Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Let’s admit something to ourselves we are a little bit frightened of the idea of the Holy Spirit. We tend to think of it as the Holy Ghost. On top of that we have a hard time talking about it. Sometimes I wonder if some of us mainline Christians are afraid of the whole idea of the power of the Holy Spirit. I sometimes wonder if we neglect the whole idea of the Holy Spirit since it often jars with the secular world in which we are immersed. Do we tend to forget too easily the idea of the guidance of God and the comfort of God when it comes to our fear of the idea of the Holy Spirit?
On the first Sunday after Pentecost, the theme of the Holy Spirit will still be in the central to our thinking. So, is it wise to continue to develop this neglected doctrine? Mainline Protestants tend to have a fairly cautious and indistinct sense of the work of the Holy Spirit, as a reaction to the excesses of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, though this has receded some since the 1970’s. It is helpful to take a very personal approach to this matter, since the question of the presence of God in one’s daily life is of great interest to the average Christian. There is great spiritual hunger out there, and any preaching that can satisfy that yearning for clarity about God’s presence and God’s guidance will be much appreciated. Personal issues of loneliness or aimlessness can be addressed by the clear declaration of God’s promise to be with us in the person of the Holy Spirit. The great success of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life shows that people are hungering for clarity about God’s guidance for the very practical matters of everyday life.
In a world beset by economic and political uncertainty, threatened by terrorists from without and violence from within (Mass Shootings), where our wisdom and moral maturity is outpaced by technology’s rapid development, it is a comfort to know we are not alone. God is not distant and aloof, but rather God sends a Helper to stand with us, One who communicates to us God’s love, God’s truth, God’s guiding presence. All this is confirmed in Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome (Rom 5:1-5). We have been put right with God, set in harmonious relationship with God, through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. We share God’s glory; an awareness Jesus said the Spirit would bring. Also, we suffer as humans, but this suffering has a purpose: it produces endurance (patience). And in turn, endurance deepens our character, our strength and compassion, reflecting God’s character. Character in turn gives us hope, since we are being daily changed into people more like Jesus. And hope is not in vain, because through the presence of God’s Spirit, God’s love has been “poured into our hearts,” like a wine glass filled with fine wine.
In our preaching, we will want to personify this love with stories of love demonstrated in the congregation: forgiveness and reconciliation, shared suffering through pastoral care of one another, sharing of goods, time, and attention, all of which make tangible and real this love of God. The Rev. Stan Goerner, who was for forty years the pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Longmont, Colorado, used to call this “putting a face on mission.” We cannot speak of God’s love in the abstract. We can instead remind the congregation of those they know personally who have lived God’s love in tangible ways. We can display, or if audio visual technology permits, show pictures of some known to the congregation, whose mere faces or voices will bring to life the love of which the Scriptures teach.
A careful sense of what Jesus is promising here about the work of the Spirit is important and falls into several practical categories. First, it is clear that it was Jesus’ conviction that it would take the disciples some time to digest the meaning of his death, his resurrection, and his promise to send the Holy Spirit. This pronouncement (Jn 16:12-15) is part of the upper room discourse in John’s gospel, a kind of primer for post-Easter disciples. Jesus couches his teachings with caution, realizing that only after his death and resurrection will the disciples even begin to grasp the import of what he is saying. This should be a consolation for modern believers as well, if they have some difficulty fully appreciating what Jesus teaches here. The disciples had him in his physical reality; we experience Jesus by faith, not by sight or other sense. Just as when he blessed Thomas but commended those who would not see and yet believe (Jn 20:29), so we can be consoled if it is hard for us to understand God’s spiritual presence. It is common for pastors to be asked “How do I know the Spirit is speaking to me, and not just my own wishful thinking?” Further points made here by Jesus will help us give a more informed answer.
Secondly, then, what is the content of Jesus’s promise? It is that the Spirit will guide us into truth that brings hope, that glorifies the Son, and leads us into greater understanding of God’s purposes (Jn 16:13-15). The Spirit in John is called the paraclete (Gk. parakletos) or “the one called to stand besides,” sometimes termed “the advocate” or “helper” (Jn 16:7). There are multitudes of possible illustrations of the power of having one who stands beside us, who is our advocate or helper.
When Jesus says the Spirit will guide believers into all truth (Jn 16:13), it should be pointed out that this does not mean all kinds of truth. The Spirit will most certainly not solve a mathematical equation or explain what a proton is. The Spirit will guide the believers into spiritual truth or wisdom. This is consistent with the Bible’s concern for wisdom, as Proverbs 8, the Old Testament passage for this Sunday, speaks of it. In this beautiful wisdom writing, wisdom is personified as one who calls to those seeking her, who offers help to those in quest of her. Specifically, Jesus says, the Spirit will reveal what he hears about “things that are to come,” will glorify Jesus and take what belongs to Jesus and reveal it to believers, will take what the Father has given to Jesus and declare it to us. Clearly this is all spiritual truth, not all kinds of truth.
Post-resurrection history also teaches us that when Jesus speaks of “things to come,” (Jn 16:13) he does not mean some kind of timetable of events (the Left Behind series of books notwithstanding!). He is talking about the continuing presence of God’s guiding love after Jesus has returned to his Father. The Spirit will continue to confirm the truth about Jesus’ sacrificial, servant ministry, and will not speak of Himself, but rather of the Father’s love, which was also embodied in Jesus. Just as Jesus did not impart his own wisdom, but rather what God the Father was telling him, in the same manner, the Spirit is not a messenger on his own behalf, but rather reveals and confirms the truth about the Father and the Son. As the true heir, the only Son, Jesus ultimately possesses what the Father has. So if the Spirit teaches the post-resurrection community the reality of Jesus’ love and teachings, he is also offering the truth about the Father (Jn 16:15).
This kind of interconnected web of reality is typical of this body of teaching in John’s gospel (see, for example, Jn 17:6-10). This makes faith intensely relational and personal, though in John’s gospel the Spirit is never a private possession but is given to the whole community for its flourishing, infused by God’s loving compassion. Preachers will want to speak about Jesus’ intense concern for the well-being and guidance of his followers once the incarnation has ended. Like a loving parent who wants to leave a legacy of teaching, but also personal influence, Jesus is concerned with giving his disciples assurances that they will not be left alone, that they will have a helper to stand with them, that this helper will deepen their faith and understanding, and will not point to Himself but to the One who sent Him.
Throughout the upper room discourse, Jesus never speaks of himself in isolation, but models the power of community by explaining the complexity in the tri-unity of the Godhead. If God is love (another expressly Johannine concept, 1 Jn 4:8), then it can also be said that love is only experienced between a subject and another subject (the I-Thou dyad of Martin Buber’s famous meditation, I and Thou), or in fullness of community. Love between the Father and the Son is also shared by the Spirit, in a community of Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, in the one God. This is not a dry, theological concept, but rather a reality that suffuses the experience of every person who has ever yearned for love, given love, or experienced the indescribable joy of being loved. In the Scriptures, love is never a feeling, but is always giving (John 3:16-17).
The immediate result of the Spirit’s gift to the post-Pentecost Church was a revolution of loving community (Acts 2:43-47). The Spirit led them into the truth, in the sense that they were empowered to love, to live the truth as the world had not seen it before. The disciples’ grief over the departure of Jesus was swallowed up in the new hope they found in the afterglow of the resurrection, and now in the tangible effects of the presence of the Spirit, whom Jesus had promised. This powerful community, this intensity of love, was the truth Jesus promised the Spirit would bring. It is not a truth consisting of dry lists of facts; rather, it is a truth consisting of life-altering love, of a depth of devotion and caring the world had heretofore not known. It replicates the love Jesus knew with the Father and makes this love a present reality for the community of faith. It brings courage, where before there was fear, hope, where before there was grief and despair, and faith, which consists in a confidence that God is in control, working God’s purpose out, and God will not be deterred or thwarted.
The point of this weeks spoken essay should be the positive and wonderful aspects of the Holy Spirit in each of our lives. It can mean among many other things love at work. It means courage conquering fear it means hope before despair. It means God working out God’s purposes in a wonderful way side by side with each of us. It means God in our lives.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
In some circles, talking too much about the Holy Spirit might cause people to question your doctrinal credentials. We’re scared to go too deep in our experience of the Spirit’s presence and power because we’ve seen other people go to extremes.
There are several reasons for caution. We see the danger of seeking the Spirit apart from God’s Word.
First, seeking an experience with the Spirit apart from God’s Word leads people into dangerous territory. They listen for voices in their hearts or seek “signs” from God in the heavens. They always seem to be talking about what God “said to them” through a stirring in their spirit or in a strange confluence of circumstances. Their worship gatherings devolve into chaos, with strange experiences distracting from God’s Word and His gospel.
In reaction to these unfortunate expressions, we rush to the other extreme. “We don’t want to go there,” we think, and so we minimize any expectation of hearing from God’s Spirit or experiencing Him at all.
We don’t want to cause controversy among believers. Secondly, another reason we may be scared of the Spirit is because He is controversial. Christians come to different conclusions regarding the gift of tongues, or the Spirit’s baptism, or the Spirit’s filling. Often, you’ll find that people in the same congregation differ on these questions.
In order to keep controversy from breaking out in a church, the members keep quiet about the Spirit altogether. They think that affirming the basic truths about the Spirit is sufficient. Anything more may lead to disunity.
It’s true that getting hung up on secondary questions can distract us from our mission. But avoiding the Spirit in order to avoid the secondary issues is another way of keeping us from experiencing His presence and power!
3. We are afraid of what the Spirit may do through us.
There is a third reason why we may be scared of the Spirit, and this reason is more personal. Perhaps we are afraid of the Spirit because of what He may ask of us.
We see how the Spirit worked in the early church, how He guided and empowered believers, and rather than be excited by such activity, we’re frightened. We find it more comfortable to keep God at arm’s length, to focus on our behavior rather than our hearts, to focus on Him doctrinally rather than experientially, because we’re afraid He will call us to step out of our comfort zone.
The Spirit of Joy, Not Fear
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul encouraged believers to avoid causing unnecessary offense to other believers. He spoke specifically about how Christians should avoid passing judgment on one another by what they eat and drink. But then, he described the kingdom of God in a unique way:
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)
According to this verse, the kingdom of God is righteousness (Christ’s righteousness given to us in salvation, and the righteous behavior He is working in us), peace (with God and with others), and joy granted by the Holy Spirit. Too often, we associate the Spirit with crazy manifestations, division in the church, or fear of what He may ask of us.
But this verse flips our way of thinking upside down.
The Spirit’s presence doesn’t lead to distracting and self-focused practices of piety, but the righteousness of God’s kingdom.
The Spirit’s presence doesn’t stir up division, but peace with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Spirit’s presence doesn’t grant us fear, but joy in fulfilling His will. (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/3-reasons-we-get-scared-of-the-holy-spirit/)
Many Christians are scared of any experience with the Holy Spirit because they don't want counterfeit experiences. Many of them thus decide to keep a safe distance from the gifts of the Spirit rather than get into dangerous situations. They are right in wanting to have it safe, but very much wrong in missing out on the genuine.
The Holy Spirit is the Comforter and Helper whom the Father has sent us after Jesus went up to heaven after His resurrection (Jn.14:16). The Holy Spirit helps us to repent (Jn.16:8) and to pray (Ro.8:26), reminds us about the things Jesus has taught us (Jn.14:26), makes Jesus more and more attractive to us (Jn.16:14), gives us power to be witnesses for Jesus (Ac.1:8), transforms us into the character of Jesus (2Co.3:18), gives us gifts to serve and bless the others with (1Co.12:7), guides us in the way we should go (Ro.8:14), comforts us (Ac.9:31), etc. What a great loss for us if we miss Him! However, can we live a proper Christian life without Him!
Yet it is true that there are many counterfeit experiences that we need to avoid. We are not to believe every manifestation that looks like coming from the Holy Spirit (1Jn.4:1). Are you afraid you might end up getting a counterfeit? Remember it is our Father who gives us the Holy Spirit, and He has promised that if we ask for bread, He won't give us a stone, and if we ask for fish He won't give us a snake (Mt.7:9-11). If we seek Him honestly and sincerely for the Holy Spirit and we are not looking for cheap thrills, we can trust Him to give us the genuine experience. (https://www.c-n-c.org/nug/nug50.htm)
A biblical writer named Luke described a conversation between the Apostle Paul and 12 followers of Jesus in a city of Ephesus. Paul asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied, “We didn’t even know there was a Holy Spirit.” (Acts 19:1–7)
About a year ago I had the same conversation with a lifelong believer in our church. I was teaching a few men about the Holy Spirit. Then afterward, one man came up to me privately and said, “I didn’t even know there was a Holy Spirit.”
Just last night, it happened again. A very strong Christian heard I was preaching on the Holy Spirit and said, “I don’t know much about the Holy Spirit. I know God the Father is my true father and creator. I know Jesus is God, the Son, my Savior. But I really don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit.”
I know exactly how they feel. As Lutherans, we almost avoid the Holy Spirit.
Lutherans are known for emphasizing Jesus Christ.
Every worship service, Bible study, and children’s Sunday school stresses the death and resurrection of Jesus (as it should!).
But why are we so afraid of the Holy Spirit?
Our avoidance of the Holy Spirit is cultural, not Scriptural
Lutherans find their origin in the Reformation of Martin Luther. 500 years ago, Martin Luther boldly exposed the abuses in the church and returned God’s people to the foundational teachings of Christianity: We are saved by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone, standing on the Scriptures alone.
During Luther’s day there also was a group called the prophets. Supposedly they claimed to have direct revelations from the Holy Spirit. They went so far as to say, “We don’t need the Bible because we have the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Luther knew that the Holy Spirit would never be opposed to Scripture. So, he denounced those false teachers. (Thank God!) In his mind, these men were very similar to many teachers in the Roman Catholic Church, who minimized the importance of the Bible because they had the “Traditions of the Church.”
Luther had a name for anyone who tried to know God primarily outside of the written Scriptures; He called them “Schwärmerei”, pronounced shver-muh-RY, which means enthusiast or fanatic.
“Schwärmerei” was a demeaning term in Luther’s day, and it is still used today.
I remember hearing the term tossed around a lot at the seminary, mostly by fellow students. If you seemed to be emphasizing the Holy Spirit too much you would be called a “schwärmerei”. That word was like a pin that popped any young pastor who seemed to be too filled with the Spirit’s passion.
Modern day Lutheran culture
Can you see how Luther’s experience has trickled down through the ages and has formed the culture in the Lutheran church today? Can you connect the dots? Luther’s negative experience and fear have been passed on to Lutheran pastors, which has been passed on to congregations.
If you consider yourself a Lutheran, you know what I mean. You have sung the ancient refrain: “Come Holy Spirit, renew our hearts and kindle in us the fireof your love”, but inside you know you are really singing, “Come Holy Spirit, but not too much, I don’t want people thinking I’m Pentecostal.”
Does anybody else see a problem here?
In our zeal for preserving the Scriptures we have neglected clear commands/invitations from the Lord:
• Pray for the Spirit (Luke 11:13)
• Do NOT quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19)
• Eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:1).
• Do not grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30)
• Be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18)
We must change our culture, NOT our doctrine
Before I go any further, let me clearly say: Lutherans are Christians that have a sincere love of Jesus and a deep love for the Bible. I love being Lutheran. But I suspect that I’m not the only one who is thinking…something is still missing.
Have you ever talked to someone who has visited our churches? Have you ever heard someone say, “It just seemed a little dry” or “It just seemed a little cold”?
There are some who would say, “We just need to liven up the liturgy or get rid of it all together.” But I think the issue is much deeper.
I believe we need to embrace all that God’s Word says about the Holy Spirit.
Martin Luther himself wrote beautifully about the Holy Spirit and his gifts in the explanation of the Apostle’s Creed:
“I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified me and kept me in the one true faith.”
We believe and teach the truth about the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, our culture in our congregations keeps us from embracing what we teach.
Embracing the Holy Spirit
So what are we going to do? How do we faithfully believe and receive the Holy Spirit without becoming schwärmerei?
We need to believe and practice no more and no less than what the Scriptures say.
So what do the Scriptures say concerning the Holy Spirit?
Every Christian has the Holy Spirit.
Paul says, “No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). That means every believer came to faith in Jesus because they were moved by the Holy Spirit. If you are a Christian, you already have the Holy Spirit whether you feel him or not.
It also means that you can’t argue someone into the faith. The Holy Spirit must work through the Word to convert someone. The pressure is off. So go out and discuss and declare the truth about sin and salvation through Jesus Christ with your unbelieving neighbor, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to change their hearts.
Pray for the Spirit.
In Luke 11, Jesus’ disciples ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” So Jesus taught them the Lord’s Prayer. Then Jesus invites his followers to ask and seek and knock on the door of God’s heart. And what does Jesus say they ought to pray for? Read it for yourself:
“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)
Jesus is inviting you to ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he promises to answer that prayer.
Don’t resist the Spirit.
As mentioned earlier, because of cultural pressure you might pray, “Come Holy Spirit…but not too much. I don’t want to be too filled up or too on fire for you.”
But James, Jesus’ brother, warns against praying without trusting in God’s answer. He says, “Such a person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:7–8).
That means: let down your guard. Jesus is inviting you to pray for the filling of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit is a good thing. Don’t resist this blessing. Don’t be scared of what He could do through you and in you.
Be filled with the Spirit
You might be wondering, “If every Christian already has the Holy Spirit, why would Jesus tell us to pray for the Holy Spirit?” Well, every Christian has the Holy Spirit, but not every Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit. This is not my idea. Again read the verse for yourself:
“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18)
So, what does it mean to be “filled with the Spirit.”? It doesn’t mean some Christians are better or more loved or more saved than others. It just means God is at work in them. The Holy Spirit is strengthening their faith to carry out his will.
Maybe this still doesn’t make sense. So let’s look at the example of the disciples before and after Pentecost.
Before Pentecost…They believed in Jesus, but they were confused on the importance of the cross. They loved Jesus, but they were still obsessed with being first. They followed Jesus, but they would not follow him to death.
After Pentecost…they were still sinners who struggled with temptation and stumbled, but…They believed and preached that the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus was their everything. They loved and glorified Jesus above themselves. They followed Jesus to the death. (All the Apostles, except John, died for their faith.)
Let me make a bold statement, even if you might disagree with me: I believe many of us Lutherans, including myself, have a pre-Pentecost faith and life. We are Christians that love Jesus and the Word of God, but we lack joy and passion.
My prayer is that we would be filled with the Holy Spirit so that we would have the boldness, humility, joy, and the desire of the post-Pentecost disciples.
Gifts of the Spirit
Being filled with the Holy Spirit doesn’t necessarily mean that you will prophesy or speak in tongues. I have no experience with such gifts, and no real desire to pursue them.
I believe being filled with the Holy Spirit means that you will have the fruit of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22–23.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Just look at that list! This is what every Christian aspires to be! We are by nature sinners and we cannot produce these good works on our own.We need a supernatural power to work in us and through us.
How does it happen? The Holy Spirit always, always focuses us on Jesus and his love for us. (See John 16:12–15) Then the love of Jesus fills us up so that we produce good fruit.
Test the spirits
Martin Luther was right in confronting the Zwickau Prophets. They were false teachers. But just because some people have abused the gifts of the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean we need to throw out everything that the Bible teaches about the Holy Spirit. Instead, John says, “Test the spirits”.
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. (1 John 4:1–3)
So how do we test the spirits? How do we know what is the work of the Holy Spirit and what is not?
God’s Word gives us some direction: The Holy Spirit inspired every word of the Bible, so he will never go against Scripture. (See 2 Peter 1:21) The Holy Spirit will always put the spotlight on Christ. (See 1 John 4 above, 1 Corinthians 12–14, and Acts 19:13–16) The gifts of the Holy Spirit will lead to love and humility, not pride and self-promotion. For example, Peter tested the motives Simon the Sorcerer, and Paul tested the work of the Spirit in Corinth. See 1 Corinthians 12–14. In both cases, the Apostles confronted and denounced those false teachers. And yet, the wickedness of a few did not stop them from teaching and promoting the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The reason I love being a Lutheran is because we believe: “The Bible is our authority.” If a teaching is in the Bible, we believe it’s true. Well, the Bible says a great deal about the power and working of the Holy Spirit.
But because of our Lutheran culture we seem to avoid some of these passages.
My prayer is that this blog might lead you to study, learn, and embrace everything the Bible says about the Holy Spirit.
Take Jesus at his word.
Drop your cultural defenses
Pray, “Come, Holy Spirit”
And you won’t just know about him.
You will know the Spirit himself. (https://medium.com/@pastorbensadler/why-are-lutherans-so-afraid-of-the-holy-spirit-4eff73351c87)
Until very recently, communication and organization were experienced by most people in a hierarchical structure, or chain of command. Post-modern organizational and communication theory thinks in terms of webs or networks, with point-to-point, decentralized communication and authority. This has a subversive effect on traditional structures and is very disconcerting for people who are baby boomers or older (born before approximately 1955). Since Vietnam and Watergate, and especially with the advent of the World Wide Web, old top-down or bottom-up ways of thinking are giving way to new forms of organization and communication which is more point-to-point, private or focused, and intensely personal. “Organized religion” has less appeal to such “Generation X-ers,” than it did to some of their parents and grandparents. Security is found in personal creativity, flexibility and affinity-based groups, rather than in large, formal structures. What this paradigm shift will mean to the Church is only now beginning to be explored.
I have climbed Longs Peak in northern Colorado several times, but the first time I climbed was at midnight on a moonlit night with several experienced climbers from the National Park Service. Because I was with them, I didn’t need to know clearly what was around the next bend, or over the next ridge, or beyond the Boulder field. Once I had climbed with only my two younger sons, and when we reached a particularly windy spot, before some steep ledges, we turned back, fearful that the wind would knock us off balance. From my National Park Service guides, I learned that just beyond that windy spot was a dead calm, and that wind was normal there, and not to be feared. Having their experience to guide me, I could be confident and courageous; their presence encouraged me, that is, gave me courage.
We can think of numerous famous partnerships, where the combination of the two produced something greater than the sum of the parts. Rodgers and Hammerstein, George and Ira Gershwin, Abbot and Costello, the Beatles, all come to mind as examples from the world of entertainment. But there have been important religious partnerships as well, like John and Charles Wesley, for example. Her associate Phoebe Knapp always accompanied the great hymn writer Fanny Crosby, who wrote more than 3,000 hymns, though she was totally blind. Together, they made an amazing team. We can think of many partnerships like this: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, Wilbur and Orville Wright, or Daniel Burnham and John Root (great architects of Chicago in the late 19th century). Just so, our partnership with the Holy Spirit makes possible courage, creativity, and deep faith, because God is with us.
Lichen is that fuzzy stuff that grows on the surface of hard rock, like granite or gneiss. Lichen come in many colors: brown, green, even bright orange. They are not a single organism. Instead they are both an alga and a fungus, living together in what biologists call a symbiotic relationship. One can’t flourish without the other.
Horses gain courage from their riders, if they have a good partnership relationship. Ordinarily, a horse would not jump a solid object, unless it were the only way out of a life-threatening situation. But with trust in a rider, the horse can be induced to jump a fence, where otherwise it would just run around it. The courage and wisdom of the rider gives courage and confidence to the horse.
Americans use the term “attorney,” but in the United Kingdom they are “advocates,” and stand beside the accused, guiding their defense. The advocate coaches his or her client in their testimony, in order to make it as convincing as possible, and the very presence of the advocate brings courage and conviction. The advocate helps clarify and organize the client’s memories into coherent testimony, and speaks not of his own welfare, but rather, ideally, seeks to represent the truth.
Mnemonics are devices or patterns that aid memory, like tying a string around your finger or memorizing an anagram to help you remember. “Homes” reminds us of the names of the five Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior. Memory is vital to many professions and practices. Memories can be harder to recall over time. Mnemonics aid us in recall, so we can retain data we need in the present.
Memory is an important component in a personal computer: it holds together an application currently in use and the data it needs. Some memory can be changed (Random Access Memory, or RAM), and some can only be read (ROM, or Read Only Memory, as in “CD-ROM”). Memory capacity affects the speed with which data can be manipulated. Memory preserves the past, for use in the present, in ways that affect the future.
Knowing when to be silent and when to speak is a valuable skill. Saying something we think is profound is a waste of time if our hearer is distracted by a present trouble, or can’t understand or appreciate what we’re saying. It is a maxim of communication that only the message received is significant. It’s not what we think we sent out, but rather what is received, with the influence of the hearer, that represents real communication. Perception is reality to the hearer. Children cannot appreciate perseverance, since they haven’t lived long enough to see its value. Mark Twain once said “Youth is wasted on children.”
There’s a major difference between being guided into truth, and being guided into honesty. One is an apparently objective reality, independent of its bearer. The other is a function of relationship. To be “honest and true” is to be trustworthy in relationships, to be dependable. Such truth is an expression of love, a commitment to the soundness of relationship. One of the worst things that can happen in a relationship is for trust to be broken. Once damaged, it is difficult, if not impossible, to restore. On the other hand, faithfulness practiced over a long duration, strengthens relationships like nothing else
In the Academy Award winning film Lost In Translation (2003), Bill Murray plays an American actor in Japan to make a Suntory whiskey commercial. Plunged into an alien culture, with different values and mores, frenetic with technology, and trendy to the max, the actor feels alienated and alone. Overheard phone conversations with his wife tell us he is in a loveless marriage to a woman for whom superficialities and demands are more important than real relationship. Looking for companionship and love, he happens upon the young wife of an American photographer, who feels abandoned by her new husband, who is always off on a photo shoot or courting the interest of an airhead actress. This unlikely couple matches up for some fun together. There is no sex, or instant intimacy, but because both feel like fish out of water, they latch onto each other and feel mutual understanding and appreciation. His yearning for simple love calls out to her need for recognition and attention. In the closing moments of the film, as Bill Murray heads for the airport to return to the States, he sees the young woman in a crowd. He runs from his taxi and takes her in his arms, and they hold one another in an embrace that says volumes about their need for real love and appreciation. For a brief moment, they exist in a kind of suspended animation, savoring a fleeting experience of simple affection. When they part, probably forever, we know they will each hold a sustaining memory of the sweetness of that moment.
All the work of the Holy Spirit is Christamorphic in nature. To bring men and women to the new birth spoken of in John 3 and to shape them until Christ Jesus shines through their lives is “job one”. As the caterpillar wraps himself in silk and prepares for what only God can do, so Christians, having despaired of self-help remedies for their sinfulness, allow themselves to be wrapped in the love of God until in His time Christlikeness emerges. Christamorphosis is only metamorphosis taken to another level.
“The spirit of man is more important than mere physical strength, and the spiritual fiber of a nation than its wealth.” (Dwight D. Eisenhower)
“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives.” (Thomas Merton)
“You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.” (Pierre Teilhard De Chardin)
“To pray in the name of Christ, our Mediator, is not to repeat a formula, but to trust His redemptive work, to ask for His intercession, to depend upon His presence with us and to desire what He has taught us to value and believe.” (A Brief Statement of Faith, Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church, 1962).
“The world has yet to see what God will do with a man who is fully and wholly consecrated to the Holy Spirit.” (Henry Varley).
“The Holy Spirit can’t save saints or seats. If we don’t know any non-Christians, how can we introduce them to the Savior?” (Paul Little).
It is interesting and ironic that a beloved hymn on the Holy Spirit was written by a Unitarian. Rev. Samuel Longfellow, writing in 1864, did not accept the Trinity. Nonetheless his hymn to God the Spirit has made its way into most of our hymnals, and we are the richer for it.
In verse One we pray, “Holy Spirit, truth divine, dawn upon this soul of mine.” Thus Longfellow follows Jesus’ example in the Upper Room when the Master promised that “the Spirit of truth would come and guide them into the truth. In the other three verses the Spirit is referred to as love, power, and right.
So often we think of the Holy Spirit as the one who comforts us, who challenges us and motivates us to action, who inspires great art or poetry. Yet Jesus here specifically says one of the major roles of the Spirit is to lead us to truth. In an election year in the U.S., when the truth often comes up missing in the midst of heated debate, perhaps the churches all need to invoke the Spirit to lead us into hearing the truth that is often hidden so as to make good decisions when we come to vote.
Being led into the truth about Jesus is certainly what many people are interested in. According to American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, Stephen Prothero reports that the Library of Congress has more books about Jesus (more than 17,000) than about any other historical figure. The next closest runner-up is William Shakespeare, who has about half that many books written about him. As time goes by, though, Jesus is widening the gap, with more and more books being published about him nearly every week.
The Holy Spirit is the means by which we have access to Jesus today. According to Reuters (1/16/04), a company in Finland was recently closed down. The firm had been charging people to receive text messages from Jesus. If a person sent a text message prayer to a particular phone number, for a price of 1.20 euros, the company said the person would receive a personalized message from Jesus. The owner of the business that was sending the “Jesus messages,” though, said the service was not extremely profitable. He reported, “This was no gold mine....It seems you can’t interest people in everything.” One Finnish tabloid checked out the service and found it rather lacking in inspiration. The newspaper sent a text message prayer of desperation, which was answered: “Remember: unless you follow God’s will much better than priests and pharaohs, you will not be allowed into the heavenly kingdom.” Undoubtedly the Holy Spirit would do a better job, and for a cost of 1.20 euros less.
Are we willing to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into the truth, or do we prefer to pursue our own version of the truth instead? In American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, Stephen Prothero details how Thomas Jefferson proceeded to craft his own version of the New Testament to match his personal view of the truth. On January 20, 1804, Jefferson ordered two copies of the King James Bible from a Philadelphia bookseller. When the Bibles arrived, he cut out what he considered to be the authentic teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and pasted them into two columns on 46 octavo sheets, which was the size of paper that was commonly used by ministers at that time. Jefferson called his work “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.” In his editing work, Jefferson eliminated all references to miracles, the virgin birth, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension. Basically he deleted anything that had a whiff of the supernatural. In the end, only about one out of every ten verses in the Gospels survived. Later, around 1819, Jefferson produced a volume titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” which became popularly known as the Jefferson Bible. In that work, Jefferson included what he considered to be the genuine sayings of Jesus, as well as the deeds that Jesus actually performed. He began the volume with the announcement by Caesar that the world should be taxed, and he ended with a summary statement: “There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” In between, Jefferson retained no mention of angels or wise men, nor any hint of the resurrection.
In American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, Stephen Prothero observes that apologists for Hinduism have long contended that even polytheists can only worship one god at a time. The same seems to be true, Prothero suggests, for trinitarian Christians. He argues that while Christians insist they affirm the divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Christians tend to focus on one of the three. For instance, Prothero points to how the colonial Puritans emphasized the Father; nineteenth century evangelicals focused on the Son; and modern-day Pentecostals stress the Holy Spirit.
Jesus promises that the Spirit will lead us into the truth. That certainly is some help that we need, because all too often we allow circumstances around us to shape what we think is true. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz mentions a study where participants were asked to estimate the number of deaths that occur each year due to various causes, such as diseases, car accidents, natural disasters, electrocutions, and murders. The researchers then compared the answers that the people gave to the actual death rates. When they made that comparison, the results were striking. The survey participants indicated that they believed that as many people died from accidents as from diseases, when in reality sixteen times more people die because of disease than accident. In addition, they indicated that they thought that death by homicide occurred just as frequently as death by stroke, when in fact eleven times as many people die from stroke than homicide. In general, the researchers determined that dramatic, vivid causes of death (e.g., accident, homicide, tornado, etc.) were overestimated, while more mundane causes of death (e.g., diabetes, asthma, stroke, etc.) were underestimated. What the researchers found was the frequency of newspaper coverage and the respondents’ estimates of the frequency of death were in almost perfect correlation. Because the newspapers often reported about deaths due to homicide, accidents, and fire, people assumed they were more common occurrences. Meanwhile, since the papers comparatively rarely mentioned people dying from diseases, the public assumed they were less common than they are. The study certainly revealed that our conception of the truth is at least in part shaped by the media.
The Holy Spirit offers us the opportunity to have direct access to God. Others in the world attempt to achieve that access by writing letters. According to Reuters (10/2/03), if you address an envelope with “God, the Wailing Wall” or “God, Jerusalem,” the letter will eventually be taken by the post office, placed in a velvet bag, and placed in a crack at the Wailing Wall. Hundreds of people each year address envelopes in that way. Recently such letters have arrived from as far away as Ghana, France, Nigeria, and the United States. The post office says the letters range from pleas for healing from some disease to prayers for help with a troubled marriage to a request to help a person become a millionaire.
In A Brief History of Heaven, Alister McGrath recounts how Augustine had an encounter one day that helped him to understand what Jesus was saying when he told the disciples that they could not bear to hear all of the truth. One day Augustine was pacing along the shore of the Mediterranean in North Africa near his hometown of Carthage. As he made his way along the sandy coast, he saw a small boy scooping seawater into his hands and pouring it into a hole that he had dug into the beach. The child was obviously intent upon emptying the ocean into the small pit that he had constructed. Augustine saw how futile the child’s efforts were and thought to himself, “How could such a vast body of water be contained in such a small hole?” But then it occurred to Augustine, “How could he expect to contain the vast mystery of God in the mere words of a book?” There are limits placed upon the human ability to grasp the things of God.
What is the truth? That seems to be a question that’s up for grabs today. According to a Barna Research Group poll released in November of last year, 61% of adults in the United States consider gambling to be morally acceptable. Other activities that are considered acceptable are cohabitation
, enjoying sexual fantasies about someone
, committing adultery
, and using illicit drugs
But is all this true just because of the way the questions were asked? Is this only true for a majority leaving out the minority. Is it true at all? Finding the truth is more difficult than a survey.
The Spirit urges us to compare our version of the truth to what the truth really is. An article in the Toledo Blade (12/30/03) reported on how a figure of the baby Jesus was stolen from a church manger in the town of Maumee, Ohio. Two weeks later, though, the figure was returned to St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. But when it reappeared, the original white skin on the figure had been painted dark brown. A note was attached to Jesus that said: “Sorry I took your baby Jesus. It was a childish prank. As far as his new color, I thought I would point out that Jesus was not an Aryan but actually a man of color. Although you probably knew this but would rather not be reminded.” The thief added that the paint job was “not some sort of racial thing...actually I’m white. But I know what color Jesus was.” The thief had very carefully applied the brown paint to the Fiberglass statue, adding shades of gray onto the figure’s fingernails and palms. Dr. Henry Bowden, executive secretary of the American Society of Church History, agrees that Jesus probably had a dark complexion. He notes that the image of Jesus as a white-skinned, fair-haired man with blue eyes dates back to ancient Europe, when artists tried to portray Jesus as one of their own. Bowden observes that Jesus is often “indigenized” in other cultures. In African churches, black Jesuses are often found, while in Central America, Jesus often takes on Latino features. The church in Ohio was going to decide whether to remove the black paint or leave it as it is.
Many people today aren’t necessarily concerned about doing what’s true. Rather their concern is simply to do what it takes to get ahead. That’s the thesis of The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. Author David Callahan describes how increasing numbers of high school students, particularly in wealthy communities, are being taken to psychiatrists so they can be diagnosed with a learning disability. If students are classified with a learning disability, then those students are automatically given additional time to complete their SAT exams. A further bonus is that colleges are not informed that those students were given extra time or have been diagnosed with a learning disability. Therefore, to give their children an advantage on their SATs—where a few points difference in the scores can determine whether a student gets into the Ivy League or not—wealthy families shop around for psychiatrists who are willing to fabricate such diagnoses. At the same time poorer children who legitimately qualify as having learning disabilities are often unable to afford the examination that is needed to obtain that classification. The result is that richer kids are often given an extra advantage when it comes to the competitive task of applying for college admissions. Some wealthy families admit that what they’re doing is not entirely truthful, but they justify their actions by pointing out that it’s what everyone else is doing.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: The glory of the Lord is chanted by the mouth of babes and infants,
People: When we look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is it that you are mindful of us?
Leader: Yet the Creator has made us little less than God, and crowns us with glory and honor.
People: God has given us dominion over the works of his hands; over all the creatures of the earth.
All: O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Leader: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”
People: But too often we do not want to see or hear the truth, lest our sins be exposed by its light. Good Lord forgive us.
Leader: “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
People: However, we seek to glorify ourselves by our thoughts, words and deeds. Good Lord forgive us. (Silent Confession)
Leader: “All that the Father has is mine; therefore, I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
People: Dear God, we thank you for your gracious treatment of us. We promise that with the aid of your Spirit we shall try to live in a manner that shows forth your truth, and your love. Amen
As you, O Lord, have freely given us your Spirit of truth, so may we freely give these gifts as truly reflecting our love and devotion to you. Amen.
Gracious God, we live in a world that clings to half-truths and values lies and surface appearances, rather than the truth revealed in your Son. We thank you that you have given us your Spirit of truth to guide and comfort us in our pilgrimage. May you also give us humility so that we will be preserved from spiritual pride and arrogance. May we always be able to discern the truth in others and their positions, even when they seem to clash with ours. We thank you that you have surrounded us with fellow pilgrims with whom we can explore and share your truth. May our church continue to grow in its commitment to honor you by serving those in need. And so we lift up to you today not only our own members who are ill, grieving, or facing other difficulties, but all those who suffer. Especially be with those who are victims of violent forces of nature and of humanity, who perhaps feel alone in an uncaring world. We thank you for all those who work on their behalf—advocates of peace and justice, aid workers and medical staff, diplomats and missionaries—and we pray that you will stir us to aid them through our prayers and contributions of time, talent and treasure. This we ask in the one who promised us your Spirit of truth, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen