This is the sixth part of a new series I’m calling Blogmatics. It’s an attempt on my part to lay out as best I can in as brief a manner as I can all the theological assumptions behind my blog posts.
I intended these posts to be short, but this one is a little longer and since it’s on the Holy Spirit, let’s just say the Spirit led me to write a little more this time.
So please forgive the length. I really hope it won’t keep you from reading the entire post because I believe this is a really important and really neglected topic.
We need a renewed moving of the Spirit in the church today. Just maybe not in the way you might think.
Anyway, here we go…..
As he was preparing to leave his disciples for the last time, Jesus gave them this promise,
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
It’s a powerful promise that has been a rallying cry for the church throughout the centuries, but what does it really mean to be Jesus’ witnesses? What are we witnessing to? Are we just telling others he existed? Giving people a salvation sales pitch? Or is there more to it?
I think key to understanding this call to be a witness, as well as the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, is found in the promise of the Spirit itself. It is this Spirit, given by God, that will empower us to be witnesses, to incarnate the life of Jesus to the world.
It was this same Spirit that breathed new life into Jesus on Easter Sunday, that came to rest upon him at his baptism, that overshadowed Mary, that separated the Red Sea so Israel find new life the Promised Land, and it was this same Spirit that hovered over the dark water, bring life and order out of the chaos at the moment of Creation.
The Holy Spirit is, if nothing else, a spirit of new life, freedom, creativity, and grace.
And yet the Holy Spirit isn’t exactly the focus in most churches today. If anything, the work of Spirit is often looked up with deep suspicion rather than a hopeful optimism of what could be.
So what happened to Holy Spirit?
How did a church born in the fire of the Holy Spirit, essentially relegate that same Spirit to the scrap heap of church history?
Francis Chan asked this same question a few years ago in his best selling book, Forgotten God.
Whether you liked the book or not, on at least a basic level I think he was on to something.
Outside of Pentecostal churches it does seem that the Holy Spirit has lost its place in the life of the church. I’m sure a large part of its disappearance stems from our modern rational sensibilities and our need be able to fully understand and systematize something in order for it to be permissible in our lives.
Many in the church have met this challenge head on, declaring the reality and power of the Holy Spirit through things like speaking in tongues, a clear act of defiance in the face of modern rationalism.
But I’m not sure that signs and wonders are really the best way to understand or witness to the power of the Holy Spirit. Nor am I convinced that the Holy Spirit is as wild, reckless, and irrational as the Spirit is often portrayed as being.
On the one hand, if we believe that God created us, then our ability to think and reason must be a gift from God. Scripture is very clear about looking to God and praying to God to guide us in truth and wisdom, to shape and mold the intellect we have been given. That work is accomplished through the Holy Spirit. Why? Because God gave us the Spirit to guide us into truth and wisdom, not as a replacement for it.
In other words, complaints that services and sermons are too planned out and don’t leave space for the Spirit to move, ring profoundly hollow to me for such accusations deny the Spirit’s moving in the preparation of those important works of the church. When these sorts of accusations are leveled we frame the use of our intellect as a sort of sin of distrust and the service as a moment of superstitious expectation in which we hope God will show up in some mystical way without really preparing ourselves for the advent of the divine.
On the other hand, I’m not convinced the signs and wonders so many hold up as evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit are really the sort of power Jesus was speaking of when he made his famous promise to his disciples. For starters, the speaking in tongues phenomenon in particular which is held up by some in the church not only as proof of the Spirit, but proof of one’s faith, is a “gift” that was almost entirely absent in the life of the church from the time of the New Testament until its sudden reappearance on Azusa Street in 1901.
Is it more likely that for nearly 2,000 years the church was utterly devoid of the work of the Holy Spirit or could it be that speaking in tongues in not as powerful or central an act of the Holy Spirit as some of us have come to believe?
Even Paul was highly suspicious of this purported gift. The handful of times he mentions speaking in tongues he does so with great caution and a clear hesitancy that all but bans the practice in the church outside of strict guidelines that seem like more of a concession than a stamp of approval. Perhaps his hesitance came from his recognition that the practice of incoherent rambling in no way resembled the miracle of tongues recorded in Acts in which everyone heard and understood the disciples’ preaching in their own language.
Or perhaps, Paul was worried about this practice because he understood that the real power of the Holy Spirit was not in those sort of signs and wonders, but in the Spirit’s ability to transform the world and everyone and everything in it through radically inclusive acts of love and grace. I have to think this is why Paul cautions the tongue speaking church in Corinth, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Paul understood that the power of the Holy Spirit isn’t found in cheap magic tricks, but in the Spirit’s incredibly ability to work through people to cross uncrossable boundaries in order to extend God’s transforming love and grace to those people and places that need it the most.
This is, of course, exactly what we see in the life of Jesus who constantly crossed boundaries, embraced the “wrong” sorts of people, and all the while transformed Israel’s understanding of what is acceptable and therefore what it means and what it looks like to be the people of God.
It was this same transforming, life giving, creative power that Jesus promised to his disciples as he prepared to leave them that final time.
Would there be signs and wonders to come? Sure. But if that becomes the Church’s focus, then the gift of the Holy Spirit is robbed of all its power because the Spirit wasn’t given to do magic tricks.
The Spirit was given to bring new life, to save and transform lives, to reconcile all of creation back to its Creator.
If we are going to be witnesses to the transforming life and message of Jesus, then we must allow the Spirit to regain the Spirit’s place in the life of the Church, guiding and shaping us into the people of God we are called to be. After all, it was the Spirit that gave us the Bible, the Spirit that inspired our creeds, the Spirit that guided us through the centuries, and the Spirit that developed our faith into what it is today.
Yes, the Spirit does the unexpected and we most always remain open to that, but as the creative Spirit of God that same Spirit gifted us with intellect and expects us to develop and us that intellect for the kingdom of God.
In order to allow the Spirit to do its work I think we need to do a better job in the church of finding a balance between doing the work of preparation, study, and planning, while also leaving room to allow the Spirit to break through our strategies and systems when the need arises. Too often we find ourselves at one of two extremes in the church – either we’re such rigid, legalistic traditionalists that the Spirit has no room to breath and to do the transforming work the Spirit wants to do or we approach the work of the Spirit in a fashion more akin to pagan superstition than the Christian faith and as a result church becomes all about us and our personal spiritual experience.
Church service planning aside, if we are ultimately going to be the Spirit empowered witnesses Jesus has called to, then it will be by living the sort of Spirit-filled and Spirit-directed life Jesus led.
If the Holy Spirit is only ever experienced through personal ecstasy, private prayer languages, and charismatic church services, then we rob the Spirit of its world changing, people transforming power and miss entirely the point of God giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Just as in the life of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is always pointing us towards the other, across boundaries, and away from exclusion. And if we’re going to be like Jesus, then this is the life me must witness to.
There’s a mysterious passage in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus declares that all sins are forgivable except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
I remember sitting in Sunday School when I was young worrying that I might have accidentally committed this unforgivable sin since Jesus didn’t really clarify exactly what it was. Not surprisingly, there’s been all sorts of speculation over the centuries as to what it could possibly mean, some explanations better than others.
In the immediate context of Jesus’ original warning in Matthew 12 he’s talking about being for or against the Son of Man, particularly his mission. That mission, of course, was to seek and save the lost, to cross over the boundaries Israel refused to cross in order to extend God’s love and grace to the people and places that needed it the most.
That mission was driven by the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit which had come to rest on Jesus when he began his ministry after emerging from the waters of baptism. The same Spirit that split the waters of the Red Sea, that hovered over the waters of creation, and which eventually breathed new life into Jesus that first Easter morning.
Which got me to thinking.
And to worrying.
I wonder if the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit Jesus is so concerned about, I wonder if that sort of blasphemy is the denial of the Spirit’s ability to redeem, reclaim, and transform anyone and everything for the kingdom of God. I wonder if that sort of blasphemy is the declaration that there are some people who can be separated from the love of God because they are outside our sense of acceptability. I wonder if that sort of blasphemy means excluding people and rejecting the world in the name of God.
I sure hope not.
Because if denying the radically inclusive and transforming power of God’s love and grace is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then God forgives us for we know not what we do.
Grace and peace,