Archive for May, 2005

Freedom of the Spirit

Sunday, May 15th, 2005
Acts 2:1-21

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

John 7:37-39

Pentecost Sunday celebrates the occasion described in our reading from Acts when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples as they were gathered together shortly after his death and ascension. The Greek word for Spirit also means wind and breath and, according to Acts, the Spirit came with the sound of a mighty wind, with tongues of fire resting on the heads of the disciples. A tongue of fire, like wind symbolizing the Holy Spirit, is the official symbol of the United Methodist Church. Pentecost itself was a Jewish holiday celebrating the giving of the law, the Torah, to Moses. The disciples were in Jerusalem, which was filled with Jewish pilgrims for the festival of Pentecost from all over the Roman Empire. Being filled with the Spirit, the disciples were able to speak to each group of pilgrims in the language of their homelands. Our text lists the languages and homelands.

Scholars have pointed out that this speaking in many languages was very different from the glossalalia or “speaking in tongues,” using nonsense words that later characterized some Christian communities, for instance, Paul’s congregation in Corinth. Rather, the Pentecost language phenomenon was intelligible communication.

In our gospel text from John, Jesus predicts that the Holy Spirit would come to his believers after he had been glorified, that is, after he had been killed, raised, and drawn into heaven. Jesus likens the Spirit to rivers of living waters, not fire or wind this time. He called himself the water of life. The general context for this speech of Jesus was the Jewish festival of Booths that commemorates the Exodus wandering in the wilderness, and the specific context, the last day of the festival, remembers the occasion when God provided water from a rock to save the parched Israelites: hence Jesus’ image of the water of life. This festival also celebrates the anticipation of the Messiah to save the people. Peter’s sermon, quoted in our text from Acts, cites the prophet Joel’s proclamation that the Holy Spirit would be poured out “upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” This would happen on the “day of the Lord,” that is, when the Messiah comes.

In the New Testament and in the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Holy Spirit is closely associated with Jesus as the Messiah. In John’s gospel, Jesus says the Spirit will come to the disciples after he is gone to guide and sustain them, to interpret to them the meaning of his life and the direction of theirs. Christianity is a Trinitarian religion because it believes that, just as Jesus is God in some sense, so is the Holy Spirit. We baptize and bless others and ourselves in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

And yet! And yet, the Holy Spirit has never been received comfortably within the Christian Church. In the first centuries of the Church, the debates about the sense in which Jesus was divine were fierce and brought to resolution in creeds long before much was said about the Spirit at all. You remember in the Apostles’ Creed, God the Father is declared to be the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth, and a whole paragraph is devoted to Jesus’ conception, birth, death, and resurrection. Then in the last paragraph the Holy Spirit is mentioned without definition in a list that includes also “the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Later in the Middle Ages the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches separated over a dispute as to whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from the Father and Son together. This was not an edifying dispute, and theology of the Holy Spirit has more or less languished ever since.

The Holy Spirit has played a somewhat larger role in the piety of the Eastern Orthodox Churches than in Western Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. The reason for this has been the Eastern emphasis on sanctification, which those churches call “theosis,” or becoming more God-like. The Holy Spirit is the source of sanctification. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, picked up the emphasis on sanctification, and with it the importance of the Holy Spirit. This distanced him from the mainline Lutherans and Calvinists who emphasized the acts of Jesus Christ in the past and in eternity, but without much enthusiasm for the freedom of the Holy Spirit in the present. Because the Holy Spirit reinterprets the Bible in the present for new occasions, the Wesleyan emphasis distances that movement from the literalist fundamentalists as well. The Wesleyan movement and its influences includes the Nazarenes, Pentecostals, and Charismatics as well as most African American religious sensibilities that emphasize the movement of the Spirit. Poor people with little investment in established institutions, and uneducated people who have no formal liturgies or biblical learning, are rightly drawn to religious practice that emphasizes the Spirit’s present reinterpretation of things, making all things new. Those who have little to lose are especially responsive to the Spirit, which is often resisted by people grounded in the past.

You can see why the Holy Spirit is vaguely threatening to established churches. As new wine does not fit into old wineskins without bursting them, a Spirit-filled people does not fit into old forms without relativising them. When new circumstances seem to be ill-served by the old church structures, by the old liturgies, by the old theological expressions, by the old interpretations of the Bible and of the mind of Christ, people trusting in the Spirit are willing to try new ways.

Of course, the discernment of spirits is difficult and never infallible. To distinguish the Holy Spirit from the spirits of ambition, power, greed, lust, and nostalgia is not easy. For this reason a critical connection with the past is always necessary. Spiritual judgment about contemporary innovations should always be guided by analogy to the innovations of the past that proved to lead to the Spirit’s marks of justice, joy, love, mercy, and peace. Yet think how drastic some of those past innovations have been! Think, for instance, of the invention of the Christian movement out of the Judaism of Jesus’ time, as recorded in Acts. We need to be ready in our time for drastic innovations in the evolution of Christianity.

Mark just how the Holy Spirit is dangerous, however. Permit me a moment of metaphysics, if you will, while I say what I think all those symbols of the Holy Spirit are getting at. John says that Jesus is the incarnation in human form of the Logos, the structures of things, or that which makes things harmonize into structures. The Spirit is the creativity of God within the world that builds up those structures. The creativity of God also destroys structures to build others. As you have heard me say many times, the immensity of God’s creativity that builds up and then destroys to build more is wild. The Big Bang and the rush of cosmic gasses to form suns, which in turn flame out as supernovas, have no regard to the human scale of things. The fragile structure of the human habitat is a wonder of creativity and it is subject to the other forces of creativity that will destroy it one day. The wild God is fecund beyond measure and the manifestations of the Spirit’s creativity in human experience are also wild. Any settled human structure is in danger from the wild Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes churchmen and churchwomen nervous! You can see why Paul was so nervous, in our text, to insist that the Spirit is one, when all those manifestatio
ns—wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, miracle-working, prophesy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues—seem to be going off in different competing but compelling directions.

The Spirit of God’s creativity means something a bit different on the human scale from what it means on the cosmic scale. Although human beings are free to ignore or reject the point, we live in a world surrounded by obligations to do better rather than worse. Our habits and institutions should embody those virtues I mentioned earlier, justice, joy, love, mercy, peace, and many others. Our sanctification depends on embodying them in ourselves, so that they add up to divine creativity on a human scale. The Holy Spirit comes to us as the creativity always to do better than we do now. Come to us, the Holy Spirit also is the creativity to deconstruct, destroy, and give up those things that hold us back. Sometimes this is extremely painful, especially when we remember what a glory it was to achieve in the first place those things that now hold us back. The Holy Spirit makes Christ present to us as judge. Destruction of those we love is incomprehensible to us, even when it makes room for others: such suffering and grief are in themselves gifts of the Holy Spirit, ambivalent as that is to human judgment.

With danger signs all about, the message of Pentecost, nevertheless, is to live dangerously. With all due care to test the spirits, we are urged to trust the Spirit in its creative urgings. When our community’s hidebound structures entrench poverty and injustice, let us call for the Spirit to give us new directions and a new energy; let it destroy our fears and investments that reinforce evils. When our family relations and friendships feed on domination and unwarranted dependencies, let us call in the Spirit to destroy those bad ties and lead us into freer loving relations. When our personal prospects seem blocked or confused, let us call down the Spirit to show us how to possess more aptly the mind of Christ, and how to dispossess ourselves of the expectations that lead nowhere. When our souls are mired in sin, panic, and self-hate, let us call up from their depths the Holy Spirit that can create in us clean hearts and destroy the things that bind us.

Some Christians believe that what counts is what God did in the past with Jesus. I say that does not count unless the Holy Spirit can make that happen today with us. God’s creative transformation is not less powerful today than in Jesus’ time, and our spiritual practice gives us the teaching and example of Jesus to discern the true spirit of creative transformation. We might think we languish with a society where nothing can be done about injustice, with personal relations that starve as well as feed, with personal stories that are dead ends, with souls we would deny, even with a religion of the past that is nostalgic at best and boring at worst. But that is illusion. The Holy Spirit of God’s creative love, which began the cosmos with a mighty blast and turns swarms of cosmic gasses into garden worlds like ours, pours through our lives like a mighty river surging through underground caves to burst forth in fountains of transformation. Come Holy Spirit and lead us to the crosses that destroy our evil and bondage! Come Holy Spirit and raise us to new lives in which our own creative efforts are more like God’s own! Come Holy Spirit and groan in us a new and true prayer that our lives together host the God who would live incarnate among us. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Forms of Love

Sunday, May 1st, 2005
Acts 17:22-31

1 Peter 3:13-22

John 14:15-21

Our gospel text today lies in the middle of a long passage running from chapter 13 to chapter 17 in which John the Evangelist recounts Jesus’ conversation with his disciples at the last supper, beginning with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Scholars call this the “Farewell Discourse,” and it is far longer than any other conversation recorded by John or the other gospel writers. John’s text was written about 60 years after the events it records, and of course we have no way of knowing how accurate it is to the actual conversation. Matthew, Mark, and Luke say almost nothing about that last conversation except remarks having to do with the blessing of the bread and wine from which we take our Eucharistic ritual, something John omits to mention. John’s intent was to give a kind of theological summary of Jesus’ sense of his mission and directions for the disciples. So he selected sayings of Jesus, or perhaps his own paraphrases, that add up to this theological statement as understood by John and his community. Whether Jesus actually said these things in this order on this occasion is not the point, although in many other respects John is the most historically accurate of the gospels. The Farewell Discourse is edited with John’s understanding of Jesus’ theology, the most comprehensive understanding we have in the New Testament. This Discourse is the Jesus we know through the earliest witnesses.

Our text for today is the part of the Farewell Discourse in which Jesus says that, if the disciples love him, they will keep his commandments. Notice that the motivation for keeping the commandments is that the disciples love Jesus, as he has loved them and taught them to love one another. All this comes, Jesus says, because God the Father loves him and them, and Jesus’ work has been to demonstrate this love. Under ordinary circumstances, we might think that the proper motivation for keeping the commandments is simply that they are obligatory. Or if we are selfish, we might think that the motivation is to get some divinely bestowed reward or avoid punishment. For Jesus, however, the fundamental phenomenon of the faith, the most important religious reality, is love. His disciples, whom we now call Christians, are supposed to take this love as the grounding context for all Christian life. When they, or we, do this, Jesus says that we have the Holy Spirit as an advocate and guide for how to live in a world full of troubles.

Our text comes shortly after this remarkable saying by Jesus: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Most of the Farewell Discourse has to do with explicating this commandment, which serves as a kind of summary for all the other commandments of Jesus concerning justice, mercy, help for the poor, release of prisoners, opening the eyes of the blind, and the rest. Jesus was particularly concerned about the avoidance of hypocrisy and in our text calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Truth. We know the general content of Jesus’ teachings, which he summed up elsewhere as loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as our self. In John’s gospel, our capacity to love one another is intimately bound up with God’s love for us and our love for God, as understood through Jesus and what he did.

Now the problem with this spirituality of love is that it can become syrupy piety that makes us feel good while disguising the fact that we live in anything but loving ways. So reflect with me, if you will, on what forms love might take in our lives so that it might be the genuine center of the Christian life. I want to consider four forms of love: social love, cultural love, family love, and love among friends.

Social love might be hard to think of as love, because society is where institutions put us in touch with people we do not know personally. Of the themes of Jesus’ teachings, justice and peacemaking are the most prominent elements of social love. Justice has three classic forms. Distributive justice is the fair distribution of the world’s goods and opportunities. What fairness consists in might be debatable in some situations, but injustice in distribution is cheating and the abuse of power, about which Jesus was scathing. Our own nation’s current policies get poor marks for distributive justice, withdrawing entitlements for the poor to pay for tax cuts for the rich and their wars to secure economic dominance; we also do not do well in protecting the resources of the environment. Retributive justice is the determination of guilt regarding evildoers, holding them responsible, and exacting punishment appropriate to the crime. Jesus had a prophet’s anger regarding evildoers, particularly those with social power. But paradoxically he also hailed mercy and forgiveness as the proper responses to guilt, urging the wicked to repent and amend their ways. Our justice system seems to favor those who can afford fancy lawyers and crushes the souls of the poor for whom prison seems a part of their culture. Restorative justice, the third kind, aims to reconcile aggrieved parties who have been hurt by injustice and who might continue on a downward spiral of recrimination if mutual respect is not restored. Restorative justice became popular first in South Africa where its institutions allowed the victims of Apartheit to confront their oppressors and forced the oppressors to sit and listen. Restorative justice, about which we have courses here in the Boston University School of Theology, aims to heal social wounds, and is perhaps the clearest form of social love. Peacemaking, of course, is the center of Christian activism at the social level and sets Christians in our time against our government’s policy of the use of force to get our way. War is never kind, to the winners or losers, even when it is necessary.

Cultural love is closely tied to social love and it has to do with those institutions and practices that give meaning to our lives. Our souls are formed around patterns of ethnic, linguistic, culinary, historical, and mythic identity. We have wealthy cultures and modest cultures, youth cultures and mature cultures; pity the cities that do not have the Red Sox. Our souls find meaning and fulfillment in the particularities of culture. Within contemporary Christianity, some people find meaning in high church liturgies, others in free church worship, some in classical sacred music, others in the culture of praise music. Cultures are always particular and have certain patterns that exclude other patterns. Yet the principal Christian model of love in all this is to celebrate inclusive table fellowship. Jesus ate with rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, saint and sinner. His example of the good neighbor was a Samaritan whose culture was in a hostile relation to Jesus’ own. In our time the great issues of inclusiveness have to do with racism, equality for women, full acceptance of gay and lesbian people, and overcoming national chauvinism in the clash of civilizations. A large group in America has defined the particularity of its cultural identity in terms of white superiority, keeping women in unfree roles, misrepresenting gay and lesbian people as intrinsically sinful, and caricaturing other cultures. The attempt to force this narrow cultural identity on others is an exercise in cultural hate. Cultural love seeks ways to respect the particularity of cultures while insisting that respectable cultures respect others.

Family love is the most familiar form of love in our society, though it was not always so. In Jesus’ time families were difficult economic institutions, placing
heavy burdens on women and those with no families. For us, however, marriages are supposed to be founded on love, and are the social institutions in which children learn how to love, parents learn to love children, siblings learn to love those with whom they compete, and nuclear families learn to love those others who are outside their circle. To be sure, contemporary families can be corrupted to replace genuine love with consumerist selections and rejections of mates, to put women into new forms of bondage, to make life hell for gay and lesbian children, and to teach distortion and fear of people different from oneself. How ironic that many people who oppose gay marriage do so in the name of family values, when marriage is the very thing we should offer gay and lesbian people if it is so much the institution valuing love! What kind of family values do they have in mind? Certainly not love. The forms of family love foster the flourishing of all those in the family and those outside who are affected by the family.

Doubts about the family, at least as it was structured in his time, are probably what led Jesus to say nothing good about it and explicitly to substitute his voluntary organization of friends as the primary vehicle for his commandment to love one another. His relationship with the disciples has become the model for the Church in a certain respect. Of course the Church is large enough to be a society, and particular enough to be a culture. Sometimes the Church identifies with families so much that those without families are left out. Jesus’ point, however, is that a true community of loving friends breaks through the limitations of all family, cultural, and social structures. Where social love breaks down with injustice and warmongering, the community of Jesus’ friends needs to be a counter-force. Where cultural love breaks down with exclusion and bigotry, the community of Jesus’ friends needs to create an inclusive pattern of meaning. When family love breaks down into bondage and chauvinism, Jesus’ friends need to set people free and embrace those who otherwise have no place.

Jesus called his friends together for a mission, actually a continuation of his own mission, which is to create communities of friends who love one another. To love other people is not just to have a sentiment about them, but to make them better people, which means, to make them better lovers. Love is false unless it includes justice, deference to those different from ourselves, commitment to engage the issues of our time, and taking responsibility for what we make of ourselves. To make someone a better lover requires helping them with all these things, at the social, cultural, and familial levels. This commandment to love is very daunting, is it not? Are we not then blessed to have Jesus’ example of friendship? The love in friendship is where our souls are brought into existence. The greatest hurt to our souls comes from failed friendship. The greatest power of healing is in merciful loving friendship. Our friends are with us in the peak moments of experience, and also in the depths of despair; they companion us daily. They forgive us our forgetfulness and encourage us to push always to better life. The greatest friend was Jesus whose love of the unruly disciples brought them to love one another, and whose acceptance of God’s love allowed him, and the disciples to love God in return. Is that not the reconciliation of ourselves to God and one another? Praise be to God for Jesus our Friend who redeems our life and whose Spirit can make Jesus our Beloved. Amen

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville