Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Seed Planted Within Us All

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
I Corinthians 12:7

Psalm 104:24-34
Acts 2:1-21
John 20: 19-23
I Cor 12:3b-13

The Greek word pneuma (translated as “spirit” in our English bibles) means both “breath” and “wind.” On the very first page of the Bible, the Pneuma of God blows over absolute nothingness and then eventually God’s Pneuma is exhaled into humanity. The Jews who compiled the Hebrew Bible while living in exile and the Jews for Jesus who penned the New Testament documents during the oppressive Roman Empire were united in comparing the ways of God to how breath and wind function in our world: it is the Force that gives life & power & energy; with the right tools, it can be harnessed & then transferred to give life, power and energy to others; it is inside of us, but also outside of us; we can feel it, but cannot see it. The concept of God’s Spirit is mysterious and, in fact, quite confusing, since many competing brands of Christian believers spanning the past 100 generations have claimed to be led by the same gust of Divine Wind, justifying actions that are completely opposite of each another.

These passages are read today in churches all over the world in various denominations that celebrate what has come to be Pentecost, literally “50 Days” after Easter. The original Pentecost was a Jewish celebration called the Festival of Weeks and, like all major Jewish celebrations in the 1st century, the faithful flocked to Jerusalem from everywhere. It was a multi-cultural, multi-national party commemorating God’s abundant gift of both the Torah (the 613 guidelines that directed God’s faithful) and the annual harvest of grains.

No doubt, the Jews really knew how to party, but Peter pointed out the absurd notion from naysayers that anyone would be drunk right after breakfast. Jesus’ original disciples were convinced that something truly divine was going down in 29AD. For centuries, most Jewish denominations (and there were many) believed that there would be a day when God would dramatically change everything. The prophets (like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Joel) confronted the evil of their day by looking ahead to Another Day in the future when God would bring about an apocalypse (literally an “unveiling” or “revelation”). They used colorfully exaggerated language to describe the indescribable: “The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood.” Simply put, the Jews clung to the hope that God would come out from hiding and relieve their suffering by triumphing over the powers and rulers that oppressed the them and by uprooting evil at the source: renewing the hearts of everyone so that “the image of God” would be illuminated in them and through them. In the words of the prophet Joel, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”

These first Christians, in fact, were an extremely controversial Jewish cult who believed that “the last days” (the End Times!) had finally arrived in the life, death, resurrection and outpouring of the spirit of Jesus on to all the people. Indeed, these people of “The Way” believed that the End of World surprisingly invaded the middle of the Story. This was the apocalypse that the Jewish prophets foretold, but it looked a lot different than anyone expected. The Jews for Jesus evangelized fellow Jews proclaiming that NOW was the time for each and every Jew to respond: to take inventory (of all ways that they bound anxiety) & to repent (literally “to change our minds”) from the dehumanizing, addictive patterns they learned from family, friends and cultural institutions (like government, religion & the marketplace). God was on the move in unprecedented ways, determined to heal the world through a group of people pledged to the subversive ways of Jesus.

The advent of Jesus was continuous with the long Jewish story about the God who created the world and was determined to heal it. But Jesus radically changed how these particular Jews understood the Rest of the Story in 3 key ways:

1. Pentecost confirmed and magnified the belief that every single person is designed with the Divine Resource within themselves. This is what the Quaker Christians would eventually call God-in-Everyone, or what various other faith traditions have called the Inner Source, the Inner Teacher, the Inner Christ and the Seed Within. Psychologist and educator Parker Palmer identifies 2 key points about the scandalous notion that God resides in every human being: (1) We all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution or leader; and (2) We all need other people to invite, amplify and help us discern the inner teacher’s voice (after all, Palmer reminds us, the journey is too taxing, the path is too hidden and destination is too daunting to go solo).

2. Unfortunately, there has been a strong tendency throughout Christian history to focus more on the depravity of individuals rather than the capacity for us all to access this divine power. Many Evangelical brands of Christianity posit that sin is so strong that no one can be trusted to hear the Inner Voice clearly. The Irish Jesuits (and many other Christian traditions) remind themselves daily that “the Spirit breathes life into my most intimate desires, gently nudging me towards all that is good.” Only when we trust and cultivate the Inner Teacher can it lead us to a life of integrity, simplicity, peace, equality and community. The goal, then, is accessing, amplifying, cultivating, recognizing, discerning & responding to the Breath of God…or as theologian Walter Wink explains:

The Holy Spirit is like a substrate of molten magma under the earth’s crust, trying to erupt volcanically in each of us. It does not have to be invoked, but merely allowed; not called to be present, but acknowledged as present already. Our task is not to mobilize God, but rather to bring our consciousness and commitment to God, to give articulation to the inarticulate groanings within our souls, to bring God’s longings to speech.

3. Lastly, our Scripture texts this morning reveal that a confrontation with the establishment inevitably comes when we follow the Spirit’s prodding. In the 1st century, when the Inner Teacher compelled the very first disciples to proclaim “Jesus is Lord,” it meant only one thing: Caesar was not! Driven by the Spirit, these Christians pledged allegiance to the Way of Jesus which confronted both mainstream Judaism (no wonder the original disciples hid “for fear of the Jews”) and most of Hellenistic culture (including Roman political claims about Caesar’s divinity). The Jews for Jesus (and eventually Gentiles for Jesus as well!) believed that God’s forgiveness did not come from Temple rituals and that every human was sacred, having equal access to God’s Power—even children, women, lepers, prostitutes, sell-out tax collectors and dirty fishermen. A crucial outcome of being led by the Spirit—throughout the Bible & throughout church history—was and continues to be a break from the status quo, power and privilege. No doubt, following the Inner Teacher takes courage. That’s why it takes a community.

And that brings us back full circle. The whole point of God planting the very image of God within every human being is that we would have resources to pour ourselves out for one another. For the common good. The French literary critic and philosopher Rene Girard has coined the term interdividual to drove home the overwhelmingly crucial significance that we are not autonomous individuals, but instead intimately connected to one another and that we crave models of love and compassion to shape us into something that truly resembles the intent of the human design. The Inner Teacher is for not self-awareness alone. It beckons us to take our inventory and gift it towards the healing of the world.

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