So this past week I was in Waterloo teaching at the Lutheran Seminary there about pneumatology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Or, in normal language, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the End Times. We looked at the history behind these ideas––how our beliefs about the Spirit, the Church, and the end developed throughout the Bible, and in the first few centuries as the church started, into the Middle ages, and through the Reformation. And we looked at how we are in the midst of a new wave of theology today in the twenty-first century.
I love teaching theology. I love helping students learn this new “language” for understanding how God works in the world, and I love hearing them share how they see God’s world with new eyes. I love watching them make the connections between what they learn in the classroom and what they experience in the real world. Teaching is, in fact, a kind of preaching. Helping students to see how much God loves them.
And I learn a tremendous amount from the students, as we work together to understand how the various theological concepts fit together. In the classroom, we create an exciting new vision of how God is working––one that both challenges the work of the church, and also gives it new life. In the classroom, students are able to be honest about the ways in which the church has profoundly disappointed and hurt them. But they also have a keen insight into the ways in which they see God acting to give the church new life, and make it once again a place of healing and hope.
So I thought that this morning I would share with you some of the insights from this past week, so that as a congregation we might engage in some of this theological conversation and participate in this transformation.
So, one of the things we talked a lot about is the ways in which the Holy Spirit works in the church. Specifically, the ways in which the Holy Spirits works to make the church like Christ. Because that’s the church’s job, right? The heart of the church’s mission––our reason for existing and our purpose in the world––is to be like Christ. We are Christocentric––centered on Christ.
Which is really significant for the church because one of the most important things about Christ is his love. Christ as Jesus of Nazareth loved everyone who came his way––he rebuked his disciples when they talked about sending down fire on the Samaritan villagers who would not receive them. Even though the Samaritans couldn’t accept Jesus’ focus on Jerusalem, he still loved them and felt connect to them. Christ’s healing of the ill was a manifestation of his love. His forgiveness of sins was an outpouring of his love. The sole commandment for him was, “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself.” Love.
And at the heart of this love is what we call relationality. Relationships. Relating. Even now, the risen Christ continues to be in relationship with us. Christ continues to come to us, in various ways, but always in a living relationship built on God’s love for us. Love cannot exist without a relationship––even if that relationship is built on the fact that we all share the same air and the same oceans and see the same stars. And love deepens and is deepened by this relational existence we are in with one another, and with Christ.
So Christ is love, and love is relational. To be like Christ is to be relational. And this is the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in the church. Constantly moving in our midst to make us relational in the way same way Christ is relational. Calling us to be like Christ.
Which means the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in our midst challenging us to welcome people. All people. And not just welcome them––get to know them. The Holy Spirit is constantly nudging us to get to know the people around us––those who walk in the front doors on Sunday morning and those who walk by the doors and never come in. Like Christ, who left Israel to go to Samaria to find people to meet and love, the Holy Spirit is moving us to follow in his footsteps and to seek God’s children outside of the church doors. When we leave these walls and go out and get to know those who have rejected the church, and those who have never been to church, and those who have been abandoned by church, in developing those relationships the Holy Spirit is most alive in our midst, and we are most transformed into Christ’s image.
The Holy Spirit is challenging us to have compassion for people. The word compassion means with-suffer, or suffer with. To be like Christ, we need to suffer with people. We are not called to agree with them, or to believe in what they do, but we are called to suffer with them. To weep when they weep, to rejoice when they rejoice. Christ was moved by those around him. In the Gospel of Matthew, he had compassion on the crowds (Matthew 9:36, 14:14), he had compassion on two blind men (Matthew 20:30-34), and in Luke he had compassion for the widow whose only son had died (Luke 7:13). We are likewise called have compassion - to be emotionally open to others - to suffer their pains.
Of course, when we do that, we will change. And that, too, is the nature of the church, and what the Holy Spirit is constantly moving within us to do. Change. The church is always changing because people are always changing. We, each of us, you and I, are always changing. As people come into our lives and we develop new relationships and we enter into their suffering, we change. When they leave, and those relationships end, we change again. And the church, which is a constant flow of people coming and going, is constantly changing. And this is the work of the Holy Spirit.
More importantly, the church is a place where we allow ourselves to be changed by those who come into our midst. Do you remember the story about Jesus encountering the Canaanite woman, when he told her that he had come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel and so it wasn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs (Matthew 15:24-28)? And then the woman said, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Jesus was saying to her that he had come only for the salvation of Israel, meaning that he wasn’t going to heal her daughter, because she wasn’t one of the people of Israel. And the woman challenged him. The woman called him into a relationship with her, called his attention to the fact that even though he was a child and she was a dog, they were both a part of the same household. They had a relationship. And Jesus changed his mind. He changed his mission and healed her child because she established a relationship with him and in doing so, brought change into his life.
Or remember the parable that Jesus tells of the judge who rules against an old widow in the town, and day after day she goes to him and pleads with him to change his ruling, until finally he breaks down and does it (Luke 18:3-5)? One way of understanding this story is to understand that God is the judge, who changes because we appear day after day, pleading for mercy and a change of heart. This day-after-day appeal establishes a relationship that changes those in it. God’s mind––we might even say God’s heart––is changed by the constant presence of the widow. Christ’s heart is changed by the presence of the Canaanite woman. And the Holy Spirit, forming us to be like Christ, challenges us, too, to let our hearts be changed by those who come into our midst.
There is one more important way in which the Holy Spirit is moving the church to be more like Christ, and that is in sacrifice. The Holy Spirit moves among us, calling us to sacrifice ourselves––our comforts, our conveniences, even our very existence––so that others might have new life. This is what Christ did for us, after all. And when we call ourselves the body of Christ, which is what we call the church, we are saying that we, too, are willing to crucify our body––this body––the church––so that others might receive resurrection and new life.
Of course, none of this is easy. Or comfortable. Or even something we are naturally inclined to do. Just the opposite. We are inclined to isolate ourselves, to stick only to the people we know, to keep to the ways we know. We are inclined to things staying the same, to self-preservation. But the Holy Spirit does not call us to be a church so that we might be centered on ourselves. We are called to be a church that is centered on Christ. This is what the Holy Spirit has come to do. To move us to be centered on the words and deeds of Christ. To love our neighbour as ourself, to relate to our neighbour, so that we might come, every day, to be more like Christ and, through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, to make this world like the kingdom of God, where the first fruit of the Spirit is love, on earth as it is in heaven.
To be sure, the Holy Spirit does not force this love or this relationality on us. We are always free to walk away from relationships. We remain loved and claimed by God no matter what. But if we say Yes to the Spirit, if we invite the Holy Spirit to transform our lives––to transform the church––the Spirit will most certainly come. It will be messy. It will be uncomfortable. We will change. We will be broken open and given new life, over and over and over again.
And it will be exhilarating and life-giving. The Spirit will move us to say No to the things we used to say Yes to, and Yes to the things we used to say No to. But Christ will be in our midst, bringing us always deeper into relationship with God, with ourselves, and with our neighbours. And so may we say, Come, Holy Spirit. And may we say, Thanks be to God. Amen.