Chapter One - The Spirit in the Story of God
Chapter Two - The Spirit in the Story of History
The Spirit in the Story of the Church
A dark night. A deep sleep. A messenger from God. An unbelievable mission. And a humble girl.
Almost from the very beginning, we knew this day would come. God – a divine family of Father, Son, and Spirit – had created a whole new family – humanity – with whom to share himself and his love. But humanity, first in our ancient parents, Adam and Eve, and later in the lives of each and everyone of us, walked out on God, convinced that we could make it on our own. Adam and Eve had been convinced by a serpent in the garden that they could live independently of God, and ever since all of us have been convinced too. When God showed up in the garden to talk to the human family about what had happened, he told the serpent that one day an offspring of the woman would crush his head.
And ever since, mingled with our stubborn independence has been a hope that someday and somehow, this offspring would come. Maybe we thought he would come on the clouds, with a shout and a trumpet blast. Maybe we thought he would be born in a palace, the king raised as a king. Not many of us, if any, expected it to happen like this. God simply spoke the name of a young girl who was pure and faithful and sweet and humble. “Mary,” and her life and future – and all of ours too – was changed forever.
We don’t know all of the details of how it happened, but we do know that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, enabling her, yet a virgin, to become pregnant with the Son of God himself. Just like the Spirit brought Adam to life within the garden, so too, he brought Jesus to life within Mary. The divine family was taking a major step in using Mary to recapture the devotion of the human family – the Father above watching his plan unfold, the Son within growing and developing, the Spirit throughout enabling and empowering.
Jesus was born, but you know well that part of the story. He grew up and became a man in the countryside of Galilee. Then at the age of 30 or so, he embarked on his mission of bringing the prodigal sons home to the family. He was known for powerful teaching and awe-inspiring miracles. He had a vast throng of followers, some who were dedicated enough to pledge their lives for him. Like a meteor shooting across the sky, Jesus came out of nowhere and got the attention of everyone.
But Jesus’ life on earth was about much more than his fame and his fans. It really was about his family – his divine family. One day from his life gives us a glimpse at the intimacy he shared with the Father and the Spirit. When he was baptized by his cousin John, the heavens were torn opened for his Father who could no longer contain his joy shouted out, “This is my son, the one I love. I am so pleased with him.” Then, softly and tenderly the Spirit descended like a dove resting upon him, filling him with divine power.
Jesus’ life was not all soft scenes of serenity, however. The quiet intimacy of his baptism eventually gave way to the brutal horror of his crucifixion. And that gave way to the paranoid mystery of his resurrection. After his resurrection, Jesus regrouped and reassured his discouraged and defeatist-minded disciples by promising them that the presence of divine life and power would remain with them, even after he had left them. His Spirit would come upon them. (In fact, he had told this to them before he was even crucified, saying that Spirit would take over the role of being their rabbi once he was gone, but things like that are easily forgotten when your world is crumbling and your friend and master is dying.)
For forty days after Jesus returned to his Father, the disciples waited for the Spirit to arrive. And when he did, he put on a show that will never be forgotten. With Mary, he came quietly at night. With Jesus, he descended softly as a dove. This time, he came again with life and power, but he came in a phenomenal display too. The disciples and other followers of Jesus were sitting together in a room when all of a sudden, it sounded like a freight train was going by. Things began to blow around the room, and some of the people dove to take cover. And then one of them noticed that above their heads hovered something that looked like tongues of fire. Immediately, these mostly uneducated men were able to speak different languages, and their fear gave way to a boldness they had never felt before. They spilled out into the streets and began talking, in all sorts of different languages, relaying to the throngs of visitors from around the world in Jerusalem for a holiday feast, the story of Jesus. And on this day, Pentecost, the church was born.
Certainly, the history of the church throughout the ages is not always a pleasant one. There are tales of crusades and inquisitions and colonialism that ought to make true Christ-followers blush with embarrassment. But all of the pain of the future was not yet even conceived of when the church was born in Jerusalem in the early first century. These were heady times – baptisms by the thousands, mouths to feed, people to teach, persecutions to face. One historian said that the early church turned the world upside down. That’s quiet an assessment. And it is an accurate one, for in this group unity and service and love were found in noticeable quantities.
So what enabled them to have such effectiveness and unity? The presence and power of the Spirit of God. Their unity was birthed by the Spirit. In fact, the ritual of water baptism, each new follower of Jesus being dunked in a body of water, was merely a physical representation of what the Spirit was doing, dunking them into a body of people. You couldn’t see this happen with your eyes, but you would have been able to see the results of it – a Jewish man giving his hard earned money to buy food for a Gentile woman, an older woman sitting and talking with a younger woman about her faith and fears, a slave sharing bread and wine with his master. There was something different here. There was a different Spirit here.
In many ways, this new group of people, this church, was poor and needy. It didn’t have political power, but it had a power of another kind, a power to change lives and heal relationships. And even to heal bodies. The same Spirit that had come upon Jesus, now rested on the leaders of the church, and they were able to do amazing things like healings. As always, these miracles were few and far between, but they were enough to get noticed. More and more, as the church and its influence grew, the miracles became more and more rare, until they eventually dwindled away. No one doubted that the Spirit could still do these things; it just seemed like he didn’t want to as much any more.
Along with the occasional miracle came other special enablements of the Spirit. The church was full of people who were brand new to following Jesus, and the Spirit had to make sure that their faith was nurtured and deepened. So, he gave different people special abilities – the ability to speak in different languages like the disciples had so that more people would become followers of Jesus, the ability to prophecy and explain God’s plan so that more people would have mature faith, the ability to discern with wisdom what was right and true and what wasn’t so that more people who stay on track with their newfound faith. Like training wheels, these special gifts helped the church to get going, but once it was moving, they came off. They dwindled away as well.
While the church started in Jerusalem, it did not stay there long. The first wave of missionaries was all of the people in town for the Feast of Pentecost. They had heard of Jesus and accepted him and then returned home to tell others of what they had learned. The second wave of missionaries happened during the persecutions that tested the church’s mettle. As Jewish religious leaders like Saul came after them, new church members headed out for safer areas, telling others about Jesus as they went. Then, Roman political leaders got into the act, and the more they tried to stomp out the church, the more it spread. The third wave of missionaries came from the most unexpected place of all – Saul, the great persecutor of the church, became a follower of Jesus Christ himself. With the same zeal he once had to wipe the church out, he now gave his life to see it grow.
As the church grew, its leaders – Saul (now renamed Paul), Peter, John, James, and others – recognized that they had better help the young churches spread across the continents understand what they ought to believe and how they ought to live. In the days before email, telephones, the postal service, or even the printing press, this was no easy task. But they undertook it nonetheless. They wrote letters to various churches, instructing them, sometimes rebuking them, correcting and training them in righteousness. These letters were read and copied and circulated so that as many people as possible would know what to believe and how to behave as a Christ-follower, a church member.
But this was not merely a human effort. The Spirit of God, just as he had with the ancient priests, prophets, poets, and philosophers, helped them. As they retold the stories of the life of Jesus, he brought things back to their memories. As they instructed the church as it faced new challenges, he taught them, guiding them into all truth. He was there, making sure that what they wrote wasn’t merely their opinion, but was the true opinion of God. Eventually – a couple hundred years later – the church would take the letters they used the most and put their stamp of approval on them, officially recognizing them as a special collection of letters not just from church leaders but from God himself. They would be the standard by which all things in the life of church would be judged.
For two thousand years the church has lived as a body animated and empowered by the Spirit. Though it is far from perfect, it continues to touch lives – my life and your life. But that is a story for next week.
(c) 2005 copyright Robb Ryerse. Please do not republish without permission.