Sunday, June 04, 2017

The Holy Spirit: Worship

The next four posts were teachings delivered at Covenant Fellowship RP Church in Wilkinsburg, PA.  I received a generous and warm welcome from an utterly hospitable congregation.


Read: Romans 8:1-30

Veni, Creator Spiritus, Rabanus Maurus, 9th Century

Come, Holy Spirit, Creator come,
From your bright heavenly throne!
Come, take possession of our souls,
And make them all your own.
You who are called the Paraclete,
Best gift of God above,
The living spring, the living fire,
Sweet unction, and true love!
You who are sevenfold in your grace,
Finger of God’s right hand,
His promise, teaching little ones
To speak and understand!
O guide our minds with your blessed light,
With love our hearts inflame,
And with your strength which never decays
Confirm our mortal frame.
Far from us drive our hellish foe
True peace unto us bring,
And through all perils guide us safe
Beneath your sacred wing.
Through you may we the Father know,
Through you the eternal Son
And you the Spirit of them both
Thrice-blessed three in one.
All glory to the Father be,
And to the risen Son;

The same to you, O Paraclete,
While endless ages run.

We do not often pray to the Holy Spirit.  In some ways, this seems normal, as we pray “to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit,” in other words, pray is an act of joining, and being joined to, the Trinity.  Whenever we pray, we pray in the Spirit.  In fact, we might go so far to say that there is no prayer without the Spirit!  As Paul says in Romans 8, “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (v. 25).  Part of the unutterable groanings Paul reveals: “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father’” (v. 15).  How do we name God the Father in our prayers, even in the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, who is in heaven”)?  By the Spirit of God working in us.  How do we name Jesus Christ as Lord?  Hear Paul again: “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).  It makes sense, then, that we would invoke, that is, call upon, the Spirit to be present when we pray, whether that is at home by ourselves or with family, or here (especially here!) in the formal and formative worship of the Church.  But to do so is a bit misleading.  As an ancient prayer puts it, the Holy Spirit is “everywhere present,” echoing the Psalmist’s experience: “Where can I go from Your Spirit?  Where can I flee from Your Presence?  If I ascend into Heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in the grave, behold, You are there” (Psalm 139:7-8).  We are not asking the Spirit to come be somewhere He is not; rather we are requesting that the Spirit bring us more fully, more presently, more tangibly into God’s throne room, where all creation -- from the highest angels to the lowliest animals -- praise Him (Psalm 148).  We are asking, in other words, that we be constituted as God’s Temple, where He meets His people, dispenses judgment, and metes out blessing (1 Cor. 6:19).
    So far, I’ve concentrated on the Spirit’s indispensable role in our worship.  I do that because here, in worship, is where we encounter the Spirit in the most intense way.  It isn’t for no reason that Paul commands us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17)!  I also have done this because the Spirit cannot be deduced by academic means, or by mere emotion.  It is when we concentrate on the Cross of Christ and His Resurrection that we see clearly the Father and the Spirit.  In worship, we are “being conformed to the Image of [God’s] Son” (Rom. 8:29), which then takes us into the Gospels where we clearly see Jesus’ image.  What are we being conformed to?  First we note that the Spirit overshadows a Virgin, who brings forth Christ into the world.  The same Spirit creates the Church, who is called both a Virgin (2 Cor. 11:2) and a Mother (Gal. 4:26), who brings forth the Word of Christ into the world (Matt. 28:20).  The Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove; He descends on the Church as tongues of fire.  The Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, just as God’s Spirit went with the Israelites into the wilderness.  Where they failed and “grieved the Holy Spirit” (Is. 63:10), Jesus succeeded; now we are called to that same success, for “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Tit. 2:11-12 NIV).  As Paul says elsewhere, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the Day of Redemption” (Eph. 4:30): we are, while we wait for Christ’s glorious appearing, in the wilderness; but we need not fail, for the grace of God has come to us in the Holy Spirit.  Jesus, by the Spirit of God, casts out demons; we by the Spirit “now might make known the manifold wisdom of God the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10, slightly modified).  Through the Spirit the Father raises Christ from the dead; “[b]ut if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).
    What is the takeaway of this?  What God has done in Christ Jesus He intends to do, through the Spirit, in His human creation, especially the Church.  Our being conformed into the Image of the Son in worship can be seen by what the Spirit does with Christ in the Gospels.  But this is not a mere set of moral examples, but rather that we are being made “partakers of the divine nature” as Peter says (2 Pt. 1:4), that is, we are being made “the Body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27).  When we are baptized, we are joined -- mystically and mysteriously -- to Christ’s baptism, which is itself joined to His death.  A look through the Scriptures will help us here:

“It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’” (Mk. 1:9-11).

“And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last. Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this Man was the Son of God!’” (Mk. 15:37-39)

At first, it may not seem that these passages are connected, but let’s take a deeper look.  Both involve the Spirit: the Greek word for “Spirit” means breath and wind also.  In chapter 1, the Spirit descends, in chapter 15, Jesus breathes, “spirits,” His last.  In chapter 1 the heavens “part” and in chapter 15 the veil of the temple, which symbolizes heaven, is torn in two.  Once we learn, though, that Mark uses the same verb for both scenes, we see that at His baptism, the heavens were torn, just as at His Crucifixion.  Last, we see the proclamation that Jesus is the “Son of God.”  Jesus’ baptism is a foreshadowing, as it were, of His death.  Paul goes further and connects all of this to our baptism: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rom. 6:3)  But he goes further: “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (v. 4), or as he says it later, “if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).  We are being made into Christ’s Body by the Spirit’s work of uniting us with His death and His resurrection.

We have four weeks together to delve into the mystery of the Spirit.  And, truly, He is mysterious.  Often times, the Scriptures seem to portray Him more as a power, a force, than a Person.  Yet He speaks through the prophets, He can be grieved, He interprets, He snatches away, He gives life, He utters prayers.  What we are hoping for, though, is not an exhaustive understanding of the Spirit: such a thing is impossible.  Instead, we are hoping through our time together to connect to the Spirit, which as we’ve seen is to be united with the Son, and presented to God the Father.

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