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Embracing the Spirit in the Church
by Patrick Oden
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I. Finding the Answer

There has been much discussion recently about the state of the Church in our era. For many this discussion has become depressing as they see the decline of the church in Europe and North America. We are now in what is called by many the post-Christian era, with all the philosophical, religious, and cultural bulwarks which defined Christendom crumbling from the apparent forces of postmodernity. In response to this, for those who want to respond, there has been a heightening of what is referred to as the ‘Emerging Church’, characterized by creativity in word and music, dress and expression, re-examining much of what has gone before and seeking to rebuild what no longer seems relevant. This discussion is helpful and useful. Much is being said and done which does in fact reach into people’s lives, and enact vital changes amongst our staid communities.

However, this fight within our churches to define ourselves anew is steadily and increasingly irrelevant not only to those outside the faith, but those inside as well. Before, it seems, we can change people’s lives by the message of the Good News, we must now say why anyone should care what our news might be. Like attention starved children we voice our concerns to a weary and doubting society who for the most part believe they’ve heard enough of what we have to say. The church is in decline in North America, and other parts of the world, and everyone is just fine with this fact. So what are we to do? Is there hope for the church? Can we discover not only how to be missionaries to the non-Christian nations, but also do something hereto unseen, re-missionize the industrial world, taking the post out of post-Christian nations?

The answer is simple and easy. No. We cannot. There is no formula, no trick, no acrostic or alliteration which can solve this dilemma. There is no diagram which can be drawn which organizes the Church into success. There is no seminar or manual or ten steps to success. These may be band-aids, but they are band-aids for bullet wounds. Useless. Forcing us to spend time and effort in ways which simply cannot ever be ultimately effective.

So, this being said, should we shut up shop? Should we say we gave it the ol’ college try and focus solely instead on open hearts and minds in the 2/3 world, where the church is growing in numbers, passion, and depth? Is this the end to books on the subject? The answer to all this is no, for while we may be fighting a losing battle, we are indeed called to fight, and to keep fighting. And there is a trick, a secret, a surprising aspect of our presence in this post-Christian world which may just in fact turn the tide. All is not doom, the sky is not falling. We have hope, and we have it abundantly.

This is not the first time in our history those faithful in the church have been faced with odds so great as to be overwhelming. Indeed, this is not even the second or third time this has happened. Every generation has faced this test, and had the same answer held out to grab a hold of. Not all generations have taken advantage of this answer, though there have been those in every generation since the creation of the world who have in fact found the secret to Life. While this has sometimes been a great minority, the world has always been better for it.

We read of this challenge at the beginning of the book of Acts. Jesus has risen from the dead. Hope destroyed has become hope enlivened as the impossible asserts itself to be possible. The very sting of death itself has been conquered. The followers of Christ see him, talk with him, share with him. They are taught by him and pray along side him. Their faith is seen in the flesh, alive and mighty. The risen Christ spends time among them, establishing a new community of people whose hope is no longer in a God who brought them out of Egypt, but now a God who has brought them out of death. It is called the Way.

So what do they do? They wait. They pray. They gather together eating and drinking waiting for that which Christ said they should wait for. What is it? It is power. It is life. It is hope. It is insight. It is the Answer. They are called not to do, but to wait. For it is not they who will save the world, it is God who is saving the world. It was thus, and thus it still is. They waited for the Spirit, and when the Spirit came upon them the world was changed in an instant.
Over a period of forty days Jesus, alive after death, taught and led his disciples into a new world of being.

We read in Acts 1:4:
“On one occasion, while he was eating with them,he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’”

The Spirit was not in fact a new topic for those gathered. The Spirit was not a new revelation. No, those who were there knew of Jesus’ teachings, but also of their Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, where the Spirit of God came upon people in power over and over again to do wonderful things, marvelous things, acts of courage and miracles, wisdom and might, leadership and faith. They knew the Spirit, because the Spirit had been working amidst the people of God from the very beginning always drawing the People into a renewed relationship. From the very, very beginning.

Jesus was telling them to wait, to wait for the Spirit to come upon them, not just a couple of them but all of them. This Spirit is the gift of the Father, the Spiritual Gift to all of us who are part of the people of God.

Why wait? What was it exactly they were waiting for? In response to the question about God’s timing for restoring the kingdom Jesus tells his disciples it is not for them to know the time and dates, it is not their responsibility to be the schedulers or timekeepers. God is god, not us. Instead, they were to be servants of the King, messengers of his Might and Bounty, witnesses to the world, couriers of His faithfulness. It was not their message they were to spread, it was the message of God, to be delivered how and where God desired. God was in charge, and his Spirit came into the people so as to make sure the message was right and true, and heard. They were told to wait so as to be given the message in fullness to deliver.

Jesus continued in Acts 1:8 speaking to his disciples saying, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Everyone was to be a witness. They were not called to become a witness, or to go out witnessing. Jesus did not say gather together and talk about key strategies for reaching the neighborhood. Rather when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were witnesses, because of the power of the Holy Spirit within and among them, the Spirit of Life and salvation, power and wisdom.

This is not an act of their own will or volition, but rather an act of the Spirit guiding, leading, and directing the community into fully presenting the whole message of God to this world. All of them, together, are witnesses because God the Father has given all those who are part of his people a gift, the gift of the Spirit.

We are now what they were then. Time has moved along, steadily, but we are the present representatives of God’s Kingdom to this world. We are his witnesses, we are his messengers. It is not in our words we speak of the Kingdom, it is in our voices and our actions, in our message and our works, in our exhortations and our power which the world sees increasingly the presence of God. We are the lights on the hill, not giving forth our own illumination, but reflecting the Light of God, letting his luminosity be revealed through us. Or not. God gives us power, but does not force his power on us.

We can choose, still, to be faithful witnesses or less than faithful witnesses. The difference? The Spirit. We are faithful when the Spirit is working powerfully and fluidly through and among us. We are unfaithful when we seek to manage the Spirit, saying how and where, what and why the Spirit must act. We are unfaithful when we replace the message of God with our own, letting our roles not be that of servants but of overseers. God, curiously, lets us. For a time at least. He seeks to restore us to his message, but Scripture reveals he does get impatient, and will move on to others who are more faithful. It does not go well for those who speak, in words or deed, those things which are not of God.

Fortunately, it is easy to tell the difference. The Spirit has fruit, the Spirit has power. Absent these, and the Spirit is not being reckoned with in the community. Circumstances can change for good or ill, but the fruit and power remain if the Spirit is heeded as being the source and guide for the message. The Spirit advances the Kingdom, albeit in oft peculiar ways. The kingdom retreats when ambitious or impatient servants seek to advance it on their own, getting themselves and others more often than not torn up in the process.

The salvation of the world is not up to us. We are never told we shall be judged on how well we evangelize, on how many notches we get on our Bibles, or on how ingenious a strategy we conceive of to reach the unreached. At the end of Matthew Jesus gives what is called the Great Commission, telling his disciples, “I have been given complete authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The authority is not ours, it is Christ’s. And when asked Jesus told the disciples to wait, to wait for the Spirit to come on them in power. When the Spirit came on them in Acts 2, this commission was fulfilled, not by the work of the disciples, but by the power of the Gift of the Spirit that was in them. People from all the nations heard and carried back the message, the message shown in its fullness and in its might. This was the beginning of the Answer, and the Answer remains for us to again grasp in our generation.

This is the Answer: the Spirit of God in our midst, in and with us, working to save a world lost, restoring all of God’s creation back to its fullness through the authority and work of Christ. We are not the managers of God’s salvation to this world, we are the messengers. We are called not to work for the Three-In-One, but to work with. It is only when we understand God as already active and working, before and after us, that we can rest and wait, becoming a people who ably and faithfully follow the lead of our Master General in winning this world back to righteousness.

II. Describing the Answer

So what does this Answer look like? How are we to understand the work of the Spirit? Certainly there has been no lack of answers to this question, no small amount of disagreement over what the Spirit can or cannot do, will or won’t be doing. Surprisingly, however, the topic of the Spirit in the life of the Church has never been a central theme for our most important thinkers. In many cases, in fact, the Church, while Trinitarian in creed, has been binarian in word and deed, substituting other aspects of the Divine for those parts which the Spirit uniquely is shown to reveal. Part of this, certainly, is due to the work of the Spirit, who always points towards Christ in all things, thus is elusive to analyze. Another difficulty is the Spirit is not revealed fully and clearly in Scripture, touched on but not discussed as we see Jesus and the Father discussed. It is not that the Spirit was absent or awaiting new revelation, but simply how God chose to gradually reveal his fullness to this world, not limiting himself to a specific era or time. Finally, another difficulty is in the sheer fluid nature of the Spirit.

The Father is a mighty foundation, the holy City, the one whose righteous arm sweeps away his enemies and gathers in his people. The Son is the lamb slain, the Lion of Judah, the door, the bread of life. These are palpable things, definable, solid. The Spirit, however, is the wind. Who knows where it comes from or where it goes? The Spirit is the Living water, solid yet not so. The Spirit is fire, dangerous and wild, warming and destroying. We cannot grasp a hold of these things. Thus is the Spirit.

So can we understand the work of the Spirit? Yes, but we must be aware of the fluidity inherent in the very nature of the Spirit. While a firm grasp of definable aspects may be difficult, we can approach an understanding of the Spirit in our midst by way of analogy and example, if not by clear cut rules. There are three analogies which may be helpful in understanding how the Answer works with and in us.

The first analogy is that of Art. Look around you. If you are inside, find a window, and take a peek at this world which God made. It is beautiful, it is ornate, it is very, very good. The art of human history is wonderful, but it pales in comparison to the great Artist, the Divine painter and sculptor, who we are told created the world in such a way as to reveal his invisible qualities in their fullness, so that there are no excuses why someone would not know him. The colors, the shapes, the dazzling array of styles and textures is simply astounding. God is an artist, and the world is his canvas. The Spirit is the one who spreads the color, who gives shape to lifeless clay. Revealing himself through the work of the Spirit, God discloses to this world his personality, his being, and his goals. Part of this Divine creation is the act of restoration, taking what was once beautiful and now marred back to its original splendor. The Spirit dabs the drab colors, cleaning and re-touching so the brilliance is again restored. The Spirit is the artist, fulfilling God’s commission to restore this world. We can be understood as the paint, the various colors used to highlight and develop, illuminate and brighten the canvas.

What is the right color? What is the best color? What are the colors? For the first two there is no answer without regard to a specific situation or need. The right color is that which best suits the requirement. The best color is that most fully appropriate for the necessity. There are no wrong colors, but rather times in which some colors are not needed or appropriate to develop the painting. Some colors are used more than others, and some may not be seen very often at all, but the colors remain to be used when the need arises. The third question, however, can be answered, vaguely if not completely.

We are told there are three basic primary colors: red, blue, and green. These are primary because the human eye is set up with three types of sensors for understanding color. Black is the absence of color, white is all the colors reflecting equally together. This leaves us with only five shades. What a boring world we would live in if we only had just these five shades. But we do not. The marvel of color is that it can be mixed and combined, creating an almost infinite amount of tints and hues. These five shades can be measured in different ways, used to brighten or darken, expand or contract, fill or empty, letting the artist present to the eye exactly what is purposed.

God is the master artist. The Spirit is his brush, we are his paint. As created beings touched by God, empowered by the Spirit to be his messengers, we all have some combination of primary colors which make up our being. If we were created, then we are on God’s palette. As uniquely created, none of us has the same qualities of reflection to this world, but we all share in the fact we all reflect to this world. The Gift of the Spirit has made us into colorful creatures, used to illuminate, and share God’s message through the marvel of his creation. That some colors are emphasized more is certain. That some colors tend to be more common is true.

However, colors find value only in a specific situation. The value is not in the color, it is in the fitting and purpose. When God places us in a certain setting, inspires us to be part of a community of other colors it is not due to an accident, but rather an intentional act of art which is meant to be revealed. Everyone who walks through the door of the Church adds to the palette of the community, with the only question being whether this color is allowed to be revealed and shown for what it is. All have been called and all can be perfectly used as God restores his great work of Art.

The second analogy is that of music. One must skip a large amount of key passages in the Bible to think music is not important or vital to God. Heaven it seems will be characterized by music, as was the Temple, as has been our churches. Music reaches into the soul, creating emotion and mood, insight and purpose, hope and chaos. The simple combination of tones and sounds creates an almost infinite array of styles and forms. So much is this true, it is almost nonsensical to try a rational explanation. Music is an expression of the soul, of the musician and of the listener.
The combination of a simple set of key notes can be combined into various chords.

The sounding of these various chords or notes can be organized into a distinct pattern, or rhythm. These two qualities can then differ in what is making the sound, establishing the rhythm. Different instruments have different expressions of the same basic qualities. Those who are attuned to music can recognize the quality of tone, the perfection of expression. Even those who are not can often recognize that which is discordant and lacking in an established time. Perfectly expressed music is empowering, poorly expressed it is grating and uncomfortable.

What is the right music? What is the best chord? What is the perfect instrument? Again, there are no set answers because the answers are always dependent on the situation and goals of a specific moment. Chords can be described as to their quality, rhythms can be judged according to their accuracy, but a sweeping judgment of these things is impossible, because different moods and setting require different expressions. What may be wrong for one musical goal is perfect for another. What may be inappropriate in one setting is vital to another. It all has to do with the goal and purpose of the composer.

God is the great composer, the Spirit his conductor among us. We are the musicians, or maybe even the instruments themselves, playing only what God ordains and the Spirit leads. We have different parts, different sounds, different notes, and different rhythms. There are times in which some must be quiet and others loud, some must rest while others play. There are times when the general dynamics are loud, and times when they are very, very quiet. It is not we who lead, it is we who play, who serve, who follow the will of the one who knows the music as only the creator can.

As created by God for the music he is revealing, we all have a particular sound and role in this great symphony. Everyone has a certain tone, a specific range, a sound which is unique and useful. Because we are made by God we all have these properties, not because of anything we do or try to do. When there is unity there is wonder. When there is argument the whole world cannot flee far enough away from our dissonance. Few things are more beautiful than a well practiced orchestra performing a perfect piece of music. Few things are more irritating than these same instruments poorly played, out of time and opposed to one another. Thus are we.

The final analogy is the more famous of the three, for it was used by Paul in his descriptions of the work of the Spirit in the life of the Church. Jesus, as God, was filled with the Spirit, reflecting the light of God in fullness and totality. When Jesus rose again, the Father sent the Spirit to live among us, his people, so that we together share the One spirit which filled Christ. We, together, are the Body of Christ.

“The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up only one body,” Paul writes in his twelfth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. He continues by saying, “God made our bodies with many parts, and he has put each part just where he wants it. What a strange thing a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body.”
What is the right part? What is the best part? What are the parts? There is no right part, as each part has a specific purpose and goal for giving health and vitality to the body. Some parts are best suited for some tasks, some for others. Some parts are used in an intentional way, some parts are used without intention, as they simply do what they were meant to do.

The body is created with certain parts, and all are vital, because all support the functioning of the whole. If one part is sick or abused, the body suffers. If one part is not working rightly, the body suffers. There is no right part, because ‘best’ or ‘right’ can only be understood with a specific task or situation in mind. Different parts have different functions, and thus all are at times variously vital for the well being of the whole organism.

“Now all of you together are Christ’s body, and each one of you is a separate and necessary part of it,” Paul continues to write to his readers. If a person was created, then they are created to be a part of this body. The question is not of worth but of purpose and fitting. All are vital, but how?

Paul follows this statement with a brief list of functions and parts, a listing which may be akin to listing the various systems of the body. First there is the circulatory system, then there is the digestive system, followed by the nervous system. It is a basic description of an inordinately complicated physical makeup. For Paul, these are given names of roles and purposes within the church. First there are apostles, then are prophets, followed by teachers. It is the basic description of a wider set of roles and activities which make up the Church. It is the basic anatomy of the Body of Christ.

III. Studying the Body

All are vital to right functioning. All who have been included in the people of God have been created in such a way they reflect certain invaluable aspects of God to this world. The gift of the Spirit upon his people brings out this nature, allowing the individual to find fullness not in pursuing some distant goal, but in finally becoming who they were meant to be. The Spirit brings freedom, unity, fullness, and light to all people, through all people. It is not our job to develop this message, it is our role to be witnesses to this message, to be servants and slaves to the one who already has been, is, and will continue to work mightily and powerfully in this world, restoring the canvas back to its splendor, the music back to its harmony, the body back to health.

Thus, what we need to discover is not a description of how the Spirit can or should work, or what each person should be doing with themselves in order to best save this world for Christ. Rather, we need a fresh description of the palette of God, a discussion of the musical terminology so that while the Spirit remains fluid in working, we all can better understand the qualities which the Spirit seems to combine and manage in order to accomplish the beautiful goal of salvation. What we need all those in the Church to pursue is not a set system which must be applied, but is instead a framework, a description of how the Spirit has worked in the past through the people of God and in this world, so we have a better understanding of how the Spirit works, and how the Spirit may be working in us. This is not a series of do and don’ts but a basic anatomy of the Body of Christ, in which we all fit and function, working with the Spirit in bringing wholeness once again to all those who are lost and in need of finding God and themselves.

By looking at Scripture, and select figures in church history, a basic framework can be developed which can help us each and together understand the various aspects and roles the Spirit uses in fulfilling the Great Commission with us. We must deal with the revelation of God through Scripture, looking at the different parts of the Bible so as to see how the Spirit is to be understood, letting the text teach us, rather than imposing ourselves upon the text.

We must also have a better understanding of the basic gifts which seem to arise as God’s Spirit works in and through people. Different lists of gifts are common, and none are perfect. The Gift is the Spirit, and what the Spirit does in us are called gifts, but are as flexible and as fluid as the Spirit who works. But a basic expanded list is helpful so as to understand what may be the primary colors, or foundational chords which make up the activity of the Spirit within us. Everyone reflects these differently, each has been uniquely made to have a unique purpose and fitting, but these give a starting place for discussion and analysis. This is not a box to be shoved into, but a starting place from which to build better music or more vibrant colors. These gifts will be illuminated by looking at appropriate figures in the Bible, letting the work of the Spirit in the men and women of Scripture be the lead in teaching us about the work of the Spirit.

By approaching it all this way, we are not limited but rather we are empowered. We can help each person who comes into our churches realize how vital they are to the work of the Spirit in this world. This is more than simply rhetoric, saying everyone is loved in the eyes of God. This is reality. God has made us to be a part, and made us so we are to be a specific part. Too many wonderful fellow believers have become discouraged or disheartened because of a lack of understanding or recognition of who they have been created to be.

This world has suffered in our collective lack of understanding, and associated lack of training, keeping the Gift of the Spirit in us from being clearly expressed. The Spirit of the Living God is the answer to the needs of all the world, in the poor and the rich countries. But the Spirit works as the Spirit will work, and we are called to work with the Spirit, not manage the Spirit. Only by learning to be as fluid and as firm as the Spirit will we become the best witnesses to this world until the end of the Age.

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Member Comments
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Birdie Courtright 03 Sep 2006
Although we hold a different point of view of 'The Emergent Church', kudos for a very well written and intellectually stimulating article. You aroused my curiousity (perhaps my ire, just a little) and made me think on a deeper level. That's what great writing should do. Thanks!


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