3rd Article: Where is the Holy Spirit?

This is the 4th Lenten Midweek. The theme we have been following is the first part of the catechism with a focus on the creed. This week was the third article on the Holy Spirit. This meditation’s theme is the contrast between the airy nature of what we typically attribute to “The Spirit” and the very concrete nature of the Spirit in both scripture and creed. If we meditate on the catechism’s explanation the Spirit’s work is the most observable in our daily lives. Taking place in and through the church and the forgiveness of sins.

Pastoral Anxiety

When I go to a Pastor’s Conference I usually try and share a few things. Not a travelogue; Nobody wants to see your vacation pictures. An attempt to extract some wisdom.

All pastor’s conferences have two expressions.  There are the “right hand kingdom” issues.  These are the anxieties and efforts to rule, govern and guide the church in the world, to make decisions and address problems.  There are also the “left hand kingdom” issues.  These are the worship, prayer, study and consolation of the brethren. Depending upon the group you are in, networking can be in the right or the left. Using right and left is theological language for those things which are of power and the law and those things which are of grace.  The right, the power-hand (sorry lefties), is the straight ahead law, commands, hierarchies and governance. “Do this, and you will live.”  The left, the sinister sneaky hand (sorry lefties), is the one that you don’t see coming. We never expect grace.  “Believe this, and you are already good.”

In that right hand kingdom stuff I had three observations.  And I don’t mean any of these observations to be positive or negative.  Most things in the right hand kingdom simply are.  Being humans we are all struggling toward the best outcomes we can imagine.  Sometimes there is a lack of imagination, sometimes too much.  But we tend to fall in predictable paths. First observation, The Eastern District is probably the poorest one in the LCMS which colors my visions, but man there was a lot of money floating around the PSD.  Having money allows for less anxiety and more imagination of what we might do.  Lacking money, a certain fatalism sets in. The hopefulness of the PSD was refreshing.  Second observation, the political reality of the district is that CA drives everything.  The money and the weight of congregations is Southern Cal.  The third observation is that the pastors of the PSD clearly see themselves apart from the larger Synod. Not that they would separate, but the anxieties are different. And they believe the anxieties of the rest of Synod are misdirected.  There are deeper conversations that could be had around each of those, but that is enough for this space.

Because as much head space that we give to the anxieties and expressions of the right hand kingdom, the church is ultimately about the left.  How do we proclaim the grace of Jesus Christ and him crucified for our salvation? One of the biggest anxieties of the conference is the current state of the pastorate.  The two expressions of this anxiety being a perceived shortage of pastors and specific to CA congregations a shortage of pastors willing to move to CA.  And this is not a small issue for a Lutheran Church body that confesses “so that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. (Augsburg Confession Article 5).”  The primary study of the conference lead by Dr. Leopoldo Sanchez I felt was spot on.  Dr. Sanchez, who I had for a couple of classes back in Seminary, is “Mr. Holy Spirit.”  And you could summarize his study as “It is OK to Pray to the Holy Spirit.”

An older book was titled “The Half Remembered God” and the Holy Spirit is often that, half-remembered. But it is the Spirit that works in the life of the church.  The Spirit is half-remembered because He is always testifying to Jesus, also because He works through means – Word and Sacrament. We see the effects of the Spirit, like the wind in the trees, but often miss Him.  What Dr. Sanchez shares was a summary of his book “Sculptor Spirit”.  And in that work he outlines five different models of sanctification, five different biblical ways the Spirit works. And the two that address the expressed anxiety I felt were what he labels renewal and dramatic.  Renewal is the fact that “The Holy Spirit works through death and resurrection.” Dramatic is that the life of the church is one in the wilderness.  We learn to trust God and prayer as the Spirit leads us through trail and temptation.  Wherever we find ourselves, we have been lead there by the Spirit. And it is for our good that we might know God more fully.  It is only in God that we find our true rest from all our anxieties. 

Who Do You Say I Am?

Biblical Text: Matthew 16:13-20

This sermon is an attempt to talk about what it means to convert – to come to an authentic faith in Jesus Christ. There are three parts to the sermon. The first part is simply a reflection that the way the church converted people for a very long time was baptism, Christendom and Christian families. For all the worries over cultural Christianity (paging Soren Kierkegaard), it was a lot better than the worries. But big chunks of Christendom let it go. And so the church is confronted with a different type of conversion problem. What is necessary to bring a pagan into the faith. The second part reflects on Jesus’ initial question and the disciples answers. “Who do people say that I am? John the Baptists, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” This is Jesus as true man. The convert has to have a sympathy with Jesus as true man. But that isn’t the fullness if it is necessary. The third part reflects on Jesus’ refinement of his question. “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter’s answer “you are the Christ the son of the living God.” That is an encapsulation of the need to confess that Jesus true man is also true God. This also includes the wrinkle that we can’t force this recognition. “Blessed are you Simon bar-Jonah…”. Conversion is a work of preparation that the church needs to be about. But conversion is also solely the work of the Spirit.

Everybody Worships

I suppose graduation season has passed.  In NY my kids would still have two weeks of school left in the year, so I’m still adjusting a bit. But graduation season brings up maybe my one brush with greatness. David Foster Wallace, the essayist and author, was in residence as a teacher at Illinois State University in 1993.  Supposedly that was when he wrote Infinite Jest, his most famous work that vies for a place in the canon. That also happened to overlap with some of the time I spent there on full scholarship, while also in “He went to Paris, searching for answers” mode. I happened to bump into him at a church service at our little student mission. I’m not sure anyone else knew who he was.

You have probably not read Infinite Jest and that is not me being a pompous ass. I’m the weird one here.  I once attempted to get my mother to read some of his essays which are my favorites.  Because he was an Illinois boy who through his parents’ connections and his own precociousness had gained access to a rarified world.  There was a bit of biographical overlap, and from my reading his love and fundamental goodness was clear.  She of course was offended.  Read where I saw love as scorn. (It was the Illinois State Fair essay if anyone has read him.) But, you might have heard his graduation address at Kenyon College. He gave it in 2005.  And to this day it takes me right back to that church service, because I swear he must have been reading Luther. It usually goes by “This is Water,” and it does have the strong advice to know what you are swimming in.  But for me the stronger portion is when he says, “Everybody Worships.” That is actually the meat of his advice to the graduates.  You are going to worship something.  And all the default deities are terrible. “They will eat you alive.”

That is almost directly from Luther’s Large Catechism on the first commandment. “Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your God.” And Luther runs down roughly the same default Gods: money, power, skill, favor, family, friendship.  Even good things will eat your alive if placed as the ultimate source. 

Luther’s words in that catechism explanation amount to the same thing as what DFW says. “The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”  Make sure you know what you are worshipping. Understand the water you swim in.

DFW got the law right.  The great difference was in the gospel. For DFW it was your work alone to daily keep the truth before you.  It was your work alone to continue to choose who to worship. Toward the end of his address he’d say, “That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think…the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness…your education really IS the job of a lifetime.”  If you live under the law, you better choose the right god and have no other God’s before him.  And if that is all on you, it will crush you.  DFW took his own life in 2008. Luther would put it differently. “We cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him.” We will never understand the water we swim in without the pure gift of the Holy Spirit.

The law is still good and wise.  We need to recognize the water we worship.  And we are all too dismissive of that.  Too easily swept along by the strong currents of default. But it is the Spirit who ultimately “keeps us in the true faith.” Today his mercy calls us, again.

Dating the Reign

Biblical Text: Acts 1:1-11

We observed Ascension Day this Sunday. So I swapped out the first reading for the Ascension Day one. The recent coronation of the English King had me thinking about some things in regards to the Kingdom of God, the phrase Jesus consistently used. I guess the two questions would be: a) when does that reign start? and b) how does it manifest itself? Ascension Day is one of the logical times to date it from. (There are some nice theological arguments to be had about this, but the Kingdom in its full recognition starts here.) Our problem with this is the first royal decrees are not what we would do. “Are you now going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” That was the disciples’ question. Because it is payback time. It is time to get ours. That is not what The King does. This sermon looks at the first royal decrees upon Ascension, and how they direct us today.

Lord and Christ

Peter’s Pentecost sermon – which a portion of it is our first reading today, the full sermon is in Acts 2:14-41 – is worth pondering deeper.

What gives Peter the opportunity to preach?  Something has happened.  We know from reading the story that what was happening is the Holy Spirit has come, but nobody else understands that.  In fact everyone else, all good Jews who have gathered in Jerusalem for one of the travel holidays, think that what has happened is something scandalous and embarrassing.  Peter and the disciples are drunk at 9 AM. The modern environment of the church can be described as being surrounded by good Jews to the extent that Americans right now seem to be in a moralistic and judgmental mood. There are unwritten rules of society that gets enforced in quite extreme ways. You can find yourself canceled.  And what the church has to say on many things is scandalous and embarrassing. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus told those disciples this before the passion.  “And when [The Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness and judgement. (John 16:8).”  It is the work of the Holy Spirit in what from the world’s perspective are scandalous things that is the opportunity to proclaim the good news.

How does Peter’s sermon start? He grounds his proclamation firmly in the prior works and words of God. Peter quotes a long passage from the prophet Joel, an apocalyptic passage.  What do I mean by apocalyptic? I mean in the simplest definition of that word, a revelation. God has revealed himself. Any time God reveals himself is in an apocalypse. And there are all kinds of apocalypses.  There are personal revelations.  When the sinner is convicted of their sin, it is an apocalypse. All the way up to the final apocalypse, when every knee shall bow at the revelation of Jesus Christ in all his glory. When the man comes around.  The church’s message is always grounded in the self-revelation of God.

What particular revelation is Peter bringing before his audience?  “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know.” The greatest of these signs is his crucifixion and resurrection. You killed him, but God raised him up.  Whatever prior revelation you are holding onto.  In the case of those Jews Peter assumes it is the Davidic promises.  We all might have revelations that we are holding onto.  Like Peter himself wanting to build booths on the mount of transfiguration. These are all insignificant compared to the bare facts of the passion and resurrection. “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that the Father has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

That proclamation is both law and gospel. It is law to the extent that I and my sin crucified him. To the extent that I want to keep my revelation about him, it is a judgement. But it is also the sweetest gospel.  This Jesus whom we know is Lord and Christ. The Lord is not Caesar or any other tyrant, but Jesus.  The Messiah, the one we have been looking for, is not some political personage or charismatic movement, but Jesus.  This Jesus whom we crucified, but who prayed for our forgiveness.  Being convicted of sin is also being convicted of righteousness.  My sin killed him, but His Grace has given me his righteousness.

Being convicted the crowd asks, “what shall we do?” Peter’s simple answer is “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus.  Receive the Holy Spirit.” This revelation is not just for some Jews.  This revelation is for you and for your Children.  This revelation is for all who are far off whom God is calling to himself.

Peter’s sermon has new relevance in our world. The church scandalizes the world. But the church is still a revelation.  It reveals to the world its sin, its righteousness and its judgement. It places before the world Jesus Christ.  Here is your Hope and Salvation.

Unbelief to Believing

Biblical Text: John 20:19-31

At the word cloud would tell you, this is “Doubting” Thomas Sunday. But there are really two things in the text. The Thomas story is one of unbelief to belief and the things that stand in the way. The biggest of them I think is simply shame. The sermon goes into that in the 2nd half. The first half is the commissioning of the disciples. We believe, how then do we live? Jesus gives some directions here. The first half of the sermon looks at what it means to be sent as Christ was sent and the role of the Holy Spirit.

How to Have an Argument

The season of Epiphany this year gives us a continuous reading from the book of 1st Corinthians.   Our Sunday morning bible study is using that as a springboard to study at least some of that letter a bit deeper.  The context of at least the first four (4) chapters of 1 Corinthians are divisions or arguments in the church.  And I’m not writing this up because I think or feel coming a great argument within Mt. Zion.  I’m writing this up because the time to think about arguments is when you aren’t having one.  When you are having them, all we sinful humans think about is winning them.

What Paul does in the first two chapters of First Corinthians is make a clear distinction between how arguments in the world take place and how they should take place within the church.  How they take place in the world is that we run to various forms of power.  We make appeals to authority: “I follow Paul…Apollos…Cephas…Christ.” And in making appeals to authority, we seek to trump whoever else has been claimed.  But in our claiming of these various authorities, we assert that they would disagree with each other.  Within the church this is out of bounds.  Paul does not disagree with Christ. We might not yet understand how they actually agree, but the fault is with our understanding, not the scripture or the apostles.  “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” The answer is no.  The task is to understand why, repent and reform our lives together.

Anselm would call that “faith seeking understanding.” Paul in 1 Corinthians would just call it life under the cross. In the world, if we do not have an authority to invoke, or if all authorities are hopelessly corrupted, we would turn to a couple of other arguments: reason and practicality.  “Jews demand signs and Greeks wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.”  Now signs could be demands for miracles, but they are also just the pragmatic question “does it work?” If it does you should be able to show me something.  Likewise, we should be able to reason together.  The problem with these things in spiritual matters is that we are sinners and our vision is hopelessly clouded.  What is wisdom to us is foolishness to God.  Our natural ways will never bring us to God.  “No human being might boast in the presence of God.” Instead “we boast in the Lord.” Anything we know spiritually comes first as a revelation of Jesus Christ.  And the greatest revelation is that cross.  “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.  God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Strength usually works. Wisdom is a good thing. But in spiritual matters? They will fail you.  Lean not on your own understanding, but have faith that Christ is the way and the truth.

Why is this the case?  Because “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God.”  The indwelling of the Spirit is necessary.  Which you have from your baptism.  Faith is a prerequisite to arguing with each other correctly in spiritual matters.  Why? Because we then share the same Spirit.  We then “have the mind of Christ.”  If we are worldly, what we want to do is win the argument.  And the ultimate way to win is to destroy the other.  If we are spiritual we want together to receive the gifts that Christ has given us.  You have received the Spirit from God such that under the cross we might together remain reconciled to Christ and to each other.  Reconciliation, which is foolishness to those who have the Spirit of the World.

That basically brings you up to where we are in our study.  I’d invite you to join us on Sunday morning after snacks.

Spirit Power: Courage, Teaching, Peace

Biblical Text: Acts 2: 1-21, 22-47, John 14:23-31

This Sunday continues a couple of series. It continues our study of the book of Acts even if we have been “jumping around” in that book. This sermon ends up following up on last week. If last week was about the Spirit’s work “inside” the church before the public work that begins on Pentecost, this week’s is about the “outside” work, what the Spirit empowers in the world. The summary is the three word subtitle. The Spirit continues to empower courage. The Christian life comes with its own power source. The Spirit empowers the teaching of the church. The sermon reflects on the first sermon of the church and how it models ever Spirit filled sermon since. And the Spirit empowers a peace that the world cannot give.

Courage of the Spirit

Biblical Text: Acts 1:1-26

This Sunday on the church calendar – the 7th Sunday of Easter – to me is the strangest one in the entire calendar. The sermon gets into that a bit, so I won’t spell it out here. But sitting between The Ascension and Pentecost is a time of internal preparation. God never leaves His people, but sometimes there are some things to do before going public. This sermon is about the presence of the Holy Spirit with the people of God. It is about what the Holy Spirit enables, and how He enables it. It is about life in the Spirit.