January 19, 2014

The One Who Baptizes with the Holy Spirit

Passage: Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
Service Type:

And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”

What is the nature of the world we live in? On November 7, 2013 Dr. Meric Gertler was installed as President of the University of Toronto—the 16th person to hold this office. In his installation speech he said “The value of a university education needs to be measured along many dimensions. In addition to enjoying better employment prospects upon graduation, we know that citizens with a university education are more civically engaged, enjoy healthier and longer lives, accumulate higher lifetime earnings, are less likely to engage in crime or to depend on social assistance, and … they are happier.” … “We need to demonstrate more clearly how the education we provide prepares our graduates for a lifetime of success and fulfillment, while also contributing to the economic, social and political success of the region, province, nation, and the world.”

The dimensions Gertler listed and vision for education’s impact on life are all positive things but limited to what we might call the material sphere of human life. Absent from his speech—and you might guess something I was hoping to hear—was any mention of the spiritual life. A nod was given to a core competency of undergraduate degrees to provide training in “ethical and moral reasoning.” Still, there are seven seminaries operating under the banner of the University of Toronto known as the Toronto School of Theology—I hold a theology degree awarded jointly by the University and one of those seminaries.

1. What kind of world do we live in? John the Baptist said this of Jesus: “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” The Bible oozes with talk of the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of God. Such talk about the Holy Spirit is to recognize that we live in a universe that is spirit-charged. Further the Bible witnesses that humans are most profoundly, ultimately creatures of spirit (this is never to deny that we are also creatures of body and mind).

Suppose we deny that we are creatures of spirit ultimately. (After all, we live in a secularized society that denies we are creatures of spirit.) We are then left saying that we are creatures of matter ultimately. This is what we call materialism.

There are two kinds of materialism. The philosophical kind (found, for instance, in Marxism) states that matter alone is. The non-philosophical, popular kind (found everywhere in the affluent Western world) states that matter alone matters. At the end of the day, both have the same force. Whether we believe that matter alone is or believe that matter alone matters, the "bottom line" is the same. Materialism leaves us believing that we are creatures of matter ultimately.

But we aren't. We are creatures of spirit ultimately. In the last post-resurrection appearance of Jesus with his disciples they essentially ask—so Jesus, what’s next? “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Note the material focus of their question that implies economic, social and political success for them. Jesus had already told them “not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” (Acts 1:4-5) In direct response to their question Jesus responds with this: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7-8)

You notice that Jesus regards the world as a spiritually charged theater and that humans are creatures of spirit ultimately. He was not saying that the disciples’ material concerns were unimportant. Jesus implies that the heart of the real battle is somewhere else. We are creatures of spirit ultimately. We are the venue of intense spiritual conflict; our hearts are the prize sought by warring spiritual forces.

You also notice that Jesus does not answer their question directly. As C.S. Lewis has pointed out, many of our questions are, from God’s point of view, rather like someone asking, “Is yellow square or round?” of “How many hours are there in a mile?” Jesus gently points them away to what to ask about from his perspective. We live in a culture that is dominated by a material understanding of human life; that we are creatures of matter ultimately. To walk into church and hear talk of the Holy Spirit sounds like gibberish to some and like being in a parallel universe for others. Jesus gently point us to look in a different direction than materialism’s conclusion.

Let me also note with you that to talk of the Holy Spirit in our lives, to talk of the world as spiritually charged and of the human as ultimately a creature of spirit is never to discount reason. If we are most profoundly creatures of spirit we are at the same time profoundly creatures of reason. Irrationality is never God-honouring. To stifle reason or circumvent reason is to confuse faith with fanaticism. At the same time, when we have exercised our rationality to our utmost we must still pray in the Holy Spirit, for we are creatures of spirit ultimately.

2. “The sound like the rush of a violent wind”; “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them;” this is how these first Christians described their experience of the Holy Spirit. How can we explain the inexplicable, except in a rush of images from the world we already know? Jesus said the Spirit was like a wind that blows where it wants, in other places in the Bible the Spirit of God is synonymous with the breath of God.

“There was something to explain, all right,” asserts N T Wright (Simply Christian p. 121). Something happened to these first Christians—how to speak about it was challenging. The first disciples knew that their message would make little or no sense to most of their hearers. It was an affront to Jewish people to tell them Israel’s messiah had arrived, and the Romans had crucified him as a threat to the empire. The Apostle Paul admitted that it was foolishness to the Gentiles—much like the way many in our culture regard Christian faith. Yet in telling the story of Jesus early Christians discovered that telling this story carried a power which they regularly associated with the Holy Spirit.

Kristen Powers is a journalist and commentator at Fox News. Here is a portion of her story of coming to faith in Christ. She began attending Redeemer Church in New York because her boyfriend was a Christian and attended there. “I had never heard a pastor talk about the things he did. Tim Keller's sermon was intellectually rigorous, weaving in art and history and philosophy. I decided to come back to hear him again. Soon, hearing Keller speak on Sunday became the highlight of my week. I thought of it as just an interesting lecture—not really church. I just tolerated the rest of it in order to hear him. Any person who is familiar with Keller's preaching knows that he usually brings Jesus in at the end of the sermon to tie his points together. For the first few months, I left feeling frustrated: Why did he have to ruin a perfectly good talk with this Jesus nonsense?

Each week, Keller made the case for Christianity. He also made the case against atheism and agnosticism. He expertly exposed the intellectual weaknesses of a purely secular worldview. I came to realize that even if Christianity wasn't the real thing, neither was atheism.

I began to read the Bible. My boyfriend would pray with me for God to reveal himself to me. After about eight months of going to hear Keller, I concluded that the weight of evidence was on the side of Christianity. But I didn't feel any connection to God, and frankly, I was fine with that. I continued to think that people who talked of hearing from God or experiencing God were either delusional or lying. In my most generous moments, I allowed that they were just imagining things that made them feel good.

Then one night in 2006, on a trip to Taiwan, I woke up in what felt like a strange cross between a dream and reality. Jesus came to me and said, "Here I am." It felt so real. I didn't know what to make of it. I called my boyfriend, but before I had time to tell him about it, he told me he had been praying the night before and felt we were supposed to break up. So we did. Honestly, while I was upset, I was more traumatized by Jesus visiting me. …

I tried to write off the experience as misfiring synapses, but I couldn't shake it. When I returned to New York a few days later, I was lost. I suddenly felt God everywhere and it was terrifying. More important, it was unwelcome. It felt like an invasion. I started to fear I was going crazy.

I didn't know what to do, so I spoke with writer Eric Metaxas, whom I had met through my boyfriend and who had talked with me quite a bit about God. "You need to be in a Bible study," he said. "And Kathy Keller's Bible study is the one you need to be in." I didn't like the sound of that, but I was desperate. My whole world was imploding. How was I going to tell my family or friends about what had happened? Nobody would understand. I didn't understand.

I remember walking into the Bible study. I had a knot in my stomach. In my mind, only weirdoes and zealots went to Bible studies. I don't remember what was said that day. All I know is that when I left, everything had changed. I'll never forget standing outside that apartment on the Upper East Side and saying to myself, "It's true. It's completely true." The world looked entirely different, like a veil had been lifted off it. I had not an iota of doubt. I was filled with indescribable joy.

The horror of the prospect of being a devout Christian crept back in almost immediately. I spent the next few months doing my best to wrestle away from God. It was pointless. Everywhere I turned, there he was. Slowly there was less fear and more joy. The Hound of Heaven had pursued me and caught me—whether I liked it or not.”

The first Christians would tell us that this is the work of the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

3. In framing the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives N.T. Wright writes; “Just as the resurrection of Jesus opened up the unexpected world of God’s new creation, so the Spirit comes to us from that new world, the world waiting to be born. The Spirit is given so that we ordinary mortals can become, in some measure, what Jesus himself was; part of God’s future arriving in the present; a place where heaven and earth meet.”

Let us consider this work of the Spirit from another angle of vision. We have already noted that in the Bible the Spirit is spoken of as breath. “Breath” in Hebrew denotes creativity. The breath of God that God breathes into his own people is that movement of God upon us and within us which enlivens our creativity and frees it for service in God’s kingdom. Where the Spirit is concerned, creativity has nothing to do with extraordinary artistic talent. The creativity of the Spirit, rather, is simply the freeing, the freeing up, the magnification and multiplied usefulness of any gift we have in order that this talent might now be used for God’s purposes among those near and far.

There’s something about Spirit-creativity we must take to heart. The Spirit, or breath, of God fosters and frees up such creativity as and only as we first decide to do something. I don’t think the best approach in congregational life is to draw up a list of talents in the congregation and then conclude that we can attempt only those things for which we have demonstrable talent. It’s just the opposite. Suffused with the gospel, our hearts pierced by the suffering around us that the gospel frees us to stop denying, we see what has to be done and therefore what we must do, since there’s no one else to do it. Then, as we resolve to do it, even in fear and trembling, the Spirit breathes upon us and whatever is needed always turns up.

Keep in mind that one of God’s purposes is that we care for our families—embedded in the command to honour father and mother, for example. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the Spirit of God is only concerned about church work. The same creativity, freeing up, the magnification and multiplied usefulness of any gift is fostered by the Spirit in us for serving God’s purposes in all of life.

When, at the end of worship, a blessing is invoked in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit it is likely that our idea of Father and Son is clearer than of the Holy Spirit. It is evident that our imaginations cannot grasp God in any complete way. Still, this is not the same as saying that naming God as triune has no meaning. As N.T. Wright has put it when we talk of God it is a bit like staring at the sun. In short, the reason Christians speak this way about God is because of Jesus. As the Apostles wrote of their experience with Jesus the idea of God as three persons becomes the grammar for talk of God.

One final note from Wright on this point. “It would be a mistake to give the impression that the Christian doctrine of God is a matter of clever intellectual word games or mind games. For Christians it’s always a love game; God’s love for the world calling out an answering love from us, enabling us to discover that God not only happens to love us (as though this was simply one aspect of his character) but that he is love itself. That’s what many theological traditions have explored as the very heart of God’s own being, the love which passes continually between Father, Son, and Spirit.” In this understanding, we are invited to share in this inner fellowship and loving life of God. Our relationship with Jesus brings us into this very fellowship through the power of the Holy Spirit.

“He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”