World Communion 2017
I have been working through significant words of scripture and faith. Today’s word is “Spirit.”
Truth be told, this is Spirit Redux! Our second look at the word.
In a recent book, “The Future of Faith” Harvard professor Harvey Cox delineated the unease in Christianity that has been written about for at least the last fifty years. Reflecting on the history of the church and where we are now, Cox identifies three eras: The age of Faith, the age of Belief, and the age of Spirit.
The age of Faith represented those first 300 or so years of Jesus followers. It was the belief in Jesus time, when buoyant faith propelled the movement he initiated. During the explosive growth and brutal persecutions of that era, followers shared in the living Spirit of Christ that united them with each other and gave them hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing and compassion. To be a Christian in that era meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work he had begun.
The age of Belief followed as doctrines and creeds about Jesus rose to prominence in defining Christianity. The era really started with the first “new member” classes! As leaders began formulating orientation programs for new recruits who had not known Jesus, this is when emphasis began to shift from faith “in” Jesus, to beliefs “about” Jesus. In the third and fourth century, as the empire demanded a single approach to belief, and the clergy class emerged to “protect” the faith, the church entrenched itself in doctrine and self-preservation.
Fast forward to our era, in our Western culture, when it has become a regular mantra to bemoan declining memberships and low participation in church. Well, despite such dire forecasts, Christianity is growing faster than it ever has before…but mainly outside the West. It is growing in movements that accent ancient spiritual experience, discipleship and hope. They are paying scant attention to the twin pillars of Christendom, creeds and hierarchies.
Over the last two weeks, we have been exploring the words of Cox’s paradigm, Faith and Believe. Today we turn to the third, Spirit.
There has always been tension in American religious identity shaped by two enduring images: the orderly parish church and the exuberant tent meeting. Since the Great Awakening of the 18th century we have often felt forced to choose, as one noted in social media “Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire?”
One way to bring this tension together, is grasp what Cox and others see as the current and future of the church. Defining Spirit is key. Starting with the dictionary spirit is defined as: “the principle of conscious life; the vital principle in humans, animating the body or mediating between body and soul.”
In many ways, that sense of “animating the body,” has watered down spirit. I remember a high school cheer, “We’ve got spirit, yes we do…how about you?” Imagine us chanting that out on the corner to encourage folks to stop by our corner? Other uses are just as pale and shapeless as school spirit, Christmas spirit, the American spirit, even Holy Spirit.
With each of these there is a sense that we should rise up and cheer, or “feel” warm and fuzzy. But we’re not really sure what each one really means for us.
At the end of the foot washing Jesus commanded the disciples to “love one another.” Now Jesus tells them about the Paraclete, the Spirit who “will remind you of all that I have said to you.” The Spirit plays a larger role in Jesus’ teaching in John than any other gospel. The Spirit is key to Jesus’ preparation of his disciples for their life after his return to God.
The Spirit is Jesus’ ongoing presence in the community after the resurrection. The Spirit is not a private, personal possession of an individual believer. Rather Jesus and God send the Spirit to the community as whole. The incarnation continues after the resurrection as the gift of the Spirit to all disciples. The Spirit comes to the disciples in the midst of a world filled with hatred, providing encouragement, comfort and continued training in how to be community.
This is significant for us today as we wrestle our way through this new era of faith and what it means for us as Western Christians. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow estimates that 40 percent of all adult Americans belong to one or another of a variety of small groups both in and out of churches. He argues that many join because they are searching for community, they are “interested in deepening their spirituality.”
A pattern is seen when we couple the rapid growth of faith communities in Asia and Latin America with this longing in the West. Large numbers of people are drawn more to the experiential than the doctrinal elements of religion. And the most engaging of these practices are drawn from ancient church practices: Gregorian chant, lectio divina, labyrinths, Celtic forms of worship and pilgrimages such as the Campostella de Santiago.
All this makes Spirit or Spirituality a bit subversive to church hierarchy. As it always has been a form of protest, just as Jesus protested the faith hierarchies of his day. Spirit also works within us to give voice to the awe and wonder we encounter in the world. Remember, Jesus left the Spirit, to continue his role as teacher and guide.
Which brings me back to the word itself. In Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the word Spirit originally meant “breath.” God “breathed” life into humanity. Humanity then had “respiration,” “inspiration,” Spirit. Breath is what you have when you are alive and don’t have when you are dead. So Spirit = breath = life, the aliveness and power of your life, and to speak of a person’s spirit is to speak of the power of life that is in that person.
The Spirit of God enlivens, empowers, embraces each of us and connects us to Jesus and to one another. Just as spirit, ruach, breath, was breathed into humanity that first week; just as Jesus left the Spirit for his followers, Spirit is what connects us to one another in God’s kingdom on earth and affirms our hope in the future of God’s people.
Rachel Held Evans on God’s kingdom here and now: “This is what God’s kingdom is like! A bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at the table, not because they are rich or worthy or cool, but because they are hungry. Because they said yes, and there is always room for one more.”
On this World Communion Sunday, in the 500th year of the Reformation, we can look around and rest assured that the Spirit still moves over the waters and the dry land. The Spirit still connects and reminds you of all, and most significantly, the Spirit still invites you, and another, to come, come to this table…