For the first third of my seminary studies, I resisted that Paul was talking about the Spirit when he was indeed…talking about the Spirit. What I mean by that is that I was uncomfortable with the presence of a Power that would deprive me of control, a Power that I thought I had never experienced, a Power which was not dependent upon my intellect, and a Power whose identity I could not be certain of. I wanted to interpret his reference to the Spirit to some kind of metaphor. Then one of my professors and mentors moved me to accept the undeniable–that the gospel was spread because of a subjective, most often collective, uniquely powerful experience of the risen Christ, not just because of an idea or of a heightened sense of our natural capacity for love or generosity or forgiveness. So it is the Spirit of Jesus, wrote Paul, that progressively takes us over, that transforms us into the Christ, that actually justifies us, that can actually progressively make us as just and righteous and compassionate and sacrificing as the Christ. We are not just forgiven and accepted. We can be changed into a new creation by this Spirit. That is God’s greatest offer of grace.
But having made my peace, so to speak, with the reality and central role of the Spirit experienced and attested by Paul, I recognize that I had never experienced it as Paul did and as his communities did. Paul was a mystic. He didn’t just “see” the risen Lord. He experienced an ongoing union with the risen Jesus. He experienced that he had “put on” Christ, that Christ had come to live in him through the Spirit. (And he also reports that he had ecstatic spiritual experiences “Ecstatic” comes from the Greek for “out of body.” He spoke in tongues under the power of the Spirit.) It was this Presence that drove him and which empowered him to live a life of extreme hardship and danger.
So…we wouldn’t want Paul preaching to us. Would we? Either we think this Spirit stuff is for people who are intellectually inferior to us, or we don’t want to be embarrassed by losing control, or we think this is just superstition, or we have seen and heard people claiming the presence of the Spirit to justify miserable, self-centered conduct. But “Spirit stuff” wasn’t any of these to Paul, who was…..intellectually brilliant. I repeat, this church wouldn’t want Paul preaching to it.
But I confess that I am at a place and time personally where I want an experience of the Spirit like the experiences of Paul. At least I think I would. (In my ministry, I could use a bit more assurance that I am on the Way in the way I am resisting wife and child abusers, thank you, Jesus, very much.) And I am afraid that I have never had this experience and that I never will. But then I wonder if that is true, if indeed I have experienced it. I am tempted to reduce the experience of the risen Christ to no more than an intense experience of love or forgiveness or compassion or peacefulness, to no more than a psychological experience explicable by the way my mind is hard-wired. In short, I try to reduce the experience of the Spirit to something controllable and normal and understandable in common terms. But from Paul’s writings, such an experience is also much more than this. The experience can be holy, which is to say “other” and weird, blowing-the-doors-off, radically life changing, radically insightful into another reality. I would like this experience. I think. I mean, would you like to “see” the Risen Lord as Paul says he did. See 1 Corinthians 9.1. (And I am well aware that some of you are falling out of the marching column right……now.)
So in my sermon Sunday, I am going to try to examine what there is in Paul’s writings about HOW he and his worshiping ecclesia experienced the Risen Christ, not how just how it was manifested but what the means were. Referencing specifically to the passage below from 1st Thessalonians, the questions is HOW was it that they received the gospel “under the power of the Spirit.”
So you might look at the following scripture before Sunday.
“…[W]e know that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” Galatians 2.16.
“Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law, or by believing what you have heard?” Galatians 3.2
“[I]t is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God.” Galatians 2.20
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes from the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness from God based upon faithfulness. I want to know Christ…” Philippians 3.7-10.
“My little children, for whom I am again in childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” Galatians 4.19.
“Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?”2 Corinthians 13.5.
“For we know, brothers and sisters, beloved of God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, just as you know what kind of person we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” 1 Thessalonians 1.4-6.