Sunday, August 21, 2005

A Narrative Theology of the Spirit

Chapter One – The Spirit in the Story of God

Once upon a time, or maybe I should say, in the beginning, God is. Try to go back in your mind if you can. Imagine traveling back from here in 2005 America, back through World War 2 and the Depression, back through the Civil War, back to the Revolutionary War. Rewind through the pilgrims and the reformation and the dark ages. Rewind through the crusades and the Roman Empire. Go back past Jesus and then past Caesar and then the Greek philosophers. Rewind past prophets and kings, past Moses and Joseph and Jacob and Isaac and Abraham. Go back past the Tower of Babel and the Flood, past Cain and Abel, past Adam and Eve. Go back past the land animals and the birds and the fish. Keep going, past the stars and the moon and sun, past the plants – trees and flowers and grass. Go back past the dry land, past the sky, past light. Go back past the heavens and the earth, past time and space. Go back, all the way back, and there it is – God.

Can you conceive of it? Can you imagine it? Just God. Sit with it for a moment. What was it like? Here there is a sense of perfection and completeness and absolute calm like we have never experienced. But it is not emptiness. It is full – full of what’s good and what’s right, full of a sense of purity and clean-ness.

And most of all, it is full of love. I hesitate to use that word because it has been so polluted in our day and age by betrayal and resentment and broken relationships. But try to imagine love in perfection and completeness, love that is completely clean and pure. Perfect and pure love is selfless love, love that needs and seeks relationships. That’s where God is. Loving relationships. Community. Trinity. God is a Father, a Son, and a Spirit - separate and distinct individuals yet eternally bound together as one God in the most loving relationships possible.

This is God. This is who he is and where he is. But, for reasons known only to him, he decided that he did not want to be alone – though that isn’t the right way to say it because he wasn’t alone; he had himself. Maybe we could say it this way – he decided to share himself, his being and his love, with other beings. He decided that these beings had to be real beings to really experience his love. They couldn’t just be figments of his imagination, characters in some kind of God-simulator. And so, he undertook the work of creation, making something separate and distinct from himself that could experience his love.

We don’t know all the details of how he did it. Scientists tell one version of this part of the story, while it seems that the Bible tells a different version. Nonetheless, God makes time and space – the continuum in which these other beings will exist. He makes heaven and earth and the calm is broken by some kind of chaos, like the deep, dark brooding of the ocean at night. But even in that chaos, the calm of God’s presence and love is there. His Spirit is there, hovering in the midst of it all.

And then into the deep darkness of chaos, God speaks, breathing out the Breath of life, communicating a Word that will create a world. And there is light, piercing the deep darkness. And then came sky, cutting the chaotic waters in two. And then land, appearing from the waters to provide a stable platform, like a stage on which these new beings might live and move and have their being. But it would not do to have a barren stage, and so God spoke decorations of trees and flowers and grass into being. And he filled the darkness and light with a sun and moon and stars. He filled the waters with fish and the sky with birds. He filled the land with animals of such vast and awe-inspiring uniqueness. Each of these to continue on this creative endeavor by reproducing themselves within the world God had made.

And then God did something different. Rather than speak a being into being, he took a handful of dirt from the ground and somehow fashioned it into a new form, a different form. This one would look like God in some way, would reflect God in some way, would relate to God in some way different than all the other beings. And then, God breathed once again, filling the lungs of this man with the Breath of life, animating him, adding a spirit to his body.

The man came to life and his wife was added later, and together they would be the pinnacle of the creation, the ones with whom God would share his universe and himself. I wish I could say that they lived happily ever after, but we know that is not the case. There is a lot more to this story – crises and conversations, the coming of Christ and his church, and ultimately a consummation of heavenly proportions.

But to really understand the whole story, we’ve got make sure we meet the main characters. And by that, I am not referring to Adam and Eve or Abraham, Moses, or David. I am referring to God. Here is this being, before all that is now, simply existing among himself. But not existing alone, existing as a trinity of relationship – Father, Son, and Spirit as he became known in the Scriptures.

The Father is the one who seems to be in charge, if we can put it that way. When theologians refer to “God” in a generic sense, it is usually the Father to whom they are referring. The Father is the one who gets everything started. He is the source, the beginning of all things. He is the one who makes the plans and to whom all things are accountable.

And then there is the Son. He relates to the Father in a special way, accomplishing the Father’s plan. When, in the story, Adam and Eve and all of their children pull away from God, it is the Son who gets written into the script to bring them back. We come to know him as Jesus Christ. He sacrifices a lot, not just for us, but also so that the Father’s plans might be accomplished.

And, kind of off in the shadows, is this mysterious character we call the Spirit. He too is God, just as much as the Father and the Son. He’s got the same character as them – always holy, always loving, always truthful. And he’s got the same attributes – eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing. (God stuff like that.) They share a family resemblance. And they share a name. Much later in the story, when Jesus told his followers to baptize people, he told them to do it in the name (notice that it’s singular) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He’s God all right.

He’s the strong, silent type. He doesn’t draw attention to himself, but he is constantly working to complete what the Father has planned and what the Son has done. He gets the job done. If God were a baseball team – can we talk like that? – the Spirit would be the closer, enjoying our complete confidence that he can come into the game, get the final outs and win the championship.

And it’s good that we think of him as a person, not merely a force. Throughout the story, he is going to respond like an individual would, with thoughts and feelings. He will make choices. That’s why he’s a “he” and not an “it” in the story.

Speaking of what we call him, he goes by some different names. Most common is the Holy Spirit (or, Holy Ghost if you like your deity to be a bit more spooky.) He’s also gets called, not surprisingly, the Spirit of God or the Spirit of Christ or the Spirit of truth. I like, too, what Jesus called him, “the Counselor.” But the idea of counselor isn’t a therapist. It more has the idea of one who comes up alongside you to give you hand. He is God’s arm around your shoulder. He completes things. (Think Jerry Maguire, “You complete me.”)

Now, he completes God’s plan by bringing life and power. The words “spirit” and “breath” go hand in hand, and so when God breathes the “breath of life” into Adam, it is his Spirit who is bringing him to life. Later, followers of Jesus would say that the Spirit “regenerates.” He resuscitates and resurrects. He’s like the old GE commercial says, “he brings good things to life.”

And he brings power. When he comes upon someone, amazing things happen. I’m getting ahead of myself in the story, but when Moses wanted some people to build the Tabernacle so that his people would have a place to worship God, the Spirit came upon the skilled craftsmen so that they would do an outstanding job. Or, think about what happened to Samson. The Spirit “came upon him,” and he had great strength. (I almost imagine an Incredible Hulk kind of scene.) No wonder David prayed that God wouldn’t take the Spirit away from him. You know, maybe the most important – and mysterious – time the Spirit came upon someone was when he came upon Mary and she got pregnant with Jesus. But, like I said, I am jumping ahead.

I know that this story is not going to answer all of your questions, and maybe it will raise some new ones. But I also know that if you listen to it carefully and with faith, you might find that the Spirit who completes God’s plan in history and in the church by bringing life and power might just do the same for you.

In Coming Weeks:

- Chapter Two – The Spirit in the Story of History
- Chapter Three – The Spirit in the Story of the Church
- Chapter Four – The Spirit in My Story

(c) 2005 copyright Robb Ryerse. Please do not republish without permission.

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