Theology sermon#4— Gen 1:1-5;2:4-8; Isa 42:1-9; Lk 4:16-21; Gal 5:22-26; Ps 104:24-30
Ted Grimsrud – Shalom Mennonite Congregation – January 21, 2007
Word association: “Holy Spirit”
As some of you may know, for most of my life I have been an intense sports fan. I’ve watched a lot of sports on TV. I try to keep it under control these days, but like with a smoker, the desire never leaves. So I have seen many beer commercials. Some of them have been pretty clever, even if they are pushing a pretty disgusting product. How many of you remember the Miller Lite, “tastes great/less filling” “debate”?
In thinking about theological debates, I feel there might be an instructive parallel. Not that I think theological debates are no more important than whether a beer tastes great or is less filling. Not at all. Theological issues do matter. But, the parallel is that in both cases we are talking about the opinions of human beings. No theological debate is more than about human opinions. Some opinions are worthier of respect than others, but they all remain human opinions. Theological differences should not be a matter of life and death. No human theological position is the same as upper-case R “Reality,” no human being or group of human beings speak definitively for God. Theology matters; it is important; it is not simply a matter of opinion with all views equally valid – but it always remains human work, never authoritative enough or absolute enough or true enough to justify hurting those who have different views.
I thought of this point especially this week as I was reflecting on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Not because this particular doctrine is so controversial. Rather, it’s the bigger doctrine generally attached to the Holy Spirit that came to mind. The doctrine of the Trinity. Many Christians see this doctrine, above all others, as the key theological boundary marker. As one Mennonite theologian wrote several years ago, the doctrine of the Trinity is not simply a human idea, it corresponds to Reality. To disagree is to put oneself outside the pale.
I think there is an important principle at stake here. Can any human idea about God be more than a metaphor, more than saying “God is like this”? Can we say, definitively, that God is anything? I think not. No theological language can ever be more than metaphorical. I would say that thinking of three aspects of God – Creator, Son, and Spirit – is helpful. But as a biblical Christian, I also say that I believe in one God. God as seen in creation, God as seen in Jesus, and God as seen in the Holy Spirit, is one God with one will – not a “Triune” God but simply God.
The danger with Trinitarian language is that it too easily lends itself to making distinctions within God, as if God as “Father” is one way (judgmental, harshly holy, punitive) while God in Jesus is different. This opens the door to the acceptance of a violence in God. Such violence would be impossible to accept if God’s revelation in Jesus defines what God most truly is like.
I understand Christian theology to be critical reflection on our convictions, seeking to identify what is most important. As Christians, we do this in light of our commitment to Jesus as our clearest revelation of what God is like, of what matters most. Thinking theologically about the Holy Spirit should happen in this context. Not so much, how does the Holy Spirit function as a distinct member of the Trinity; rather, how does understanding God-Presence-as-Spirit being the Spirit of Jesus help us live faithfully?
I want to bring together two points from today’s texts. The first point is that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, is the Spirit of life. Wherever there is life, the Spirit is present. The second point is that wherever the Spirit is present, then Jesus is also present. That is, Jesus’ hierarchy of what is most important (love the Lord your God with your entire being and love your neighbor as yourself) is reflected in all life. Life is holy. Each person is holy. All life (each life) is to be valued and revered.
Genesis chapter one and Genesis chapter two have become central for my understanding of the Holy Spirit. First, we read, “in the beginning when God created, the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1-2). The picture here is not focused on starting with nothing and making what is from scratch. More, the idea is bringing order out of chaos. Many translations have rendered the Hebrew word ruach as “wind” – like God blew a mighty wind to bring order to the universe. However, it can also be translated, “Spirit.” The sense then becomes one of God’s direct involvement. God as Spirit brings order out of chaos, brings peace (shalom, wholeness) out of randomness. All of creation in some sense then links with the Spirit of God.
Western so-called civilization has a lot to answer to the universe for, not least our exploitation of creation. I always think of Gandhi’s quip. “Sir, what do you think of western civilization,” he was asked. “I think it would be a good idea.” One key move toward the profound alienation that has characterized our culture in relation to creation came when the world became mere matter and lost its spirit.
Ironically, human beings created impersonal machines – something that never occurs in nature. As we relied more and more on these machines, we found ourselves alienated from creation more and more. Then the fatal step – we projected from our own creation (impersonal machines) on to nature and claimed that nature is impersonal, that nature is merely matter. We then exploit what we believe is inert matter. We extract fossil fuel and poison the earth both in the extracting and in the burning of this fuel. We treat the soil and the seas and the forests as mere instruments from which we extract what we then use for our utterly unsustainable “modern way of life.”
One way to see this problem is to say that by separating the Spirit of God from the material universe, we have planted the seeds of our own destruction – spiritual and physical.
So Genesis one is crucial for our doctrine of the Spirit – though its teaching is reinforced throughout the Bible. It is Godself who infuses the universe as it is shaped from disorder into its goodness and beauty. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of creation.
The second mention of the Spirit of God comes in Genesis two – and is also often missed due to English translations. The description of creation beginning in Genesis 2, verse 4, focuses on the human beings. A key point is made right away. “There was no one to till the ground” – a caregiver is needed. So, God forms out of the “dust of the ground” the first human being. This dust becomes human when God “breathes into the human’s nostrils the Spirit of life; and the human became a living being” (2:7). We are being told here, I believe, that the Spirit of God itself enters the dust of the earth and enlivens it, makes it live, makes it human.
In a sense, this image here repeats what we are told in a different way in Genesis one. There, the completion of creation is God creating human beings (male and female) in God’s own image. And they are immediately given the task of caring for the rest of creation.
What I would like to suggest here is that the very essence of life, the mystery of what differentiates living organisms from the dust of the earth is the Spirit of God. Where there is life, the Spirit is present. In fact, the Spirit is what makes it life. Now, I want to make this claim for all forms of life, but I also want to emphasize the idea that there is indeed something special about human life. We manifest the Spirit of God in an especially profound way.
And, the special way we manifest the Spirit of God is in our potential (and our responsibility) to care for the rest of creation. When we deny the Spirit of God’s presence in our physical world by treating it as an object to exploit, we are defacing the Spirit of God’s presence in our own being.
One of my favorite theologians is the Kentucky poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry. He fits very well my understanding of what theology should be about – critical reflection on what it is that matters most in life, and as Christians, using our understanding of God in Jesus as our central criterion of evaluation. Berry does this very well.
Recently, he wrote an essay, “Is Life a Miracle?” In it, he puts into words part of what I am trying to get at here.
“I know that humans, including modern biologists, have learned a good deal about living things, and about parts of living things,” he writes. “But I don’t believe that anybody knows much about the life of living things. I have seen with my own eyes and felt with my own hands many times the difference between live things and dead ones, and I do not believe that the difference can be so explained as to remove the wonder from it. What is the coherence, the integrity, the consciousness, the intelligence, the spirit, the informing form the leaves a living body when it dies? What was the ‘green fire’ that Aldo Leopold saw going out in the eyes of the dying wolf? When you watch the eyes of the dying there comes a moment when you see that they no longer see. I think a great painter can paint the difference between an eye that is dead and a living eye, but I don’t think anybody can explain the difference.
“To me, as a matter of principle and of belief, life is a miracle. I so believe because life is more credible to me as a miracle than it is as an accident or as somebody’s property. ‘Miracle’ is a word that encompasses more of what I have experienced of life than do other words more frequently applied to it.
“But my belief is not the practical point,” Berry concludes. “The practical point is that if I believe life is a miracle, I will grant it a respect and a deference that I would not grant it otherwise. If I believe it is a miracle, then I cannot believe that I am superior to it, or that I understand it, or that I own it.” (182-3)
If all of life is a miracle, certainly human life is such. If God infuses the creation of each new creature, certainly God infuses the life of each new human being. This link between human life and other creatures is not a diminishment of human life; it is seeing the holiness of all life. The only thing that diminishes human life is denying the holiness of any form of life.
So, from Genesis one and two, we get a clear sense of the Spirit as part of the entire created order and, in a special way, as part of each human life. We violate the Spirit when we separate Spirit from matter, alienating ourselves from creation. Perhaps even more, we violate the Spirit when we think of some human beings as less than fully infused with God’s Spirit.
The basic danger we face in either case is the same – dividing that which God means to be unified, resisting the presence of God’s Spirit in all the places that it actually is present.
In the Genesis account, we come to the key moment in the alienation of human beings from the Spirit of God right away. The very first act of blaspheming the Holy Spirit comes in Genesis four. Cain murders his brother Abel. That is the only way we can do violence, by denying the full, Spirit-infused humanity of someone else.
When we jump ahead in the story to Jesus, we find these points profoundly reinforced. Luke’s Gospel speaks of the presence of the Spirit with Jesus from the get go. When Mary learns that she will have a child, she asks, understandably, how can this be? “The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (1:35).
Then, years later, when Jesus’ time of preparation comes to end, he submits to the baptism of John. As this happened, Luke writes, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (3:22). Then Jesus spends time in the wilderness, comes face to face with Satan, and gains his final sense of clarity as to what his vocation as Son of God will be about.
He proclaims this back in his hometown. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus begins. And what is the Spirit anointing Jesus to do? We go right back to the affirmation that the Spirit is the Spirit of life and that each human being is infused with God’s Spirit. Each human being has infinite value. Each human being deserves all the respect and care and compassion the rest of us can muster.
We see this in how Jesus focuses his description of what his task as the Son of God is to be. He is to “bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (4:18). The poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. These are the very people whose humanity is being denied. These are the very people who are treated as objects, as non-humans.
Jesus, the supremely Spirit-infused human being, centers his Spirit-directed work on bringing good news, release, recovery, and freedom to those who human dignity is most at risk. Jesus announces this work at the very beginning here – and the rest of his life is spent putting these commitments into practice.
And he suffered a great deal because he did so. The Spirit-denying forces of human culture fought him tooth and nail. And killed him. But the Spirit was not to be denied. God raised Jesus and confirmed that the Spirit that animated Jesus indeed was the Spirit of God.
This is the ultimate message, I think. We best understand the Holy Spirit as where the holiness of God, the holiness of the created world, the holiness of all living creatures, and the holiness of each and every human being come together. This is all the one Spirit of God.
If we seek truly to be filled with the Spirit, the fruit will not be so much ecstatic experiences. The fruit will not be a strengthening of our sense of our own uniqueness as “Spirit-filled Christians” in a way that justifies our treating creation as a lifeless object to be exploited or that justifies our treating other human beings as things, or as enemies and objects of our nation’s bombs.
If we seek truly to be filled with the Spirit, we will pray for the courage and wisdom to follow Jesus’ path. We will pray for the courage and wisdom to value each and every life – even when doing so may lead to a cross. Amen.