Sunday, May 27, 2012

Celebrating Pentecost

A Joyous Pentecost to you, my friends!

What, wait – we mainline Protestant Christians don’t typically recognize the significance Pentecost…….  But why not?

Pentecost started off as an ancient Israelite festival held fifty days after Passover, to celebrate the giving of the law on Mount Sinai.  When Jesus rose from the dead centuries later, He began instituting a new order of things.  Forty days after Resurrection Sunday He ascended to heaven, leaving His disciples with a promise and a command: That the disciples would receive power from the Holy Spirit and that they were to be Christ’s witnesses to all the earth (Acts 1:8).

Ten days later was Pentecost, and early that morning as the disciples were gathered together in prayer, the promised Power arrived in vivid form.  The Holy Spirit enabled the apostles to fulfill the Great Commission given by Christ.  It is interesting to me that the Holy Spirit, the seal of the new covenant in Christ (Ephesians 1:13-14), came on Pentecost – a festival which had previously celebrated the giving of the law which was the foundation of the Mosaic covenant.

The Spirit of God came mightily to seal God’s chosen people in the new covenant on the same day that the Jews were celebrating the letter of God’s law—delivered in the Ten Commandments—that had established the old covenant.  God knows what He’s doing, doesn’t He?  :-)  The disciples probably started praying for the promised power soon after Jesus ascended.  They probably didn’t understand what was taking so long as they waited ten days with no (recorded) apparent progress.  But God’s timing is always perfect – and by waiting, He established an object lesson of yet another step in the institution of the new covenant: replacing the Letter of the Law with the Spirit of God.

So…all that was just introduction – and I’m just getting warmed up! ;-)  What I really intended this post to be about is the Holy Spirit in general, and more specifically looking at His character as described by one of the names Jesus used for Him.  {And it’s important to remember that the Holy Spirit really is a HIM and not an IT!}  This was the topic of my final research paper for one of my classes last semester.  The paper was 20 pages and ended up being a rush job…so this is more taking that topic and writing what I want to write about it, although I’m going off of the background I studied for my paper.  So while I may not cite anything in particular, my thinking has been influenced on this topic by the sources I used for that assignment.

In my opinion, the mainstream Church today {“Church” here referring to the universal body of Christ} – or at least the segment of the Church with which I grew up being most familiar – tends to downplay the role of living power from this third member of the Trinity in the day-to-day life of a Christian.  This is partly a reaction to the experiences of the Pentecostal/Charismatic branch of the Church.  Too often we seem to try and put God in general and the Holy Spirit especially into a box, to nail down what it is that He can/cannot do in our experiences.  And yes, I am particularly thinking of Cessationism – a viewpoint which I have grown up hearing and believing.  But in my paper and in this post, I did not and am not going to argue about which spiritual gifts are or are not valid practices today.  I’m not going to use Galatians’ list of the fruit of the Spirit to demonstrate how He is involved in our lives, or what particular areas He impacts.

Rather, I am encouraging us to zoom out, to view the Holy Spirit from a broader perspective than those narrow boxes we so often seek to fit Him into.  We like having things in understandable, manageable nuggets.  But God doesn’t come like that.  He comes as a holistic being who seeks to invade every part of our lives, conforming our whole selves to His image.  But He does not typically overrun our free will.  He awaits our invitation.

Regarding the Holy Spirit, I believe there is a term which ought to frame our conception of Him.  As I mentioned earlier, this is a name that was given to Him by Christ.  The setting was the Upper Room Discourse, in John 13-17 {or as I have also heard it called, the Valedictory Address of our Lord}.  The term is only used five times in the entire New Testament, four times in the John passage (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7) and once in 1 John 2:1 referring to Christ.  The Anglicized form of this Greek word is Paraclete.

So what does Paraclete mean??  Earlier translations use words such as “Comforter” and “Advocate” for the term, while some later translations simply Anglicize the word.  The latter do so because the original Greek term encompasses a variety of meanings which are not easily boiled down into one English word (“Paraclete.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary.)  One possible meaning of the term is “One Called to Stand Alongside.”  It is this all-encompassing view of the Holy Spirit that I think I personally and also the Church in general – from Cessationists to Charismatics – tends to lose sight of.  Instead, scholars seem to spend most of their time nitpicking over details such as the execution of particular gifts.

The early Church didn’t worry about that.  As I researched the writings of early apostolic fathers, I couldn’t help but notice that they frequently used Paraclete as a name with which to refer to the Holy Spirit.  As time went on, theologians began to philosophize about the details of pneumatology {does the Spirit proceed from the Father or the Son or both???  That relatively minor detail caused the first major schism in the Church} and the use of the name Paraclete seems to have died out.

In the class I wrote the paper for, we had a dual focus on orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  The first has to do with what you believe, the second deals with the practices you engage in.  In today’s world, the emphasis seems to be placed primarily on theological beliefs (orthodoxy), with the details of practice (orthopraxy) subsequently flowing out from that.  For the early Christians, however, the opposite was true.  They were taught and experienced certain things (the orthopraxy), and only later began to build frameworks of understanding (orthodoxy) around what they were already experiencing.

Now, I do realize that orthodoxy and knowing what I believe about certain things and why is very important.  Without theological frameworks, how is one to know what is biblical belief and what is heresy?  However, an increased emphasis on the details of doctrine can and has easily led to something of a downplaying of experience and living practice.

So what is my point in all of this?  Simple: While the study of theology is clearly important, don’t let that stifle your hunger for and experience of what God has in store for you.  Don’t get so bogged down in stridently insisting either that the gift of tongues cannot be given today or that the gift of tongues is a required mark of a believer that you miss the prompting work of the Paraclete in the simpler moments of your life.

In past eras, this third member of the Trinity was referred to as the Holy Ghost.  I was thinking about this recently, and I couldn’t help but be glad that we now typically use the term Spirit instead.  To many modern people, a ghost raises up the picture of a dead being, come back to haunt the world – a wraith that is not fully present.  This is not at all an accurate picture of God’s Spirit.  As God, the Holy Spirit is fully ALIVE and active.  Though we cannot see Him with our physical eyes, He is totally present nonetheless.

So friends, I hope you can take a moment today to celebrate the meaning of that Pentecost 2,000 years ago.  The Paraclete, God the Holy Spirit, dwells within you.  He has come to stand alongside you, always providing an available source of God’s total, living power.  He is not limited to a list of His gifts or fruits.  Rather, He is our Paraclete to meet whatever spiritual needs we have.  No matter what the situation is, He is abundantly adequate.

And for that, we all ought to praise God for His good gift!

Looking back.....

Clearly the increasing work load of the semester caught up to me and I allowed it to prevent me from writing more posts for this blog.  Last semester was the hardest semester of my life for a variety of reasons......but in many ways it was also the best semester.  Throughout all the tough stuff that I went through, God proved His faithfulness and His abundant grace over and over and over again.  He led me on a path of working through a variety of things, a process which included lots of thinking and journaling.  So just because a cataloging of the journey sadly didn't make it into my small corner of the web here does not mean nothing was happening.  I would like to write some more posts about this process, but becoming an increasingly independent adult and bearing the resultingly greater responsibilities of life makes it more challenging.  If you want the bite-sized, more frequently updated version of what God is doing in my life, check out my Twitter feed.  My posts from that are linked to also show up as Facebook statuses :)