The Not-So-Nice, Not-So-Safe Spirit of God

We have walked with the resurrected Jesus to his ascension and exaltation, and now this coming Sunday we are at Pentecost. Naturally, then, our lectionary texts for this Sunday are filled with references to the Spirit.

Mennonites haven’t been entirely sure what to do with Pentecost, I’d say. To be honest, we haven’t always been sure what to do with the Spirit. Yes, we have developed our nice, safe ways of interpreting the Pentecost coming of the Spirit, mostly around things like “God’s presence is with us” and a lot of stuff about “communal discernment” as the work of the Spirit.

But I’m struck by this reality regarding the Spirit in our upcoming lectionary texts: the Spirit isn’t “nice and safe.”

When the Spirit comes in Acts 2, there are tongues of fire and the sound of a rushing wind (in southern Manitoba these days, this doesn’t sound all that safe). There is a cacophony of voices and languages, exuberantly declaring God’s praises (in most of our Mennonite churches, this would be frowned upon).

There is a declaration of the Spirit’s prophetic presence, falling on old and young, women and men equally (it’s dangerous having one prophet, let alone a whole church full of them, crossing gender and class lines). There is a cut-to-the-heart repentance for complicity with state violence, and a radical turn to a generous and simple common life, a life held together by breaking bread and prayers and the teaching about Jesus (in our nationalistic and capitalistic society, these things are far from safe).

And that’s just Acts 2.

Elsewhere in our Scripture texts, the coming of the Spirit brings sudden life out of dusty, dry-bones death (Psalm 104, politicized in Ezekiel 37 as the return of conquered and enslaved Israel from exile). The Spirit groans with us in our deepest griefs and longings—indeed with all creation, groaning under the weight of human greed and hubris—anticipating with hope the fullness of redemption (Romans 8). The Spirit convicts the world of its harmful ways and guides Jesus’ followers into the fullness of truth regarding Jesus and his justice-bringing ways of love (John 16).

It turns out that while the Spirit is unquestionably good, the Spirit is not necessarily safe. While the Spirit does make us secure in God’s love, the Spirit does not guarantee our physical or social security. While the Spirit does bring us comfort, the coming of the Spirit is not comfortable. The wind of the Spirit blows the doors off our categories, it shatters our illusions and self-delusions, it turns power on its head and our world’s values upside-down.

As we enter Pentecost, let’s attune ourselves to the true Pentecost Spirit in our churches and in the world around us: the not-so-nice, not-so-safe Spirit of God. And let’s ask ourselves: how, then, can we support one another as we follow this dangerous Pentecost Spirit into the world?

Abiding in Jesus

In this fourth week of Easter, Jesus says to us, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4).

Much has been written about what this means. Some understand it in a more mystical sense: abiding in the presence of the Spirit of Jesus as the Spirit of the risen Jesus dwells within us. Others understand it in a more practical sense: abiding in the words and ways of Jesus of Nazareth as his words and ways remain lodged within our hearts and minds, lived out in the everyday.

I tend to think it is both of these, and perhaps more than these. John’s Gospel and letters connect this “abiding/dwelling/remaining” both with the presence and work of the Spirit and with the teachings and commandments of Jesus. In Johannine thinking, Jesus “abides in us” both by his words and ways remaining within us and by his Spirit dwelling within us; we “abide in him” both by dwelling in the presence of the Spirit and by living out the words and ways of Jesus in our everyday lives.

The language here also pushes us beyond individualism: the “you” here is plural. Jesus is not just saying, “I abide within you,” each of us individually; he is also saying, “I abide among you,” all of us together. Both the living presence of the Spirit and the embedding of Jesus’ words and ways in our lives needs to be a reality among us collectively as well as individually.

This calls us to find balance, a harmony of body and spirit. If we tend toward the practical, perhaps we could attend more carefully to the mystical, developing our attentiveness to the presence of the Spirit in us and among us. If we tend toward the mystical or “spiritual,” perhaps we could attend more carefully to the practical, developing our understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings and seeking to live these out in our lives. And if we tend toward emphasizing these things either individually or collectively, perhaps we could turn our gaze outward or inward as needed.

As we seek this balance of “abiding in Jesus just as Jesus abides in us,” we have his promise before us: we will “bear much fruit” as his beloved disciples (John 15:8).

“We should re-think our theology? Say what?”

Earlier this summer I preached a sermon on grieving the losses in our lives, whether it’s the loss of someone we love through death or the loss of something we have invested with great significance—a relationship, a career, a home. In the sermon I talked about the need to adjust to the new reality of life without that person or entity we have cherished so much.

I gave some practical suggestions of the kinds of adjustments that might need to be made, adjustments in how we think, in how we live our lives day by day. And one of those suggestions was this: we might need to re-think our theology in light of the loss we have experienced.

I got a bit of push-back on this. “Re-think our theology? No, our theology shouldn’t change according to our experience. Our theology should be a rudder that guides us through the difficult waters. It should be an anchor that holds us firm through the storms of life.”

I understand the impulse behind this push-back. We know we can’t always trust our feelings; how much less when we’re shell-shocked after a traumatic experience. And there is a lot of truth to the idea that whether or not we survive the storms of life depends in large measure on how well we have prepared ourselves—physically, emotionally, psychologically, and also theologically—during the calm before the storm.

It’s also true that the New Testament in various ways speaks of a body of Christian teaching common to all followers of Jesus—and so doesn’t change with the changing times. At its heart is the first-order, foundation-level “gospel” of Christ crucified and risen which Paul claims all the apostles proclaimed (1 Cor 15:1-11). This bare-bones, good-news story about Jesus focused on his death and resurrection, brought together with some early Christian traditions about God (e.g. Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 8:6), became the framework for this common Christian teaching—eventually expressed succinctly in the earliest creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed.

So what do I mean when I say we may need to re-think our theology in light our life experiences?

“Theology” is a human endeavour. It is something we as human beings do, our attempts at making sense of our experiences of God and of everything else in relationship to God.

There are many different theologies out there, even many different Christian theologies. In fact, if we want to get very specific, there are as many different theologies as there are human beings trying to make sense of God and the world around them. That’s a lot of theologies.

Even if we focus just on one particular branch of Christian theology—say, Anabaptist theology—it’s pretty obvious that this theology changes over time. Anabaptists today don’t believe everything in exactly the same way as the original Anabaptists did. We might try to remain faithful to what we believe are the essentials of Anabaptism, but there’s been a lot of theological water under the Anabaptist bridge in five hundred years—and a lot of streams branching off as theological differences have emerged.

This is also true of our own individual theologies. If you’re in your middle years like I am, I sure hope you don’t believe all the same things about God as you did when you were a child, or a teenager, or a young adult. If you do, pretty much any Christian would say your faith has not grown, you have not been maturing spiritually.

For myself, the basic structure of my theology hasn’t changed much since my early university days. But the details of my theology have altered significantly since then, and even how I understand that basic structure is very different. And then there are the peripheral matters—things you won’t find in the New Testament’s gospel summaries, for instance, or in the Apostles’ Creed, say. Many of these have changed 180° for me, or simply fallen by the wayside as unworthy of my strong conviction.

When I say our theology may need to change—or even that, over the course of our life, our theology had better change—this is what I mean by “theology”: our particular ways of understanding and expressing and prioritizing our beliefs about God and everything else in relationship to God.

But if our theology can or even should change over time, what is it that doesn’t change?

The answer, of course, is God.

Our understanding of God changes, but God doesn’t change. Our experience of God changes, but God doesn’t change.

YHWH LoveGod—Being, Person, Love—is the same God, always. Put in biblical terms, the God who created the heavens and the earth, is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is Yahweh the covenant God of Israel, is the Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, is the Spirit indwelling the Church and blowing where it pleases in the wider world.

We don’t put our faith in theology. We put our faith in God.

Our theology supports our faith in God—but it is not God.

Our theology helps us make sense of our experience of God—but it is not God.

Our theology gives us some tools to think about God and speak of God—but it is not God.

It is God who guides us through the difficult waters. God is the anchor that holds us firm through the storms of life. If, when these storms come, we have put our faith in a system of beliefs and not in the true and living God, we may find our “faith” shattered beyond repair.

And sometimes, that’s exactly what we need.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.