Monday, June 01, 2009

Promise Fulfilled; Promise to Come, Part II

Acts 2:1-21 John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Two questions: a) how much have we been given, and b) how much are we willing to give in return?

These were the two questions I posed to you last Sunday in anticipation of Pentecost Sunday, today being, for all intents and purposes, the “birth day” of the Christian Church. A movement is still underway, begun long ago, to proclaim a message of redemption and hope. It is reasonable to assume that all who would come forward, Jew or Gentile, should be baptized and welcomed in. It is the Spirit of the Living and Eternal God that sweeps across the apostles and gives to each of them the strength, the push, and the heart to move forward. They had been “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) as Jesus had promised, and it was time to move.

Those many “devout Jews” gathered in Jerusalem who were witnesses to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles had no clue what they were seeing. Based on the very strange behavior of the apostles, several among these witnesses could only conclude that the “Jesus crew” was hammered! There was no other reasonable or logical explanation … except for one tiny detail. These apostles were Galileans of a common language, yet the many witnesses who were NOT Galilean were hearing not only unintelligible languages and speech but were also able to discern from that noise their own native languages being spoken by these Galileans. Those who did not outright reject the situation as drunken behavior were filled enough with wonder to bother asking, “What does this mean?”

Pentecost actually has its beginnings in Judaism though it is better known as the Festival of Weeks or Festival of the First Fruits. In Hebrew it is called Shavu’ot and is counted down from Passover to the day before Shavu’ot, 49 days or 7 full weeks of harvest and anticipation. It is also historically significant to both Jews and Christians as commemorating the giving of Torah at Mt Sinai. Even still, it is maintained primarily by Jews that there is no similarity between the Jewish Pentecost and the Christian one. While there are significant historic differences between the two, the theological similarities are striking enough to bear scrutiny by the faithful so that the full flavor of all it means is not lost in religious disputes because what it seems to boil down to is the Lord making His presence known to humanity. Thus it is that the Festival of the Giving of the Torah emphasizes the GIVING of Torah rather than receiving it. It is the Lord’s initiative, not man’s. And we are still talking about ONE Lord, ONE God, ONE Word.

Throughout one’s spiritual journey, it is important to always bear in mind that it is the Lord who must always comes first not only because it is called the “greatest commandment” by Jesus but also because it is always the Lord who acts first; Methodists call it “prevenient grace”. It is by the Lord’s initiative that the Torah was given to Moses even if Moses’ own curiosity initially led him to the mountain. And it is by the Lord’s initiative that the Holy Spirit is sent down upon those who spent the last few years of their lives following and learning from Jesus. It is especially important to understand that the gift of the Holy Spirit is not something we can call down upon ourselves. It is a gift that is divinely bestowed by His Favor alone; “it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:9). His Word and His Grace are from His own benevolence, and He ushered in the Law (His Word) and His Spirit (His Word) in spite of man’s unworthiness. He acted first.

But what are we to make of this gift? It is reasonable and encouraged that we should ask for and seek this divine gift, but what are we prepared to do with such a wondrous gift should the Lord decree that we are able to handle it? And what of the many gifts that come from the Holy Spirit? How can we know what is appropriate for us as having come from Him so that we use these gifts not only responsibly but also with extreme reverence? We are, after all, still talking about the very real presence of the Lord – manifest in His gifts.

“The fruit of the Spirit”, Paul writes to the Galatians, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). These things come as a result of spiritual gifts divinely bestowed and used not for the edification of self but, rather, for the edification of the Church, the Body of Christ. And the gifts are many, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, but there can be only One Body, One Church, One Christ, One Covenant. And because there can be only One Body, there can be only one purpose: to worship and glorify the Lord God. So when these gifts are given in such abundance, and received gratefully and used well and reverently, others will see the glory of the Lord God, as the many witnessed in Jerusalem, and they will also bother to ask: “What does this mean?”

In his journal entry on August 15, 1750, John Wesley wrote: “the grand reason the miraculous gifts were so soon withdrawn was not only that faith and holiness were well nigh lost, but that dry, formal, orthodox men began even then to ridicule whatever gifts they had not themselves, and to decry them all as either madness or imposture.”

Wesley was speaking to a belief that the Holy Spirit had been, for some reason, withdrawn from man sometime during the 2nd or 3rd century because there seemed to be a lack of evidence of His divine presence. Things got ugly, as history points out, and the Church lost its flavor and its luster as a place of Holy Sanctuary and became not much more than a gathering place for human power and control to the exclusion of those unwilling to bend and flex for these “dry, formal, orthodox men”. In other words, it seems the Church lost its footing and, ultimately, its moral authority to speak on behalf of the Lord, and soon His favor was withdrawn, according to some.

Both Jeremiah (23) and Ezekiel (34) speak of times when the Lord becomes so disgusted with those “dry, formal, orthodox men”, presumably meaning priests and prophets who have proclaimed themselves “spiritual leaders” but have failed to tell the Truth, that He will seek out and rescue His people himself; the ultimate judgment will fall upon those who perhaps possessed these certain gifts but enabled evil but attempted to disable righteousness. Both prophets, however, are clear: the Lord is still very much present in the lives of His people, and His Mighty Hand is still stretched out to those who cry out for Him.

It seems clear enough that the presence of the Lord by way of His gifts has always been with humanity, but it seems equally clear that His gifts were misused in such a way that the Eternal Word – which has stood for centuries – has been misused and abused, sometimes for selfish gain, other times for popularity. The people were lied to and still are being lied to today. Our culture and our society call it “tolerance” and “understanding”, and far too many churches are buying into such mindsets in vain attempts to be “relevant”; and therein lay the danger and the deception.

The “relevance” of the Body of Christ is in accordance with our gifts and how we use them. In other words, the relevance by which we are measured is in accordance with our compatibility to the Kingdom of Heaven, not according to the world’s standards and demands whose “ruler … has been condemned” (John 16:11). Trying to be “world friendly” is a losing game, the outcome of which has already been determined. The gift of the Holy Spirit is bestowed on those who understand the true meaning of “stewardship” and embrace the certain reality that we are given so that we may give, blessed so that we may bless, loved so that we may also love. And all in the Name of the One who gave and blessed and loved FIRST.

It is by devotion, prayer, fasting, worship, and attending to the sacraments of the Church that we are able to count the many blessings we have received, and it is also by these same means by which we will be led to give back as much as we have given.

No comments: