Thursday, February 24, 2011

THE CHURCH ALIVE IN THE SPIRIT

Prefatory Note:  For many years I've been writing and rewriting a book on spiritual gifts.  The book itself is part of my journey, and it has been revised as my own thinking and experiences have developed.  So, from time to time I'll be sharing bits and pieces of the manuscript as a way of encouraging a conversation and also to help me refine and develop an idea that drives my own thinking about church and ministry.

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Love of God and love of neighbor are the foundational principles of the Christian faith - even when we fail to abide by them. It is the love of God, which Jesus embodied, that defines the church that is made alive in the Spirit. Without love, all that is done in the name of Christ is for naught (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Thus, the mark of a church that is moving in the power of the Spirit is that it exhibits the kind of love that Jesus lived and taught.

A living and vibrant church is one that is marked by love and is committed to justice and mercy for all. It is one that is hospitable, gracious, compassionate, and committed to serving others. It is also marked by vibrant worship. Indeed, it is a community that looks beyond its own walls and sees fields ripe for harvest, fields in which the Spirit is already present and at work. We hear the question, "where can I go, that the Spirit is not already there?" In the words of the Psalmist, we pray:

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there (Ps. 139:7-8).
Knowing that the Spirit is present, the church's vision is not limited to "religious work." Our work as the Spirit endowed community encompasses all of life's experience, from politics to family life to popular culture. It is, admittedly, the goal and not the reality. But guided by the Spirit we can envision a time when the church, empowered by the Spirit, will not be cliquish, inward looking, protective of turf, or suspicious of new people and new ideas.

We start from the premise that the Spirit of God is already present in the church and in the world. That is the message of Pentecost. Although some might take from Pentecost the idea that when the Spirit moves it is with loudness and spectacle, such an interpretation would miss the point. We do not experience the presence of the Spirit as either loudness or coerciveness. The Spirit may come as a mighty wind, but the Spirit also comes as a gentle breeze inviting us to share in the Spirit's gifts of service to the world. Discovery of spiritual gifts leads to the realization that every person in this world has God-given purpose. With the Spirit present, all things become knew, including our relationships with our God and with our neighbor. No longer will we look at life from a human point of view (2 Cor. 5:16).

What then is the nature of this Spirit that animates and empowers the church and enables both vertical (divine-human) and horizontal (human-human) relationships? What is this life giving force that is present in our churches and in our lives? God is, we confess, spirit. God is without material form, and yet God is something more than an ephemeral wisp of smoke - as if to say, God is there and yet not there. Mindful of the limits of human images and metaphors, we confess that God is more than an impersonal force that can be manipulated for human benefit. That is, God is something more than the "Force" of the popular Star Wars sagas. However we understand personhood, the biblical portrayal of the Holy Spirit is that of an intimate presence of God in human life. This Spirit is a divine presence that is both personal and free from human manipulation; as the immanent presence of God, the Spirit remains a transcendent "determining subject" who is free to act. With regard to the Spirit, we cannot merely say the right words or perform the proper rituals and expect the Spirit to act. When we experience the Spirit's presence and activity, we do so with openness to the unexpected. But, when the Holy Spirit acts in our lives, we are awakened to new possibilities for life and we are energized to carry them out.

1 comment:

keithwatkinshistorian said...

Bob, I will follow your series with interest. I'm no good at coming up with the definitions that serious conversation often requires. I think of God as in some sense analogous to the animating force that makes a human body into a living, active, person. God is like that to the world. I also have found a modified Sabellianism to be important: the three "persons" in classical trinitarian theology are three ways in which the one God comes into our experience. For the church to be Spirit-filled means that God as energizing force is especially present in the experience of its people.