Monday, 30 June 2014

Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul

One of the oldest temptations the church faces is fragmentation. We are constantly and continuously tempted to walk away from each other. In university I took a class on Christian history. My professor, Dr. Robinson, held up a book that listed all the known Christian denominations, which at that time numbered at somewhere over 20,000. Many of these denominations consisted of only one church. He then told us his two favorite churches/denominations. One was “the Church of God on Turtle Hill”, the other (in the same town) was “The True Church of God on Turtle Hill”.  It’s amazing how a whole history can be imagined in the one word “true”. You can imagine there was some sort of a disagreement that happened. It could have been over something theological- like how faith and works determine your salvation. But, it might also have been the result of an argument about the color of the carpet. Whatever it was it caused a division in the church and there arose “The TRUE Church of God on Turtle Hill”.
Unfortunately, this is a sad reality in the history of the Church. The largest major split was 1054 when the western church split from the eastern church. Then, of course, we have the Reformation in the 16th century as the western church split into Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. But, this also has happened on a smaller scale more recently as denominations struggled over issues like women in ministry, divorce, new prayer books, or a variety of other things.
This has been a temptation since the very beginning. This doesn’t have anything, in particular, to do with Christianity. Argument and broken relationships are very human. We find it inside and outside religion. Human beings don’t need religion to argue. They are very creative and will find all kinds of things to argue about- politics, money, education, sports, whatever. We find this kind of division inside all religions if they are made up of more than one person. When studying Buddhism in university I read about a group of Buddhist monks that burned down the monastery of another set of Buddhist monks. To argue and fight is quite human, we don’t need religion to do that.
Since argument and division are very human they have always been a temptation in the church. One of the earliest arguments in the church was about how non-Jewish people became followers of Jesus. Jesus, of course, was Jewish. All his disciples were Jewish. Christians believed Jesus was the expected Jewish messiah.  It was a thoroughly Jewish movement. It seemed to make sense that people who wanted to become Jesus followers should, in some way, become Jewish. There were some who believed that males had to be circumcised, that they had to eat according to Jewish food laws, and they also had to live according to the Laws of the Old Testament.
Others said that this movement was for the entire world, Jewish and non-Jewish (Gentile). The Jewish dietary laws, purity laws, and circumcision practices were for the Jewish people, not for non-Jewish people. If Christianity was for everyone in the world, then Judaism and non-Jewish people had to come on equal footing even though Jesus came to the world through Judaism.
So the question the church had to deal with was how Jewish do you have to be to become a Christian? This was a very important question and it had important consequences. To eat according to Jewish dietary laws meant that you did not share a table with people who did not. The Church gathered around a meal of bread and wine. What was at stake was whether Jewish Christians could sit around the table and share the bread and wine with non-Jewish people who didn’t keep the Old Testament food laws.  It was a huge barrier. From a Jewish perspective it just made sense that people would become Jewish as they joined the church.
This question gave rise to a dispute between St. Paul and St. Peter. Paul tells his side of the story in his letter to the Galatians. He remembers the conflict saying, “I opposed him to his face” (Gal 2:11-14). At some point Peter had separated himself from eating with non-Jewish people.         
In Acts 10 we read that Peter met with a man named Cornelius who was a Roman Centurion and not Jewish. Peter spoke to him and his household about Jesus. As an observant Jew, Peter was not supposed to visit the house of a non-Jewish person, but a vision made Peter change his mind. We read that, 
“while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:44-48).
 The Holy Spirit confirmed that Cornelius and his household could come directly to the church without having to become Jewish first.
Based on his experience with the household of Cornelius Peter knew that non-Jewish people could join the church as they are, without needing to be circumcised, or eating kosher, or following the purity laws of the Old Testament. At some point Peter pulled away from what he knew to be right and held back from eating with non-Jewish people, which contradicted his experience with Cornelius. We don’t exactly know why. It may have been that some Jewish-Christians convinced him that it was Important (which seems to be Paul's opinion). Or (this is my personal opinion), it might have been that Peter went along with it in order to not offend the Jewish households where he was sharing the message of Jesus. For a similar reason Paul had Timothy circumcised so that they wouldn’t offend the Jewish community (which seems like a pretty drastic step compared to not eating together). Whatever the reason, others took notice and a division started. Soon there was an issue with Jewish-Christians eating with Gentile-Christians. Paul noticed and when they were together in Antioch Paul called him on it.
I am amazed that there wasn’t a Gentile Church and a separate Jewish Church. That’s what we would do. We have churches that cater to particular musical taste- do you like rock music, classical music, no music, or country? There are churches that cater to liturgical taste- are you high church, or low church? Do you like incense and kneeling? If you like old fashioned language you can go to that church, if you like modern language you can do to that one. There are churches with long sermons or short sermons, or liberal theology, conservative theology, and everywhere-in-between theology. Some will say, well that’s because we are all so different that each church would have something different to offer different people. I have no doubt that God uses the different churches to reach people with a variety of tastes and personalities, but I think our divisions are most often a thing to repent of, since more often than not it is bowing to the god of consumerism. We often allow ourselves to be separated by musical or liturgical taste rather than work for the unity Christ commands.
I am amazed that there wasn’t a Gentile-Christian Church and a separate Jewish-Christian Church. The confrontation between Paul and Peter might have given rise to this kind of a division. Paul was strong in his confrontation. He didn’t keep his opinion to himself for the sake of keeping the peace. This issue was far too important to let it slide. This is a recipe for division. But, that’s not what happens. A council is called at Jerusalem (Acts 15) where certain church leaders gathered, including Paul and Peter. They discussed the issue and come to an understanding as to what needed to be done. Peter seems to have admitted his error and comes alongside Paul in agreement that faith in Jesus is central, not the works of the law. Gentile believers were asked to follow a few simple laws to not offend the Jewish believers in their churches. They come to an agreement and a unified voice even though Paul would not back down from what he believed to be true. They all believed that Jewish and Gentile unity was important and they were willing to work for it.  
In some things Paul was very strong and he wouldn’t give an inch. There were some other things where Paul allowed a person’s conscience to differ even within the church. One example is eating meat that had been dedicated to idols. Some said they shouldn’t support the pagan system that provided the meat, others though it was superstitious to fear idols and didn’t worry about where the meat came from for the sake of eating with family, friends, and business associates. Paul left that up to individual consciences, but with the stipulation not to let your freedom offend someone whose conscience differed from yours. Paul believed that in most things we should be willing to give up our freedom to serve one another and to not offend one another if possible.   
For almost 2000 years this confrontation between Peter and Paul is what comes to many people’s minds when they think of the relationship between Peter and Paul. I suspect it was a small event in their lives and don’t think they held any resentment towards one another. When Peter and Paul are thought of together there is one other thing that comes to mind. Under Nero they were both imprisoned in Mamertine Prison (if a prison is known by name 2000 years later, you didn’t want to go there). 

They were both killed in Rome around the year 64 AD.  As a Roman citizen, Paul was beheaded. Peter was nailed to a cross upside down because he told his executioners he wasn’t worthy to die like his Lord.
As Christians we should look to Peter and Paul and the Gentile-Christians and Jewish-Christians that were under their care. They worked for unity against amazing odds. We need to remember them when we have a disagreement, especially with another Christian. That kind of dispute is bad for the souls of those involved, but it is also poison for the church. That doesn’t mean you pretend everything is all okay. You will likely need to get everything into the air, but unity and forgiveness are worth working for. Divisions and arguments are easy, unity is hard work, but worthy work.


Thursday, 26 June 2014

God in the messiness of life- Gen 21

Genesis begins with God creating a beautiful world. It is a world where human beings live in harmony with each other, with animals, with creation, and with God. It is the world we were all created to live in. It is a world where our talents and capacities find their perfect match, and where we would know work but not toil. It is a world of continuous and developing contemplation of the infinite God and the bliss that goes along with it. The first couple, we are told, eat from the forbidden tree. It is a rejection of God’s leadership. They have decided that they know better. They eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and bad, and to gain knowledge of the “bad” they must leave paradise. This is what we know as the Fall.
To bring human beings back into full relationship with Him, God puts in motion a plan. That plan begins with a man and his wife- Abraham and Sarah. In their old age God calls them away from the land of their ancestors to wander and follow God’s leading.  God makes a promise to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3). God’s plan to draw humanity back to Himself runs through Abraham and Sarah’s family.
When we look at Abraham we don’t exactly find a perfect example to follow. He and Sarah don’t seem like people God is going to use to recreate the world. In some ways Abraham seems like a real person of faith- an example to follow. He leaves and follows God’s command not knowing where God is leading him. … But, then we read that out of fear he lies to an important person of authority saying that Sarah is his sister in order to save his own skin thinking that person might want to kill him and take her if he told the truth and said she was his wife. And, Abraham does this not once, but twice (Gen 20:1-18; 12:10-20). He is not exactly an image of chivalry.
God had promised Abraham and Sarah a child, but over a decade later Sarah approaches Abraham and tells him to sleep with her servant, Hagar, to produce a child. Sarah decided that maybe they had to help God out with the promise. Abraham doesn’t argue at all and sleeps with Hagar and she becomes pregnant. Hagar gets upset with Sarah because she made her become a surrogate mother for them and then Sarah approaches Abraham, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt” (Gen 16:5). Sarah mistreats Hagar and Hagar runs away. She is brought back by an encounter with an angel.
In today’s Genesis reading, Hagar’s son, Ishmael, is probably a teenager. Sarah has now given birth in her old age. Her child, Isaac, is the child of the promise. He is the one who carries the promise God made to Abraham. Ishmael seems to have been making fun of little Isaac as he was learning to eat solid food for the first time and Sarah suddenly realizes the potential for competition between Isaac and Ishmael and Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Hagar is loaded up with water and they are sent into the wilderness. Soon they run out of water and Ishmael is placed under the shade of a bush exhausted and about to die of thirst. Hagar is off at a distance crying, unwilling to watch her son die.
This is the situation where God’s promise finds root in human life. This is not life as it should be. This is the messiness of ordinary life. Once in a while I’ll meet people who think they have to have their lives together before they can come to church, or they think that unless they are doing everything God wants them to do that God will not notice them, or hear their prayers. God’s people are people living real lives and that often means messy lives. They are people who sometimes make bad choices. They are people who have to deal with the consequences of other people’s bad choices.    
This is us. Our lives are messy. Look into the lives of our families and our friends and we see messy lives. We make bad decisions. We try to decide for ourselves what us right and wrong rather than following God’s direction. We are sometimes recipients of the bad decisions of others and through no fault of our own our lives are made complicated and messy.
I wonder sometimes how this makes God feel. Once in a while I will have someone in my study who is having a problem. I come to believe that the problem would be helped by taking on a particular spiritual practice, so I will suggest it. I will meet again with the person only to find out that they haven’t tried the spiritual practice, and (surprise surprise) the problem they are having persists. After a few of these visits I will think to myself that they must not want this problem to be solved and that really there is no point in us meeting until they are willing to follow my suggestion and take on the spiritual practice. These practices are the containers for the grace of God. Like water in a glass, grace usually comes through some sort of container to carry it. To deny the glass is to deny the water. To deny the spiritual practice is to deny the grace of God that would be delivered through it. To complain about the disease, but refuse to take the medication is Ludacris.  
And if you spoke to my spiritual director (and he ignored the rule of confidentiality between us) he would tell you that I am no different. I will come to him with a problem, and he will suggest a practice, and the next month I will come to him with the same problem. He is very gracious, but there must be some part of him saying “we have already had this discussion Chris”. You know what you need to do, but you aren’t doing it.  
If I imagine myself as God I would be continuously frustrated by the refusal to receive the healing grace offered, and I would be tempted to say to Abraham and Sarah and all those leading messy lives, “Come back to me when you figure out what you really want. There’s a plan to rescue the world, and I’d like you to be a part of it, but you’re being really inconsistent. So I’ll give you some space to think and when you figure out if you want to be a part of what I’m doing and you’re ready to live it, then let me know”. … But that’s not what God does. God is right in the thick of it with us. He is even working through us in spite of our faults- our pride and ingratitude, our judgementalism, our cowardice and greed, our gossip, and back-biting. God still works through us and is lovingly present to us.
Ishmael, through no fault of his own or of his mother, was an accident. Ishmael was conceived because Abraham and Sarah didn’t believe that Sarah would become pregnant and so they made Hagar be their surrogate to give them a child. And then, when Sarah finally does give birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael are cast aside. They are victims of the powerful. They have been shamefully mistreated and used, then cast aside when they were no longer needed to provide an heir for the promise.
The book of Genesis (and we could say the entire Bible) is about God’s promise. God’s promise to bless the world through Abraham’s family flows through Isaac. Really as far as the story of the promise is concerned Hagar and Ishmael could have been dismissed and we could have not heard about what happened to either of them because what we are really concerned about is Isaac and this promise. Surprisingly there is more included about Hagar and her son. We are off the main story now. We meet Hagar and Ishmael dying of thirst in the wilderness. They are victims of those with power. I look up to Abraham in many ways, but this is a shameful episode. Hagar and Ishmael are victims of the power of Abraham and Sarah and now they are dying of thirst. She has laid her son under a bush for shade and goes off a distance because she can’t stand to witness the death of her son.
The name Ishmael means “God hears”, and God does indeed hear the cries of the boy. An angel speaks to Hagar saying, "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him." And then we read that “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up”.
Ishmael was not the one to carry the particular promise. In one way of thinking he was a consequence of Abraham and Sarah’s lack of faith. But, God works in spite of us. And he will use what we give him. He can work even in the midst of our character defects and the messiness we make of the world and our lives.   
This is one of my favorite stories about God and the messiness of the world. One day there was a little girl and her mother.  It was a big day, they were going to a fancy wedding later that day and so they had both bought new dresses. It was still early in the day but the little girl couldn't stop thinking about the wedding and her special dress she was going to wear. She would run into the house from the backyard, then up to her mother and ask "is it time to go to the party yet?" And her mother would reply, "no, not until later today, dear". The little girl would go back outside to play. Periodically, the little girl would run up to her mother and repeat her question, and the mother would repeat her answer.
            Eventually the little girl thought that it must be getting closer to the time for the party, and thought that perhaps she would finally be allowed to wear her dress. So her questions stopped being about the wedding and instead she started asking if she could put on her dress. Her mother would reply, "I don't think that's a good idea hunny, you might get it dirty before the party". Soon the little girl's questioning became begging, "pleeeease Mom! Can I put on my dress? I won't get it dirty, I promise". Eventually, the mother gave in to the girl's begging, and the girl was allowed to put her dress on, on the condition that she would promise not to get it dirty. She put her dress on and marched outside very pleased. She began playing. Eventually she became wrapped up in her play and wasn't as careful as she should have been. As she was playing she tripped and fell in a mud puddle. Mud was all over her new white dress. She sat in the mud, her mouth opened in shock and horror. Just then her mother walked out the back door all fancied up in her new dress. It was time for the wedding. The girl looked up at her mother and then down at her muddy white dress- and she burst into tears. She remembered her promise. She couldn't stand to even look her mother in the face. She knew she was in trouble. She sat in the mud puddle her face in her hands and cried. The mother slowly walked over to the little girl in her fancy new dress and sat in the mud right beside her little girl. Her daughter looked up into her mother's smiling face with tears in her eyes. They were both filthy, and they both started laughing.

            And that is the incarnation. God has come into our messy lives. God has entered the mess. We have made such a mess of things. In the incarnation, God has come among us, God came to sit in the mud with us, not to wallow in it with us, but to show us that God will not abandon us. God has come to sit in the mud with us in order to pick us up out of it and clean us off. We can sometimes think that God is not in our lives when they get messy, but that is just a lack of ability to see in the midst of the mess. The cross was a s messy as it gets and Theologians tell is that nowhere was God more open and present to us than on the cross. Hagar and Ishmael and Abraham and Isaac and Sarah were living messy, imperfect lives (like ours), but we are told God was there and was doing something amazing. In that mess God was drawing all humanity back to himself.  

Monday, 16 June 2014

Why the Trinity?

There is a threenesss to Christian worship. We read in our Gospel reading today the command to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). In Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan river the voice of God is heard and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove (Luke 3). There is a threeness about Jesus’ baptism. From Paul we receive the blessing “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor 13:13). There is a threeness to Christian worship.

Some might this this is a bit strange. The first Christians were all Jewish. They never actually believed they were a part of a new religion. They believed they were a part of a further development of Judaism. To them the Messiah has now come, but they still considered themselves Jews. One of the things that set Judaism apart from other religions that surrounded them was that they believed in the worship of only one God. The Ten Commandments begin with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me… for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Ex 20:2-3, 5). We read in Isaiah 45:21-22, “…there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me. Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other”. Monotheism was foundational to what it meant to be Jewish. The early Christians had no sense that they were giving up on worshipping one God and one God alone. There was no sense that they now included 2 other Gods to worship alongside the Jewish God. No, they remained worshipping the one God of the Jews.

But, then we read in our Gospel, “When they saw [Jesus], they worshipped him” (Matt 28:17). In the Gospel of John when Jesus appears to Thomas, who doubts the resurrection, he falls to the ground and says, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). He worships Jesus. In the letter to the Colossians we read that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God… all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col1:15, 16-17). Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians the line, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phil 2:6). Paul is saying Jesus is God. There are many other parts of the New Testament that speak about Jesus as being equated with God. This is present right from the beginning of the Christian movement.

Jesus worship was a part of following Jesus from the very beginning. We even see this in ancient graffiti from around the first century to sometime in the 200’s. There is a drawing on a wall that has the inscription “Alexamenos worships his God” and there is a crude drawing of a man on a cross with the head of a donkey and a man is before this image worshipping. It is making fun of the Christian, obviously, but it tells us that these early Christians were worshipping Jesus.

The Holy Spirit is also equated with God. The Holy Spirit is spoken of as a person (not an impersonal force) and does the things that God does- participating in creation of the world, sanctifying, creating anew at baptism and the resurrection, revealing God, giving light and life, dwelling in the saints as in a temple, joining believers to the Son, being internal to God as a human’s “spirit” is to a human being, and doing all that God does in general.[1] If the two options to choose by are ‘creature’ or ‘God’, it would seem counter-intuitive to say of a being that performs such actions is not God. The theologian David Yeago says,

“Since the spirit does what the Father and the Son uniquely and divinely do (reign as Lord and give life), then the Spirit must be what the Father and the Son are; he must be ‘god’ in the exclusive Old Testament sense”.[2]

From the beginning there was a threeness about Christian Worship. The Trinity really seems to have come from the experience of the early Christians with God. They encountered Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and they were aware of directing prayer to God, the Father of Jesus. God was revealing himself to these followers of Jesus and as they encountered God they saw both a unity and a Threeness.

They didn’t see three separate Gods, which would have made them give up being monotheists and their Jewish roots. But, they also weren’t willing to give up this Threeness that they experienced as they met God. It took Christians years of reflecting to try to resolve this tension and what they came up with was the trinity. It was a way to say that God the father did not leave heaven, and become Jesus the son, meaning God is no longer in heaven. Jesus is God the Son. But God the Father remained did not stop being God the Father on Christmas when Jesus was born.

Yes, this is complicated stuff, but we are peeking into to the reality of God. We should not expect to completely grasp the details of the eternal God. Really what the idea of the Trinity does is it gives us language to talk about God. It helps us to know when we are talking about God and when we have stopped talking about the God Jesus showed us. If we start talking about three Gods, then we have stopped talking about God. If we talk about God the father as being God and Jesus is a kind of angel, but not God, then we are no longer talking about the God Jesus revealed to us and which the first Christians experienced. The language of Trinity is to give us language to talk about God. It is a guideline for speaking about God. When we ask “what is it?” We say “God”. When we ask “Who is it?” we say “Father Son Spirit”

This might sound to some of you like a bunch of pointless theology best left to professors in ivory towers, but there are real consequences to not having a Trinitarian God. If we set aside the Trinity the scriptures would fall apart. We wouldn’t know what to do with the scriptures that speak about Jesus as being divine. We wouldn’t know what to do with scriptures that speak about the Holy Spirit as being a person and as doing the actions of God. So the trinity helps us hold the scriptures together.

If we gave up on the Trinity we wouldn’t know really how to understand the cross. It would become a kind of divine child abuse rather that as God’s self-sacrifice to show the world his love. It would become a horrific and pretty pointless act. How does an ordinary human being dying have an effect on us 2000 years later? Lots of people die. If the cross is God’s self-sacrifice then we have been given a power revelations of God’s love for us. Furthermore, if God hasn’t been revealed in Jesus then we are still in the dark about who this God is. Jesus might have been a wise teacher, but if he was not the incarnation of God and so there remains a wide chasm between creation and God.

The biggest consequence for me is this. Without the Trinity love would have to be something God learned by creating. Love needs an “other”. Love needs a recipient. Before creation a non-Trinitarian God does not know love. But, a God that is a Trinity would have persons to share love with from all eternity, and so from all eternity God can have as a part of God’s very nature Love. In John’s first letter “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). He doesn’t say “God is loving”, though he is, but it is deeper. He says “God is Love”. That means love is central to God’s nature. That could not be true of a non-Trinitarian God.

It might seem to be a bit of a strange teaching, that God is both one and three- One in nature, and three in persons. But, this teaching comes out of the church’s encounter with God. The teaching of the Trinity is the result of the church struggling to find words to describe their experience. The God they encountered had love right at the very core of who He is, from all eternity. There was never a time that God did not love, even before creation. God bridged the creator-creation gap to reveal himself to us as one of us- as Jesus. He came to show us who God is through Jesus Christ. To show us how much he loves us he spread his arms to embrace us even letting us kill him on a cross. He made himself vulnerable to show his care and willingness to sacrifice to show his love. Even now he is with us through his Spirit. Humble and unseen, he is working in our hearts to draw us closer to him inch by inch challenging us and comforting us.

[1] Yeago, 144-145.
[2] Yeago, 145.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014


We have to rewind a little. We have been looking at the books of Acts and what happened to some of the disciples after the day of Pentecost, which was a Jewish festival that happened 50 days after Passover. The day of Pentecost resulted in Peter preaching to the crowd that resulted in numerous people following Jesus and living as a new community. Eventually this community catches the attention of the leadership that had Jesus killed and Stephen is stoned. One of those approving of Stephen’s stoning was Paul and after encountering the risen Jesus he starts preaching about Jesus to anyone who will listen. All this starts with the day of Pentecost.
            The preacher John Stott said, “As a body without breath is a corpse, so the church without the Spirit is dead”. The Spirit is the life of the church. The goal of the Christian life is to love and serve God and through this we enter a shared life with God. God becomes an everyday reality for us and there is a mysterious peace and joy that exists and grows as our life becomes unified with Christ. This doesn't mean we don't have bad things happen in our life. It just means we have a joy and peace that flows under those difficult experiences. The Spirit’s desire is to develop this process in each of us and to have this process spread to as many people as possible. The Spirit is ultimately about joining people. St. Augustine described the Holy Spirit as the love that exists between God the Father and God the Son.  From all eternity God the Holy Spirit exists as the unity and love between two persons, and that is what He continues to do. We could say He exists as the love between you and God. When you are minding your own business and your heart starts to burn within you and you have an overwhelming desire to pray, that is the Holy Spirit present in you joining you in love to God. This warmth might build in you when you sing a hymn, or it might happen while you are already praying, or when you look at the sunset, and a profound gratitude builds up in you and tears fill your eyes.  That is the Holy Spirit joining you to God. 
            After the Ascension of Jesus, he is present to us through the Holy Spirit, and he is at work making us the body of Christ. So just as we are joined to God by the Holy Spirit, so we are also drawn into a mysterious unity with one another by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit exists as the love between us and others. You may have had the overwhelming desire to call someone and then find out that they really needed someone to talk to. Or just being together on Sunday you feel a connection that goes beyond the social factor, it goes beyond mere friendship, you feel a connection that runs deeper.
The Holy Spirit is a master of overcoming barriers through love. You might feel a pressure inside yourself to forgive someone who has wronged you, or to say “sorry” when you have wronged someone else. The Holy Spirit wants to destroy divisions and draw us into unity. If we look at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 we see that they are all really about our relationship with another person- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. We often think of the Holy Spirit in terms of miraculous powers. We might think of healing miracles, or we might think of some of the other stories we might know from the Charismatic movement. In teaching confirmation classes in the past we sat around a fire and told Holy Ghost stories about times we have felt the presence of God or experienced the mysterious or supernatural. The Holy Spirit will use these miraculous means if it means drawing people closer to God and closer to each other. (These miracles can also be a source of division, especially among immature Christians).  Usually what is needed is not a miracle. Rather, what is often needed is the grace to be patient, and kind, when we would really rather not. If that is what will help us grow in love then that is what the Holy Spirit will empower us to do.
            This also means the Holy Spirit is active outside these church walls. The Holy Spirit is active in our neighborhoods and where we work. The Holy Spirit wants to draw everyone into deeper relationship with God and with other people. So wherever barriers as being broken and people are being brought closer together, you will find the Holy Spirit there. It might not look particularly religious, but The Holy Spirit is interested in drawing people together in love and overcoming differences that divide. When you find division and bitterness you will likely see the absence of the Holy Spirit, or a resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit. (You can resist the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit respects your freedom, but the danger is that you can stop being able to hear the Spirit’s voice).

On Pentecost the believers encountered God and the Holy Spirit filled them. There was an amazing intimacy and unity between them and God.  This experience also unified the believers gathered in the upper room because they all had the one spirit filling them all. So the Holy Spirit grants unity with God, and unity among the community of the church, but the Holy Spirit doesn't leave them there in some kind of prayerful ecstatic unity. The Holy Spirit draws others to them through the sound of the languages being spoken and the mysterious sound of the rushing wind, but the Holy Spirit also drew them out of the house to encounter the crowd. This was an overcoming of the Tower of Babel story where languages divided the people of the world as they arrogantly used their technologies to reach heaven without God. Pentecost is the overcoming of this event where nationality and language are no longer a barrier.  John Stott said “at Babel earth proudly tried to ascend to heaven, whereas in Jerusalem heaven humbly descended to earth.” The Holy Spirit is still about this, though perhaps at a slower pace. God desires to draw all people to Himself and the Holy Spirit is the force within us empowering us and drawing us to this unity.  
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