Spirit of Life
Published 11 June 2012
Rev Dr Max Champion at St John's UCA Mt Waverley Sunday 27 May 2012
Lessons - Joel 2:27-29; Acts 2:1-13; John 15:26,27;16:12-15
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. (Nicene Creed)
It is not immediately clear to us what this early confession of faith in the Holy Spirit means. Spirit language is somewhat impersonal, vague, intangible and elusive - suggesting a ghost-like presence so 'holy' that it seems to be unconnected to the real world that we can see and touch.
Strangely, however, in Scripture and the creeds the 'holiness' of the 'Spirit' does not mean being 'unworldly' but being truly 'worldly'! The Holy Spirit is the spirit of life - the spirit of God who humanises us by placing us more fully in the midst of the secular world.
Unfortunately, the connection between Life and the Holy Spirit has been severed in our thinking. We tend to think in terms of two separate areas of existence: the private spiritual sphere and the public secular sphere.
Today, belief in spiritual things is thought to be acceptable only if it does not impinge on controversial public issues.
We need to recover the essential unity of 'Spirit' and 'life' expressed in Scripture and the creeds.
* At creation the Spirit gives the world purpose and shape: light is separated from darkness, order amidst chaos, man and woman are created to be stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:2).
* When things go wrong in Israel's history the Spirit rests on prophetic leaders to judge bad behaviour and revitalise the community. Joel looks forward to the time when, despite sin and oppression, the Spirit of God
shall be poured out on Israel and 'all flesh'.
* In the Gospels the Spirit confirms Jesus' divine mission at his baptism and sustains him in the severest of temptations (Mark 1:10; Matthew 4:1ff). The presence of the Spirit is also promised to disciples (and future generations) after the ascension of Jesus. (John 14 & 15.)
* The Church 'receives the Holy Spirit' from Jesus to empower her proclamation of the life-giving grace and peace that has been embodied in him (John 20:22). The Spirit breaks down the barriers of language and culture to create a new community (Acts 2:1ff): a 'communion of saints'
(Apostles' Creed). This community, as Paul insists, is to be shaped so that every member plays their part in building up the Body of Christ in faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 12:1ff).
Therefore the Spirit connects people to God and each other in such a way that they see the world around them and their responsibilities to others in a completely different light. The Spirit encourages life-affirming relationships and opposes life-denying behaviour that dishonours God and mistreats other people and the earth. The Spirit calls us to fullness-of- life in the company of Christ - to share in the very life of God.
The life-affirming work of the Spirit is magnificently expressed in Bishop John V Taylor's 'The Go-Between God':
'The Holy Spirit is the invisible third party who stands between me
and the other person, making us mutually aware. The Holy Spirit is
that power which opens eyes that are closed, hearts that are unaware
and minds that shrink from too much reality. We so commonly speak
about him as the source of power, but in fact he enables us not by
making us supernaturally strong but by opening our eyes to God, the
world and our neighbour.'
* Many years ago a young man was referred to me for counselling. Raised in a Pentecostal church where the miraculous power of the Spirit was celebrated, he had become depressed about work, family and the future. He had lost his faith and wanted to recover the energy he had once known as a young charismatic Christian. As he talked, it became clear that the unwavering affection of his wife and support of friends and other Christians was a great source of encouragement to him. When he had felt disconnected, they had helped him to stay connected to them, the world and God. Sadly, in his desire for unambiguous signs of the Spirit in his life he had missed seeing the Spirit in their love and care for him!
* At a recent Church Council meeting Kathy Ferguson led devotions. She read a moving story about a very active woman who became a paraplegic. The woman was tough and resilient but she experienced very dark days. She prayed fervently for God to give her some sign of his presence. On a particularly bad day she railed against God, demanding irrefutable proof by day's end that she had not been abandoned! During the day nurses, doctors, friends, workmates and fellow patients came and went. Still no proof! At night she despaired of the miracle that never came - until she realised that, in small and unspectacular ways, her visitors had been the means by which the Spirit had supported and encouraged her.
In so many ways the Spirit is quietly and persistently at work in our lives. The Spirit is not confined to personal relationships, but is also present in the community. The Spirit of Life does not abandon the world but, in imperceptible ways, works to challenge arrogance and renew righteousness on earth.
Discerning the work of the Holy Spirit in society is a tricky business.
But churches are liable either to restrict the Spirit to the private religious part of life - and ignore the worldliness of the Spirit, or to endorse popular social movements - and ignore the sanctity of the Spirit.
Today, Pentecostal and evangelical churches are tempted by the former; mainline churches, like the Uniting Church in Australia, by the latter.
It is particularly urgent today that, as Christian communities, we open our eyes to what is happening around us before it is too late. If we fail to test the spirits and blithely live as if all is well, then Dean Inge's chilling saying will apply to us: 'Whoever marries the spirit of the age will find himself a widower in the next.'
The Holy Spirit is not any spirit of the age that appeals to us. Two forms of that spirit of the age are popular and powerful today:
* Advocates of new-age spirituality seek to be re-energised by looking deep within themselves to find their unique individual spirit that enables them to release the power to be themselves and make a positive contribution to society. Businesses, schools, churches, sporting clubs and
others now use new-age techniques to strengthen group loyalty.
* Social justice advocates identify the Spirit with so-called 'progressive movements' that are accepting of a wide diversity of beliefs and lifestyles. Here the emphasis is also on empowering individuals to be themselves and strengthen social cohesion.
To go along with the Spirit of the Age today means not only to tolerate other people's choices but to approve them and campaign to have them endorsed in legislation. The question that needs to be asked of controversial public issues like euthanasia, abortion and same-sex 'marriage' is whether support for them is consistent with the Spirit of Life embodied in Christ.
It is a matter of urgency that we open our eyes to what is happening around us - in our relationships, in the Church and in public life. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit that brings hope wherever the spirit of pride and despair is present.
At such a time, what could be more necessary than to be a community of the 'Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life'? When life in community is often marked by conflict, resentment sours our relationships and death hangs over us, we are assured that the Spirit (as the Apostles Creed
affirms) creates true community, forgives our sins and enables us to live in hope of the resurrection to eternal life when the fullness-of-life now experienced in Christ shall reach its joyful climax.
What could be more important than to open our eyes to the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst? What could be more necessary than to protest policies that dehumanise life? What could be more vital to the health of society and the Church than for Christians in their life together to preach, teach and celebrate the 'Spirit of Life'? For this life-giving Spirit, who points us to Christ, enables us to live by hope in the midst of our broken, strife-torn world.
Rev Dr Max Champion is minister in the St John's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley, Victoria, Australia. Dr Champion is Chair of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the UCA.