Monday, June 28, 2010

Testing the spirits

1 John 4:1-6

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is about as confusing a piece of work as any I've ever had to encounter. I easily get that there is the Holy Father, the Holy Son, the Holy Spirit as elements of one another. I get that our human languages have limitations that cannot possibly fully explain the essence of the Holy God but that the Bible - for lack of a better term - "breaks Him down" into manageable pieces. It is sad that one important "piece" of Him caused a division between Judaism and Christianity, but there is another element of His being, His essence that probably causes more confusion - and division - than any other doctrine in existence maybe only because we try to explain what is clearly inexplicable.

Who is the Holy Spirit, and what do we really know about Him? In a nutshell, He is the essence of the Father. He is the Eternal Teacher, the "Advocate", the Giver of Life, the Presence of the Holy God. Without Him, says St. Paul, we cannot "say that Jesus is Lord" (1 Cor 12:3), so the Holy Spirit must also be the Eternal Informer, the Imparter of the Everlasting Truth. The Holy Spirit is the essence of the Holy Father, and the Holy Spirit is also the essence of the Body of Christ (or should be), the Holy Church that calls forth all believers to continue the mission of Christ to "go", to "do", to "teach", to "baptize". The Holy Spirit is our reminder of that sure and certain promise that we have not been "forsaken", a fulfillment of the promise of Christ prior to His Ascension that He would be with us "until the end of the age".

One of the earliest Christian confessions is that "Jesus Christ is Lord". If the Spirit is then the Life of the Holy Church, it stands to reason that the "primary mission of the Holy Spirit is to bring home to [us] the real meaning of that confession" (pg 53, Stokes, Major United Methodist Beliefs, revised).

So what does this confession mean? St. John teaches in his epistle that the foundational purpose of this confession is revealed in how we discern for ourselves one spirit from another, how we can be sure we are talking to the Holy Spirit and not some evil spirit (an "antichrist") whose mission in life is to draw us AWAY from the Holy God. The last lesson of our "Restoring Methodism" study this morning explored the Church's relationship to the Holy Spirit and whether we are equipped to discern this Spirit. Whether we are "equipped", however, is not the real issue. The real issue is whether we are WILLING to hear the Spirit of the Lord.

Surely we can agree that the Spirit of the Lord was with Jesus as He begged to be released from what was to become of Him, and surely we can agree that the Spirit told Jesus to keep moving toward Jerusalem and, ultimately, Golgotha and His torturous death.

The significance of the Holy Spirit is confirmed by Jesus in Mark 3:29 when we are told that "the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness but is subject to eternal condemnation." Traditionally it has been taught to us that this "unpardonable sin" is that of denying Christ as Lord - and there is no indication this is not true - but think about what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit truly entails, especially when we consider that the Holy Spirit is, as stated, the 'essence' of the Holy Father, the nearness of Him in our day-to-day lives. This is the Spirit that affirms Christ as Lord, to be sure, but this Spirit also convicts us of our sin.

The Spirit is where we encounter the very Real Presence of the Holy God. This real presence is profoundly expressed in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation involving the Holy Eucharist. And when Jesus promises us that He will be with us even when only two or three are gathered in His name, to suggest that the Spirit is not present is itself a blasphemous statement because it issues a direct challenge to the promise that comes from Christ Himself - not Rome - who also told us that He does not speak of His own authority but by the authority of the "One who sent [Him]".

But the Holy Spirit is not about Catholic doctrine or Methodist doctrine or Baptist doctrine. The Holy Spirit is all about the Presence of the Holy God, regardless of how humanity tries to define it or even express it. We are aware of certain traditions that proclaim "gibberish" (my own choice of wording - very sorry if anyone is offended) as the language of the Holy Spirit. Now those of these particular traditions may accuse me of blasphemy against the Spirit by my choice of words, but I use that word only to make this point. By the "gibberish" that is not a discernable language, what is being proclaimed? Do we get "Christ is Lord" by the 'humnina-humnina' that comes from these select few, or do we get another message entirely - a message that is entirely too focused on one or two persons, a message that draws attention to those one or two and AWAY from the Holy One?

There is one other significant element of understanding the Presence of the Spirit and blasphemy that may result from our carelessness. We may have difficulties trying to decide whether it is the Spirit actually speaking to us from within OR if we are operating strictly on our own hunches or feelings. Do we use the Holy Spirit as our justification for what we do in a vain effort to give our actions some significance that otherwise does not exist? It is indeed blasphemy and a direct violation of the prohibition against using the Lord's name in vain (Exodus 30:7).

The language of the Holy Spirit is expressed to us in every facet of our daily living. The Spirit speaks to us in our joy, in our loneliness, in sickness and in health, in our doubts and in our certainties. The United Methodist doctrine of the Holy Spirit is expressed in such languages, and many others, when we understand that the "Spirit's aim is to make the living Christ not merely a fleeting object of affection by the master impulse of our entire being" (pg 55, Stokes). The Spirit speaks to us in grace before we are even aware of the grace that is already present (prevenient grace), speaks to us in the certainty of the Father's forgiveness (justifying grace), and leads us in the path of perfect love (sanctifying grace).

In short, we are nothing absent the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Church is not the Holy Church without Him. The Church is directionless without Him. And we are without Christ without Him.

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