This quarter, I’m teaching a couple classes and leading a couple students through independent directed readings. One student is focused on transformative Christology and the other student on global Methodist/Wesleyan theologies. I’m teaching a class on Practices of Christian Worship and a class on Theologies of the Holy Spirit. This is a lot of ground to cover but all feeds into a shared direction: God’s work in this world and our response to it.
This can be an invigorating journey of discovery, but far too often, theology and worship, all the information about faith, can be troubling. We wrestle with difficult questions and we make things more difficult as we burden ourselves and feel the burdens others put on us. Each week in my class on the Holy Spirit, I write a reflection, in which I give a pastoral/spiritual perspective on the themes of the class.
This week, the lectures focus on pneumatology in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox perspectives, along with early church. That’s a lot of material, much of which is new to students. It’s easy for them to lose heart. In my reflection, I encourage them to keep at it, staying in tune with the Spirit as they study the Spirit.
Here’s what I wrote:
Read: Psalm 143 and John 14-16
Chapter and verse divisions in the Bible can be very useful. We can find passages easier and help others find them. Yet, they also cause problems in interpretation. We tend to see chapters as separate chunks of a story or a textbook. Our brains are wired to see division as separation. In the best way, the divisions are like a jigsaw puzzle full of separate pieces. There’s a way everything fits together, and we can see the picture before it’s done, but it’s not our picture and the pieces don’t fit any which way we can think of. There’s a pattern, a goal.
More often, though, we treat the chapter and verse divisions in the Bible in another way, like Legos that come with an instruction sheet. Yes, we can follow the instructions to build a castle or space ship, but once that’s done, we can take everything apart and build what we want. Like Legos, verses can be set off by themselves, picked up and used to meet our goals. We say we’re using the Bible, we look like we’re relying on Scripture, which sounds lofty and authoritative. We may even sound extra committed to Scripture.
But when troubles come, we scatter. We lose hope, we lose heart, we try to achieve through more work, more zeal, unsure of what God wants so we do that which seems a good thing to do. All while quoting Scripture. Our lives are filled with chaos. We spread chaos. We are troubled. We spread trouble. All while proclaiming a form of righteousness.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells the disciples. A good encouragement. We want Jesus to take away our troubles. Sometimes the troubles come from persecution or inner suffering. But sometimes the troubles are caused by our own pursuit of chaos.
A potent reminder when we put aside the chapter divisions and see where this fits into the context of the Gospel of John. At the end of John 13 we read:
“Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will have denied me three times.
Seeing John 14:1 in this context affects the meaning. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. Peter tells Jesus he will go where Jesus goes, that he will lay down his life for Jesus. But Jesus knows better.
Peter had chaos. Jesus has truth.
Peter offers a sacrifice. Jesus wants obedience.
Peter offers passion, Jesus seeks faithfulness.
But Jesus also shows grace. He launches into a wonderful testimony about God’s work, bringing in a Trinitarian discussion that is often overlooked. Do not be troubled, Jesus says, for this is what is going to happen.
“We don’t know the way,” Thomas says.
“Show us the Father,” Philipp asks.
Jesus gathers these themes together and points to the work of the Spirit who is the guide to truth and understanding.
This is important for many reasons. Not least because we often try to turn the Spirit into a dancing bear, adding flavor to an event.
The Spirit is not a dancing bear.
Another tendency is to assume the Spirit’s work is subjective, subject to our whims and assumptions. We then treat the Spirit like a genie who performs on command and grants us wishes, making us seem more important in a given setting. We can all be princesses and princes when the genie works!
The Spirit is not a genie.
Or on the other side, people can feel so distant from the Spirit’s work they think the only access is through gurus: specially trained elites who harness the expression and wisdom of the Spirit in God’s special locations. This is like turning the Spirit into an object of art, analyzed and discussed, but not living.
We turn the Spirit’s work into a subjective idealization of our own selves or make the Spirit so objective that it is like a marble statue set in place.
Both versions lead us into troubles.
Don’t be troubled, Jesus says.
The Spirit is the one sent to use, to teach and guide us. And not just us.
We see that the Spirit isn’t new to us, but indeed the Spirit has been at work in this way since Pentecost.
The Spirit has been working in familiar contexts and radically unfamiliar contexts, in different languages, in worse circumstances, in better circumstances, leading towards an understanding of God that transcends in one time or place.
Do we listen?
Do we learn from this manifold testimony?
Are our hearts troubled?
Do we see that the Spirit seeks many different people, in different ways, and is leading us together into the presence of Christ?
Jesus tells us these things so that we might have peace. Peace in understanding that the work of God is certain.
God isn’t a genie nor a marble statue.
God is a living God, with a particular mission, calling us to be oriented in this mission in light of the Spirit’s particular work in us, shaping us and guiding us, leading us beyond our subjectivity into being obedient participants in this mission.
How is your heart troubled this day?
What is God calling you to do?
What resources is God offering to bring your heart peace and lead you to pressing onward towards the prize in Christ Jesus?
Orthodoxy–right understanding–isn’t about embracing chaos or frenzy. It isn’t about controlling God or making God an object of study that we’ll be tested on at some, undetermined, later date.
Orthodoxy is about right understanding of God’s work and our situation so that we may walk in the way of peace and hope and life and love.
This is the Spirit’s work and we are invited into this work, to embrace this peace and truth and love in all that we do and everywhere we go.