Read 1 Corinthians 2:6–13

 

The human spirit comes in all shapes, sizes, styles and colors.   For example, during a graduation ceremony that I attended last week, a young woman stood up to receive her degree.    With her robe flowing behind her, she marched toward the platform and extended her hand.   She moved with a great sense of confidence and poise.   But then, from the midst of the congregation, came this cry from a small child.   The shrill voice broke through the solemn quiet of the moment with a reckless and uninhibited affection:   “Yeah, Mom!”    The graduate, at that point, receiving her diploma, burst into tears.   And the rest of us were left to wonder, “What obstacles had this woman overcome to arrive at this place?   What wild moments of pride and joy would she share with her little boy as he himself grew toward maturity and to his own graduation?”

 

The human spirit, as you know, finds a myriad of ways to express itself.    Self expression, in fact, happens to be one of the hallmarks of the human spirit.   The human spirit is free, creative, tenacious, ingenious and gregarious…   And yet, before we wax on too poetically or too romantically about how great a thing it is to be human, or how a great thing it is to overcome adversity and win the Olympic Gold, or how great thing it is to die for a cause larger than one’s self—it’s also critical to emphasize how the human spirit often wanders around like a lonely orphan.   According to Walker Percy, it “caroms around the Universe” like a pinball, sometimes setting off bells and whistles, but just as often rolling aimlessly around.

Now, if all this sounds like so much highfalutin pop-psychology, let me remind you of what the apostle Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 2:11.   In the middle of a discussion about the wisdom which God gives through the Holy Spirit, he says,

“For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within.” 

 

What person knows?   Each person, presumably, understands and comprehends what he or she is thinking.   Each person tries to match his intention with the life he strives to live.   Each person dreams about doing something with her life and then hopefully she does it.   But, you see, already we have a problem, don’t we?   Already a large chasm opens up between our spiritual goals and our tangible results.

 

The movie, Invincible, depicts the real-life achievements of a part-time bartender and school teacher, named Vince Papale.   Papale, against all odds and through a freak set of circumstances, made the cut with the Philadelphia Eagles professional football team.  In doing so, of course, this particular human being accomplished something that thousands of men and women often only dream of doing.   But here’s the problematic thing of movies like Invincible:   the film casts Papale’s wife as leaving him because he would never amount to anything, and in fact shows how she left a nasty note to that effect.   The note, during the course of the movie, serves as a motivation for Papale, who strives to prove her wrong.   And the note, when it’s eventually torn to pieces, clearly symbolizes all that the human spirit may overcome.

But, alas, I know something about Vince Papale that the film does not portray.   My brothers attended Interboro High School where the hero of the story had been a substitute teacher, and they recall very vividly how Papale actually had an affair with a high school student.

 

So let’s review what just happened and what tends to happen repeatedly in all of our relationships: 

1.    the human spirit has wild and wonderful potential;

2.    the human spirit sets goals and strives to achieve them; but

3.    the human spirit fails to live up to potential and invariably taints or spoils the very goals to which all human beings aspire.

 

One author that I read this week puts it like this:

“When the human spirit operates as an image separated from its original, it works as ungrounded transformation, a kind of loose canon of creativity giving rise to a random sense of freedom…”  (The Logic of the Spirit, James Loder, p. 36).

 

I had a roommate in college who used to wear a black t-shirt with the white bold letters, G-O-D, pasted on the front.   At a party, somebody asked him why he wore that shirt, and he said, “because I’m #####.”   We all laughed.   But later, when the party came to an end, I remember looking out the window and seeing my friend wandering down the street like a child lost at the mall.   It’s not that the human spirit is inherently bad; it’s that without the grounding of God’s Spirit, we lose our way.   Moreover, when we aspire to live as if we do not need that grounding, we become a danger to ourselves and to others. 

“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed upon us by God.   And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.”

 

That’s a mouth full, I know.   But what “the Spirit… interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual” may mean for us here at Latah Valley is much, much, more simple than those words indicate.   Let me offer this scenario:  Denise and Dorothy approach one another during the Passing of the Peace in worship.   Fastened to Dorothy’s blouse is a large, ornate pin and so, when they hug one another, Denise’s sweater becomes hooked in the process.   So, as the rest of us return to our seats, the two women cannot break free of their embrace.   Dorothy is about eighty years old and her husband has just died, leaving her alone in a drafty house.   Denise is the mother of two boys, the younger of which suffers from Spina Biffita and must be constantly monitored by a nurse whom the family has hired, and the other who is a little angry that his troubled brother gets most of the attention.   Anyway, here are Dorothy and Denise, one, originally from up-state New York, the other, from the sticks of Missouri, one who will eventually pass away in a nursing home, the other who will go on living a life, loving her children the best she can.   There they are, hooked together, two unique human spirits, in the midst of the congregation, in the midst of the world.   And as our nervous laughter turns to tears, and as our tears turn to songs of praise, we understand.   We comprehend what God must have in mind, not only for us, but for every age and every place. 

 

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann offers this promise:

Life, temporarily limited and historically forgetful and fickle as it is, is set in this perspective.   The incompletable fragments of a human life become fragments of the rebirth of the whole creation”  (The Church In the Power of the Spirit, p. 281).

 

Fragments of the rebirth of the whole creation…   That phrase, I think, epitomizes the difference between the human spirit and the Holy Spirit.   Left on its own the human spirit is a sliver or a shard of the shattered creation.   And yet, in the mind of the Maker, in the mind of Christ Jesus, it is the broken pieces that become the signs of our wholeness.  

 

Lillian Daniel tells this great story about going home to her mothers and noticing this vase on the mantelpiece.   The vase has these major cracks and there is glue that has hardened in those crevices, making that particular heirloom a real eye-sore.    When Lillian Daniel implored her mother to throw the ugly thing in the garbage, she refused and told her this story.   She described how her father had traveled all over the world as a photo-journalist and upon returning home from a long, long trip in Vietnam, he brought a vase that he had picked up during his travels.   The vase was extremely rare and delicate, which is why he carried it in his hand the whole way.   But upon getting out of the taxi, the photo-journalist’s little girl ran to him and leaped into his arms.   As he caught her in mid-air, the gift fell to the pavement and broke into a thousand pieces.   Lillian Daniel’s mother then spend the entire night, gluing the pieces of that vase back together.   “I’ll never throw it away.   I’ll never…”  Amen.

 

PREYED UPON

May 24, 2008

 

On the whim

That he might fly

Off the edge of the eroded bluff,

The boy does not leap

But instead wades

Through the jagged, vertical contours

Of ancient rock.  His body, yellowing

Like the pages of an over-due library

Book, will not be cut.  He will not

Bleed.   His bones will not break into

Forensic clues at the scene of the crime.

 

Rather, picture the vertebrae of his spine

Combing through the sediment of salacious ages past.

Don’t worry as he plunges the depths of the miry clay.

 

All is retrieved in a swooping flicker of candlelight.

All revives when the wind-blown canopy of darkness

Suffers its final collapse.   All, and even, most especially,

That boy and even his Counselor, stand up again;

They are distinct and beautifully unique beneath

The sheer, see-through fabric of the once-degraded creation.   And

 

Then comes, so adroitly, the grasp of talons!

 

And that which had been a mere shell, protective skin,

Grows into a fresh lump of living and preyed upon meat.

 

Read Acts 2:1–4

 

The English word for LIKE has been evolving.   You’ve probably noticed this in the speech of teenagers and sarcastic characters on television.   But LIKE is no longer just way of comparing one thing to another thing, as in the Spirit of God is like the breath of Jesus or like the sound of a violent wind.   LIKE, according to linguists, has evolved into a signal that someone is about to be quoted.  

 

Like when the rugby player was like, “Get out of my way!”   Or when that waiter at the restaurant was like, “Do you want to order something or what?”    That nurse in the waiting room was so kind and considerate; she was like, “I am so sorry for your loss.”   But then her attitude changed and she was like, “I’m sorry.  My shift is over.  I’m going home now.”

 

You see, there are probably an infinite number of possible quotes, sayings or slogans that we might preface with the word, LIKE.   But another interesting nuance to contemporary English slang involves LIKE WOW, the way we want to emphasize what we’re trying to say.   LIKE, that’s outrageous!   LIKE, that’s really going to happen!   Or, LIKE dude, will you stop breathing on me with your garlic-breath?

 

So, let’s review.  The rules of grammar are actually changing to include the following functions for the word LIKE.  

1.  It’s a comparative preposition;

2.  It’s a signal that someone’s about to be quoted; and

3.  It’s a means of emphasizing content.

 

And what, pray tell, does any of this have to do with the passage from Acts 2, in which “A SOUND” comes upon the disciples in the courtyard of the temple LIKE THE RUSH OF A VIOLENT WIND?   Well, if the Holy Spirit inspires and indwells us so that we might communicate God’s deeds of power (as per verse 11), my premise is that the Spirit must also help us to hear that communication.

 

Every few weeks the boys and I will catch a program called, Monster Quest, in which scientists are set loose into various areas of wilderness.   These scientists camp out with their gadgets, collecting data like the size of a mysterious footprint, follicles of hair, dry bones and so forth.   But most of what they have to offer are these eye-witness accounts in which ordinary hikers struggle to describe what they’ve seen, heard and in some cases smelled.   And, of course, every report about Bigfoot or the Lock Ness Monster invariably bottoms out into sentences like, It looked at first like a bear, but it walked upright like a man… And yet, it had a head like this giant ape…  And I was like, Wow!  What did I just see?

 

Now, I do not believe that we can verify the attributes of God’s Spirit in the same way that these eye-witnesses make claims about Sasquatch.   But, I do want us to notice how much of the Bible is comprised of a struggle to communicate a reality or a presence that eludes our analysis.   And I do want to suggest that at Latah Valley we will have to enter that struggle if we truly want to hear like…

“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”   The Revelation to John repeats that sentence in Revelation 2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6: 3:13 and 3:22—and that implies that what God has to communicate isn’t simply written down on a page.   God’s Word, by the power of the Spirit, actually flies off the page.  

 

Philip Yancey explains how a local gospel choir had been invited to perform at the highfalutin Chicago Cultural Center for a group of well-dressed businessmen and shoppers from the upscale Michigan Avenue.   At first, he says, the audience applauded politely, almost as if they wanted to be politically correct.   But after about twenty minutes of passionate singing and bodies in rhythmic motion, one of the singers leaped backward from the last row of the risers and began hopping on one foot across the stage.   Moreover, he had broken away from the song the choir had been singing and began speaking in a strange language.  

 

 Yancey writes,

“Two silver-haired ladies in fur stoles grabbed their shopping bags and bustled out.  Men and women wearing office attire looked at their watches and fidgeted.  A sudden epidemic of coughing broke out…” (Reaching For The Invisible God, p. 173-4)    

 

And finally, at the culmination of the song, to “the faithful few who remained in their seats” the choir director said, “Well, you know how it is, you just can’t hem the Spirit in.”

 

In fact, you and I may find ourselves in the audience and not very comfortable.   That’s okay.   The point is like, something’s happening!   No matter what level of weirdness we feel, the point of the Pentecost encounter is that those who say that they believe in Christ stay in conversation about God’s deeds of power.

 

In southeastern Pennsylvania there’s a Latino congregation which is comprised of a lot of the people who pick mushrooms and do construction projects at an extremely low wage.   Our predominantly white church reached out to the pastor, Gadiel Gomez, and offered to support them financially.  Gadiel couldn’t speak English very well, but he had a member of the congregation who used to be involved in the drug cartel in Columbia.   This young Hispanic man did speak English and could often translate.   So, in front of a large crowd of Presbyterians in downtown Philadelphia, I invited Gadiel and his protégé to share about what God had been doing among them.   Well, after about five minutes of back-and-forth translations—about things like “We provide people with food who live beneath the bridge…  We help families with legal issues… We proclaim the love of Jesus…”  After listening to that I became worried about how long the speech was going.   People in the pews were nodding off, or reading other papers that they had brought to the meeting.   And just when I was about to step in and wrap up the presentation, the translator started to weep.  He explained how anxious he had been to stand before such people and how God had changed him inside and out.   “Dome La Mono,” I said.  Give me your hand.

 

You see, a good signal for the Spirit’s speech is LIKE when we find ourselves saying things we don’t ordinarily say to people we wouldn’t ordinarily meet about experiences over which we don’t ordinarily have much control.   Jesus once said of the Spirit in John 3:8, “You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes…”   In fact, that fundamental lack of control or lack of total comprehension is the very quality which puts us on a level playing field with others.   No one personality controls the conversation or the relationship.  The Spirit overtakes all of us.

 

In one of the episodes of The Simpsons, Homer is having one of his conversations with God.   Apparently things are going very well, and so Homer prays that everything would stay exactly as it is, with no change.   He then asks that as a confirmation of the deal that God would provide absolutely no sign.   Then, of course, when there is no sign, Homer expresses his gratitude and prepares an offering of milk and cookies.   He wonders if God wants him to drink the milk and eat the cookies himself and that if he did God should let him know again by providing absolutely no sign whatsoever.   “Thy will be done,” declares the cartoon character before devouring the snack…

 

This, you see, is our relationship with God without the Spirit.   Without the Spirit we have pseudo-conversation, essentially with ourselves.  Without the Spirit, we generally will drink the milk and eat the cookies ourselves and nothing really changes.

 

By contrast, with the Spirit, it’s like the sound that a mother of two children heard while she sat on a bar stool, smoking a cigarette.   She’d been there, nursing a beer, all afternoon on September 11th, 2001.   And while newscasters relayed the tragic stories about planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers and into the Pentagon, others in the bar rattled on about Armageddon and biblical prophecy.   Cynthia overheard this talk, but nothing on the television could explain the noise that she heard.   It’s was a sound like the voice of someone telling her to go home.   So she listened and went home and spent the rest of the day, reading the Bible, not understanding very much, but forcing herself to read into the night.   And then, while she nodded off to sleep, the sound came again, the sound like the voice of someone talking in her head, whispering words of love and peace and how things were going to change.  

 

Of course, when Cynthia woke up she did change.  Instead of going back to the bar she went to the church that had been started down the road.  She took her two children and her new fiancé.   She took them not because she wanted them to learn their Sunday School lessons or that she wanted to get married.   She came because of the sound like…  And when we worshipped that day, we all heard it.   Woohoo!   And I remember on the dinner that Crossroads hosted for us; there was her youngest child, Michael.   He stood up and said how glad he was that his mother listened to the sound because it’s like…   It’s like…  It’s like…

 

I know that I’m stating the obvious when I say that breathing is a prerequisite to running.   It’s also a prerequisite to walking and to crawling.   Especially on a day like today, in a place like Spokane.    But, at this hour when many men, women and children are still pounding the pavement with their feet, when many still find themselves on the side of the road, massaging a cramping muscle, or untwisting a twisted ankle, we need to point out the significant place that breathing has in the exercise of faith in Christ.

 

Think about this.  Early in the book of Genesis, the Lord God takes a heap of humus, forms it into something that resembles a human creature, and then chapter two, verse seven says “he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”   What we know, from that moment on, is that God gives each person the gift of inhaling and exhaling.   And from that moment on, an infinitesimal number of breathing opportunities are open to us.   There’s the first time mother, going into labor.   There’s the hyperventilating fiancé as he’s preparing to pop the question.   There’s the sigh of a child as her breath fogs up the car window.   There’s the miraculous recovery in the ICU when the patient can breathe off the ventilator.   And, finally, there’s that close encounter at church when the well-meaning parishioner sprays you with a cloud of chronic halitosis. 

 

“Receive the Holy Spirit,” says Jesus in John 20:22.   Receive.   Don’t try to run.  Not yet.  Don’t try to walk in your own power.  Receive.

And breathe. 

 

In Philip Yancey’s book, Why Church?, he tells about worshipping with a peculiar man, named Adolphus:

  • Adolphus once thanked God for creating Whitney Houston and her magnificent body.

 

Breathe.

 

  • Adolphus once called down judgment on all the white people in church who caused the mayor of Chicago such stress that he had a heart attack.

 

Breathe.

 

  • Adolphus prayed for the pastor’s house to be burned to the ground.

 

Breathe.

 

  • Adolphus boasted about his ability to play the guitar, and when the Music Leader allowed him to stand up front with the band without plugging his instrument into the speaker system Adolphus gyrated like Joe ###### across the platform as folks came forward to receive communion.  (P. 34—36).

 

Breathe. 

 

“The church did not give up on Adolphus,” writes Yancey.  “It gave him a second chance, and a third and a fourth.   And what we need to underscore about those multiple chances is that they came at close range.   Those chances came as men, women and children stood in such intimate proximity that they could literally smell what Adolphus had for breakfast, or didn’t have for breakfast.  

 

“The true missionary dialogue,” explains theologian Lesslie Newbigin,

“…is not initiated by the Church.  In a secondary sense it is initiated by the outsider who is drawn to ask:  What is the secret of this new reality, this life of praise, of justice and of peace?  In the primary sense, however, it is initiated by the presence of the Spirit…” (The Gospel In A Pluralist Society, p. 134). 

So breathe.   If you’re determined to live out a true relationship with Jesus, who is the risen Christ, you and I have to breathe in the Holy Spirit.   And the Holy Spirit, among other activities, will inspire us to do the following:

 “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  

 

Now, I want to go through this remark very carefully because the price that we pay for misinterpreting or misrepresenting the words of Jesus here is extremely high.  

 

First, let’s review a similar statement that Jesus makes during his earthly ministry in Matthew 16:19:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

 

You see, in both situations, Jesus seemingly wants to share or to bequeath his authority.   Followers of Jesus have authoritative power.   But clearly it’s not the kind of political power that can force people to think what we think or to behave as we behave.   Our power in Christ is declarative and always biased toward grace.   Every once in a while we will be in a position to declare, Hey, you know what?  We are forgiven!   I remember a young woman at Princeton Seminary.   She felt out of place because she smoked cigarettes, used street slang and lost her virginity when she was very young.   So, we’re talking into the night and she says, “I just don’t feel like I have a place.”   And I took a deep breath and replied, “You have a place in the kingdom of God.”  

Of course, what’s scary about this kind of authority is that by the power of the Spirit, we also may “retain sins.”    Pete Scazzero, in his book on the Emotionally Healthy Church describes a troubled man who approaches his friend at the apex of a high bridge.   The man hands his friend one end of a rope and proceeds to tie the other end around his waist.   After tightening the knot, he takes a running leap off the bridge and leaves his friend holding him by the end of the rope.   The troubled man is dangling above this huge chasm and he shouts up to his friend, “You’re responsible!  Whatever you do, don’t let go!”   The friend, of course, feels responsible, but also kind of trapped and manipulated.   He explains to him that he will hold on and provide a counterbalance as the man begins to climb up the rope.    He must take responsibility. 

 

Now, the intention of this fable is to suggest that the authority we have to “retain sins” resembles the counterbalance provided by that friend on the bridge.   You and I are not in a position to call people out and to publicly humiliate them for their sins.   But we do have authority in Christ to declare, Hey, you are responsible for your own words, your own actions, your own silence and your own inaction.  You are responsible and you bear mutual responsibility for the relationship that we have…

 

And, you see, close encounters like this are contagious.   Jesus actually intends us to breathe these words in and exhale them out. 

Amen.