Sunday, April 10, 2016

I Believe in the Holy Spirit

What are you most afraid of?

Chapman University revealed the results of a study toward the end of last year. They set out to determine what Americans fear most. Here are the top five fears of Americans today:
  • Corruption of Government Officials
  • Cyber-Terrorism
  • Corporate Tracking of Personal Information
  • Terrorist Attacks
  • Government Tracking of Personal Information
Can you tell we live in a digital age? Interestingly, three of our top five fears have to do with the Internet!

I have no doubt that people fear these things. Probably, most of us share some of these same anxieties. But, I think there are some things in this world that we fear more than anything on this list. Things that do not have anything to do with the internet. Timeless fears. Fears that are so common that we forget to mention them in a survey like this one. Things that people have feared long before we knew what terrorism even was. I think one of the most significant fears of our time (or any time) is the fear of being alone.

I believe every one of us fears being alone. Because we were made to be in community with each other. You’ve heard me rehearse this script many times before: Our God-in-Community (Father, Son and Spirit) created us for community. We reflect the image of God in that we were created for that same kind of community and relationship. Just as God enjoys perfect community within God’s self, we also were created to enjoy perfect relationship within the human community: male and female. Not just in a marriage or sexual relationships, we were created for relationships. Friendships, families, even Connection Groups! We were not made to be alone! Yet, I believe, in our time, loneliness is extremely prevalent. Which is ironic, isn’t it? Because some would say we are the most “connected” society in the history of the world. We have email, texting, Facebook, Instagram, numerous other forms of social media, which are designed, at some level, to connect us to each other. We have access to each other unlike any other time in human history!

So, why are we so lonely? You recognize this bridge:

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of our world's most recognizable landmarks. On the one hand, its red, wiry structure is a remarkable symbol of connectivity. This bridge is a testimony to the feats that humans can achieve through working together. On the other hand, It’s also a symbol of disconnection and even death. The Golden Gate Bridge is the second-most popular destination in the world for people to kill themselves. Roughly once every two weeks a person caught in a dark web of isolation, depression, and hopelessness climb over the protective guardrails and jump. There was a suicide note collected a few years ago written by someone as he made his way to the Golden Gate Bridge. The writer remarked that he was walking to the bridge with the intent of ending his life. But one sentence of that note still stands out. "If one person smiles at me on the way," this person wrote, "I will not jump." He jumped.

As human beings, we crave companionship. And when it is not there, we feel afraid or abandoned. God knew this about us, and God took steps to help!

Every Christmas, we remember the name “Emmanuel.” Christmas is really a celebration that God is with us! God became human and dwelt among us. God could have sympathized with our condition from afar. But, instead, God chose to empathize with our condition by becoming one of us, and walking beside us.

Not long before Jesus left this earth, He had an important conversation with His disciples. The Gospel of John records that lengthy conversation over several chapters. I want you to hear part of what Jesus said this morning:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.
“I won’t leave you as orphans. I will come to you. Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live too. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them loves me. Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
Judas (not Judas Iscariot) asked, “Lord, why are you about to reveal yourself to us and not to the world?”
Jesus answered, “Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word that you hear isn’t mine. It is the word of the Father who sent me.
“I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.
“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:15–27 CEB)
The Holy Spirit! Well, I guess we could take the rest of the day to talk about the Holy Spirit! Our minds immediately race to radical manifestations of the Spirit, speaking in tongues, faith healings, miracles, even resurrections. The Spirit, let’s face it, is a bit confusing! And in our part of the Christian family tree, we are not comfortable with confusing! We like rationality. We appreciate logic. So, we haven’t dealt as much with the Spirit as many other Christian groups.

But I want us to set aside the charismatic gift part of the Holy Spirit. Instead, I want us to understand what Jesus meant to communicate here in this conversation about the Spirit. What was it about the Spirit that Jesus wanted the people to know? There is a word in this text that, I believe, gets to the heart of this issue. In verses 16–17, Jesus uses this word twice. He says:
I will ask the Father, and He will send another PARACLETE, who will be with you forever. This PARACLETE is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t recognize because it neither sees Him nor recognizes Him. You know Him, because He lives with you and will be with you.
This word, paraclete, is a difficult word to translate. In fact, it appears only four times in the entire New Testament, all of them in John’s Gospel and two of them right here in these two verses. It is translated variously in our English translations:
  • Comforter (KJV)
  • Counselor (RSV, NIV)
  • Advocate (NRSV, Revised English Bible)
  • Helper (Today’s English Version)
The New American Bible and New Jerusalem Bible simply leave it un-translated, and use the word paraclete. The reason for so many options: it is difficult to translate. I think the Common English Bible has the best translation of this word, and I’ll tell you why. The point Jesus is making is this: “When I leave, I will not leave you alone.” Jesus says, “I will not leave you as orphans.” He says, “I won’t leave you at all.” That is why I like the CEB translation of paraclete: “Companion.”

The Spirit is our Companion. Verse 15 tells us that Jesus was our first “companion.” But when Jesus leaves, He will send us another companion, the Holy Spirit. God did not leave us alone, that is the promise that comes with the Holy Spirit. The earliest Christians thought this idea was so important that they included the Holy Spirit in their list of “I Believe” statements. Just after “I believe Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead . . .” They wrote:
I believe in the Holy Spirit.
At the center of their faith (and ours) is the idea that God is here with us. Not just at Christmas! But now, always. We are not orphans! So, there it is. We are not alone, you are not alone. So I guess everyone should just accept that and move on!

But it is not that easy, is it?

Let’s forget for a moment that we are in a church building. Sometimes, in the church building, we allow religious language to go unchecked. So, we say things like:
The Spirit is with us.
The Spirit is our Companion.
So, there . . . don’t feel all alone anymore!
But let’s be honest: sometimes it is very difficult to feel the presence of the Spirit in our lives, it just is! Lamar Williamson, a guy who has studied this text his entire life, said:
Some might doubt the reliability of the promise, since the Spirit, like the wind, is not visible. Unlike the wind, however, we cannot check on the Spirit by holding up a moist finger.
So, how can we know the Spirit is with us? How can we know that God really did send us a Companion? Journalist and writer Heather Havrilesky may help us answer this question:
If I get sick or lose my mind, I'll ask my husband or my kids or my friends to rise to the occasion and come to my aid. And they'd better come through for me, [darn] it! I dried your tears and paid too much for replicas of lost teddy bears on eBay. I took care of cats and plants and talked you through home purchases and career dilemmas and bad breakups. . . .
I'll continue to be there, as long as I can be. But someday, you might have to come to my rescue. Brace yourselves, because it won't be pretty. Isn't that what love and friendship are really about?
We weren't meant to suffer alone! We weren't meant to … escape the indignity and frustration of asking for help, for needing help, from someone who might not always enjoy giving it, someone who gets on our nerves, who has never made much sense to us, someone whom we break down and bicker with occasionally. We were meant to lean on each other, as messy and imperfect as that can be, to be capable when we can, and to allow the world to take care of us when we can't. It won't be all bad. Or it will be. But at least we'll have each other.
We feel the Spirit, we feel the presence of our Companion, in the touch of our brothers and sisters in this room.

Jesus says, “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments!” Now what happens when we keep Jesus’ commandments? We love each other, and when we love each other, the Spirit is felt in this world. By us and by those around us. So, when we love, we bring the Companion with us. In other words, God loves through us! And so, God is “with the world” through us! Isn’t that an amazing thought? We bring the presence of God into this world when we love. When we love our neighbor or sister or brother or mother or father or child those people feel God’s embrace through our hugs! When we sit with someone in a hospital room, God is there with them. God did not leave you alone. He came back to us through the flesh and blood of the church. Because God’s Spirit is living through us, waiting to express God’s love to this world.

As I said before, the word paraclete is difficult to translate. In fact, this is not only a problem in the English language. The Karre language of equatorial Africa proved to be difficult for the translators of the New Testament. Especially when it came to this word, paraclete. How could they describe the Holy Spirit?

One day the translators came across a group of porters going off into the bush carrying bundles on their heads. They noticed that in the line of porters there was always one who didn't carry anything. They assumed he was the boss. They assumed he was there to make sure that the others did their work. However, they discovered he wasn't the boss. He had a special job. He was there should anyone fall over with exhaustion. He would come and pick up the man's load and carry it for him. This porter was known in the Karre language as “the one who falls down beside us.” And this is the word the translators chose for paraclete.

The Holy Spirit is “the one who falls down beside us.” And I would add: And He helps us to our feet again! Graciously helping a fallen world stand up again! That is the Spirit’s mission. That has always been the mission of God. And as we partner with God in this mission, we allow God’s Spirit to continue the work of Jesus in this world. And we help those who feel all alone to find real, genuine community in this otherwise lonely world.

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