THE SPIRIT OF GOD
The Spirit of God is moving among us. How can I tell?
Both New Testament texts this morning make a distinction between life in the spirit and life in the flesh. In the life of the flesh we are captives of our own needs and wants and are focused on serving ourselves. The life of the spirit frees us from this bondage of self-centeredness and moves us beyond self-interest to serving the ways of God which have as a purpose reconciling and healing the world and bringing people together in love. The ways of the flesh divide us as you might expect. When everyone seeks ones own interests first and over the interests of others there is bound to be conflict and violence is inevitable. In the life of the flesh the strong rule over the weak by force.
The spirit of God is love and it is self-giving for the purpose of freeing us from first of all our self and the tyranny of the flesh, of always having to have what we want. There is a famous Sufi story that says we should be suspicious of what we want. I wonder if we ever think we should be concerned about what we want. Sometimes it seems like that is the point of our life in the culture we live: to get what we want. It may or may not surprise you to know that we do not live in a culture that makes the move to the spirit life easy. Ours is a reality of materialistic, self-seeking, consumerism. So much so that I doubt we even notice anymore. And that is an obstacle to the spirit life because we are not even aware that there might be another alternative reality to our own and if we are not even aware of it, it is unlikely that it will have much influence on how we live or see the world where we live. In the language of the new testament ours is a life lived according to the flesh and we make no apologies for it. We have made it. It is the American dream. We are among the first to actually have the ability to get whatever we want. (Well, almost, for perhaps we have also experienced that feeling after having what we want of something still wanting.) That experience of still wanting after getting what we want is a saving grace. It is a warning. It is a clue that there is something more.
Now Nicodemus was a very intelligent and well-educated man but he, like so many in our day and time, relied too much on the facts. When Jesus described the Spirit life as something that requires being born again Nicodemus took him literally and was puzzled leading me to think that just knowledge, while a beautiful thing, is not sufficient for understanding the ways of God. In any case I believe what Jesus is saying here is that the life of the Spirit is a whole new life than the life lived according to the flesh. Not only are we different, we see things differently, we experience reality differently. We are not overwhelmed by the common expectations about what is real and what is not. In short we are not only set free from what we want but also from what is assumed to be the way things are. We are set free from conforming to what we are told is appropriate or conventional for our time and place and enabled to see things in a greater light and a broader perspective. I have heard people say that when this became clear to them the biggest surprise was how much sense the world made to them. And this was a surprise because that had thought the old world of the flesh was if nothing else sensible, but in the new light (and this is a common witness of those who have crossed over, experienced birth in the Spirit) what had been acceptable and expected business as usual in the world seemed now to be completely insane.
There is a peace in the Spirit of God because the something that was missing is no longer missing. The picture is complete and the surprise is that so much of what we thought was needed to make the picture complete is not even relevant, is not needed at all. One thing is needed, a love of God that is so real we can do no other than love one another all others. Free of the bonds of slavery to ourselves, we are free to look outward and see one another and rejoice in doing all the good we can for others finding our joy in the giving and up-building. We are free from something but more importantly we are free for something. It is not just that we are free from what we want in the spirit, what we want changes. Now we want God and joy and love and peace and the difference is that in the old way of the flesh, if that is what we wanted, we went and got them (or tried to) but in the new life of the spirit they come and get us after we have surrendered all of our assumptions about what we need and want and how to get them to the gentle Christ who encourages us to let go of the quietly desperate belief that we must save ourselves, to let go of everything we thought we had to have so that we can, in turn, have everything God wants us to have. To be saved, to gain everything, he said, you must be willing to lose everything. In the world of the flesh this makes no sense but in the Spirit of God it makes perfect sense. In fact, when the Spirit captures our hearts, we wonder why we never thought of it before.
One other thing that the Spirit of God brings to the table is this amazing gentleness. One thing that is quite different in the spirit life as opposed to the life in the flesh is that the spirit does no harm. The spirit does not depend on strength to force the weak to its own way but rather makes the difference between the strong and the weak irrelevant. In the world of the flesh we rely on things that cause harm to others in order to get ahead, to be secure. We think of this as merely what must be done. Dwelling in the flesh we cannot even imagine a reality where occasional necessary harm is no longer needed. Dwelling in the Spirit we wonder why we ever thought we needed to harm anyone or anything or how causing harm to someone could ever provide security to anyone. (I am not suggesting, by the way, a utopia of the Spirit. There will always be trouble, poverty, wars, evil. Such things persist in the world no matter what we do. This is all the more reason to be in the world as an agent of God's Spirit doing all the good we can. We will not save the world. Only God can do that but we are here to love and heal the broken world in the meantime.)
The do no harm test, by the way, is an excellent test of the Spirit it seems to me for there are those who pretend to be of the Spirit but who cause harm to others in Gods' name. Just calling it the Spirit does not make it so. There are fruits of the Spirit and we will recognize them: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
So to answer my own question: I see the Spirit moving in us because there are fruits. We are looking outward, risking self-interest for the interests others, even strangers to us. We have done real work in New Orleans. We have provided shelter for a family in need of one. We have literally provided hundreds of life-saving mosquito nets for families of children who can sleep without fear. We continue on an everyday basis to seek out the needs of others to see what we can do, feeding the poor, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner. We are not all or completely free of the flesh but the Spirit has definitely come upon us and is calling us to new life. (This distinction between flesh and spirit by the way is not saying that everything physical is evil and everything spiritual is good. We are obviously both physical and spiritual. The point of the distinction is about what we value of what has been given to us of this life in all its fullness and what we do with what we have been given and how we relate to one another and the world around us and to God.)
The Spirit of God is moving among us. There is love and joy here. We need only remember what we experienced a few moments ago when little Maya was baptized reminding us all of Gods' divine presence reaching out to us in every moment of our journey. There is generosity. I can see it in what we are doing in the world. I see it in committee meetings (!) where the budget is being done, where decisions are made about what we do with what we have. There is faithfulness as we seek in our life together the way of God for us. There is kindness for one another as we learn how simple kindness heals many ailments. There is patience as we make our decisions together. There is real peace in our mutual concern and respect, and self-control as we are careful to do no harm along the way. There are the fruits of the Spirit here. Let us be glad and grateful for what God is doing for the Spirit comes where it will. We do not produce for ourselves the Spirit of God. It is a gift to us. We do not know when or where or why only that we are to pay attention, to be present (did you hear that?), to keep our hearts and minds open to the Spirits coming and to go where the Spirit of God calls us to go. Thanks be to God for the Spirit. Amen.
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