Hello on a chilly and damp November morning,
At the passing of my pastoral mentor, I have been somewhat preoccupied with reflecting on my life both as a pastor and beyond. I remember my ordination day generally, and I still have a VCR tape of it, which I should probably have re-rendered into a different format to watch again. I remember elements of the service; I remember elements of the sermon; I remember the presentation of the stole; and I remember most vividly after it was completed feeling overwhelmed and being sick to my stomach because of the depth of what had occurred that day. It seemed everyone, my family, friends, home congregants, were really to celebrate this important occasion in my life of my home parish, and I wanted to go to bed because I was exhausted and feeling ill. Even now I reminded of the story of Luther presiding at his first mass and almost collapsing. I can empathize. As I have returned this semester to teaching our Bible as Literature class, the examples of, the process of, calling are (is) apparent throughout the Bible, and indeed through both testaments, and the apocrypha. What it abundantly clear is both the reception and response to the call is seldom something that causes some profound sense of joy, a sense of being special because of the call. More often, the response is one of shock, a sense of can we refuse it because it is neither convenient nor desired. This confoundedness, this sense of mistaken identity, happens whenever we are asked to step up. I see it in my classroom. Students with the deer-in-the-headlights stare; I also saw it when I taught confirmation and you asked some 13-14 year olds what it meant to affirm their faith, to realize what it meant to be a faithful person. I remember at one service when my senior pastor in that Affirmation of Baptism Service telling the confirmands if they did not really plan to follow through on this promises that affirmed their baptism they were lying. And he followed with God does not like liars. Even I almost sunk into my chair, hoping I might disappear. Holy Buckets was it quiet in that crowded sanctuary.
And yet Luther’s explanation of the third article is profound and all encompassing. Luther asserts that we cannot believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord or come to him. The very act of believing in Christ as the Christ is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The very act of exhibiting faith in Christ as an external act is dependent on that same Holy Spirit, but the gift bestowed, through baptism, is total. We do not come on our own, we are called, but that call is not merely something that we manage in some solitary manner. The Holy Spirit realizes our capabilities, or lack there of. We are called and gathered. The significance of the community of faith cannot be overstated. It is both foundational and necessary. It is through the congregational experience that sacraments and joint confession and absolution are available. It is in the gathering that the reality is the incredible grace and forgiveness of God becomes most apparent. It is in our dialectic nature of saint and sinner that grace accomplishes its efficaciousness most completely.
One of the things most surprising to me to this day is as a young person active in church and coming of age in the 70s, the idea of spirit-filled, or charismatic, Christians frightened me. Those with particular spiritual gifts were overwhelming to me because there was little said about the third article of the Apostles Creed in my primarily Norwegian Lutheran parish. The closest thing I witnessed to the idea of the Holy Spirit as an active part of the Trinity was watching Billy Graham on television. Even in my 20s, those who were third article dominant were not in my circle of friends or in my worship experience. Even as a seminarian, my initial interests academically were both in either the languages and linguistics of the Bible or in the connections between linguistics and interpretation. It was not until I was in the parish, and called to administer sacraments that the role of the Holy Spirit would confront me. And yet, perhaps it was not a confrontation at all. That is not how the Spirit works; it is rather a gentle nudging or a persistent inkling of something more significant. What I learned was the Spirit is more than an advocate, to use the New Testament language, it is the person of the Trinity that undergirds and supports all of our meager attempts at faithfulness. The Spirit and its gifts are what allows us to fathom, to comprehend, to have the opportunity to come to a creator who loves us, even in our brokenness, perhaps loved us even deeper or more profoundly because of our brokenness.
As a college professor, one of the things I appreciate most in my classes is when that proverbial light snaps on for a student. I had such an occurrence, in a rather significant manner last Spring in a basic professional writing class. The student wrote in their final post (paraphrased)that what they learned in the semester was not merely course material, but rather life-long skills. The student nailed the purpose of the course, and stated its purpose perhaps better than I could myself. It is something I have not only held onto, but have used with students taking the course this year. This same student would come to my office regularly, more than once a week, and we chatted about much more than simply the course. Learning something is one thing, but comprehending and realizing the importance of something is life changing, or certainly can be. Managing something, claiming something, is to begin to make it your own. It goes far beyond merely showing up and listening to a lecture; it makes that lecture, that class, that education life changing. One does not return to the place they were, and, in fact, it kid not possible to return because you are a new being. In terms of one’s belief, one’s faith, it seems Luther’s assertion that one is newly raised, newly born daily is the consequence of being enlightened. And yet are we fully cognizant of our change, of our enhanced ability to comprehend and understand? Most often it seems the answer is a emphatic no. It might even seem that such an ability is not always a gift, and might even feel to be a burden. For example, understanding the reality of something requires a certain sense of enlightenment, but facing that reality is not always pleasant. As noted in a recent post, there are times we much prefer to not know. So, just perhaps, in spite of my usual assertion that I can manage what I know much better than what I don’t, do I actually feel the opposite, or is in on a case-by-case basis? Perhaps the idea of being enlightened needs more consideration.
Perhaps the most incredible, the most profoundly unexpected of the verbs in the title, in Luther’s explanation is sanctified, the idea that we are made holy, sainted if you will. How in our fallenness, in our imperfection and our selfishness could we ever hope to be made holy? That is the point, it is nothing we can hope to obtain, it is given. It is the gift of life in the midst of our dying. It is the gift of justification when there is nothing that can justify us. It is the gift of sanctification when there is absolutely nothing we can do to be sanctified. It is the answer to what saves us, as noted by the incredible Lutheran theologian, the Rev. Dr. Gerhard Forde, when he says nothing we do will save us except “to shut up and listen once in your life.” It is perhaps the most unparalleled gift God bestows through the spirit. The theology of the cross and the sending of the spirit are the core of my own personal piety. As I have worked in my Bible as Literature course again this semester, which as a reminder is not a religion class, working through the scripture and looking at the context of how scripture was written and passed on, I am always amazed at what looking at the Bible through any lens does. It confronts me and pushes me to ponder the role of God in my life. As many, I ponder the work of God in our daily lives, but when I ponder the Spirit, I am more amazed. How is it possible that someone, something, some – – – you fill in the blank, can anticipate or fathom our inability before it occurs, can rectify our failure before we do it, and ultimately take care of all options, while simultaneously cleansing us, protecting us, and providing for us? And this is only part of it. That is, at least for me at this point, how I understand what the spirit does. There is so much more I could write about all of this, but I think I will let it stand as it does.
The Holy Spirit protects and provides for us in our daily life, once we have that gift, we are changed. The question is simple. What will you do with the change? Perhaps it is not ironic that I post this on the 539th anniversary of Luther’s birth.
Thank you as always for reading.