Baptists – and other ecclesial kin – have been a bit suspicious of the Spirit.
In a conference in a church in Missouri a few years ago, I asked persons to write down their questions about the Holy Spirit.
One honest soul wrote, “Can the Holy Spirit make you do weird things?” It depends upon the operative definition of weird, of course.
Regulating, suppressing and quenching have too often been the church’s response to the lively and unpredictable movement of the Spirit.
Thoughtful Christians have wanted to avoid “swallowing the Spirit, feathers and all,” as Luther accused Thomas MÃ¼ntzer of doing.
It is time we reclaim a robust understanding of God who comes to us as Spirit, indwelling and drawing us into the dynamic movement of God’s trinitarian life.
JÃ¼rgen Moltmann says the reason we don’t speak more about the Spirit is not because the Spirit is so far away, but because the Spirit is so near – closer to us than we are to ourselves.
Three Pentecost lectionary texts guide our understanding of the Spirit.
As Psalm 104:24-34 teaches, God’s breath blows life into the world.
We have imagined that the Holy Spirit only indwells humans, yet this text tells us that God’s Spirit vivifies all of creation.
If the Spirit were withdrawn, creation would cease to be. God’s power and energy as Spirit sustains life, even holding together this expanding universe.
When Christians think of quenching the Spirit, we usually are referring to neglecting or resisting spiritual gifts or listless worship. What if quenching the Spirit was also about our careless treatment of this fragile planet?
Romans 8:22-27 shows how the life of the Christian is animated by the Spirit, especially our lives in prayer.
True prayer begins with the Spirit, and the Spirit interprets to God what we can only sigh. Those things that are too deep for words are conveyed by the Spirit as the Spirit is the interface between our spirit and God.
Who has anything but groans after another school shooting?
Drawing us ever more deeply into the life of God, the Spirit prompts us to allow God to sustain our weakness, and this interiority allows us to be fully known – and to come to know ourselves, truly.
John 15:26-27 offers a little aside about what the Spirit will do.
The Spirit will continue to bear witness to the life of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus will be empowered by the Spirit to remember the truth he taught.
Indeed, the Spirit working through these followers will complete the works of Jesus – and become like him.
And this is where the weirdness comes in, for following Jesus puts believers on a different course from the world. Here is what living in the Spirit looks like:
- Persons exhibit a certain freedom, a capacity not to take themselves too seriously. They acknowledge the truth of the human condition, prone to wander, in need of frequent redirection through the Spirit.
- They embody the capacity to forgive others. Because they know themselves to be flawed, they practice what is perhaps the hardest spiritual discipline – forgiveness. People thought Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were weird when they prompted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission rather than a bloody revenge.
- Such persons are able to risk newness, for they know that the Spirit is always bringing new things to birth. One of the things Scripture teaches us about the Spirit is that things rarely stay put. God as Spirit is always calling persons beyond where they find themselves. Jean Vanier left his training as a member of the royal navy and his vocation as a philosopher in order to start the L’Arche communities for the differently abled. That is what following Jesus meant to him, although it did seem rather weird to others. More than 50 years later, this mission continues.
The Spirit gives one the kind of life that matters. It is life that lasts – even while seeming weird to others. Thanks be to God!
Molly T. Marshall is president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (CBTS) in Shawnee, Kansas. A version of this column first appeared on her blog, Trinitarian Soundings, and is used with permission. You can follow CBTS on Twitter @CBTSKansas.