Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Who is the Holy Spirit? Thoughts Towards Pentecost

The Blog is Back
It is over a year since I last wrote a sermon blog. So much of good intentions! The purpose of this blog is to share some of my research and thoughts towards the sermon on the Sunday following the blog. So, today I share research and thoughts towards the sermon this next Sunday, which looks at who or what the Holy Spirit is through the lens of the Pentecost story in the book of Acts, in the New Testament of the Bible. Here is the scripture reading itself:
Acts 2:1-21
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Background:
Pentecost, which refers to the fiftieth day following Passover, is also called Shavuot in Hebrew. It was an agricultural festival celebrated in Jerusalem, and at some point in time (the discussions among Jewish scholars vary as to when this occurred) it also celebrated the giving of the Law (the Torah) to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It was as pilgrimage festival, which meant that Jews who were able to travel to Jerusalem would come from around the Mediterranean to make offerings in the temple.

This is the occasion upon which the Holy Spirit chooses to descend upon the nascent Christian community. Many followers of Jesus had been drawn to Jerusalem to be with the core group of disciples who had been told to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). As they were there worshipping and praying, suddenly the language of their praise expanded beyond the Aramaic, Hebrew or perhaps Greek of their normal conversation and worship. Many other languages began to be spoken, each of which corresponded to the languages spoken by the Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem. Apparently, this was a new phenomenon. Perhaps it was a contrast to the official prayers being offered in Hebrew within the temple precincts?

Thoughts and Reflections

The experience at Pentecost with the different tongues speaking is not the same as what is frequently presented as “speaking in tongues.” These are the differences:
  1. In Acts, the languages are real, living languages, not some special “prayer language.” Visitors coming to Jerusalem heard God being praised in their own native languages.
  2. Glossolalia, or "speaking in tongues," as is practiced in many Pentecostal or Charismatic churches, is an ecstatic utterance, perhaps induced by the presence of the Holy Spirit, or perhaps as a result of an individual’s internal experience. It is not the same as what is depicted in this story from Acts.
  3. The Holy Spirit spoke through the gathered believers in all the various language in order to present a testimony about Jesus Christ and to begin the process of spreading the teachings of Jesus out into the world. The Book of Acts is the beginning of this history of the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ. 
  4. In the Gospels, the Holy Spirit is presented as being a guide who will lead the followers of Jesus into all truth, who will speak through his followers in order to give witness to Jesus and to convey his teachings, and to be also an experiential presence of Jesus and God within the lives of his followers. There is nothing said here about the Holy Spirit being a special dispensation to a select or privileged few. It is available to all followers of Jesus, because it is the means by which all followers of Jesus grow into the “full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
  5. Guidance by the Holy Spirit is not the same as the personal conclusions we reach about an issue or situation. We often wrongly attribute our own personal opinions or even prejudices to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual discernment is a long, careful process that often involves deep challenges to our preconceptions and personal ideas.
  6. At the same time, the HS can and does work within us to create the conditions whereby we may discern something spiritual.
  7. The HS dos not contradict or change the teachings of Jesus (not the same as teachings about Jesus). Example, if a person preaches or proclaims that God hates or despises another person or group but Jesus either said nothing about that person or group, or in fact said and did things that indicate he would have welcomed them and accept them, then one cannot claim to be speaking according to the Holy Spirit. 
The presence and active engagement of the Holy Spirit is vital to our growth as followers of Jesus. Now is the time for us to be doing the stuff Jesus was doing – greater things than even what he did (John 14:12-14). We do these things because the presence of the Holy Spirit empowers our actions, transforms our minds, reshapes our lives and priorities and dissolves the barriers we erect against one another. It helps us transcend our own human limitations and roadblocks. 

Any authority on earth must derive its authority from Jesus, and must support and carry out the work he established. And what was that work? Jesus described it this way himself: 
… the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Matthew 11:5-6)
These are the things the followers of Jesus are to do. In the 10th chapter of Matthew, Jesus sends his disciples out into the countryside telling them “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:7-8). This is the program for all who bear his name. In fact, in the Upper room in Jerusalem, celebrating his last meal with his followers, Jesus says: 
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)
Any group of people, any organization, any political entity, any government, whatever, that claims to be under the authority of Jesus Christ has to be about the business of doing these things, or seeing that they are done. These are the words of Jesus. This is Jesus’ commission to all who would follow him.

But how do we accomplish all this? Jesus is very clear: not on our own. “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” The very next verse makes clear how this is to happen:
John 14:15-23 - The Promise of the Holy Spirit
15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ 22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ 23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

From Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, XII-XXI:
“Belief in Jesus will bring to the Christian power from God to perform the same works that Jesus performs, because, by uniting a man with Jesus and the Father, belief gives him a share in the power that they possess.” (p. 633)

“But Johannine theology has introduced into prayer in Jesus’ name an emphasis that goes beyond the use of a formula. A Christian prays in Jesus’ name in the sense that he is in union with Jesus. Thus, the theme of asking “in my name” in xiv 13-14 continues and develops the indwelling motif of 10-11: because the Christian is in union with Jesus and Jesus is in union with the Father, there can be no doubt that the Christian’s requests will be granted. This context of union with Jesus also suggests that the requests of the Christian are no longer thought of as requests concerning the petty things of life – they are requests of such a nature that when they are granted the Father is glorified in the Son (13). They are requests pertinent to the Christian life and to the continuation of the work by which Jesus glorified the Father during his ministry (xvii 4).” (p. 636)

“In my name,” therefore, implies a situatedness, a dwelling and abiding in Jesus, and having Jesus abide within us. The promised Paraclete, Holy Spirit is what affects this. The Holy Spirit is God’s Presence abiding within us. The purpose of this divine indwelling is to continue the works that Jesus started on earth: proclaiming the Good News, curing the sick, casting out demons, caring for the poor, healing those who are lame, blind, afflicted with diseases, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. 

Concluding Comments:
The Holy Spirit is given in order to empower the followers of Jesus to continue the work Jesus began, and to carry that mission out to the whole world. The Holy Spirit works within persons and within communities as a Presence of Abiding - in which people share in the dynamic life of love shared between the three persons of the Trinity: "I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you."

The presence of the Holy Spirit is vital to our work of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This should be obvious, because the Holy Spirit comes just for that very purpose. It's time for us to get on board with the Holy Spirit, then.


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