Posts Tagged ‘Holy Spirit’

The Strangeness of Church

// May 23rd, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Last Sunday we celebrated Jesus’ ascension into heaven.  It’s a typically Lukan scene of strangeness, a man being carried up into the sky until he disappears into the clouds.  Things get weirder this week.  It’s Pentecost.

You’re probably familiar with the story.  Jesus’ followers are hanging out, trying to figure out their next move when, suddenly, a wind starts blowing from inside the house.  Little flames jump around and light on their heads.  They speak in languages they have never known.  Everyone is astonished.

Maybe we’re too familiar with the story.  Maybe we dismiss it because we see it as “mere” myth.  Taken as literal-factual truth, it defies understanding just as it did for the people in Jerusalem.  But imagine it as a summer blockbuster in the hands of Peter Jackson and it becomes something else.  Movies have become the mythos of our culture.  It’s why we quote movie scenes to one another in routine conversation.  They become the language and imagery of our lives.  They say something about who we imagine ourselves to be.  Luke and Acts were for the Early Church that defining mythos.  They tell the Church who it hopes to be.

In that strange and fantastic moment, the Church was born.  Yet, we have lost that sense of strangeness.  Church is, for many, for all of us at some point, an abstraction, a habit, a duty, a chore, a culture.  Too often, for too many, it is the defender of the norm.  It is rarely a radically transformational moment of magic and mystery.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we discuss the strangeness of the Church, what we’ve lost and what we might regain if we acknowledge the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives.  Be forewarned: there might be preaching.

Grace & Peace,

The Promise and Peril of the Spirit

// May 9th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Over the last few weeks, we have looked at the early Christian community in Jerusalem as depicted in Acts and the Johannine Christian community from which 1 John emerges.  Both communities are trying to figure out what it means to be Christian, what it means to live into the promises of Jesus’ life and death.  As both were trying to carve out an identity, both in relation to Judaism and in relation to other Christians, their language becomes dogmatic.  Though they differ slightly in their identity-forming dogma, they both claim their authority from the Holy Spirit.

In Acts, Peter cites the Holy Spirit as the reason to include Gentiles in the Christian community, the “New Israel.”  After Pentecost (the lectionary jumps ahead a bit due to the lack of resurrection stories in the Gospel of Mark) Peter is preaching to Cornelius the Centurion’s household in Joppa and the Spirit descends on them.  These Gentiles become ecstatic, speaking in tongues and praising God.  If they are good enough for the Holy Spirit, they are good enough for Peter and good enough for baptism as Christians.

In 1 John, as we’ve discussed, there is a schism and tied up in that schism seems to be some dispute about right belief and/or right practice.  That is, it is unclear whether those who are leaving (or kicked out) are doing so because they do not believe that Jesus was who the Johannine community says he was or because they were acting in a way that was considered unloving by the rest of the community.  Perhaps, those two things are considered the same or inseparable in some way.  In any case, as we come to the last part of this letter, the culmination of the author’s exhortations, the author relies on the testimony of the Holy Spirit as the final authority for his/her claims.

The Spirit has always been a tricky part of Christian faith.  In some seasons of our tradition, the Spirit has been seriously demoted and deemphasized, a powerless thing that exists only to prop up doctrine.  In some, it has taken the spotlight, seizing preachers in fits of flying spittle and sweat and filling the pews with screaming and dancing.  The Spirit has the potential to make anything happen.  To some that is a threat, to some a blessing.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we talk about the role of the Spirit in the formation of belief and practice.

Grace & Peace,

The Baptism of Jesus

// January 12th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

In the Epiphany, we considered the identity of Jesus.  However, we only really considered it through the eyes of others.  Every child is born with expectations, but perhaps none more than Jesus.  I mean, my dad wanted me to be good at golf, but he didn’t have angels singing to him about it.  The reality is that none of us can live up to the expectations of others, regardless of how noble or well-intended, because those expectations have nothing to do with us.  At some point, our lives have to connect to who we really are, to the image of God within.  As the story is told by Luke (3:21-22), baptism was that moment for Jesus.

Luke is the only canonical gospel to include stories of Jesus’ upbringing, but it is very limited.  There is the story of his circumcision with the songs of Anna and Simeon.  Then Luke zips ahead to the 12-year-old Jesus taking it upon himself to be educated in the temple in Jerusalem.  Next thing we know, Jesus is thirty, standing in the Jordan River being baptized by John.  A curious thing happens: the skies open up and Jesus hears a voice that says: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Unlike Matthew, who frames this as a public announcement, Luke has God addressing Jesus alone.  This is a private moment, a moment in which a voice from heaven and a voice inside speak in unison.  There is an unmistakable clarity.  We don’t know exactly what Jesus did for the first thirty years of his life, but after this moment, with the certain knowledge that he belongs, that he is loved, and that he is good, he begins his work.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about what it would be like to have that kind of clarity, what it takes to find it, and what we might do with it.

Grace and Peace,

John’s Church, Our Church (Program and Sermon)

// June 6th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff


When I initially planned this series, I did not realize it would start on Trinity Sunday.  Probably no one else did, either.  I’m sure many don’t know there is a Trinity Sunday.  I’m certain that many don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity.  I certainly don’t and I’ve taken half a dozen classes on it.  It’s all tied up with philosophical abstractions, like “essence” and “substance,” “person” and “perichoresis.”  And, in the end, as it often does, the Church punts and calls it a mystery.  God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all one, but somehow distinct.  We don’t know how, but we know it must be true.  And even though they call it a mystery, that doesn’t stop people from continuing to ask the questions.  In some sense, it is at the root of the current controversy between the American nuns and the Vatican.  Men who ask those questions are okay, but women who do so are not.  So I won’t try to explain the doctrine today.  As my professor, Dr. Theo Walker says: “If we’ve been asking the same question for 2000 years, maybe it’s the wrong question.”

Instead of talking about three persons and one substance, I’d rather talk about life in God.  At its root, this is what the Trinity is about.  African theologian Okechukwu Ogbonnaya suggests that, because some of the earliest Christian theologians were African, their understanding of the Trinity was influenced by African concepts of community.  John Mbiti says it this way: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”  This is could be thought of as just the nature of reality; we are all who we are because of the web of relationships in which we participate.  But for John, there is more than just the tribal and familial relationships, the social constructs into which we are born.  John is concerned with the relationships we choose,  [fix this]

John is typically thought of as the “spiritual Gospel” or the “theological Gospel.”  It holds the clearest statements about the oneness of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit of all the Gospels.  It is relied on heavily in “proving” the doctrine of the Trinity.  But some things curiously get left out.  As Jesus is the son of God, we are given the power to become children of God.  So whatever it means for Jesus to be one with God by virtue of being God’s son, we also have that opportunity.  When Jesus gives the Spirit of God, he is giving himself, his Spirit, to us, so that we may become like Jesus, children of God.  It’s not about metaphysics and it’s not about the magic number three; it’s about participating in the life of God.  Because we are Christians, we call participating in the life of God “being a Christian.”  We might even call it “Church.”

The Gospel of John is not typically looked at as a guide to the Christian life.  Matthew is very concerned with righteousness and has a lot to say about what to do and what not to do.  John does not.  John is the way to get people in the door – just believe! – but that’s about it.  Once you’re in, look elsewhere.  There are no beatitudes, no parables, no exhortations to care for the poor or heal the sick or release the captives.  If you want to know what to do about divorce or wealth or an eye that causes you to stumble, John is not your book.  In John, the commands are simple.  In fact, there is only one: “Love one another.”  That’s it.  Of course, it’s simple to say, but very hard to do.

The Gospel of John is also seldom seen as being concerned about the Church.  Matthew is called “the Church’s Gospel” because of the appointment of Peter in 16:18-19: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  John tells a different story where Mary Magdalene alone is given the Easter message and, in 20:18, announces – that is, preaches – to the disciples that she has seen the risen Christ.  She is the apostle for John.  For a Church concerned with apostolic authority and excluding women from that authority, John is not helpful.  However, John is written and edited continuously within a community over a long period of time.  Much of its material may come from someone who knew Jesus, but the final chapter was added possibly as late as the early 2nd century.  Though this community did not feel it necessary to talk a lot about being a church, they lived together as Christians for a very long time.  Through being cast out of their families and synagogues, through tension with other churches, they lived together as Christians.

Maybe the life of the Christian and the way of being church isn’t a list of dos and don’ts.  Maybe life in God is more complicated and more difficult than that.  Maybe it can’t be precisely set out in advance.  In 3:8, John’s Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Life in God, like life in any relationship, is a little unpredictable.  Relationships are unique from moment to moment.  When we truly open ourselves to the other, we are changed.  And vice versa.  So we are all, all the time, changing in relationship to one another.  Whenever we know a person, we know that there is always something more to know, something new to see.  And that’s why we do it.  Relationship is a process of revelation, an ongoing mutual self-revelation and self-giving.  This is life in God and life in the Spirit.

And this is the point of the Gospel of John.  John uses a lot of “knowledge” words: know, understand, see, believe.  Jesus is the light of the world that shines in the darkness.  Whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life.  The book of John was written that we might believe.  But when John talks of “knowing,” he most often means knowing like one knows a friend.  It’s not intellectual or informational, but relational.  All of these knowledge words have to be kept in the context of that ongoing revelation.  God reveals Godself to us and we reveal ourselves to God.  For example, when we see in John the phrase “believe in” it would be more accurately translated as “believe into.”  It’s a phrase that the author of John invented to invite us into the progressive revelation of the life of God.  You don’t simply accept a statement of fact and go on with your life.  You commit yourself to a new way of being, a way of being in the Spirit of God.  Being a Christian, and being church, is a posture of openness to the ongoing revelation of God.

When Jesus breathes on the disciples and asks them to receive the Holy Spirit, it is only the further revelation of God.  That is, it’s not something new; it is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, come to be with us forever.  God is revealed in the person of Jesus, but Jesus is a human being, bound by all the limitations that bind all humans.  He is a male of a particular class in a particular time and place and he died.  But the Spirit, the one Jesus calls the Advocate or the Helper, is with us forever.  The Advocate will teach us – reveal to us – everything.  If we want to know anything, such as how to be a church or how to be a Christian or what to do about divorce or wealth, the Spirit is here to teach us, to reveal to us the life of God.

John’s Gospel tells us all of these things.  There are no simple directives: “do this” or “don’t do that.”  The life of God is openness to the revelation of the other and the willingness to reveal ourselves, to be ourselves as God made us to be.  Church is (should be) the space where that is possible.  We accept each other as children of God.  We participate in the life of God together.  Church is the place where we share the same Spirit.  Church is the place where we love one another, as Jesus commanded.



For the next three weeks, we’ll be looking at the character of the life of God in more detail.  Jesus gives some long speeches in John’s Gospel.  One of those long speeches is called the Farewell Discourse, in chapters 14-17.  This is where he tells the disciples that he will be leaving and that the Spirit will come in his place.  There is where he tells them how to be Christians, how to be church.  We’ll look at three things that, I think, characterize Church in the Cliff: friendship, love, and oneness.  My hope is that this will reveal to us who we are together as a church and that we see that as a part something eternal and beautiful.  What has always been will always be, and we are in the middle of it.

John’s Church, Our Church

// June 1st, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

When we read the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – it is clear that one of these is not like the others; one of these does not belong.  And, hopefully, if you went to four churches, including Church in the Cliff, you would think the same thing.  I don’t think this is a coincidence.  Maybe it is the influence of our good friend, Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles, but I have always felt that our church and John’s church were of a kind.

The bulk of the Western church tradition is rooted in the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Matthew, in particular, is singled out as “the Church’s Gospel.”  In these Gospels, we find ideas of service, sacrifice, and righteousness.  However, too often those traditions turn into abuse, powerlessness, and judgment.  And there is considerable warrant for such things in the Synoptics if read through a particular lens.  John offers a different vision of the Church and the Christian life.

We’ll spend the next four weeks exploring John’s vision of the Church as friendship, love and oneness.  We’ll start this week with an introduction to John, particularly focusing on John’s alternative story of the coming of the Holy Spirit in John 20:19-23.  Through this story, we will come to understand John’s idea of the Christian life as one of ongoing mutual self-revelation and self-giving in community.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler.

Grace and Peace,