. The first Epiphany of our Lord is as divine wisdom.

I invite you, therefore, to participate in a Great Awakening of wisdom. A new Great Awakening must also awaken fervor, and witness, and new direction, and new discipline, all of which I shall preach about on subsequent Sundays. But the Third Great Awakening begins with awakening wisdom, and perhaps in a university. If your mind hungers for honest truth and is offended by the simplemindedness of the theologies you have heard, come to an awakening of Christian wisdom that will unfold a more realistic, complex way. If your moral strength hungers to bring justice to a world more complex than slogans, come to an awakening of Christian wisdom that sorts that out. If your soul hungers for meaning in an age when even religion seems to be a commodity, come to an awakening of Christian wisdom that participates in the deepest mysteries. If your heart hungers to know God, and to be known by God, come to an awakening of Christian wisdom that dares to touch the unthinkable, that dares to be penetrated by the Logos of God, that dares to be vulnerable to God’s wild love, that dares the ecstasy of divine knowledge in our flesh. For, we cannot pray unless we have the thoughts with which to witness the divine immensity. The wise men witnessed the Epiphany.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville