Mount Olive Lutheran Church
Home About Worship Music and Arts Parish Life Learning Outreach News Contact
Mount Olive Lutheran Church

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A New Birth

The Spirit is the Triune God’s maternal side for us, the One who gives us birth, who is our advocate and guide, who leads us into all truth.  The Spirit’s birthing of the Church at Pentecost is the gift of new birth to all of us now.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Day of Pentecost, year B; texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

I’d like to read a portion of today’s Gospel for you once more, with one change.

Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all the truth; for she will not speak on her own, but will speak whatever she hears, and she will declare to you the things that are to come.  She will glorify me, because she will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that she will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

It sounds different, doesn’t it?  And the thing is, you could make the argument that translating the personal pronoun as “she” is just as legitimate as “he.”  Greek, like other inflected languages, assigns gender to nouns and other parts of speech.  So some nouns are masculine, some feminine, some neuter.  It often has little to do with real gender, but it’s similar to the English practice of referring to ships, or even the Church, as “she.”  The odd thing about the word “spirit” in Greek is that it is neither masculine nor feminine.  It’s a neuter word, which means its personal pronoun most accurately would be translated “it.”  Well, that’s not helpful for us as we believe and confess that the Holy Spirit is a Person, not an it.  But the fact that English translators have always gone the other direction and translated “he” instead of “she” for the Spirit is a little hard to defend.

I bring this up for a couple reasons.  First, I had a seminary professor named Robert Bertram from whom I had one of my core theology courses, and a couple others.  Dr. Bertram, whom some of you who remember the Missouri Synod days of Mount Olive would know, was at Concordia St. Louis before becoming a part of the Seminex faculty, and eventually teaching in Chicago where I met him.  Dr. Bertram also consistently used the pronoun “she” when referring to the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, and perhaps still does.  I found it compelling then, and still do, though it hasn’t yet become part of my practice.  I’m going to talk more about the limitations of language and gender and our need to rediscover a broader understanding of the Triune God’s life in our lives next week, on Holy Trinity Sunday, but I’m already beginning the conversation a little today.

The second reason I wanted to begin with this is that as I was considering Pentecost in the life of the Church, and in our lives here, the predominant image that kept coming to the fore this week was “birth.”  We glibly say that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, but if we consider that more carefully, it raises interesting questions.  Who gives birth?  Well, the females of most species, certainly our own.  When Jesus in John 3 says we must be born of water and the Spirit, is he not suggesting that the Spirit gives us birth in our baptism, and therefore is, in a very real sense, our Mother?

So if I’m going to be speaking of the Spirit’s mothering of us today, it seemed odd to use “he” as a pronoun.  In our collect for today we asked God to “give us language to proclaim [the] gospel,” clearly a reference to the speaking of tongues we just heard from Acts 2.  But is it not also important that we continue to explore how our language does, or doesn’t, proclaim God’s Good News?  To that end, we need to think of the Holy Spirit today and the ways she moves in our lives and gives us birth.

We begin then, with birth, with the gift of new life, and oddly it’s Ezekiel’s image of dry bones which helps us see.

We associate this powerful story so closely with Easter and resurrection, that it’s compelling to see it assigned for the Day of Pentecost.  But we can easily see why: a valley full of dry bones, a sign of death so pervasive that there is nothing to be saved, and yet these bones are given new life.  This is no resurrection of even a body with flesh and blood and sinew and muscle, which would still be a mighty miracle.  This is new life given to bones so dry that they are like lifeless, inanimate stones.

And perhaps the connection between resurrection and the birth of the Church is not coincidental.  As much as we’re tempted to interpret Jesus’ resurrection strictly in personal terms, that we will live again, the Church also saw it as a sign of new life into this thing Jesus called Church.  The transformation of the believers who, on this day of Pentecost, are still gathered in that Upper Room where they’d been hiding after Good Friday, can only be described as a resurrection.

Or, should we say, as a new birth.  The pouring out of the Spirit’s grace not only transformed the believers, men and women, into bold proclaimers.  When the Spirit came, she birthed an entirely new thing, and brought in thousands more.

The disciples prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus were disciples, followers, like any others in history.  They followed a Master, committed their lives to learning his ways, and that was it.

The Spirit gave them birth as a Church of apostles, literally people “sent out” to proclaim the new life the Spirit was bringing to the world.  In that sense, this giving birth which the Spirit accomplished on Pentecost was the first of millions of births, the beginning of a birth process that continues to this day.  The dry bones of fearful followers became living flesh of anointed Messiahs, Christs, in the world, who then with the Spirit’s grace helped bring to birth believers and believers and more believers.  More apostles who were sent out to do the same.

Year after year, century after century, the Spirit’s birth process for the Church continued until at some point in the recent past one of those apostles, or several, encountered each of us here and helped us as the Spirit gave birth to our lives of faith, and joined us to the life of this Church.

So in this metaphor, perhaps we consider ourselves not just apostles but midwives, sent to be with people as the Spirit moves in them, and help them into the new birth she is giving.

As newly born children of God then, the gifts Jesus promises the Spirit will be for us are absolutely critical.

First, the Spirit will be our Advocate, Jesus says today.  I’ve often said that for too long we’ve taken the work of the Spirit too lightly as Lutherans, but perhaps no more truly or powerfully than with this image.  Because how important is it that one of the Persons of the Trinity speaks on our behalf, speaks for us, defends us to all comers?  When the Spirit is our Advocate she becomes our defender, not only to the world, who cannot often understand the new birth we are being brought to, and even resists it.

But she also speaks on our behalf to the Father and the Son, within the life of the Trinity, speaking up for us when we cannot.  Isn’t that a marvelous thought to consider, that the Holy Spirit speaks for us?  Advocates for us?  And as Paul reminds us in Romans, she also prays on our behalf, intercedes for us, with sighs “too deep for words,” when we cannot find words to pray.  Or perhaps even the courage to pray.

If this were the only thing we knew about the Third Person of the Trinity it would be enough.  It would be more than enough.  But Jesus gives us even more today, telling us that the Spirit will be the Spirit of truth for us, who leads us to things we’d not imagined.

This is another gift that the Church has too often neglected with deep ingratitude.  Listen to Jesus’ promise again: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all the truth.”  2,000 years ago, Jesus didn’t think the disciples were ready for everything he wanted them to know.  They couldn’t bear it, he believed.  So the gift of the Spirit was and is intended to be God’s continuing way to lead us into truth, to open new doors of understanding, to learn even more about God’s will for us and for the world.

And I simply cannot see how this isn’t still true for us today.  I once got into an argument with a colleague who believed that this only foreshadowed Pentecost, that the things they couldn’t bear on the night of Jesus’ betrayal were fully revealed 50 days after Easter.  That just seems like nonsense to me.  The life of the Church for the past 2,000 years clearly has been a life led by the Spirit who didn’t simply give birth, but stayed with her children, stays with her children still today, leading and guiding and teaching.  And sometimes revealing new things that even fifty years ago her children couldn’t have understood or “borne.”

So not only does the Spirit speak for us, advocate for us, she speaks to us still, leading and guiding us to God’s truth.

But there is one more thing we must remember about the Spirit, a thought we will continue next week: the Holy Spirit is not a metaphor.

This was one of the best lines I heard at the Festival of Homiletics a week ago.  A young ELCA pastor from Denver was preaching about metaphors for the Spirit, much as I’ve been doing, when she said, “But always remember this – the Holy Spirit is not a metaphor!”

You see, we use metaphors – like mother, advocate, guide – to help us understand the work of the Spirit in our lives, in the Church, in the world.  We use pronouns like “she” or “he” to help us use our language to proclaim God’s Good News.

But in fact, regardless of metaphor or language, the Holy Spirit of God is real and alive and working in our lives and in the world.  We’re not playing around with ideas just because we like doing so.

We’re struggling to find language, limited as it is, to describe the indescribable but also incredible reality we’ve all experienced, that the Triune God moves inside us even now, that there is, for lack of a better word, a Spirit of God which connects us to the apostles past and present and, God willing, future.

That this Spirit of God even connects us back to our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and gives us life which he promised 2,000 years ago to our ancestors in faith.  Whatever language we borrow to describe this, we must remember, the Spirit is true and real and alive.

And of course that means, just as we’ve discovered in dealing with our Lord Jesus, and with our heavenly Father, we cannot control where the Spirit goes, what she does, whom she touches.  Jesus told us this would be true, that the Spirit would be as unpredictable as the wind.  But not unpredictable in this: he said he would send her to us for our life, for the life of the world.

And that’s not a metaphor.  That’s reality.

So, Happy Birthday!  Today we celebrate the continuing birth the Spirit is making in the world.

We rejoice that she is with us, speaking for us, praying for us, leading us, guiding us, gathering the Church.  We long to be filled once again today as the first believers were, that we might boldly live our new lives as the children of God we’ve been born to be.  And with the Spirit’s grace, that’s exactly what we can expect will happen.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

No comments:

Post a Comment


Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Reconciling in ChristRIC

Copyright 2014 Mount Olive Lutheran Church