Category Archives: Holy Spirit

Will I notice?

A little more than two thousand years ago a baby was born. We throw parties in his honor. We give gifts. We feast. We sing. We make merry, yearning for that spirit of his birthday to infuse our souls; if only for a season, if only for a day.

We celebrate this particular birth because of what this birth means to this world. We honor this baby for the miracle of being born, for the life he lived, for the death he suffered and for being reborn from the dead to embrace life eternally. This rebirth from the dead gives us the chance to be reborn as well, moving from death to life and from darkness to hope.

On December 25 we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

The birth of this man is the glory we celebrate on Christmas. Pageants, musicals, songs, decorations, gatherings of family from across the nation, all because this man was born.

What if he had not been born? Where would we be today?

How would we live? How would we worship?

We would be without a way to encounter God directly. We would be without an ever present hope and without the peace of trusting God who works. Instead of being free, we would all be slaves. Where would we look for our salvation? To gods of stone and wood? To patterns of philosophy? To rules and laws? To ourselves and our own abilities to conquer this world?

Without the birth of Jesus we would be caught in a web of insecurity, never knowing how the vagaries of the gods might move in our lives. We would be looking for something, for anything, to bring us some security and hope and light.

Where would we look?

What if the Holy Spirit waited and didn’t bring forth Jesus until this year?

If Jesus was born today I wouldn’t even notice. He wouldn’t be born anywhere I was looking.

The details of his birth likely wouldn’t be too much different. He would be born to Jewish parents, as the delay of two thousand years wouldn’t change the Old Testament prophecies. He’d likely even be born in the Middle East, where the strife and terror and chaos of our current era is shockingly similar to the strife and terror and chaos then. Instead of traveling because of a census, Joseph and Mary might make an untimely trip because of a UN mandate or an agreement with Lebanon to close a northern Kibbutz and move the families back within the settled boundaries of Israel.

I would be looking at powerful leaders and charismatic prophets. I would keep my eyes on New York or London or Beijing. I would be following the lives of great people and care about the children they have. In my library would be books by men and women detailing how to interpret the symbols of the age.

My eyes would be on the things that clearly mattered. An obscure baby, born to an obscure Jewish family, during a this time of great chaos and uncertainty, wouldn’t appear on my radar. Who would think of looking there? Except for the wise men, of course.

I would be obsessed with the looking I imagine, desperate to see the hand of God in the midst of the world’s misery. In the book of Exodus he brought plagues and freedom. In the books that followed he brought great victories to his chosen people and established a great earthly kingdom for them. Wars and rumors of wars, along with miraculous intervention in these wars would be a sign. The Holy Spirit is filled with power so I would look for that power to be manifested in great events that would obviously change my life and bring real order to this present world.

If Jesus was born today I wouldn’t celebrate. I wouldn’t give presents. I wouldn’t sing songs or take time off from work. I would stay obsessed with the chaos and keep my eye on those people I knew mattered to this world

No doubt about it, if Jesus was born today I wouldn’t even notice.

Thank God the Holy Spirit brought forth Jesus in Mary two thousand years ago. Now, after many centuries I build my trust on the faith of millions of others who came before me. I build my trust on those who wrote about the obscure birth in an out of the way Israeli town. I celebrate not because of how Jesus was born but because I know the end of the story. The Holy Spirit worked long ago, so now I know where to look on this Christmas day.

And yet…

The Holy Spirit still works. In much the same way. Jesus is born on this day. No, he is not making another appearance as a defenseless baby destined to be baptized by the Baptist and die on the cross. Still, he is born on this day. This is the ever active work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who visited Mary fills men and women all over the world. When the Holy Spirit descends, Christ makes an appearance in all manner of circumstances.

I would not have noticed when Jesus was born two thousand years ago, and I certainly would not notice if he was today born to a virgin. However, because of Christmas I have been given an opportunity to believe and look with new eyes. I have been called to notice the present work of Christ’s presence in this world.

I’m going to put aside my magazines, shut off the news, ignore the popular and the great. I’m going to look at the obscure and the troubled and those who are persecuted. I’m going to look around the room at folks who seem entirely average and unimpressive. The Spirit works through such people to bring Christ in this world. In recognizing, honoring, and supporting this work maybe I too can become a wise man.

So, on this Christmas I celebrate the birth of Christ two thousand years ago. I also celebrate the birth of Christ today, a constant birth that changes the world through outlandish people every day until his return. For in all those the Spirit fills, Christ is indeed born.

Will I notice?

(Something I wrote in 2006)

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Right Passions

I begin each week of my online courses with a reflection on the theme of the week. It is a devotional beginning, a way of getting the students to think about the topic in light of Scripture, often more pastoral and personal than specifically theological. Of course, the theological is part and parcel with those elements, even as the conventional approaches to theology these days are more academic in tone.

In my class on the Holy Spirit this week, we’re looking more closely at the topic of orthopathy, which means “right passions” in theological parlance.  Along with orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopraxy (right actions), it is one of the ways the Spirit works to orient our self, in our community, with God.

In case you’re interested in what I’m up to in my teaching, here’s my reflection that begins this week’s discussion:

Consideration of Week 4

Read: 1 Kings 19:1-18; Jeremiah 20:7-18; Acts 16:11-34; Ephesians 5:15-20

When I was in college, I experienced a roller coaster in my relationship with God.  I went to a Christian school in the Chicago area because I felt God leading me there. And God had plans for me while there but they didn’t seem to fit into the expected college experience. It was a place of training and training often involves breaking.  Which came. Harshly. Before that there was an awakening.  Moments and days in which I felt my heart and mind and whole being opening up in a new vision of God’s work, a deep awareness of God’s presence, an assurance of God’s being.

There were moments of theophany, of discovering a deep truth behind the apparent truths, a perception of complete coherence. I didn’t have words for these experiences even as I knew they were real. I felt my very being stretch and expand, feeling at times both loosely connected to this world and utterly embedded, a part of God’s creation.  Then a turn.

Everything crumbled, the light went from on to off, the presence of God departed.  At least that’s how it felt. A turn to loneliness deepened by even the absence of God’s encouragement and hope. I felt destitute. Empty.  Prayers extending into shadows and emptiness.  Feeling lost in my faith, my being, my hope.

Carried on by that earlier divine presence. There’s something there. I knew it. But could not see it or feel it.  All was dark.

I refused to let go, even in the pain and frustration.  I read more, sought answers, asked for counsel.  Reading helped but only to show that my experience was not unique. It was a common experience through Scripture, throughout the stories of women and men in history. They were close to God and then they encountered a wide ditch of God’s absence. No way forward. No way back.

I knew the facts about God, the story about God’s work in Scripture and history, the doctrines of faith.  But where was the life?  I missed it but knew there was something there.  I pressed on, not giving up, not running away.

A path was there but it was surrounded by dangers and thorns and troubles.  Encouragement came in fleeting glimpses, the fifth door on the left slightly ajar. Just enough sense of joy to become bread crumbs of discovery, a persistent discouragement at every other turn to prevent me from walking down distracting roads.

God kept me on the path, but did so by a dynamic interaction that led me through ups and downs, through college, into seminary, at churches, in the mountains, back for more study and then teaching.  The ups and downs were not required by God, but were my experiences of being buffeted in too many directions, competing narratives and goals pulling me left and right, out and in, up and down, rather than steady in my faith and patient in the journey.

My heart variously strangely warm and strangely cold, a roller coaster turning into a refined palate, increasingly able to attune myself in God’s grace, centering in Christ, navigating in the whispers and moves of the Spirit.

Such dynamic experiences tend to resist intellectual analysis, resulting in those groans and utterances of tongues or music, trying to express that which is indeterminate at first, then indescribable.  Trying to find the words leads deeper down the path. I discovered and was given words not so that I can manage God but so that I can come alongside, able to be a voice of comfort, hope, counsel, a heart transformed by the Spirit better able to participate with the Spirit in my context.

The presence of God is indeed more than a validation for us. The Spirit calls us and is shaping the whole of our being to be renewed in light of God’s life and mission.  Becoming attuned to this mission reaches into the deepest parts of ourselves, places we are most vulnerable and broken, places we may also be the most strong and full of meaning. Our spirit in the presence of God’s Spirit.

What are your desires on this day? What is your mood? What are your passions and hopes and fears?  Lay these out, call them by name, seek wisdom about what is oriented in God and what needs redirection towards God. Let the Spirit comfort, let the Spirit transform.  It is not easy, o difficult, though sometimes it is wonderful.

The promise of this journey is peace and stillness, even in troubles, hope in times of mystery, rest in times of comfort.  When our desires and emotions match the mission of God in the moment we begin to dance, no longer tossed and torn by the storms. We become effective in the moment, in the place, in the purpose.  At the end of all things, still standing (Eph. 6:13).

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Hope for the Oppressor

Here’s a bit from the conclusion of my newly completed (but not yet finished) book. Main writing is done, but there are a lot of assorted tasks to do before it’s ready for printing. Divine DanceFor now, though, I celebrate the end of the most significant stage. Writing is done, now on to editing.

A small part of what I had to say:

In this text, I am unapologetically pursuing a particularly Christian theology. Such an approach begins with presuppositions about the nature of this world, past and present and future. My fundamental argument is that liberation, true and lasting liberation, happens only in light of the work of Christ, oriented and empowered in the work of the Spirit who leads us to fullness in communion with the Father. Thus, this is also evangelistic. I am, as fits my abilities and the confines of this medium, preaching what has long been called the Good News. What makes this news good? God. This nature and engagement by God in creating, redeeming, and renewing this world is the heart of a gospel of liberation. This Good News is music we play, a rhythm we live, a chorus of like and unlike together joining together in celebration with God’s freedom. Liberation is indeed a new song.

Such liberation involves a transformation of desires, an empowering and enlivening renewal in which the best of who we are becomes fully realized. Such liberation does not negate achievement or pursuit of one’s best. If desires are repressed or if a person is restricted or their ability to achieve their goals is reduced, the tendency is to fall into despair or learned helplessness, where effort is no longer productive. In light of the Spirit, our pursuit of our best endures because we find fulfillment in being in rhythm with God’s work in our lives and contexts. While seemingly counterintuitive, this is the experience of artists, musicians, and others who are engaged in a task with passion. The efforts rarely result in riches but do lead towards fuller sense of self, in which broader acclaim or validation is not necessary. Our desires become integrated with each other and with this world, coherent with God and with others so that there is no longer a constant clashing of demands and restrictions. We experience a freedom for many that includes many. Liberation is a dance.

Posted in God, Holy Spirit, liberation, writing | 5 Comments

Christianity as Community

What does the community that corresponds to the triune God and lives in him look like? We find the classic text for this in Acts 4:32-37:

“The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common…There was not a needy person among them.”

This so-called early Christian communism was not a social programme; it was the expression of the new Trinitarian experience of sociality. These Christians put their community above the individual and above their individual private possessions.

They no longer needed these possessions in order to make their lives secure. In the spirit of the resurrection their fear of death disappeared, and with it the greed for life. And so they had enough, more than enough.

This community ends the competitive struggle which turns people into lonely individuals, and the social frigidity of a heartless world disappears. What comes to an end with this community is also ‘the strong hand’ of the state, which forcibly keeps people from becoming a ‘wolf’ for someone else. This community can settle its affairs by itself.

~Jurgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness Arise!, 162.

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“The Spirit… is no redundant third, no hypostatized afterthought, no cooing ‘feminine’ adjunct to an established male household. Rather, experientially speaking, the Spirit is primary, just as Pentecost is primary for the Church; and leaving non-cluttered space for the Spirit is the absolute precondition for the unimpeded flowing of this divine exchange in us, the ‘breathing of the divine breath’, as John of the Cross put it.”

~Sarah Coakley, The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender, and the Quest for God, p91

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Holiness and the Holy Spirit

Pursuing holiness without regard to the work and approach of the Holy Spirit leads to either legalism or abandoning the effort altogether.

Indeed, this is a big reason why I pursued the field of theology. I had trouble with holiness and I had trouble with those who talked about holiness.

I knew a lot of people who sacrificed to God, offering this or that, going here or there, doing and doing, then getting exhausted or exhausting others.

I didn’t know a lot of people who were efficiently obedient, walking with God in the midst of storms and success.

ColumbaWhen I wrote my first book, It’s a Dance, the publisher of Barclay Press who had accepted my book suggested I add an additional chapter to the book.  The book itself talks about the Holy Spirit and uses elements drawn from the Gibbs and Bolger book Emerging Churches.

What do (or did) those churches emphasize?  Focusing on Jesus, breaking boundaries between sacred and secular, drawing towards community, welcoming strangers, giving to others, participating, creativity, shared leadership, and worship that draws from the past and present for depth of expression.

These are, I argue, works of the Holy Spirit, so the book is about how the Holy Spirit transforms us into being a people in a community who live in these sorts of ways.  It’s not so much a celebration of the (then) emerging churches as much using those cues to talk about elements Scripture emphasizes.

My publisher Dan suggested a new chapter, one not in the list Gibbs and Bolger put together.  Talk about holiness, he said.  For a second, I was wary about adding more to their framework.  But, I quickly realized two things. First, a suggestion by a publisher to a first time author should be taking very seriously. Second, more importantly, he was exactly right.  Holiness is certainly a work of the Holy Spirit.  It’s in the name, after all.

That’s more of a New Testament title, as a matter of fact, but the themes of the Spirit run all through Scripture.  Holiness is obedience to God’s work and life. I almost wrote “conformity” but that’s a naughty word these days, offputting and reminiscent of the worst elements of religion.  Conformity implies uniformity.  Only that’s not what holiness is about.  Holiness in light of God is about being fully alive, fully whole, finding meaning and purpose and focus in the discipline of walking wholly in God’s creative order.

God is holy.  That’s not saying he’s a legalist or a rule-crushed frump.  God is who God is.  What’s your name, Moses asks.  “I am,” God replies. God is who God is, true to himself.

The Spirit of holiness is God, and God’s work in holiness is drawing all people back to the fullness of life as individuals within a community.  How are we truly ourselves in the context of others being truly themselves?  What does it mean to be true to myself and true to God?

That’s the question of holiness. And we can’t attach outside rules or obligations or styles of music or clothing to our answers.  God is holy. To be holy is to be true to God.

What does God care about? What is God doing in our contexts?  How has God made me? Who has God put in my life and where has he called me to be?  41mUtqqOTmL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

What would God have me do this day?  Who am I to love? How am I to hope? Where shall I place my faith?  The holy life is a dance of answering these questions.

Why do I bring this all up? Dan, my first publisher, wrote me a couple months ago and asked if I would be interested in a new book they’re publishing.  It’s right up your alley, he said (in so many words).  It’s called the Spirit of Holiness, by Everett L. Cattell.

It’s not a newly written book, published originally in 1963.  It is a newly edited and released book, however, and I’m glad for that.  I never heard of it before, and it’s indeed right up my alley (or “in my wheelhouse” as middle-aged celebrities are saying these days).

As a way of getting back into blogging and as a way of sorting through thoughts about The Spirit and Holiness, I’m going to make my way through this book over the next little while.

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The process of embedding a transcendent reality within an imminent context is one of illumination, seeing reality for what it is and, in this, making the truly worthwhile stand in contrast to the wrong and misguided. Such a process for a person, or community, or context is not always easy, or welcomed. The whole problem with alternative identity systems is that they are forming identities, and our identities are who we think ourselves to be and orient us in how we act for ourselves and among others. This is why a person who is being illuminated by the Spirit, and seeks this illumination, needs a safe space in order to become who they are called to be—a space where there is encouragement to walk along the way of Jesus Christ and walk with fellow travelers accompanying them on this journey.

Such a community of people are becoming together who they are called to be in their lives and in a specific context, which it itself as a context and as a space filled with many people, called to redemption in the light of God’s immanent transcendence. As people resonate with this work of the Spirit they are both lifted up towards Christ and situated even more in their place—becoming incarnations of God’s reality with, for, and among a particular location. This is a work of transcendent immanence, participating with the Spirit in the redemption of a context, helping it to realize what it was called to be and helping those within it learning who to be.

This is, to be sure, a profound work, a work that we see most fully realized in the work of Jesus, whose incarnation resonated within his particular context, and then as people were transformed beginning to resonate in many other contexts, reaching all around the world. These pockets of resonance carry on this mission of the Father, which is the mission of Christ, which is the mission of the Spirit, gathering all of space and time into the resonance of God’s redemption and relationship. Put in such terms, it seems incredible that such a mission would be entrusted to people—all of whom are not yet fully who they are called to be themselves and yet are, in the midst of their own becoming, called to participate with God in the liberating work of the church. We are being formed as we are being sent. “It is,” as Jon Huckins puts it, “the only way to fully step into a vocation of Jesus apprenticeship. It is emulating our rabbi.”[1] Part of this emulation, then, is the posture of entrusting.

Just as Adam was intended as a mediator and to represent to it God’s identity and to steward it in submission to God, so to Jesus came among us, in part, to serve as a model and a mediator—for creation in general and for the misguided humanity in particular.[2] This role of mediator and representation was passed on by Jesus to his disciples, not staying among them but leaving and in this leaving, allowing the Spirit to enter into the life of the church with new power and authority. This is not necessarily something the disciples would have chosen on their own, as Jesus was, without a doubt, much more trustworthy in such a mission than they were. Indeed, one might say that entrusting such people—then and now—to such a task is dangerous.

Yet, this is the work of God, calling others to be who they were made to be in the midst of the mission each were called to participate in: being sent into this world for the sake of this world. This is a community task, as it is as persons within a community that we begin to represent God to this world. “God’s mission wasn’t designed to advance with a set of sent individuals. It was designed to advance through a faithful people living as advocates of the missio Dei.”[3]

[1] Jon Huckins, Thin Places: Six Postures for Creating and Practicing Missional Community (Kansas City: The House Studio, 2012), 133.

[2] See Huckins, 133.

[3] Huckins, 135.

(an excerpt from my dissertation)

Posted in dissertation musings, emerging theology, holiness, Holy Spirit, Jesus, missional, theology | 1 Comment

Comprehensive Exam #3: Moltmann and the Spirit of Life (part 2)

This work of the Spirit has broad implications. First, there is an ecological implication. The Spirit who is the Spirit of life, by definition is interested and connected to all that is living. Where there is life, there is the Spirit. This means that how we respond to this world is directly related to our participation with the Spirit, those who are participants with the Spirit are renewed in their creative and constructive contribution to ecological thriving. This very pervasive presence of the Spirit in all of nature has been considered by some as being quite close to pantheism, and more accurately described as panentheism, in which the Spirit is not equivalent to nature, but rather the Spirit is throughout nature, but more than nature. Indeed, for many this steers too far away from orthodox theology, at least according to their interpretations.

Indeed, as many more liberal commentators, such as process theologians and others, do have a more loosely orthodox description of panentheism, Moltmann’s own approach combines a pervasive work of the Spirit in nature with an always sharply defined understanding of the Spirit as a unique Person of the Trinity. This emphasis on the Spirit’s personhood, rather than as a vague force or presence, means that for Moltmann it is the Spirit who is the defining presence of nature, rather than nature being the defining presence for the Spirit. As such, the Spirit is working in and among all life, bringing all life to a new and renewed eschatological fulfillment.

This comprehensive work of the Spirit interacts with humanity in pervasive ways as well, calling each person to a renewed relationality and an emphasis of life over death in their particular contexts. In all situations, the Spirit leads towards that which expresses life and leads away from that which expresses death. For humanity, then, the soul crushing affects of domination, restriction and limitation are fought against. This is a liberating work of the Spirit, who liberates the oppressed from their oppression, and liberates the oppressors from their oppressing, leading all to a new relationship of equality and freedom, in which each person is fully able to be who they were created to be without having to define themselves over and against others.

The perichoretic movement of God, in the power of the Spirit, enables a new way of living, calling forth “a broad place where there is no cramping,” a holistic expression of eschatological life in which the freedoms of God are expressed in passionate and creative freedom. It is, indeed, a dance, a dance of life, a dance of hope, a dance of freedom and invigorating friendships. This liberating call leads people to hope in a new way of living, one that calls them forth to express this new life, and which, in places of restriction, causes the chains of repression to chaff and be resisted.

For Moltmann, this work of the Spirit is highlighted in the life and work of Christ, with Moltmann emphasizing a strong spirit-Christology, in which the power of the Spirit is seen as influential and defining throughout the whole life of Christ, especially in the cross and in the resurrection. This work of the Spirit means that Christ is also with us in our suffering, sharing the same Spirit, able to communicate the hope and empathy of Christ’s historical experiences into the contexts of our experiences, so that Christ is a brother to us in our suffering and a redeemer for us in our salvation.

We do not have to be defined by the restrictions placed on us by others, but in the Spirit we are defined anew by Christ, given freedom in a renewed identity, that calls forth our creativity and contributions, calling us to live life in a way that enables others, indeed the whole world, to find their own freedom and participation.

This exploration gives renewed priority in the context of Christian community, which is not separated from the world but is embedded within it as a beloved community, in which each person is given space and priority in discovering the fullness of the Spirit’s gift within the particular community and within the whole of their contexts, whatever context this is. This means that Moltmann is decidedly interested in all the various forms of liberation and contextual theologies, seeing these as pneumatological priorities, pushing his theology into conversation with feminism, other cultures, and always interested in what new work God is up to throughout this world.

This hope filled work by Moltmann is comprehensive as an exploration of the Spirit’s work throughout this world, and indeed throughout the various topics of theology. Moltmann secures his places a wholly Trinitarian theologian, arguably even more so than Pannenberg, whose discussions of the Spirit, while pervasive, neglect to emphasize the Spirit uniquely in a distinct monograph. The personhood of the Spirit in Pannnenberg, then, can tend more towards a rhetorical emphasis. In Moltmann, however, we have a distinct Pneumatology that actively fights against any attempts to restrain the personhood of the Spirit beneath another topic. The Spirit is a defining reality.

In his emphasis of the Spirit as the Spirit of life, however, it can be argued that Moltmann neglects the more difficult passages on judgment and the Spirit’s involvement in correcting individual sin. Indeed, Moltmann does not deign to even discuss such aspects, being willing to critique Scripture’s more negative discussions rather than relinquish a wholly hopeful view of the Spirit’s work. Moltmann also does not seem to say too much about other spirits, with the Spirit of God being the emphasis throughout in sole regard. Add this to a more systemic view of sins, more structural rather than moral, Moltmann can be criticized for having too much hope, and leaving aside the quite pertinent and Scriptural issues of personal holiness, sin and thus the topics that might be more individually oriented.

However, this may be, it might also be argued that for Moltmann, these topics are so well discussed that it is not as much he disagrees with the discussions as he finds nothing new to say, so in coming to the Spirit of Life we have to approach it truly as a contribution rather than systematic and comprehensive discussion. For Moltmann here, as with all his works, his goal is less to be systematic and entirely coherent and much more to be engaged with the questions and struggles of life as we encounter it. The Spirit of Life is always engaged with life in its many modes and contexts, with our spiritual experiences and rational thought both reflecting aspects of pneumatological insight. As such, Moltmann here seeks to build theological integrity with our experiences, giving us hope in our contexts, calling each of us to a renewed, hope filled life with God that is a constant celebration of truth and beauty, in an always creative love for life with God and with others.

Posted in academia, comps, Holy Spirit, Moltmann, pneumatology, theology, writing | 1 Comment

Acts 3:1-16

I preached again last evening at PazNaz’s Saturday evening service. Here’s the basic text from which I preached. I’m a writer, so I think through writing things out. So, this is what I wrote out to help orient my thoughts. I have this in front of me more as a guide. It’s not something I read, just something to make sure I keep on track and if my mind blanks, it’s something to refer to.

Anyhow, here’s what I had to say about Acts 3:1-16.

What happened in Acts 2? The Church waited. The Spirit came down. Upon the whole gathering of believers, and they all started talking, every one of them. Folks in town heard them and were mystified.

I love what happens at the end of Acts 2. It’s not just a message about words. It’s not just religious acts, going to church, putting in our time, checking the box next to “spiritual tasks”. It’s holistic. It involves every part of our life, and includes us, by definition into the life of a community. Not a community where people all stare forward, waiting for one person to sing a little and one person to give them a pep talk. It’s a whole life change, for a whole bunch of lives.

Acts 2 ends with this picture of the grandness of God’s work. People from all over were in Jerusalem, and they heard this message about the work of Jesus, and they saw this work being carried forward in the lives of those who were part of this earliest church.

God moves, people experience salvation, they are brought into the community of believers and the church grows. 2:42ff. tells us what this sort of community was like, not necessarily what these people did, but rather what God did among them. Reshaping them. This isn’t a testimony of people trying to do good works to see God. That sort of work never works. People stay competitive and judgmental, excluding the wrong people and currying favor with the right sorts of people. That’s religious.

But, the early church was something more. They were people in whom the Spirit was working and when the Spirit works people are transformed. No longer are they people who act in selfish ways, trying to compete and fight and scramble for the best seat or the most power. No. When the Spirit works, the people who believe become the people of God who represent the mission of Christ continuing. These are people of the Kingdom, a kingdom that is now among them with the coming of the Spirit upon them all.

Remember what happened in Luke 2ff? Mary was told the Holy Spirit was going to conceive Jesus in her. That’s the first work of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, and that’s the testimony that continues in Acts 2. When the church gathered, the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus in all of them, and they all became bearers of the life of Christ, a continuing part of God’s mission. They lived in the way of Jesus (that’s what the earliest community was called, The Way). They became a messianic people who were in service of the Messiah, in the power of the Spirit, and Acts 2 shows the kind of people they became.

What is happening? God is building the kingdom, moving in the world in a new way, with a new people, who are being transformed. But, while general statements are good, but they’re not always specifically helpful. And that’s precisely what God is, he’s specifically helpful, not a general God for general issues that we all sort of have to fit into.
The new messianic people are not just concerned with a set of general principles or guidelines. Remember what Jesus the Messiah did? He saved everyone, but he also had a word for specific people, for specific problems and questions, for those who were outsiders and lost and had no hope.

The messianic people, these bearers of the Holy Spirit, are the same way. And with Acts 3 we go from the general work of the Spirit, in a general sermon among a crowd of general people who respond in general helpful ways, to a specific event with a specific man with specific problems.

Read Acts 3:1-16

Verse 1
At the beginning of this, we have Peter and John going up to the Temple. It was the time for prayer and that’s what people did. The Temple was the place where people worshipped God, and Peter and John continued to walk in the way of their earlier traditions. This had been established for generations. It was how the people, in a way, testified to their status with God. The Temple was a marker of who they were. So, those in Jerusalem went there to pray. That’s what people did. That’s what was expected of them. That’s what they knew to do.

Verse 2
In the same way, the man did what the man had to do. Now he wasn’t alone. Not entirely. Some other folks helped him out every day. They brought him to this gate so he can beg. He’s crippled. Now, his being crippled meant that he couldn’t worship in the same way as other people, as his family and neighbors. He was crippled since birth. What had he done to deserve this? No one really could answer that, but the implication was that someone did something wrong. Maybe his parents? People couldn’t fix him, but they didn’t just abandon him. People did something. They took him to the Temple. That’s what people did. That’s what was expected of them. That’s what they knew to do. That’s the response they, in their present understanding of life, could imagine.

Verse 3
So, we have these two very particular, very specific characters interacting in verse 3. The man did what the man felt was his role in life. He did the only think he could think to do. He was taken to the Gate. He was taken to the Gate to ask for money. Because giving money to the poor and needy was considered a boon for one’s own spiritual life.

In a way, getting that man at the gate was beneficial to everyone. It fulfilled a righteousness according to the Law. The people could help the man by giving him money, and the man could help the people by being someone they could give money to.

There really wasn’t anything personal about this, it was a mutually beneficial transaction. No personal interaction expected, certainly not by the people walking by. They had tasks to get to, tasks of getting to church, and who knows what kinds of sores or other issues this man had that might cause them problems.

Verse 4

Peter was different. He didn’t just walk by. He saw the man for who he was.

Look at us, Peter says – face to face – he was a specific person not a general problem. Peter recognized the man. He insisted that there wasn’t just a transaction, each getting what they could imagine was part of their role. There was more. There was a recognition this wasn’t just a beggar, an object at the temple that you put money into. And he insisted that the beggar saw him as a person too, not just an object from which came money. Eye to eye, face to face. The man at first played his role, did what he imagined was his part.
Verse 5
The man looked back. He expected something from them. He had been through this before, you know. He knew how it worked. Maybe a bit of coin, maybe a little sermon. Maybe a word of encouragement or a word of judgment. Someone was paying attention to him, so that meant that if he followed he would likely get what he could get. And what was all he could expect? A little bit of money to help him through this day, to start the same process over again.

Verse 6-7
Get up
Messianic fulfillment in Isaiah 52 and 61.

In Luke 7 John asks Jesus how he would know. Jesus gives him this list: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

The messianic people carry forward the messianic mission in the power of the Spirit and in the name of Jesus. Like what Jesus did in Luke 5:17-26 Peter does here.

Get up and walk! Peter says, like Jesus did. You know what’s amazing about this? It’s a work of power but it’s also a work of the imagination. How many days did people take the man, how many days did he ask for money, how many people walked by him day after day after day? The work of Jesus is about power but it also awakens us to these possibilities that others wouldn’t even think of. Who would have thought to say, “Get up and walk?”

It took an awakened imagination to see this man for the man he was, to see his problem for the problem that it was at its roots, and to respond to him, in the power of the Spirit, so that the man was freed from that oppression which had plagued him all his life. Get up and walk. And you know what? The man did!

Verse 8-10

Beautiful isn’t it? The man is healed. Who could have imagined this? The prophet Isaiah maybe, speaking of the Messiah, and the Messiah’s people.
Isaiah 52

Paul remembers Isaiah, because he quotes this passage in Romans 10, let me read that:

13 “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!

This isn’t a passage that is a burden on us. Now go and preach and hunt people down. Go and make transactions so that you can feel good about doing your religious service. Go find targets and objects to make yourself feel like you’re doing something. No!

The message here in Acts 3 is that this is something the Spirit does in us. Look at what happened. Peter and John were just doing what they were doing, and they saw a specific man with a specific need, and they saw him as a man, a real person who was part of the work of Christ, invited into the kingdom. He was an outsider. They invited him, in the name of Jesus.

For the sake of Christ, they participated with Christ, because Christ wanted to see this man part of his community. This stuff we saw at the end of Acts 2 carries into Acts 3. A man who couldn’t take himself, was brought by Peter and John into this new community. A new way of living in light of the hope in Jesus that is so far beyond what anyone could expect or imagine that they all marvel. And the man who was put at the beautiful gate, stood on what became beautiful feet and he preached his miracles to everyone who heard. The Word of God went forth in power.

How beautiful! The spirit is upon them all. And lives are changed in radical ways, in holistic ways, in ways which pulls people into this community of transformed and transforming men and women, rather than separating them out. Calling the broken and rejected and outsiders, precisely because it is these people who can’t even imagine what life could be like, and so are given a new view of a new life. This is the imagination of the Spirit who awakens people to really see, to really live, to be a messianic people who give living hope to sad, discouraged, or just plain unimaginative people. We do what we think we should do, what we can do, what we think is expected of us.

But the power of the Spirit says to us, “Get up and walk!”

This man was a testimony. So too our lives a testimony in different ways, if we live in the new imagination of the Spirit that awakens the possibilities of those around us.

Verses 11-16

Peter’s sermon here says this isn’t just about the crippled man. This about the story of what happened to Jesus. This is about sin that led to Jesus being crucified. Peter heals the man and then reminds the people what their story is like.

Are they better than a man who couldn’t walk, just because they had jobs, or titles, wealth or power. No. Not at all. Look at what they did to Jesus.

Let’s look at Peter himself more closely. Remember the Peter from the Gospels?

This isn’t just a testimony about what those other people did, it’s a testimony that includes Peter. Who is the one who denied knowing Jesus when Jesus was at trial. Peter. Peter was part of all this, and was part of the whole story of what happened to Jesus that led to the cross. All that betrayal and all that denial and all that evil that led to the crucifixion. That’s the story.

People did that because they thought Jesus was a pretender, they thought Jesus was going to get them in trouble with Rome. They thought they were serving God by punishing a man who hadn’t done any wrong. They saw their own understanding of God. They saw Rome. And they didn’t believe Jesus to be who he said he was.

What does that mean for us? We’re so often the same way, depending on what we think will get us by, and not seeing what we really need. Or knowing what we really need but not having any idea how it could work out better than it is.

Not even Peter would admit to knowing Jesus, because Jesus didn’t turn out to be who Peter thought he was.

Peter, before the resurrection, didn’t have an imagination. He was awakened.

The Spirit did a work and here we see Peter, in the Temple before all the people, speaking in the name of Jesus, his representative, Peter doesn’t deny Jesus he identifies with Jesus as the source of the power that puts wrongs to right. That’s the Spirit.

The power of the Spirit pointing always towards Jesus. The power of the Spirit created a new messianic people who ministered in the name of Jesus, which wasn’t just a name but a new way of life, of hope, of imagination. It is in the name of Jesus that we see the community being the community we saw at the end of Acts 2, because they were oriented towards Jesus not towards their own demands.

It is in the name of Jesus that we see the man who could not walk, walk. Everyone participated in this understanding that the world was as it was, just have to deal with it. But the world isn’t that way. The world in the name of Jesus is something bigger, something more, something better.

Jesus awakens us to a new reality and the Spirit brings it to reality, a new way of being in the world, a way where the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” This work is particular and general, working broadly in lots of lives and specifically in each person’s life. Do we recognize that? It is physical and spiritual, changing hearts and minds, but also changing how we live life.

This isn’t a testimony of something later on. This is a work of power even now, changing our whole imagination for what is possible in this present, and giving us the ability to take hold of those possibilities.

This is a holistic change that affects all of us, because the name of Jesus reaches into our lives and transforms us from being people who can’t see or do, to being people who speak and walk in his name

The righteousness that comes from the Law leads people to do what was expected of them. To do what they knew to do. To separate, to isolate, to live narrow lives with narrow expectations.

The righteousness that comes from Jesus expands our reality so that we can live in a new way with and for others. That’s a reality that is calling to us right now. Get up and walk. In the name of Jesus.

Isaiah 35
1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come,
he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.

The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.

Let us walk in this way

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Comprehensive Exam #3: Trends in the Study of the Holy Spirit.

After my first two comprehensive exams, the first on Anglo-American Church history in the 17th-18th centuries and the second one on the theology of Pannenberg, I was feeling mentally exhausted. But, I was only halfway done. Fortunately, my third comprehensive exam was on a topic I’ve really focused on since early in my Masters Degree, over a decade ago. Indeed, I’ve written a book and published an academic article on this topic, so this wasn’t nearly as worrisome to me. I’m fascinated with the Spirit and how a doctrine of the Spirit brings to life so many divergent doctrines that had felt troublesome and increasingly incoherent to me. We believe in a Trinity, after all, so theology can not be developed with only an interest in the Father and Son. Times are a-changing, so older theologies are being themselves renewed as the topic of the Spirit is becoming more and more integrated within theological studies. What are the particular areas of interest to theologians? That’s the topic of the first question of my third comprehensive exam on the topic of pneumatology.

Here’s the first part:

1) In your reading of various contemporary pneumatologies, what are the key emerging themes and orientations

In coming to the topic of pneumatology, there are a number of very interesting developments and themes which are being explored in our era. Indeed, one might even say the very fact we can talk about emerging themes and orientations in the topic of pneumatology is itself an emerging theme. Sometimes called the “Cinderella” of theology, often excluded even though beautiful, or described as being in the past more like “tinsel” placed on the tree, a decoration for the more substantive topics of theology, pneumatology is one of the more dynamic topics in contemporary theology.

Indeed, we might say that this “Cinderella” has found its way to the grand ball, no longer excluded, but indeed the invited guest who is wowing everyone with its grace and splendor. Similarly, instead of tinsel on the decorative tree, the Spirit is now seen as the sap in the living tree, providing life sustenance and growth to each various limb. Indeed, over the last several decades, the Spirit has gone from being more of a rhetorical partner in the Trinity to being a theme which helps bind together the whole of theology in newly integrated ways.

Some of these new themes are new for the West, but those in the East would suggest they have been constant themes all along, if only we read the Greek fathers and their theological descendents. Indeed, while there certainly have been Orthodox influences in Western Theology-especially in the traditions descending from Wesley, but also others-the last few years have seen a decided turn to the East, looking for more substantive discussions of newly emphasized (in the West) topics. This is especially true in the case of the topic of salvation, which has long, in the West, been dominated by a more juridical perspective on salvation, in or out, guilty or not guilty. In the East, however, salvation is not as much about legal oriented guilt as it is about corruption and death. Jesus on the cross was resurrected into victory and those who follow him participate in this new resurrected life through the power of the Spirit. This turn emphasizes salvation as theosis, not pointing to a single event but emphasizing a new orientation of transformation in the continuing power of the Holy Spirit.

In this approach, those who are empowered by the Spirit in this new life with Christ are drawn into increasing perfection, a perfection that culminates in a fkee and open relationship with the Triune God. We are, as theosis literally implies, made in gods. God became man so that man could become gods. This language is tricky, however, for those of us in the West, so attempts to describe this in a more palatable way for Western sensitivities are pursued. At the core of this, however, is the constant and pervasive work of the Holy Spirit who unites us with the energies of God so that we do not lose our identity, but indeed regain our full identity in the presence of God, living in eternal communion with his differentiated essence.

For the Orthodox, however, this emphasis on the Holy Spirit tends to be contained within the contexts of the church. And while the Western discussions of salvation also tend to be oriented towards this theosis occurring in the context of Christian community, Western discussions on the Spirit go beyond this seeming limitation to explore what seems to be the broader work of the Spirit in this world. One major area of conversation has been between pneumatology and science, indeed this may be the most popular new theme in pneumatology, as science opens the door for an exciting public theology, that can give guidance to theological considerations as well as provide theology a creative context for interacting with’ those outside the normal bounds of the church.

Pannenberg was especially noteworthy in his attempts to tie a pneumatology to a coherent understanding of science, adopting (though not uncritically) the image of the Spirit as a field of force, whose pervasive presence was involved in, with and under everything, defining life and transforming every topic into a theological consideration. Indeed, Pannenberg focused on this emphasis on science during his last productive years of scholarship, but he was not alone. Scholars from many different traditions and backgrounds have seen science as a very fertile and necessary ground for discussion about the work of the Holy Spirit, leading to all kinds of integrative proposals and developing conversations.

Another major area of focus has been in the broader ecumenical conversations, in discussions between the various churches but also, more uniquely, in the conversations about world religions. If the Spirit is understood as the Spirit of life who works pervasively and comprehensively across the cosmos, and is not limited to the context of the Christian church, then there should be some understanding of this work in the various attempts to describe God or
human spirituality across cultures.

This discussion has a very broad range of beliefs, on the one side seeing a substantive pneumatology as, essentially, suggesting these broader religions could themselves be salvific to a more conservative position of attempting to recognize the work of the Spirit in the themes and hopes, while still maintaining the Spirit always draws people to the salvation of Christ. Understanding the potential work of the Spirit in these various religions encourages theologians towards a more positive view of such religions, seeing in them what can be shared rather than what must be opposed. It also is a forum in which the priorities of the Spirit must be examined. What are the effects of the work of the Spirit if we can’t determine the Spirit by solely Christianized rhetoric?

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