It’s been interesting to note the dramatic increase in the number of Christian talk radio stations over the last two decades or so. When I was a kid in the 1980s and 90s, we didn’t have anything like that in my town. There was one Christian radio station a few towns over, but it was just far enough away that I couldn’t get the signal at my house, but would start to hear it as I drove into school in the morning.
Since then, evangelical subculture has grown much bigger, so it’s not at all uncommon anymore to have one or more Christian stations on the dial. Every now and then, I get bored or curious enough to tune in and check it out. What I hear from those stations tends to leave me feeling confused or angry (or both).
What I often hear is some preacher shouting and pounding his fist over all the things in the world that he doesn’t like. The tirade is typically peppered with references to singular, isolated Bible verses that supposedly illustrate the point.
The overall picture of Christianity that I get from these fundamentalist radio preachers is that Christians are backward-looking people, concerned primarily with believing and behaving. Their religion emphasizes correct dogma and upstanding morality according to standards that were revealed to humankind by an angry God. Anyone who does not adhere to the dogma or follow the moral code is doomed to punishment in this life or the next.
That’s the image of Christianity I get from listening to these radio preachers. It’s also the image of Christianity held by most people in our culture (especially when their only exposure to the Church comes through the fanatics who tend to speak out in the name of all Christians via mass media). They think being a Christian is all about what to believe and how to behave. But that’s not what Jesus said.
The spirituality that Jesus presents us with is a living faith that has its roots in the past, yet stretches its many branches out toward the future. What Jesus offers us is a relationship with God that is less concerned with what we believe and how we behave and more concerned with where we belong and who we become. Less believing and behaving, more belonging and becoming.
The key avenue for this living, developing relationship is the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity who we celebrate today on the Feast of Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit is, I think, the most neglected person of the Trinity in modern Christian theology. We have lots to say about God the Creator and Jesus the Son of God, but we don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit. For the past several centuries, I think this has been due to our overly-rational consciousness in western society. We shy away from mystery and anything else we can’t see or measure with numbers. In religion and science alike, we want definitive answers, not open-ended questions or growing relationships.
But Jesus, it seems, does not share our addiction to facts and figures. He is very comfortable with leaving some questions unanswered and ending sentences with an ellipses…
He was pretty specific about that when he said, in today’s gospel reading, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
I love this. Jesus is inviting us into an ongoing conversation. Have you ever had a friend with whom you could just stay up, late into the night, talking about anything and everything? That’s how Jesus envisions our relationship with God: Two friends going on and on with each other until one of them finally looks at the clock and goes, “Holy cow, it’s 4 o’clock in the morning!” We get so wrapped up in this other person that we lose track of time… it’s like we step into eternity for just a moment. It’s the Endless Conversation.
This conversation is something that Jesus makes available to everyone. It’s a living, breathing, and growing relationship with God in which we discover the place where we belong and the people we are meant to become.
The Holy Spirit is what makes this living relationship possible. Jesus told us, at the end of his ministry, that he had more to say. The Holy Spirit is how he says it.
Christians are fond of saying, at Christmas time, that Jesus is Emmanuel (Heb. “God with us”). The Holy Spirit takes that relationship one step further; the Holy Spirit is “God within us”.
This is why Jesus said to his disciples in today’s reading, “It is to your advantage that I go away”. It was never his intention that humanity’s contact with the divine should be limited to just one moment in history. He meant for his life to be a catalyst that initiated an ongoing, evolving relationship that begins in the past, continues in the present, and grows toward the future. What Jesus has in store for us is always bigger and better than anything we have yet experienced in life. With Jesus, there is always more…
Jesus told his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” and that is exactly what happened. Christians have never believed that God stopped speaking to humanity after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. We believe the Spirit inspired the apostles to write the letters and memoirs that make up the New Testament. We believe the Spirit guided the elders, bishops, and reformers of the Church in editing, compiling, and interpreting those Scriptures.
Some people believe that God has only spoken to us in the pages of the Bible, but the problem with that belief is that we wouldn’t even have a Bible to read if it wasn’t for the Holy Spirit working in and through the Church. The Scriptures are the primary place where we listen for the Word of God, but they are not the only place.
We can also pick up on the currents of the Spirit in our own lives as we sense ourselves being guided “into all truth” as individuals and communities. I love these lyrics from the song Miracle Drug by the rock band U2:
Beneath the noise, below the din,
I hear your voice, it’s whispering
in science and in medicine,
I was a stranger, you took me in.
As our friends in the United Church of Christ are fond of saying, “God is still speaking.”
- In the silence of prayer and meditation, the Spirit is speaking to us.
- In social movements for peace and justice, the Spirit is speaking to us.
- In the new discoveries of science and medicine, the Spirit is speaking to us.
- In the mountains, rivers, and stars, the Spirit is speaking to us.
- In the councils and deliberations of the Church, from the Session to the Presbytery to the General Assembly, the Spirit is speaking to us.
- In sermons, Bible studies, and book groups, the Spirit is speaking to us.
- In the Church’s liturgy and hymns, the Spirit is speaking to us.
- In the waters of Baptism, the Spirit is speaking to us.
- In the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the Spirit is speaking to us.
The Spirit is speaking to us. “God is still speaking.” Christianity is not just about remembering something that happened in Palestine two thousand years ago; it is about being open to what God is doing here and now within each and every one of us.
The question for us is: Are we open to what God is saying and doing? It takes an open mind and an open heart to hear the Spirit’s voice. Are we open?
- When life confronts us with new questions and challenging circumstances, are we open to how God might be leading us forward “into all truth”?
- When we read from the Scriptures, are we open to hearing the Word of God speak to us through them?
- When we walk to the front of the church to take the bread and wine, are we open to receiving them as the Body and Blood of Christ?
- As we go out into the world, are we open to laying down our lives and laying aside our personal agendas, so that we can be living witnesses to the world of what God has done for us in Christ?
All we need to say is, “Yes, God: I’m open.” Jesus has promised that he will take care of the rest. And we will be “carried along” by the power of the Holy Spirit to the place that God has prepared for us in Christ.