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The Holy Spirit is Life

The last time I wrote deeply about the Holy Spirit (in a blog post last October called "The Holy Spirit is Power") I was thinking about the power of the Holy Spirit to make change. I once was a physics and engineering major, and the idea of the physics concept of work (like what we measure in Watts) was my metaphor. Today, I guess I'm embracing a part of school that I used to avoid. The Holy Spirit is life. This implies both biology and subjects that consider human thought and culture, like psychology and anthropology and sociology.

The thing that got me thinking about this was the book of First John that's been coming up in the lectionary readings for Sundays. I haven't preached on every single one of them, but often, they are the reading I have been drawn toward. First John is written into a community in schism. Likely, some Gnostic thought has crept into the community, and this has created opportunity for differences of opinion. Gnostics, among other things, insisted on a strict dualism between the physical and the spiritual. The Christian faith, in contrast, is a very bodily faith.

Paul uses the concept of "the Flesh" as powers of temptation and abuse of our neighbors, so you sometimes hear a Christian kind of Spirit/Flesh duality, and this might make you wonder what's wrong with Gnostic dualism? We Christians believe in the resurrection of the body: Jesus had touchable wounds and ate fish when he was raised from the dead, and we also believe that we will be raised from the dead in the body. Though it's hard to describe what kind of body our resurrection body will be, we definitely believe that we were created with a body, we have a body, and we will have a body in the resurrection. Gnostics went too far in their dualities and believed they would transcend their body, not get a new one. They believed the body now was a distraction to spirituality, not part of God's perfect creation. Paul writes about the body in I Corinthians 15: our resurrection body will be our current body transformed, like a seed turning into a plant. We don’t know what that body will be like, but we will definitely have a body. So, for all Paul’s Flesh-Spirit duality, he’s no Gnostic.

So, as I'm reading First John, I think from a perspective that is not so much against the Flesh, but from a more holistic perspective. God's creation is perfect including both flesh and spirit. The Gnostics thought only Spirit was good. The Christians thought God's spirit was good, but that was not all. The Elder (the name the author of First John gives himself) says to test the spirits. "By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God." A Spirit that confesses Jesus in the Flesh is good; denying either part—spirit OR flesh—is bad.

Adding theology to biology, God scooped up dirt and breathed God's Spirit into it and it lived. Without God's Spirit, we are just so much chemical dust: molecules and atoms and electrons. Biologists and Neuropsychologist can describe how all those chemicals are participating in thought and emotion, but they can't quite describe the spark that makes us living humans. It's the Spirit that gives life, but it gives life to us piles of dirt.

The book of First John is also about community. Any leader writing to a community in schism feels compassion for the people feeling the emotional pain caused by the divisions. They long for healthy relationships in the community. The Elder writes: “we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” That part about “what we have seen and heard” is the real, physical stuff that the Elder is a witness to, but intangible fellowship is also real, and a real source of joy.

We relate to each other, and those relationships are also real. We learned this lesson with so many live streams and zoom calls during the pandemic. Christianity is a bodily religion, as I said, and physical presence is important—in hospital rooms and other pastoral care situations, books and professors and mentors and experienced clergy all agree that being present is important. What we learned, though is that seeing faces (however small) and hearing voices goes a long way to maintaining relationship, and that’s real, too.

I would say that in addition to being a bodily religion, Christianity is a relational religion. We emphasize relationship with each other and relationship with God. This is a significant shift in perspective. We count things like membership and attendance in terms of the number of people present or participating, in terms of the number of bodies. The relationships, though, are in the spaces between people. Maybe we should count the number of relationships in our congregations instead of the number of people. Maybe we should list the particular relationships in our prayer concerns (at least in our private prayer time). There are mathematical formulae for this. If we have 63 people taking communion, there are almost two thousand relationships present. That’s not counting each person’s relationship with God or with each person in the trinity. This is beyond psychology; this is starting to scale up to groups and cultures, sociology and anthropology. I consider each relationship a blessing, and this little mathematical exercise shows again the abundance of God’s blessing.

So where is the Holy Spirit in all this? I would say the Holy Spirit is in all those spaces between us. First John is where we find the verse that says God is Love. Love is a thing that exist between people. Psychologically, a person has to think of themselves separately as subject and object in order to love themselves; they have to make a space within themselves for the love to exist. When there are two people, though, the space already exists for the love to reside between them. It is God who resides there when we love each other, and that is the function of the Holy Spirit. The Elder said, “truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” When you consider that God IS love, then this might be restated as “our fellowship IS the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.” That’s the Holy Spirit again. Our relationships, the space between each of us and each other, IS love, and that IS God. All this relationship is life in community. THAT’s what I mean when I say the Holy Spirit is life.

In Genesis, the garden is full of life. Life is the main thing that God created. We could say that God is life and that God creates life. In the Gospel of John, when Jesus greets Mary on Easter morning, they are also in a garden. She is weeping and mistakes him for a gardener. Their relationship—their love—is evident. He loves her and says her name, “Mary.” She loves him and calls him “Rabbouni,” or my teacher. She wants to touch him and hug him. All around them is the lush life of the garden. In Genesis and in John, life is abundant; God’s blessings are abundant. This also is what I mean when I say the Holy Spirit is life. Jesus creates relationship and love, and Jesus is Love, for God is Love. The Holy Spirit is love and relationship and community. The Holy Spirit is Life and abundant blessing.



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