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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Come, Spirit of Truth

The Holy Spirit leads us to the truth of God: Jesus our Savior, God-with-us, who calls us to bear God’s love to the world.  However, we are not capable of controlling where the Triune God works, nor are we called to that task.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Day of Pentecost, year C; texts: John 14:8-17, 25-27; Acts 2:1-21

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

One of many impressions I had of the recent vote for marriage equality in our state’s legislature is the image of impassioned Christians on both sides of this issue, and the sense that to a large degree this was an internal Christian debate overlaid upon a civil question of equal protection and rights under the law.  This is, no doubt, due to the fact that Christians are still the majority religion in this state.  But still, it was striking to me how often senators and representatives invoked God’s will on their points of view on a public, civil issue, and specifically the will of the Triune God, because most claimed to be Christian.  At one point a senator who was opposed to the measure cried out that voting for this bill was a vote against religious freedom.  What was clear by her argument, however, was that for her, religious freedom was the state enforcing and endorsing her own religious views, her own understanding of Christian teaching, in spite of the fact that some Christians, people of her own faith, passionately disagreed with her view of Christian teaching.  Likewise, when a senator argues on the floor of the State Senate that he is more interested in being on the “right side of eternity” as opposed to the right side of history, we have a conversation that has been hijacked from the realm of civil discourse into the realm of inter-Christian discourse.  It was disconcerting, to say the least.

But it is not a new thing.  Christians in power tend to use that power against each other as well as against people of other faiths with whom they disagree.  We fight over what we consider to be the truth, God’s truth, and if we get political power, it can become very ugly.  Only the protections of our federal and state constitutions keep us from falling into the sins and errors of our ancestors, who took this enforcing of their sense of God’s truth on others to sometimes violent and tragic extremes, such as the Inquisition or the Crusades.

Jesus promises today to send us the Spirit of truth.  At the birth of the Church, that same Holy Spirit filled the believers and they preached the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.  3,000 people became new believers that day.  How do we get from there to Inquisition and Crusade?  From there, to what we see in America today, some Christians arguing for what essentially would be a Christian state, for a nation where there’s no room for those who are not true believers?  From there to denominations in fights with each other and with other denominations over who has the truth and who really believes the right things?  If the Spirit of God is supposed to lead us to truth how do we listen over the din of our fighting?

It is true that because of our constitutions, we are not talking about persecution on the scale of past Christian abuses.  But we really must not forget our past.

In fact, I found myself remembering a particularly horrible incident this past week, from the 13th century.  In particular, the Inquisition against the Cathars in southern France, something the Church itself called a Crusade, though it was a crusade against others who claimed to be Christians.

This was actually the time when the Inquisition officially began.  A chronicler of the early 13th century records that as the forces of the French nobles and the Pope were attacking a city in what is now southern France, Béziers, when Abbot Arnaud (the papal legate), leading the army both spiritually and militarily, was asked whom to kill (because there were also orthodox Catholics in the city) he said, “Kill them all.  The Lord will recognize his own.”

And they did.  They burned the city, a large one for those days, to the ground, and slaughtered all within, men, women, children, all.

Now, of course, this is far more serious than any public debates in the United States.  I am not saying anything like that these things have equal standing.  But we wouldn’t be truthful if we didn’t note that actual violence and even killing has been done by American Christians against others in this country whom they deemed sinful, wrong, on many different issues including racism, slavery, sexuality, doctrines and others.  Some of my direct ancestors sent public letters of support and encouragement to the leaders of the Salem witch trials.

We cannot pretend that we are much more civilized.  And we cannot be so foolishly naïve as to think that Christian hate rhetoric doesn’t have a seriously negative impact on our effectiveness in witnessing to Christ’s love for the world.

And there is a piece of this 13th century story that still won’t go away for me.

You see, it is also recorded that while the soldiers were attacking or besieging a city during this crusade, bent on total destruction, the priests and bishops and monks who always marched with the “Host,” as they called the army, would sing “Veni Creator Spiritus” to encourage the troops in their holy cause.

Maybe you don’t recognize the Latin.  “Come, Creator Spirit,” is how that is translated, and it’s a hymn which dates to the 8th century, both music and text.  It’s number 577 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and we’re singing it next.  Our translation begins “Creator Spirit, Heavenly Dove,” but it’s the same hymn.

Now, here at Mount Olive we value using the gifts of 2,000 years of Christians in our worship, singing words and music that are created in praise of God in the past year as well as 1,500 years ago.  It enriches us tremendously.  But here we have this beautiful hymn, whose words are deeply important to our lives, misused by our ancestors to justify terrible things.  We can’t pretend that isn’t important for us to consider, any more than the truth that the Scriptures, which are God’s Word for our lives, have also been so misused.  The juxtaposition of the abbot’s statement and the singing of the hymn to the Holy Spirit and the wholesale slaughter of neighbors in the name of the Spirit chills me to the bone.

And it’s not just ancient texts and hymns.  We’re singing a relatively new text, set to a familiar tune, at communion today.  “God of tempest, God of whirlwind.”  It’s a powerful text, and has been a good addition to Lutheran hymnody in the past few years.  But here is stanza 2: “God of blazing, God of burning, all that blocks your purpose, purge!  Through your church, Christ’s living Body, let your flaming Spirit surge!  Where deceit conceals injustice, kindle us to speak your truth.” [1]

Wow.  Now it’s true, that stanza does not need to be interpreted as a hymn inviting destructive crusades and inquisitions.  It’s true that the error the hymnwriter lifts up in this stanza is injustice, not heresy.  Nonetheless, it’s striking how easily language of the Spirit and fire can be interpreted to exclude, drive out, ostracize, and even destroy others.

The problem most likely lies with our need to control God.

It’s a basic part of human nature.  It’s not enough for us to believe what we think is true.  We almost always want to control it, too.  And control others.  We believe Jesus is God’s Son, risen from the dead, offering life now and life forever.  We believe that because of our Lord Christ’s gift we have new life in the Spirit as children of God.  But then we want to control that.  We want to make sure that only those who think and believe the right things are part of the in group, part of the saved.

We take the gift of God given us freely by the Spirit without any work on our part, and try to control access, try to control God, try to control who’s got it and who doesn’t.  We even like to believe that we can decide who is filled with the Holy Spirit and who is not.

But the very reality of the Holy Spirit is that the Triune God cannot be controlled.  The Spirit blows like the wind, Jesus says in John 3, where she will.

So the Triune God is working in people in ways we cannot see or know.  God is leading people to things we may not have imagined or planned for, things we cannot control.  God is filling the people of the world with the Spirit, even if they haven’t heard of Jesus yet.

That’s something that frightens a lot of Christians, and leads to hurtful and even awful things, not just crusades, but think about it for a moment.  If Christ Jesus is who we say he is, the risen Son of God; if God is Triune, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as we say the Scriptures proclaim; and if this God loves the whole world; is it not the height of arrogance for us to assume that the Triune God either can or will only listen to those who know this truth about God?  The height of arrogance to assume that the Triune God will not bless even unbelievers with the Spirit, even if they don’t know it?

Even though we believe we have the deepest revelation of God’s will for the world in Jesus, we cannot rule out that the risen Son of God, Christ himself, will find and is finding ways to connect through the Holy Spirit even with those who do not believe in him or know him.

So what does this mean for our lives with others who do not share our faith?

It leads us to humbly being kind neighbors in the name of the One in whom we have life and love, Jesus Christ.

One of the many tragedies of that Crusade of the early 1200’s is that in that southern area of what is now France and most of the Spanish peninsula, people of many faiths were living peacefully with each other.  Jews, Muslims, orthodox Catholics, and these Cathars.  These people lived together for centuries in peaceful coexistence for the most part.  Then the Church decided that the heresies needed to be stamped out (and this was as much a political land and power grab as anything else).  And they destroyed thousands of lives, hundreds of homes and villages and cities.

Now there’s no question the Cathars had moved away from some central Christian teachings.  They didn’t believe in the Trinity, or that Jesus was really a human being.  They didn’t value the Sacraments, they rejected the rituals of the Church.  They really weren’t Christians by definition.

But they lived good lives, were good neighbors.  They followed Jesus’ teachings, actually; they believed in God’s love and they cared for each other and their communities.  Whether they had the truth or not, they certainly didn’t deserve slaughter and death, and being wiped off the face of the earth, which is what happened.  Any more than any of the peoples slaughtered by the many Crusades in Jesus’ name deserved their fate.

And that’s what I think the Spirit is leading us to hear today: our job is not to enforce the truth of God as if we are the controllers of it.  It is to love the world in Jesus’ name, to be the love of Christ.

If people do not know the truth about the Triune God, then we can tell them by our words and actions.  By our Christly love.  It’s a truth worth telling, a world-changing and life-giving truth, and it’s our anointed call by Christ to tell it.

But as important, we have to remember that only God will sort out in the end what that means for them.  I suspect God’s love is great enough to accommodate all; Christ seems to say that.  But I know it’s not our call to decide this or know this.  In fact, the truth of the Spirit that our Lord Christ has sent us leads me to hope that we can reverse the abbot’s statement as we consider our Spirit-filled call: “Love all of them.  The Lord will recognize his own.”

And the gift of the Holy Spirit is that we are given the power and ability to do all this, become models of God’s love.  That’s the kind of power we pray for today.

When we sing, “Creator Spirit, Heavenly Dove,” “come, Creator Spirit,” it’s not a prayer inviting destruction of those who do not believe.  It’s a prayer inviting God’s Spirit to keep leading us to truth, correcting us when we err, guiding us, together, to God’s truth, which is Christ, showing us who God is.

It’s a prayer inviting God’s Spirit to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It’s a prayer inviting God’s Spirit to make us like Christ Jesus, who never led a crusade, armed or otherwise, but simply loved the world in God’s name and called the world to the same kind of love for each other.

God’s love for the world in Jesus goes to the world in us.  That’s the reality of Pentecost.  That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And that’s our hope and our joy, and the world’s hope and joy as well.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] Text by Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr., b. 1923.  Copyright © 2000 GIA Publications, Inc.  Evangelical Lutheran Worship, no. 400, st. 2.

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