Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Spirit is blowing, but don't hold your breath

In God’s household, we are filled with the Spirit
Ephesians 5:15-20

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If there is one thing held in common by every Christian,
    in every tradition, in every part of the world,
    it would be the desire to be filled with the Spirit.
In fact, it must be true that every believer in God,
    whether Christian believers, or God-worshipers of other faiths,
    surely everyone who believes God exists and is worthy of worship,
        desires to be Spirit-filled.

You might doubt that statement,
    because you don’t use language like “Spirit-filled.”
    Fair enough, but there are many ways to express this reality.
        People of faith have different terminologies,
            and different theologies about “Spirit.”

    But if we say that God is characterized
        by love, and holiness, and justice,
            and all that is good in the universe—
            and virtually all God-believers do say that—
        then the Spirit of God is that life of God,
            breath of God,
            essential character of God.
    And surely that must be something we all, everyone of us,
        would want to have in us,
        would want to have expressed in our lives.

Who wouldn’t want God’s goodness, love, and justice,
    and God’s very breath of life filling our beings,
    and giving us the capacity to live in tune with God?

But even if it’s not true of every person of faith,
    clearly every person in this room has that desire.
    At least you already said you do, this morning, and I believe you.

Here’s just some of what you said this morning, and I’m quoting you:
    “Breathe the Holy Spirit into every heart.”
    “Breathe on me, Breath of God,” (you repeated that five times)
    “Fill me with life anew,” you said.

And unless you change your mind after hearing my sermon,
    you will also say, a few minutes from now,
    “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
        Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.”
    That is what we really want, isn’t it?

Well, before we sing that song,
    and before we start jumping up and down,
    and saying, “Bring it on! Come, Holy Spirit, fill us!”
    we should remind ourselves of what tends to happen
        when God’s people have God’s Spirit fall on them.

The Old Testament prophets—Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Micah, Amos—
    were all filled with the Spirit, scripture says.
        It’s what made them capable of being prophets.
        And it’s what got them in all kinds of trouble.
    While they were under the influence (of the Spirit, that is),
        they pointed out sin, condemned injustice,
        proclaimed doom and death to kings and queens.
    And were driven out of town, barely escaping with their lives
        (those that were lucky).
        They lived on the meager rations of poor widows.
        They were brought food by big black birds.

Then there was kind old Zechariah and Elizabeth—
    they were filled with the Spirit,
    as was their son John the Baptist.
    What they got in return was a life of hardship for John,
        and heartache for his parents.
    John’s preaching, under the influence of God’s Spirit,
        got him thrown into prison, and eventually beheaded.

Oh, but then there was Jesus,
    and what an amazingly good and beautiful life he lived!
    Who wouldn’t want that?
Except . . . in the Gospel stories, whenever the Spirit came along,
    trouble came with it.
Take Luke 4, for example,
    “Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
        and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” . . .
        and into forty days of hunger, thirst,
            and repeated attacks by Satan in the desert.
And after that, again, according to Luke,
    Jesus was “filled with the power of the Spirit,”
        and returned to Galilee to teach in their synagogues.
    And the opposition swooped in.
        His own home town tried to throw him off a cliff.
    He escaped, but it only got worse,
        all the way to dark Gethsemane,
            and to mock justice in the Roman court,
            and to a public execution.

In the early church, says Acts,
    the first believers were filled with the Spirit.
    And after some good fellowship, mutual sharing and care,
        a terrible period of persecution and terrorism
        was unleashed on members of this radical community.

Once Peter, while making his defense before the authorities,
    was filled with the Spirit, and was promptly thrown into prison.

And Stephen, one of the first deacons in the early church,
    was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6).
    He began to preach under the inspiration of the Spirit,
        and was stoned to death.

Getting the picture yet?
    One more for good measure.
    The apostle Paul, after being prayed for by Ananias,
        was filled with the Holy Spirit, says Acts 9.
    Over the next years, his spirit-filled preaching and evangelism
        had him imprisoned, whipped, beaten, stoned,
        shipwrecked, and, in his own words from 2 Corinthians,
        “in danger from rivers, danger from bandits,
            danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles,
            danger in the city, danger in the wilderness,
            danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;
            in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night,
            hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.”

Maybe now would be a good time for the altar call.
    All who want to be filled with the Spirit . . .
        come forward while we sing,
        “Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way . . .”

So, we really want to be filled with the Holy Spirit! . . .
    It sounded good . . . at first.
    Maybe we should take some more time to think about it.
        It’s not the safe option, being filled with the Spirit.
        It’s not for the faint of heart.

    Now . . . the way I framed this message so far is a little disconcerting, but only because we’ve been spiritual socialized
        to think of faith as an internal matter
        that brings us comfort and joy and peace and security.
    There are plenty of other Jesus-followers in our world today,
        who understand the central role of the Holy Spirit,
        and who also understand that living by the Spirit
            can have dire implications.

Only we who have the luxury
    of being able to keep faith private and personal
        are thrown off balance in the least,
        by this litany of hardship and persecution.
    Anyone in the early church,
        our Anabaptist forebears in the 16th century,
        radical Christians of all times and places,
        and Christians living as persecuted minorities today . . .
        all of them, when they hear such a litany,
            are likely to say, “Well, yes. What do you expect?”
_____________________

Being filled with the Spirit is risky business,
    because the Spirit of God moves and blows where it will.
    If we open our lungs to the breath of God,
        there’s no predicting the result.

You want to breathe in and be filled with the Spirit,
    as we prayed and sang a couple months ago on Pentecost Sunday?
    Then watch out. You’re putting your life on the line.
    Which, when you think about it,
        is really the whole point of being filled with the Spirit.
        It’s laying down our self-centered life,
            in favor of living a life under the control of the Holy Spirit.
_____________________

Now, wishing for the Holy Spirit to fill us
    is dicey not only because of what might happen
        when we starting really living by the Spirit,
    but also because of what we might have to
        get rid of, let go of,
        to make room for the Spirit.

See, there’s stuff already in there, taking up space.
    Our lives are filled with all sorts of things that distract from life.
    They masquerade as adding to life,
        but actually, they diminish life.
    That’s nothing new for us, of course.
That’s what the apostle saw happening
    in the church of Asia Minor,
    which is why he wrote the letter to the Ephesians.

The church was distracted from a full life in God,
    because they allowed themselves to be filled with other things.
    You can’t be filled with two things at once.
    If a cup is filled with water,
        and you pour in something heavy like syrup,
        water will overflow.
        It will be displaced.

That’s why the apostle told the Ephesians in ch. 5, vv. 15-18.
    “Be careful then how you live,
        not as unwise people but as wise,
        making the most of the time, because the days are evil.
    Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery;
        but be filled with the Spirit.”

There’s plenty to distract from the life God intends for you, Paul said.
    So be careful. wise. discerning.
        Understand what the will of God is, and live in it.
    Surround yourself with that which is worthwhile.
        Make the most of the time, because the days are evil.
    Be filled with the Spirit,
        because it will displace the evil
        that otherwise might overtake you.

Another way to say it,
    don’t be overcome by fear because of the evil around you.
    Displace the evil with the Holy Spirit.
Open yourself, breathe in . . .
    invite the Spirit to fill every space,
    and then breathe out,
        releasing what diminishes life,
        releasing what there isn’t room for,
        releasing what the Spirit displaces.

    Let the Spirit blow, let it fill your lungs to capacity,
        but don’t hold your breath.
        Exhale.
        Release anything that prevents the fullness of life
            that God intends for you.

Yes, God wants to bless us with all spiritual blessings.
    God wishes to pour out on us abundant life and love.
    But something has to go.
For every action, there is a reaction.
    Whenever we inhale holy breath,
        we must eventually, and soon, exhale.
_____________________

This teaching from Ephesians is not a burden.
    It lifts the burden.
    It’s a refreshing way to live
        in a sin-filled, broken, and violent world.
    Yes, the days are evil, says in v. 16.  Everywhere.
    Nations are in crisis, awash in all kinds of evil—
        ethnic and religious cleansing, abuse of power,
            poverty, famine, disease,
            war, terrorism, economic collapse.
    Personal evil also pervades.
        Individuals rebel against all that is good,
            and wreak destruction and havok in other people’s lives,
            or their own lives.

Some people live in a near-constant state of panic
    over all this overwhelming evil.
    Afraid their lives will crumble under the weight.
Some people deal with the pain and evil that life brings
    by trying to hide from it, conceal it, numb themselves to it.

I think that’s what the apostle is getting at in v. 18.
    “Do not get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.”
    This is not an anti-alcohol verse, per se,
        as some of us were taught.
    It’s an anti-distraction verse,
        an anti-numbing-oneself-to-life verse.
We will not find freedom from pain and evil
    by running from it,
    by escaping into a drunken semiconsciousness,
        whether that comes from alcohol, food, sex,
            pain killers, social media, money, internet porn,
            or whatever we use and abuse that make us semiconscious.

No, the way we find freedom, and keep from being overtaken by evil,
    is to displace it.
    Crowd it out.
    Be filled with what is life-giving, and life-forming.
Vv. 19-20:
    “Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves,
        singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,
        giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything
        in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That’s the way to live in an evil world.
    We don’t either wallow in evil ways of this world,
        nor do we combat evil by fear-mongering,
            hand-wringing,
            fighting evil with evil,
            or numbing ourselves into semiconsciousness or oblivion.
    No, the way to deal with the evil world,
        is to get together and sing!  Sing!
    At least, that’s what Paul says here,
        “be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns . . .”
        You sing out the evil, when you sing in the Spirit.

    Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs
        is communal spiritual engagement against evil,
            and the evil one.
        We can, literally, sing away the devil.
    The Ephesians text we looked at last Sunday said
        don’t let the sun go down on your anger,
            because “it makes room for the devil.”

    The devil can’t live where there’s no room, so to speak.
    The gathering together of Christians
        to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs
            displaces the devil . . .
        because according to Paul,
            singing the music of the Spirit,
            giving thanks to God the Father,
            in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
        is how we make room for the Spirit.

I’ll tell you what.
    The next time we turn on the news and get depressed
        by the mess this world is in . . .
            by violence in the Middle East,
            by abuse of power in Washington,
            by conflict in the church,
            by the persistence of racism,
            by the trauma of sexual violence,
            by global environmental destruction,
        the next time any personal or systemic sin and evil
            starts overwhelming us,
        here’s a suggestion straight from scripture:
            Call or text some friends from church,
                invite them over,
                tell them to bring their hymnals.

    Literally. Have a small community hymn sing.
    As we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
        and as we open our whole beings to the presence of God,
        the Holy Spirit will be present in our singing,
        and the spirit of death and destruction and evil
            that would like to overtake and overwhelm us,
        will be displaced.
        It will be crowded out.

No, it won’t mean all our problems will disappear.
    It won’t mean there will be no more work to do.
    But it will surely give more room to Holy Spirit among us,
        and may well crowd out the spirit of fear,
            or mistrust, or resentment, or anger.
    And it will put us in a more suitable frame of mind
        to do the work we must do, to be a faithful church.
    It will equip us for God’s work.

Singing the songs of scripture,
    and songs of our faith
    reorients us to the truth of the gospel.
So let’s not delay another moment.
    Let us sing the Spirit into us right now.
        Into our personal beings.
        Into our collective being as a church.

Many of you know this song without looking at it,
    “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me.
        Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
        Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me.”
If you need it, turn to #349 in Hymnal: A Worship Book.
    I invite us to sing it slowly and prayerfully,
        perhaps, if you wish, with upturned hands and closed eyes.
    We will sing it through once, as written, for ourselves . . .
        then a second time, for us all as a body.
        Changing “me” to “us.”
    “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us.
        Melt us, mold us, fill us, use us.”

—Phil Kniss, August 16, 2015

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