Friday, May 22, 2015
May 24, Pentecost: Life #4: The Lord and Giver of Life
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:22-27, Acts 2:1-21
Today is the Day of Pentecost, the eighth Sunday after Easter, and the consummation of the Easter season. We have finished a journey we began three months ago, on February 18, when it was still freezing outside, on Ash Wednesday. From ashes to tongues of flame. Ashes for death and fire for life. We put ashes on your faces. Shall we light your heads?
Ashes are the residue of fire. Fires can mean death too, and speaking scientifically, a fire is no more alive than ashes are. Yet many cultures use fire as a symbol for life. I guess because it’s energy. When you light a fire in the woodstove you also warm the heart. So what the flames on the heads of the disciples signify is the life of God.
Well, so does the breath, as in the prophecy of Ezekiel, the animating breath of God. When God breathes into you, you get a soul. But the flames mean that you get God’s soul too. The flames are the sign of God’s own private inner life, God’s own native energy, the inner heat of God’s personality. This is the hot breath of God, the inner soul of God, who has now come into these people.
Where does God live? In heaven? Or in God’s people? Or both? Do you want that for yourself? How much do you want God inside you? Would you rather keep God in heaven and keep possession of yourself?
It struck me this week, for the first time in my ministry of thirty-five years, how strange is the exchange that happened in those last ten days of the Easter season, from the Ascension to Pentecost. An earthling moves into heaven and then the divine soul moves into earthlings. It’s not so much trading places as a mixing up. Why does God do this?
Let me lay it out more carefully. If we say that the Lord Jesus is at once both God and man, then on Ascension Day, as the Son of God he returns to heaven, but as the Son of Man, he enters heaven for the first time. (This story cannot be explained without some logical conundrums.) If we say that he took his seat at the right hand of the Father, that means that somehow God has taken into God’s self the flesh and blood humanity of a real human being, with his original fingerprints, and of Jewish ethnicity. An earthling is mixed into God. Does that mean that God has changed? (What this does to the eternal changelessness of God I can’t begin to comprehend.)
And then, ten days later (at least from our perspective from within time, because heaven is outside of time), we say that ten days later this flesh and blood Jesus sent the Spirit of God down to the ground to live inside other earthlings, and to do so for keeps. And when we say the “Spirit of God” we don’t mean just one third of God, or just an energy from God, but the soul of God, God’s inner self. So now what we’ve got is a human in heaven who sends God down to earth! (I’m just working it.)
Why this exchange? Why this mixing up and trading places? I may say that this is where our sister religions of Judaism and Islam think we Christians go off the rails. Especially Islam. How dare you bring down God like this? How dare you raise one of us up to the level of God? And even as Christians we might well ask what the point is. What’s the value in it anyway? What good does it do anyone?
Well, it has no value, for example, if the goal of salvation is just to get us to be good. All this mystical traveling and exchanging is essentially superfluous mythology which is better jettisoned to stop distracting us from trying to be good. Similarly it has no value if the goal of salvation is to get you into heaven when you die. If the point is to get your sins forgiven so that you won’t go to hell when you die, then this strange exchange that brings God down to earth is only an expediency like a lifeguard in the water, who gets in only to get you out.
You were probably taught that the point of the gospel is primarily that, to get you into heaven when you die, and, secondarily, that you live a good life here until you get there. Like in the gospel songs: “This world is not my home, I’m must a travelin’ through, if heaven’s not my home, Lord then what will I do. The angels beckon me from heaven’s open shore, and I can’t feel at home in the world anymore.” “When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.” I love those songs, but I am teaching you that God means this world to be your home, and that you’re not just traveling through.
Because it will be God’s home too. So instead of the images of escape, our epistle today gives us the image of pregnancy. The world is pregnant, and expecting, and, yes, is in some pain and discomfort until the birth. This is the discomfort of cleansing and sanctification and transformation, sufficient for the world to become the mansion of God.
This global salvation story gets personal for you by the Holy Spirit living in you already, invisibly but effectively, preparing you too, converting you and developing you and enriching you and blessing you. Then, finally, by means of your death and resurrection, the Spirt transforms your soul and body to be capable of carrying in your flesh the life of the world to come.
I’ve been saying that life on earth is not just an accident of physics and chemistry. I’ve been saying that life on earth is a gift of the Holy Spirit, to plants and animals and humans. We’ve been repeating that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life. I have said that the source of life is the inner life of God, of which the energy is love. But now we’re adding something more, the second stream of life within the world, which was not there at creation, but which comes from the new creation, the life of the world to come.
The first life is the breath, and the second life is the hot breath. The first life is the creating love, the general love, the philosophical love, the love of a father for his children, and the second life is the passionate love, the suffering love, the sacrificial love, the groaning love, the love you hear in labor pains, the love that sighs too deep for words.
The epistle says that the whole creation groans because of us. The glaciers are groaning as they calve too fast. The ground is groaning in Oklahoma from what we’re doing beneath it. The migrants and the refugees are moaning on their open boats. Do we even dare to hope that this might be the birthpangs?
The groaning of creation becomes the inner tension of your souls in you who are believers. In this time in-between you feel like you are double, with two lives going on inside you, the original life, which has been corrupted and polluted by your sin, the life that is judged by God, but yet is still and no less loved by God, and then also the life of the world to come, which never replaces your old life but constantly converts it and revives it.
Your soul and God’s Spirit, your breath and God’s heat. On the one hand you are enduring, you’re waiting, you’re sorrowing and sighing. On the other hand you feel your contractions, the movement and the heat and every contraction gives you hope, and I’m telling you that your hope is not a delusion. I’m telling you that you can believe that your life already belongs to the life of the world to come.
So the Holy Spirit is for you personally, to comfort you and inspire you and quicken your personal spiritual gifts. But the Holy Spirit is also beyond you and beyond the church and beyond the Christian religion for the whole life of the world, and for the future of this world.
What this means for us as physical human beings we are just given hints of. What it means for plants and animals we can only wonder at. What it means for the planet we can only hope for, but our hope can inspire us to witness and action. The Holy Spirit moves you to think beyond your own practical benefits and applications. It wants joy for the world. The Spirit calls you to wonder and to the pleasure of your imaginations. It’s like being pregnant. Start imagining. Start envisioning. Dream dreams.
My take-home is for us as a congregation, and for our future and our mission. Look, if the work of the Spirit is to get us into heaven when we die, then our space for worship might as well be an ugly windowless mega-church with mega-screens and sound equipment. If the goal is just to get us to be good, then we might as well worship in a public auditorium.
But if our vision is the sanctification of this real world as the mansion of God, then you have sufficient spiritual reason to renovate that sanctuary as a witness to what God’s mission is. It’s a Pentecostal mission, it’s a Holy Ghost building. It speaks in the tongues of its stained-glass and its stenciling and its multi-colored arabesques. You should renovate that sanctuary not only to express your mission but also as your witness to God’s mission, who is reclaiming this created world as God’s beloved sanctuary, and who is giving you your own place with God within it. You should renovate that sanctuary to bear witness to all the riches and wonder of the love of God, that God so loves the world, and all that dwells therein.
Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.