Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Church: Reflections – 3

“…and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” Acts Chapter Two

Throughout the Upper Room Discourse in John Chapters 13 – 17 Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit coming to live within His people. After His resurrection He says to His people, “Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49, see also Acts 1:4 – 8). Throughout the New Testament we read of the Holy Spirit in the people of God, He is, if you will, the biosphere of the church; the church lives within the Holy Spirit…and the Holy Spirit lives within the church. God is one with His people and His people are one with God.

The people of God are people of the Holy Spirit. What does this mean? For some of us it appears to more conceptual and theoretical than holistically experiential. For others the focus seems to be on feelings and having certain palpable experiences. Excitement can be a litmus test for some, contemplation for others.

Do we need the Holy Spirit to have a church? To be a church? Can we “do” church without the Holy Spirit? From a pragmatic perspective what is our answer? How do we actually live? How do our congregations actually function? What would an unbiased observer conclude?

How does our experience today with the Holy Spirit compare with what we see in the New Testament? The coming of the Holy Spirit into the people of God was a cosmic line of demarcation in Biblical history, in human history – it was a watershed event. Is this evident in our lives today? Once again, do we really need the Holy Spirit to “do” church? How reliant are we on the Holy Spirit? Is the Holy Spirit a hallmark of our congregations?

If religious people did not recognize Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago, is it possible that Christian religious people do not recognize the Holy Spirit today?

I am not speaking about miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit, though I believe we could be asking questions about those as well; I am speaking of whether or not we are dependent on, and obedient to, the Holy Spirit in our churches. I am addressing both those who believe in the present-day “gifts” of the Spirit and those who do not – I am writing about how we actually live and relate to God and to one another.

I am asking, in part, whether we are so good at making things happen that pragmatically we can function quite fine apart from reliance on the Holy Spirit. I am asking whether or not it has been so long since God’s people were people of the Holy Spirit that we no longer have a context within which to understand who the Holy Spirit is and who we are in Him. Is the Holy Spirit of any importance, other than as a rather archaic doctrine?

My questions are not about what we say we believe, they are about how we actually live. Could it be that our denominational (and nondenominational) “natures” define and determine who we are? What is our core identity? What are the headwaters of congregational and religious life?

For those of us who emphasize the Holy Spirit, what does this look like? Are we submitting to the Holy Spirit or are we deluding ourselves into thinking and acting that if we do this the Holy Spirit will do that? Has our relationship with God become a quid pro quo relationship? If it has, and I think among some of us that we come dangerously close, then perhaps we ought to take a step back and reconsider what we are thinking and doing. Drawing crowds and creating excitement is not the same as being a people submitting to the Holy Spirit, is not the same as the Holy Spirit doing a deep work of grace in the people of Jesus Christ; it is not the same as Jesus being revealed in and through His people. Could it be that at times we approach paganism?

Well, this is a bigger ocean than I can comprehend, and I write all of this in charity and as one who has fallen into, I imagine, all the traps of trying to do it myself, trying to make it happen. When I write of approaching paganism I write as one who has come perilously close – the idea of quid pro quo frightens me. Just because my “doctrine” was right didn’t mean my actions were.

We can be assured of one thing, that the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus Christ. The revelation of Jesus Christ to His people results in His people building each other up and witnessing to the world, sharing the Gospel. Why then do we look at witnessing as a marketing problem? Why then do we tend to rely on prepackaged programs to drive church activities and relationships? (I am not saying teaching programs have no place, any more than I’m saying writing a book or a blog has no place. I trust that the Holy Spirit can use a program just as I trust the Holy Spirit can use a book or a blog – I am talking about the engine under the hood).

Are we honest enough to look at the Bible and compare what we see in Scripture in both teaching and experience with our present thinking and experience without making excuses should our present experience and thinking not measure up? Most of us, if not all of us, tend to look at this question and respond, “Yes…but.” I understand this, we are the products of our individual and collective experience. Perhaps one of the tragedies in all this is that not only do people need one another, but different traditions need one another, for traditions, by their very existence, are products of different emphases; if we are going to emphasize some things we must de-emphasize others. Ah, but then we must listen to one another and ask questions and seek to understand…it is a hard thing to listen and not talk, to seek to understand rather than seek to convince.

Just some thoughts…

What is the nature of the church? Does it matter?

Monday, August 21, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 100

“…in that community [the community of faith] Christ made the other Christian to be grace for us. Now each stands in Christ’s place. In the presence of another Christian I no longer need to pretend…Christ became our brother in order to help us; through Christ other Christians have become Christ for us in the power and authority of Christ’s commandment. Other Christians stand before us as the sign of God’s truth and grace.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 88. [Italics mine].

Bonhoeffer prefaces the above with John 20:23, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

I am not sure that the above can be understood apart from John Chapters 13 – 17; or perhaps I should say “touched” apart from Chapters 13 – 17, for I don’t know that they can be understood. I am also aware that our experience informs our approach to the above, especially our bad and painful experiences. Some of us used to think that we could not know God intimately but that an approach to God required a human mediator; others of us have trusted others and been hurt; others have been raised with prejudices against other Christian traditions that cause us to instinctively react against certain ideas without considering possible Biblical foundations. Were the “I” of today to meet the “I” of decades ago the “I” of decades ago would label the “I” of today a heretic, for the “I” of decades ago was a narrow-minded self-righteous religious bigot. This was fostered, I believe, by an insecurity born of not knowing the reality of the Atonement, of justification by faith in Jesus Christ. My bigotry was sustained by my insecurity.

If there is a central mystery to John 13 – 17 it is, to me, the mystery of the koinonia of the Trinity in redeemed humanity and the koinonia of redeemed humanity in the Trinity. This is, necessarily, a “we” experience, just as the “we” of the Trinity is shrouded in the mystery of God is One; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I am drawn to Christ, we are drawn to Christ; I live in Christ, we live in Christ; Christ lives in me, Christ lives in us.

And so we have Christ sending us into the world as the Father sent Him into the world; we have Christ telling us that we can forgive and retain sins. James (James 5:19 – 20) writes those who turn wanderers from the truth back to the truth “will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” John writes (1 John 5:16), “If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death…” I am quoting verses I don’t understand, I may have touched them but I do not understand them. I have a sense that I have probably been touched by them more than I have touched them because I can’t imagine being where I am (wherever that is!) without the patient intercessory prayers of others. I should be a castaway, yet I am not – others must have prayed for me, others must be praying for me…I would be a fool to think otherwise. If nothing else, what James and John write in their letters should remind us that there is a lot we don’t know – rather than explain it away let’s admit there is much we don’t know.

“For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). This is a statement of reality – the Head is not apart from the body, Christ and His people are a unity. We then are the presence of Christ to others, and others are the presence of Christ to us – to see this in some measure is to be careful how we treat one another, how we think of one another, how we pray for one another. To make merchandise of this is to profane it, to embark on a trajectory that exalts “self” and seeks to usurp the Head of the body.

Bonhoeffer writes above that, “In the presence of another Christian I no longer need to pretend.” But what is our experience? Pretending is often what is socially expected, whether explicitly or implicitly communicated. After all, we’re talking about “church” and there are certain ways we are expected to behave “in church” and with other Christians – we have images to live up to, decorum to maintain, masks to wear.

When we gather I do think that we need to be sensitive to one another, for not all things are edifying in a large group that may be necessary and desirable in a small group or with close friends or with those to whom we are accountable. We can learn from Paul’s desire that “all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). As we love and pray for one another we can acknowledge that we are all in the process of being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29) and that includes God working deeply within us about some things that may be best shared with only a few. I also think that there are some things best shared only among other brothers or only among other sisters. Let us keep in mind Bonhoeffer’s warning in the previous chapter that, “Other persons have their own secrets that may not be violated without the infliction of great harm. Nor can they divulge them without destroying themselves” (pages 81 – 82).

Pretending has to do with trying to make people think that I am someone I am not. I am not perfect, so let’s get that out of the way as soon as we can. I do not know everything, so let’s burst that balloon right away. I have not lived a perfect life, so while I will not delve into the past I will tell you that I have great remorse over many things and am thankful that Christ has forgiven me. I am still tempted, pray that I will flee to Christ and my brothers for help. I still sin – please pray for me and affirm the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

If we could see the glory of Christ in those around us we would know that we are surrounded by grace and mercy, and if those around us will acknowledge that they are the presence of Christ to us then we will find ourselves in a safe place, a healing place, a place of redemption. God is in His holy Temple, but does His holy Temple know it?