May 09, 2016
John 14:8-17 (25-27)
Author: Scott Hoezee
This is our Pentecost text, of course, but the setting in John 14 takes us back to that last night before Jesus died.
What that means is that even though this text ends up talking about peace and of Jesus telling the disciples “do not be afraid” (Jn. 14:27), let’s just state the merely obvious that in the next 48-72 or so hours of their lives, the eleven disciples still with Jesus in that room that night would have plenty of occasions to be very, very afraid, frightened, disoriented. Feeling “at peace” about anything would shortly for these disciples feel like the remotest of all possibilities.
Maybe that’s why in John 14:1 (“Do not let your hearts be troubled . . .”) and in verse 27 (“Do not be afraid . . .”), I imagine that Jesus’ voice is choked with emotion and that just maybe there was something a little desperate about the way he urged his friends to be calm. It’s the tone of voice you’d expect to hear right after the bus had slid off a snowy highway and landed perilously on its side in a ditch near a ravine: someone might stand up and with real fear in his voice and with eyes widened by fright might shout out to everyone on the bus, “OK, everybody, now DON’T PANIC!!!!”
The truth is that in my life—and probably in your life—every time someone has told me to not be afraid or to not panic it was because all things being equal, fear and panic were live possibilities at the moment.
You had just fled to the basement because the news said a tornado was roaring toward your neighborhood. “Don’t be scared,” your Dad says. Yeah, right. The doctor sits down with you with a grave look in his eyes and says, “Now, I don’t want you to go to pieces but the lab results show . . .” Well, maybe it’s the time to go to pieces. Maybe.
The fact is that we take Jesus’ calming words in John 14 and we transfer them to pretty Hallmark-like Christian greetings cards or we decorate the den with a counted-cross-stitch version of it and we thereby make it a calming word for quiet afternoons whilst we sip a nice cup of chamomile tea or something. What we forget in so doing is that Jesus HAD TO say these things precisely because the world in which we live seems calculated more days than not to knock the holy stuffing out of us.
And perhaps this leads to a much-needed Pentecost reminder, too. Too often we envision Pentecost—at least the original event—as being ever and only about events that were both novel and quite literally earth-shattering. Whatever happened on that original Day of Pentecost, we think, is most decidedly VERY different than my average Tuesday morning or Friday afternoon. But maybe this causes us to miss the everyday nature of the Holy Spirit in our lives that we can detect here in these Lectionary verses from John 14.
You see, Philip asked, “Show us the Father. Show us the Father and it will be enough for us.” Jesus seemed taken aback by the question. “What do you mean? Have I been with you so long and still you do not know me? You’ve been seeing the Father all along. If you’ve seen me, then you have seen the Father.” This, in turn, leads Jesus to talking about the upcoming abiding presence of the Holy Spirit and how that Spirit will revel truths and show the disciples things that the world neither sees nor knows but that they will see and know.
But what if what that means is that we will sense the Spirit and our not being alone in the most ordinary moments of life? After all, just when had the disciples failed to see the Father in and through Jesus? Well, probably most all the time! Probably they had a hard time seeing the Father when recently Jesus had bawled his eyes out at the grave of Lazarus. Or they hadn’t guessed they were seeing—and so were in a real way in the presence of—the Father all those times when Jesus got sleepy and nodded off in the back of a boat or when after dinner Jesus used a small stick to work out that chive that had gotten lodged between his incisors.
They hadn’t realize that the Father was there in all that and so maybe in the context of John 14—a troubling, frightening context that would soon turn into a nightmare of fright and terror for the disciples—what Jesus is really saying is that when life gets tough, when the bottom falls out, the Father (via the Holy Spirit after Pentecost) would as surely be there in those (ordinary) circumstances as well.
When the doctor steps out of surgery with bad news . . .
When the boss ushers you into a room where the Director of Human Resources is sitting there with a letter for you to read . . .
When you are huddled under a desk in the basement while a twister shatters the glass in the house above you . . .
When you sit at your desk and feel such overwhelming boredom with your work that you discover tears have started to run down your cheeks . . .
. . . in all these times the Father (via the Spirit of Pentecost) will as surely be there as on all those other days of Jesus’ ministry even though the disciples did not typically have the eyes to see or the ears to hear. But by the Spirit one day they will and so in a world that constantly tries to steal peace from us and in times when our hearts really do become troubled and for powerfully good reasons at that, this is the good news to which we cling.
There really can be a peace that passes all understanding. There really can be a way for troubled hearts to become calm again. It may not come through tongues of flame or roaring winds or earthquakes such as you can read about in that other Lectionary reading for Pentecost Sunday in Acts 2 but it can come. It does come.
That may be the best message of all for Pentecost. And the main reason that’s such Good Gospel News is because it is by no means a truth for just that 50th day after Easter: this is a truth that goes home with you and moves in with you and stays with you, even to the end of the age.
The word often translated as “Counselor” in John 14:16 and again in John 14:26 is the Greek word PARAKLETOS, which literally means “the one called alongside.” A Paraclete (don’t let your spellchecker convert that to “parakeet” by the way!!!) was the one who stood along side the accused person in court—an attorney, a counselor in that sense—but in John 14 it is clear that what the Holy Spirit does for believers by coming alongside of them is to open their eyes, to prod them in the ribs to recall the things Jesus said, and to remind them of the larger truth that in Jesus, God the Father really had been revealed to this world in a way never before true. With the Holy Spirit of Pentecost at our side, all of life is transformed—some of those transformations may be very subtle but that in no ways undercuts their almighty power!
In Maya Angelou’s classic essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” we see a vignette of what peace from the Holy Spirit in troubled times may look like for those who know the true Lord and the true Spirit of the Lord. Set in the South back in the late 1940s, the essay tells of a time when Maya’s Momma was taunted and insulted by a group of white girls while Momma was doing no more than sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the small grocery store they ran.
The girls said nasty things to Momma, laughed at her for being black. One thirteen-year-old girl even did a hand-stand so as to let her dress fall down. She wasn’t wearing any underwear and so she mooned Momma with her bare bottom and front. Watching her Momma, young Maya was furious that Momma didn’t do something. Yet Momma stayed calm and as Maya moved closer, she heard Momma singing quietly, “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.” The girls tired of the show and left eventually, and as Momma left the porch to return to the store, Maya heard her singing again, “Glory hallelujah when I lay my burden down.”
Momma could see deeper, farther than just those nasty girls and their despising of her. She saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and it changed everything. And she knew all that and could see all that because the Spirit of the Lord was with her whispering “Let not your hearts be troubled . . .”
Author: Doug Bratt
What’s the best way to celebrate a birthday? How should one celebrate the birthday of important people or institutions? In fact, how should we celebrate what some have called the “birthday of the Church” that is Pentecost?
When we celebrate our sons’ birthdays, we sometimes recall stories of their birth. Of how one was born so quickly that his doctor didn’t even arrive in time to deliver him. An intern did it. Or of how his mom and I didn’t finalize another’s names until we were travelling to the hospital to give birth to him.
In a similar way, perhaps the best way to celebrate the Church’s birthday that is Pentecost is to retell the story of how she was born. One possible pathway into this rich text is to focus on the way Pentecost’s Holy Spirit transforms Jesus’ disciples. Barbara Brown Taylor notes we can see that Jesus was the Messiah when we think about his followers in a kind of before-and-after set of pictures.
Before Pentecost they didn’t fully recognize who Jesus was, even though he ministered and lived with them for years.
Jesus’ disciples didn’t stick with him when he got into deep trouble with the authorities, instead abandoning him as quickly as they could. Then, when he, just as he had promised, rose from the dead, they struggled to fully believe that he was alive again.
On Pentecost, however, those very same slow, timid, bumbling disciples become utterly fearless leaders. Jesus’ disciples proclaim the gospel in front of both large crowds and menacing authorities. After Pentecost, they heal sick people and exorcise demons. Jesus’ disciples even go to jail gladly where they sing hymns that shake their prison’s foundations.
That miraculous transformation begins with what Acts 2:1-21 describes. Among the last things Jesus told his disciples before he ascended to the heavenly realm was to wait in Jerusalem for God to keep his promise to baptize them with the Holy Spirit. So with what we suspect was little idea of what Jesus meant, Jesus’ disciples obeyed him by returning to Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem, while they waited, these assembled people prayed “constantly.” They may even have asked God to tell them about just what they were waiting for. After all, John the Baptizer had said something about how Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. It probably sounded dangerous.
Perhaps thankfully, then, Jesus’ disciples had to wait only ten days for God to answer their prayers. On the day of Pentecost, a festival the Jews celebrated fifty days after the Passover, the disciples received what Taylor calls “a crash course in power.”
First there was what Luke calls “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind.” Then there were what looked like “tongues of fire.” Finally, God filled Jesus’ disciples with the Holy Spirit, so that they began to talk in all sorts of foreign languages. One spoke Parthian, another Latin. Some even managed to curl their tongues around the exotic nuances of Egyptian and Arabic.
We can picture God-fearing Jews from all over the known world responding by slowly filling all the doorways and windowsills in that “one place.” After all, a bunch of untrained Galileans was telling about God’s power in languages that left no one feeling out. God’s Holy Spirit turned out to be an amazing linguistics teacher whom everyone present could understand.
Yet it still confused both the listeners and speakers. They were in the middle of something that was illogical. Since some of Jesus’ disciples’ audience couldn’t explain it, they began to hunt for explanations for this foreign language phenomenon. Some made fun of Jesus’ inspired disciples, accusing them, in verse 13, of having “too much wine.”
The once-timid but now inspired bold Peter, however, boldly rejects this explanation. These men aren’t somehow drunk, as you suggest, he says to the crowd in verse 14. After all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning.
Then Peter delivers a stirring sermon that bases its content on Joel’s second chapter. “In the last days,” he announces, quoting Joel who quotes God, “I will pour out my spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophecy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”
That’s exactly what’s happening right now, Peter tells his stunned audience. God is pouring out his Holy Spirit on all God’s children, and this is exactly how it looks. Wind sweeps through the room, just like wind blew through Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Fire falls on heads, much like fire led Israel through the wilderness.
What’s more, tongues rest on each person, much like the tongues that erupted at Babel, only this time in reverse. At Babel, after all, God confused human speech so that people could no longer understand each other. At Pentecost, according to Brown, “God reverses the curse. What sounds like babble is intelligible speech – better yet, is gospel – and everyone present understands it.”
All of this miraculously happened by the power of the Holy Spirit about whom the Bible speaks largely in two ways. Sometimes the Scriptures and confessions emphasize God’s abiding presence through God’s Spirit. This Spirit stays with God’s people, providing them with safety and comfort. This is the Holy Spirit that most of us know and love. It’s the Spirit of peace and joy, of comfort us when we mourn and strengthen us when we stumble. This is the Spirit who is with us always, to the very end of the world.
However Acts 2 reminds us that the Spirit also sometimes acts in ways that can be far less comforting and far more unsettling.
The Holy Spirit also blows and burns. The Spirit may come howling down the chimney and turn all the furniture upside down. If hearers don’t believe that, invite them to ask Job about the whirlwind or Ezekiel about the chariot of fire.
Or ask those who were gathered in that “one place” on the first Pentecost. There the Spirit blew like a violent wind and came down like tongues of fire. Then the Spirit scattered Christians to the four corners of the globe. Ask those who were together in that one place on the first Pentecost if they’d like to go through that every Sunday.
The Christian Reformed Church in North America’s contemporary testimony, Our World Belongs to God, also recognizes the sometimes-unnerving work of the Spirit. In Number 32 it reads, “The Spirit thrusts God’s people into worldwide mission. He impels young and old, men and women, to go next door and far away into science and art, media and marketplace with the good news of God’s grace. The Spirit goes before them and with them, convincing the world of sin and pleading the cause of Christ.”
This is the unsettling Spirit, the One who thrusts, impels and goes before us. While that Spirit may not force us out into the world, we certainly get the impression that the Spirit pushes and shoves us pretty irresistibly. If this is the Spirit whom God wants to pour out on us, we might prefer that God simply skipped us. We might rather put up an umbrella when God pours out this Spirit with wind and fire.
It’s certainly appropriate to pray for the gentle Holy Spirit sometimes. It’s legitimate to pray for the Spirit’s renewal, comfort and abiding presence. It’s appropriate to ask God to send God’s Holy Spirit to restore some predictability and remove us from risk.
However, Pentecost is also God’s reminder that there’s another side to God’s Spirit. For the Holy Spirit can also blow us around and set us on fire, change our lives and turn our world upside down. This Spirit thrusts us both into worldwide mission and impels us into our communities with the good news of God’s grace.
This offers Acts 2:1-21’s preacher and teachers an opportunity to explore with hearers where that Spirit might be thrusting God’s adopted sons and daughters. They might discuss some of the places overseas where God is already at work and eager for us to join the Lord in doing that work. Yet even if the Lord doesn’t send God’s people very far away, the Spirit may thrust them into the lab or backyard with the gospel’s great news. God may send us to the gym or to the market with the great news of God’s amazing grace.
God’s children may even ask for the power of that Holy Spirit. But as someone once said, “Be careful what you ask for. You might just get it.”
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons).
Bridge to Terabithia is very fertile soil for people who want to preach or teach about transformation. It’s Katherine Patterson’s remarkable story of Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke. Their friendship transforms Jess in remarkable ways.
In it we read of how Jess later “thought about it all day, how before Leslie came, he had been a nothing — a stupid, weird little kid who drew funny pictures and chased a cow field trying to act big — trying to hide a whole mob of foolish little fears running riot in his gut. It was Leslie who had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king.”
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Author: Stan Mast
This Psalm gives the enterprising preacher a fresh alternative for a Pentecost sermon, because it focuses on the Spirit’s work not in redemption (as do the other readings for Pentecost Sunday), but in creation. Though a number of contemporary scholars think the mention of the Spirit in verse 30 is not a reference to the third Person of the Trinity, all three years in the Lectionary cycle use Psalm 104 for Pentecost. Clearly the tradition sees Pentecostal connections here. Let’s take a careful look. Maybe this Psalm will breathe some new life into our preaching on Pentecost.
Clearly, it is a creation Psalm. It reads like a doxology based on Genesis 1. Indeed, there is a line of interpretation that actually finds the 6 days of creation in the text of Psalm 104. I’ve read one scholar’s attempt to interpret the Psalm that way, and it seems a bit of a stretch, though not entirely implausible. Quite apart from that idea, Psalm 104 is not a story of origins. It is a hymn of praise to the God who created everything in heaven and on earth and in the sea.
In fact, in words that anticipate Romans 1, it claims that God’s glory is revealed in his creation. In other words, the Psalm is not about creation itself, but about the Creator himself. It shows us Yahweh clothed in the splendor of his creation. Before his panegyric to the glories of creation, the Psalmist opens with this: “O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty.” That brings to mind John Calvin’s repeated claim that we can only see God in God’s works. God is invisible in himself, but his works display his character. Creation points away from itself to its Creator, even as the Holy Spirit points away from himself to the Christ (John 16:13-15).
Our reading for today is carved rather awkwardly out of the Psalm for liturgical purposes. We’ll get a better sense of our reading if we see the Psalm in its entirety. It is organized in 5 stanzas, composed of 3, 5, 9, 5, 3 lines respectively. The first and fifth stanzas focus on the realms that bracket the earth—the celestial realm in verses 2-4 and the nautical in verses 24-26. The second and the fourth emphasize the solid foundations and secure boundaries of the earth (verses 5-9) and the orderly cycles of life on earth governed by the sun and the moon (verses 19-21). The central third stanza celebrates the rich diversity of life on earth (verses 10-18).
To that main body of the Psalm is added a four verse stanza that recites how God maintains life on earth (verses 27-30), a two verse conclusion emphasizing how completely the creation depends on Yahweh (verses 31-32) and a three verse epilogue that spells out how we should respond this revelation of God’s glory in creation (verses 33-35). (This summary of structure is derived from the textual notes in the NIV.)
The lectionary reading for today begins (probably for brevity’s sake) with that nautical section and includes that all-important section which focuses on creation’s absolute dependence on God’s provision, especially the Spirit’s work. We can be glad that the compilers of the lectionary saw fit to keep those concluding instructions about how we should respond to God’s glory; they will keep us from misapplying this creation hymn. But we may wonder why they arbitrarily left out the harshness of verse 35a (probably out of a sense that those words don’t fit the rest of the Psalm, though they actually do).
Our reading opens with a summary of all that has gone before. “How many are your works, O Lord!” This is a call to celebrate God’s rich creativity. No listing of the wonders of creation can do justice to the inventiveness of God in creating a world full of such incredible diversity. Only an infinite mind could create the abundance of the natural world. The Psalmist uses the word “wisdom” to describe the mind of the Creator. “In wisdom you made them all!” That word made think of John 1, where John talks about the role of the eternal Logos in creation. This probably isn’t the place to speculate about the relationship between Wisdom and Word, Sophia and Logos. At the very least, the Psalmist wants us to appreciate the Mind behind the creation.
That wise mind has filled the earth with creatures. And that includes the sea, even the leviathan. Don’t miss the stunning claim in the nautical section. Often in the Old Testament the sea is seen as a symbol of chaos, as a threat to God’s good creation. And in the depths of the sea is a terrible mythical monster, the leviathan that embodies the threat of chaotic evil. Think of Godzilla or the dragon of Revelation. Leviathan is the ultimate threat to human life and the arch enemy of God.
But here in Psalm 104, the vast and spacious sea is calm, beautiful, and teeming with all manner of creatures. Ships sail to and fro on it. And the terrible leviathan is frolicking in the sea like some happy sea otter. Indeed, the textual note in the NIV claims that verse 26b can be read as God playing with his pet leviathan. As one scholar put it, with these few words the Psalmist demythologizes chaos. The sea and its most fearsome creature are now simply a part of God’s good creation.
In verses 27-30 we move from God’s creation to God’s preservation of his entire creation. “These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up….” The universe is not an independently functioning, self-enclosed ecosystem; it all depends on God’s hand, and face, and breath. “When you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to dust.” Indeed, says verse 32, a mere look from God can set the earth trembling and a touch from his fingertips can make the mountains smoke. The creation is absolutely dependent on its Creator for its continued existence.
It is in this context that Psalm 104 speaks of the Spirit. The Hebrew word is ruach, which can mean breath or wind. It is almost onomatopoeic; listen to your breath when you exhale– ruuaacchh. Is the Psalmist simply talking about God’s breath, as in Genesis 2 where he breathes the breath of life into the human race. Or does he refer to the wind of God that moved over the waters of chaos in Genesis 1? Or are those primitive uses of ruach an early hint of the Triune God, suggesting that the Holy Spirit was present and active in the very beginning of creation? In the light of the rest of Scripture, we cannot say that the Spirit of God is simply the breath of God or the wind of God. The Spirit is spoken of too personally in places like John 14 and Romans 8 to be simply a power.
Perhaps the best way to think of ruach is to note that the Spirit of God gives life (as breath does) and moves things (as wind does). More profoundly, breath enables us to speak. Thus, it is no wonder that the other lectionary readings for this Pentecost Sunday focus on the Breath of God speaking to and through God’s people: John 14 is about the Spirit as Advocate and Teacher; Acts 2 shows the Spirit giving the gift of speaking in tongues; and Romans 8 reveals the Spirit as the One who whispers, “Abba, Father,” with our spirit.
With all of that in mind, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that verse 30 is about the Holy Spirit, even if the original writer wasn’t necessarily thinking of a separate Divine person. Yahweh breathes life into every living creature. From our perspective as recipients of the Pentecostal gift, we know that it is the Spirit of God who gives life. Wherever there is life, the Spirit has been and is working. Creation and providence are as much the work of the Spirit (and the Son) as they are of the Father.
So, on this Pentecost Sunday, how shall we preach on Psalm 104? With its lovely emphasis on the wonders of creation, we could preach a powerful ecological sermon. That’s where many contemporary preachers want to go with this Psalm, especially those who agree with theologian and environmentalist Bill McKibben. He claims that “environmental devastation stands as the single great crisis of our time, surpassing and encompassing all others.” This Psalm gives us opportunity to address that great issue, given its emphasis on the beauty of nature and its alleged de-emphasis on the role of humans in the eco-system.
I want to sound a warning note here. While we can legitimately make an ecological application in a sermon on Psalm 104, we must be careful not to glorify creation. Psalm 104 is about the glory of creation’s God. Not only does this Psalm de-mythologize chaos; it also de-mythologizes all of creation. Nature is not sacred. It is not god. It is the creation of God and it depends completely on God for both preservation and redemption. While we could take this Psalm in an ecological direction, the Psalmist takes it in a doxological direction. Or to put it even more strongly, the single great crisis of our time is not ecological; it is theological. In the words of Romans 1:25, the great problem in the world is that human beings have “worshipped and served created things rather than the creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”
I don’t mean to downplay environmental concerns; they are terribly important. But the way to address our concerns about the earth is to first of all address the heart of the problem. Things have gotten turned on their heads, and we focus on the creation at the expense of the Creator. Psalm 104 calls us to get our priorities straight. “May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works.” That’s central. And we must respond to the glory of the Lord by singing God’s praise all our lives. When we rejoice in God first and foremost, we are ready to live properly in his world and take care of it as God told us to do (Genesis 1 and 2).
The Psalmist’s insistence on putting God first is probably why this lovely hymn ends with these ugly words about sinners. The world is not the way it’s supposed to be, and that’s because of human wickedness. It was human sin that plunged the world into its captivity to decay and futility (Romans 8). It is not a monster from the deep that threatens God’s good world. It is the human monster that brings chaos into the order of nature. No wonder the Psalmist wishes that all sin (maybe a better translation than “sinners”) may vanish from the earth. When there is no more wickedness, the praise of God will be unbroken. “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing: Alleluia!”
It is interesting that the Psalmist does not specify how sinners should vanish from the earth. It might be in a puff of smoke in the great conflagration of II Peter and Revelation. Or it might be by the Spirit of God breathing new life into sinners and moving them to repentance and faith. The Pentecost reading from Acts 2 reminds us that when the Spirit moved the tongues of the apostles to preach the Gospel, three thousand sinners were moved by the Spirit to respond, “What shall we do?” The Spirit teaches sinners about Jesus (John 14) and turns rebels into sons and daughters (Romans 8). The Spirit who breathes life into all creation can breathe a new creation into existence. As the old hymn put it, “Your Spirit, O Lord, makes life to abound.”
The lovely image of God clothed in the glory of his creation, wrapping “himself in light as with a garment,” brought to mind the old fable about the Emperor’s new clothes. Or, more relevant to our younger listeners, it made me think about the invisibility cloak in the Harry Potter books. Hide under it and no one can see you. According to Psalm 104, creation functions in exactly the opposite way; it makes the invisible God visible to the eyes of all who have not been blinded by the god of this world (II Cor. 4:4).
Author: Scott Hoezee
“She’s a free spirit” we sometimes say of a certain person. “He exudes a spirit of kindness” we might say of someone else. Or “She has a fiercely independent spirit about her.” And what we mean in every situation is that most people “breathe” or exude a certain ambiance, a certain energy or vibe or . . . or, well, we’re actually just not sure what to call it or how to identify it and so “spirit” sometimes is the word we reach for.
For its Pentecost Epistle reading the Common Lectionary has carved out four verses from the landmark chapter of Romans 8, the first of which (in many translations at least) starts right in the middle of a sentence. It just makes more sense to at least go back to verse 12 to make a sensible Scripture reading out of this (perhaps the Lectionary wanted to avoid all that sin-talk in verses 12-13—not sure). But the upshot of these verses for Pentecost are clear enough: when it comes to Christian people, what kind of spirit do they exude? What’s it like to be around these folks? What rubs off from them onto others? What is your mood after spending time with these folks?
We know how this goes once you start to think about it. Your spouse goes and spends a couple of hours with a relative who is known to be a bit difficult. The spouse comes home and you ask “How’d it go?” only to hear the answer “I’m always so down when I get done visiting with him—he just breathes out so much negative energy.” Or, “I always feel like I need to detox or take a shower or something after being with her—everything she says comes out as a sneer and after a while you just can’t take it. It’s like after a while the room fills up with noxious vapors.”
Alternatively, spend some time with an upbeat, sunny-side-up sort of person and you might say “I just feel younger after being with her! Or “She has a certain spirit, a kind of je ne sais quoi I can’t explain but that just gives me a lift!”
So what is it like to be around Christians? What spirit—or Spirit—do they exude? What’s it like to be with them? Better framed: what is it SUPPOSED to be like to be around believers?
Well, let’s admit that in history Christians have often been lampooned as sour, dour killjoy types who are most decidedly no fun to be around. What’s the old acerbic joke: I’d like to go to heaven for the climate but to hell for the company. Ouch. Or there is the old barb against Puritan types about whom it is said that their #1 worry at any given moment is that somewhere in the world, someone is having fun.
These are huge broadsides and significant caricatures. And yet . . . maybe we all do this ourselves sometimes and we certainly can think of some fellow Christians who fit this bill. There are a lot of Christians who seem, frankly, to evince a spirit of fear and anxiety. Over against the advances of science, over against a sinful world (whose sinfulness often seems utterly surprising to some Christians, even to those with some of the deeper theologies of Total Depravity), over against most anything that seems “new,” Christians often appear to be threatened, edgy, and flat out afraid.
Some are actually afraid of their own salvation. Some of the more extreme wings of the Calvinist Reformed movement have many churchgoing, Bible-believing adherents who refuse to take the Lord’s Supper, so convinced are they that their sinfulness means they cannot help but “eat and drink judgment unto themselves.” Sing “Jesus Loves Me This I Know”? Well, best not do that because HOW can you KNOW? And it goes without saying that when there is this level of spiritual uncertainty and fear AMONG fellow members of the same church, their views of those outside that fellowship and in any church that seems even mildly different or more liberal than they are downright dim.
I won’t say which denominations this is about but I know of two deeply conservative denominations that traffic heavily in doom-and-gloom talk that fosters a radical uncertainty about one’s spiritual status at any given moment. But one is a little more hopeful than the other and so the joke is told “What is the difference between Denomination A and Denomination B? Well, Denomination A believes you are going to hell if you are not part of their church whereas Denomination B believes you are going to hell for not being part of their church AND that they are going with you.”
“But you did not receive a Spirit that makes you a slave again unto fear” the Apostle Paul writes in verse 15. Instead the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost—among so many other things—assures us that we are now in the divine Family. We are sons, we are daughters, we are the children of God. We get the whole inheritance along with Jesus the Son—we are co-heirs, joint inheritors of the whole kingdom of God.
Those who know how to cry “Abba, Father” and know that this cry is welcome by the God of Heaven must also know that they are free from anxiety, free from fear, free from feeling that threats to our status with God are around every corner. As children of God, we breathe the Spirit of joy, of hope. Christians should radiate with a positive energy. We should be fun to be around! We should make people feel young again.
When Jesus was on this earth, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he was “the life of the party” wherever he went. He was quite literally the life of the party at a certain wedding in a place called Cana when he provided what was needed to let the celebration go on in full swing. He was invited to so many dinner parties and was sought out by so many of the very ‘sinners’ that the religious establishment had written off that you simply sense that he was an attractive social presence, that he, too, breathed a Spirit that was a lot different from what it was like to hang out with the average Pharisee. As Philip Yancey wrote in The Jesus I Never Knew, “[Jesus] would accept almost anybody’s invitation to dinner, and as a result no public figure had a more diverse list of friends, ranging from rich people, Roman centurions, and Pharisees to tax collectors, prostitutes, and leprosy victims. People liked being with Jesus; where he was, joy was” (p. 89).
Maybe that was because Jesus was the pioneer of possessing this Spirit of God that set him free from fear and set him free FOR joy and a certain joie de vivre that was contagious. And as such Jesus is the pace car for all who were to follow him, especially after Pentecost and the Spirit’s drenching the rest of us with his goodness and with the assurance that the God of Heaven is indeed our very Abba, our Father.
Yes, yes, we Christians need to be serious about sin. We need to point out sin’s corrosive effects on human relationships, on the environment, on culture. We are not supposed to just radiate joy and smile all the live-long day when faced with the horrors of human sex trafficking or when witnessing a neighbor beat the living daylights out of a spouse or a child. Sin and evil are real and they are raw and they need confronting. These situations need Jesus, they need the Gospel. All true.
Still, at the end of the day—even when confronting what is wrong with this world—do we convey a Spirit of confidence that God in Christ has overcome the world and can offer hope in these dire situations or are we only judgmental as we present a God who is more interested in whacking what is evil than saving all he can? Do we show that we know how wonderful it is to be related to God as our Abba in ways others will find attractive and want to have in their own lives or are we those dour, sour prudes caricatured by some—the kinds of people the average person would just as soon not spend an afternoon with (much less be a fellow member of a church with)?
Romans 8 begins with the world-changing, exuberant declaration that there is now NO condemnation for those who dwell in Christ. And that’s not some message from the outside coming in if we are believers—we have that truth sealed right inside each one of us by the Holy Spirit. And THAT, then, is the Spirit we breathe and exude to all others.
Back in Kindergarten, maybe you did a craft in school as a Christmas present for your parents. Perhaps it was a papier mâché ornament for the Christmas tree. Years later maybe you took another look at that ornament: it’s not round by a long shot but kind of funky-shaped. There are clumps of glue here and there and several places where your paintbrush failed to make contact, leaving bare spots where you can still read the classified section of the newspaper you used. But when you handed your folks that trinket, their eyes shined. They took the gold and crystal Saks Fifth Avenue tree ornament that Aunt Louise had bought in New York City and stuck it on the back of the tree so that your ornament could be front and center. “Do you like it, Daddy?” you maybe asked. “Honey, it’s just perfect.”
When you are in your father’s love, that’s the kind of answer you always hear. “Do you love me, Father?” “Honey, you’re just perfect.” When you are God’s child, co-heirs with Christ; when the Spirit of freedom and love is inside you releasing you from all fear, this is how it always goes.
And that is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.