Tag Archives: HolySpirit

When Nicodemus Met God, the Mysterious Three in One

Holy Trinity by Fridolin Leiber (1853–1912)

Sunday Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8     Psalm 29     Romans 8:12-17     John 3:1-17

Every Christian has heard the phrase, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” many times. We hear it every Sunday during worship, often more than once. We mention all three persons when we confess our faith in the Creed. Prayers often close with a reference to all three persons, sometimes rather lengthy. The pastoral blessing at the end of the Eucharist always names all three persons. We hear it at a baptism. We hear texts with reference to the three persons in more abstruse terms. We all know that God is the Mysterious Three in One, one God in three persons, but we all struggle if anyone asks for an explanation.

This phrase was not familiar to Nicodemus who, as a Pharisee, was well acquainted with the texts we call the Old Testament. He was more accustomed to think of God in terms of the most important words to Israelites: Hear O Israel. The Lord our God is one God. When Jesus began to speak of being born from above, Nicodemus was not prepared to understand what he meant. Jesus actually introduced Nicodemus to all the elements of the Trinity. That concept is not likely the message he took home with him, yet Jesus had to talk about all three persons for his message to make any sense. He pointed out that a person must be born of the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God. He talked about himself, saying that he had come down from heaven, where the Father lives eternally, the same Father who spoke at Jesus’ baptism saying, “This is my beloved Son.” He summed up his teaching in probably the most famous words in the Bible, saying that God, who exists in three persons, loved the world so much that the Father sent the Son into the world to save the world. Faith in the Christ the Son is the work of the Spirit, by whose grace and power people are born into the Kingdom of God.

The whole idea of God who is one existing in Three Persons without being divided – it overwhelms human brain capacity and human language. Mohammed couldn’t accept it, and he created the religion of Islam for that very reason. His inability to accept the Trinity as an article of faith led him down a different road. Mormons, on the other hand, seem to acknowledge many gods, even though they focus on God the Father, and they ascribe no divinity to Jesus. They cannot accept One God in Three Persons, either. During two thousand years of Christian history, Christians have felt that they needed to explain this mystery, and this need has led to numerous heresies.

The simple truth is that we cannot explain the Trinity. We can only accept it. It is a mystery. God, infinite and eternal, is already beyond our comprehension. The Trinity is simply another mysterious truth about God. We confess faithfully that it is, but we also confess that we have no idea how it can be so.

The Book of Concord touches on the mystery, summing it up as the message of the gospel. It is the Father’s perfect plan that the Holy Spirit creates true faith in our hearts that we may come to Christ, our Redeemer. The gospel only makes sense if the Trinity is truth, and the Trinity comes clear to the eyes of our hearts in the gospel, even though our minds of flesh are still mystified. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus introduces Nicodemus to the mysterious Three in One, and when John sat down to write about Jesus, he thought this conversation was important enough that it needed to  be preserved,  even though the whole world could not contain everything he might have written about Christ. When we hear this story, we listen as Nicodemus listened, and Christ opens our minds and hearts to the truth of the gospel and the mystery of the Trinity.

Why does it matter? Because God himself, mysterious Three in One, ordained that faith in Christ the Son is the gift of the Holy Spirit by the grace of God the Father. This is the faith we hold dear and confess each Sunday in the Creed.

What difference did it make to Nicodemus? When Joseph of Arimathea took possession of the body of Jesus and laid it lovingly in his own tomb, Nicodemus brought costly spices for wrapping the body. The Trinity made a huge difference to Nicodemus. What difference does it make to you?

© 2012 Katherine Harms

The Word is truth

Sunday’s readings Acts 1:15-17. 21-26   Psalm 1    1 John 5:9-13     John 17:6-19

 Recently news was received from the tiny country of Bhutan, high in the Himalayas. The US doesn’t get much news from that part of the world, and this news was not published in the New York Times or even on the Drudge Report. It arrived via a newsletter from OpenDoors.com. The news stated that Christians were hopeful they could continue meeting in private homes while they continue to attempt to be classified as a legitimate religion in Bhutan. In this remote Himalayan country, the official religion is Buddhism. Bhutan is classified as a kingdom, but it is transitioning to a form of democracy which already includes a legislature. Early in the process of learning democracy the national legislature passed a law called The National Religious Organizations Act. Religions not named in that act are considered to be unlawful. Furthermore, no religion, even presumably the lawful ones, may engage in proselytizing, particularly if some inducement is offered to converts. Christians have difficulty making their case for legitimacy due to allegations that they offer a reward to people who agree to convert. There was no hint in the news article what the alleged reward is, but it may be that the promise of eternal life is deemed by the government to be an inducement.

From the comfortable vantage point of the USA it is difficult to imagine a country where religions must be recognized by the government in order to be allowed to exist. This problem is more common than Western Christians realize. In Africa and Asia it is not at all uncommon for there to be strict regulations for religions. In our country we can call join any religion we like, or none at all, and we meet wherever and whenever we wish. We are free to publicly argue all sorts of religious question among ourselves. Christians get upset when people want to stop using the greeting “Merry Christmas,” but that complaint looks quite lame compared to arrest, imprisonment and even torture, which are common in many countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian. We can hardly imagine that there are at least 50 countries in the world where it isn’t always safe to be a Christian.

Jesus could imagine it. He knew it was coming. In fact, the night before Jesus was scourged nearly to death and nailed to a cross to finish the job, he prayed for the Christians in Bhutan, and Laos and Eritrea and China and North Korea and all the other countries where simply claiming to be a Christian is risky business.

Today’s gospel is only a small selection from John 17, a chapter sometimes labeled “Christ’s High Priestly Prayer.” Our reading does not include the words that made the prayer so far-reaching in scope, verse 20 where Jesus said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Facing misery and grief none of us can really imagine, Jesus paused to pray for the disciples he already knew would abandon him in his hour of need, and for all the people who would be their descendants in the family of faith, including you and me.

We need his prayers. We may not be at risk of arrest if our neighbors find out we are Christians, but we have received the same commission the disciples received, and the pressure from the world around us to shut up about it is immense. On this fateful night Jesus told his disciples that they could expect to be hated, and he did not pray that they would not be hated. That is our kind of prayer. We pray to be rescued. We want to prevent bad things from happening. We hope God will put up a shield around us so we don’t get hurt. It is almost shocking to read that Jesus did not pray that we be rescued. Jesus prayed instead that we be sanctified.

Jesus knew that we would face personal insults, cultural rejection and both cultural and state persecution. Yet he prayed that we would meet our attackers with sanctification. He asked us to be dedicated and consecrated and blessed, but he did not ask for us to escape our enemies.

The prayer for our sanctification builds on his words to the disciples. Jesus had given the disciples the words his Father gave to him. The disciples treasured those words the way the Psalmist in today’s reading treasured Torah. Jesus had promised that when the disciples were dragged away by their persecutors the Holy Spirit would remind them of those words and give them the right words to speak their testimony. The disciples later wrote down Jesus’ words and deeds and we have them for our nourishment in the Bible. Since Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for them, the words the Holy Spirit gives us in the time of need are weapons of love and truth. Jesus prayed that his followers under threat would be sanctified, and the history of the church confirms that this is what happens. The stories of the martyrs who suffered and died for the faith over the past 2000 years are clear evidence that the persecuted are blessed by the Holy Spirit with powerful testimony, they are consecrated to love and service to Christ above all other loyalties, but very seldom are they rescued.

In Bhutan, Christians are under threat from both the culture and the state. Yet, scorned culturally and persecuted by their neighbors and by the government, they continue to live their faith and give their testimonies. We can be thankful that we do not need to worship in secret and hide our religion when we apply for work or buy a house. We can be thankful that nobody is likely to take our Bibles away from us if we show them in public. The story of Bhutan Christians ought to inspire us to emulate their courage when we are the object of scathing insults on the internet, or when our employers forbid us to say, “Merry Christmas.” Jesus prayed for us to be strong in the world and to be prepared for its hatred, and to be ready with a response that is loving and truthful. May we live in deep relationship with Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit in order to be ready to respond to the onslaught of cultural and legal attacks on Christianity with a sanctified testimony.

 

What Comes After Love?

Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables (Photo credit: nutrilover)

John 15:9 says “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”  This is a comforting verse. Many people memorize this verse in order to comfort themselves by thinking about it when life is painful. This verse makes people feel they can let go of chaos and fear and simply rest in the Lord. That is fine as far as it goes, but this verse is part of a larger story. Paul would have said that the message of comfort is the milk of this text. In order to get the meat, you need to read more.Jesus was talking to his disciples at a time when they needed comfort. To be more precise, Jesus knew they would soon need comfort. It had been almost a week since Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem to the adulation of huge crowds. Even his confrontations with Pharisees and priests could hardly have erased the memory of that triumphant image – well, sort of triumphant. A man riding a colt doesn’t really look imperial, but all those shouting people counted for something. Jesus knew, however, that the shouts of the Jerusalem crowd were about to become something very different from the shouts of the people waving palm branches and throwing cloaks into his path. The continuation of this text addresses needs the disciples could not have comprehended at the time.

We can. We know, 2000 years later, what happened before the night was over, and what happened the very next day. We know about the terror. We know about the tomb. We know what the disciples could not have known as they listened to Jesus and asked him where he was going, and why they could not go along. In fact, after 2000 years of waiting for the second coming, we know what it is to ask if Jesus is really present. It is a great treasure for us that John cherished the memory of this night so deeply that he shared it with those who were not there. We need it as much as they did.

In this speech to his disciples, Jesus told them how they could have joy, even as they contemplated the crucifixion. His message was intended to build up joy that transcended circumstance. It is the kind of joy that remains even in a prison cell, as Correy Ten Boom could testify. This joy carries us through sickrooms and death of loved ones and unemployment and foreclosure. This joy is the result of abiding in the love of Christ in the same way that he abides in the love of the Father. He showed us this love and this joy when he went to the cross and prayed forgiveness for his tormentors.

Jesus reinforced his strength-building message by calling the disciples friends. This renaming of his relationship with the men who had traveled with him for three years did not change his teaching about living a servant life at all. It did change the attitude of the servant. A friend does not serve simply out of obedience; a friend serves out of love. Jesus asked for obedience to the law of love, not to the law of doing good works.

As for the outcome of all our good works lovingly performed, he reminds us, and his disciples, that we don’t earn points for reserved seating in heaven or even the adulation of the people around us when we perform loving service. After all, none of us sought him first. He sought us. All those disciples were going about their daily business when Jesus called them away, and that is how it is for us as well. We can’t run up to Jesus and demand to be his friend. He seeks us out when we don’t even know to look for him, he loves us when we are still busy about things that satisfy our egos, and he loves us anyway. He calls the unworthy and makes them his friends. All the glory for anything good that comes out of it belongs to Christ.

The overarching image in Jesus’ words that night was that the Father loved the Son so richly that the Son was immersed in that love and filled to overflowing with it. Jesus the Son had the same kind of love for the disciples. The image of that fountain of love is that as we live in the center of the love of Christ, that love overflows into all our other relationships: our relationships with fellow believers and our relationships with all the other people we meet. This kind of love is not touchy-feely; it is active. We know that this love exists, because of the actions that ensue. Jesus modeled the ultimate loving behavior when he died for us and for all sinners while we were still enemies, not friends. This is the kind of love we learn from him. Love Christ, because he loves us. Love one another, as Christ loves us. Our love for one another is like a training center for loving everyone else.

Ultimately, the point is that our relationship with Christ, our friendship with him, should bear fruit. What fruit? Well, obviously love is the first fruit. Jesus also mentioned joy, another fruit. Paul would later write to the Ephesians about the fruits of our relationship with Christ. Those fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. A person who loves Christ and loves other people will produce the other fruits as he grows and matures.

Later that same night, Jesus promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. This indwelling presence would be the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus’ other name: Emmanuel, God with us. The Holy Spirit’s presence is rich and strengthening when we live in the love of Christ.

It is hard to love people the way Christ did. I think a lifetime is not long enough to learn. It is discouraging to realize that we who are called the friends of Christ are not able to do the first thing he wants us to do – love people the way he does. Yet because the presence of the Holy Spirit constantly nudges us toward love and gently nudges us again when we fail, we can go ahead and keep trying. Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” His love is our strength.

Getting Ready to Learn from the Bible

Titlepage of the New Testament section of a Ge...
Titlepage of the New Testament section of a German Luther Bible, printed in 1769. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are many ways to study the Bible, as many ways as there are people to study. One way to enhance your understanding is to use helps. Bible study helps come in many forms – commentaries, dictionaries, maps, and so forth. You can find Bible study guides that encapsulate helps and thought questions that may make it easier for you to accomplish your study in less time.

I like to use an assortment of helps. When I study a particular text, I usually read several commentaries in order not to be confined to one person’s viewpoint on the text. If one or more specific words seem important, I use dictionaries to help me understand those words. If it seems important to get back to the original languages, I use an interlinear Bible that links to lexicons for that language.

Here is an example of using helps to understand the lectionary readings for Easter Sunday this year, 2012.

The texts are:

Acts 10:34-43

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Mark 16:1-8

As I read through the texts for the first time, I took note of verses or sentences that seemed more important to me. You will find that any given verse or passage may spark different reactions each time you read it. I believe this is the work of the Holy Spirit leading us into truth.

For example, as I read the Acts passage this time, I was drawn to pay attention to the verse that says that Jesus healed “all who were oppressed by the devil.” It reminded me that in our readings from the book of Mark this year, demon possession figures prominently, but the Acts passage doesn’t really refer to possession. It uses the word “oppressed.” I wondered if it would be appropriate to conclude that Peter felt that all the people Jesus healed – the sick, the lame, the deaf, the lepers, as well as the demon possessed – were oppressed by the devil. I wrote down that verse and took note of that question for further investigation. I will first look in several commentaries, and I may find that I needed a dictionary or even a Greek lexicon, depending on what I find in the commentaries.

The last verse of the Acts text says that “everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins.” If I think back to Peter’s original comment about those who were “oppressed by the devil,” this passage makes me ask if it is right to conclude that Peter believes sin is the expression of the truth that we are “oppressed by the devil?” It will be important to know how the term “sins” is understood specifically in this text and generally in similar texts. I may need to look at a book on theology, or maybe some of the early Christian writings will refer to this text.

When I read Psalm 118, I see a text I have seen as a quotation in the New Testament. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” I don’t immediately remember where it is quoted, but I can look it up in some of my helps. I also see the word “salvation.” We commonly say that our salvation is the result of Christ’s death and resurrection, which had not taken place when Psalm 118 was written. That must mean that in this psalm, the word meant something different to the original writer and the original readers, yet this word may foreshadow or foretell something about the Messiah, especially since the “cornerstone” verse is quoted in the New Testament. I note the quotation and the word “salvation” for further research. I am also led to ask if there is a relationship between Peter’s use of the phrase “oppressed by the devil” and the Psalmist’s use of the word “salvation.” Most people say that salvation takes place when our sins are forgiven. I may want to look in some theology books for definitions of salvation and for better understanding of the theological view of sin. Theologians may have a broader definition of sin than the common idea that sin is something we should not do.

1 Corinthians 15 is famously about Christ’s resurrection. Verses 1-11 refer to it, reporting the evidence of those who witnessed Christ alive after his resurrection, and reporting Paul’s own experience with the risen Christ. I read and reread this passage trying to uncover any relationship with the other texts, and then I saw this verse (3) “Christ died for our sins … (vs. 4) he was buried and … he was raised on the third day.” If I am following the right thread of thought through these texts, this section will help me reach the understanding the Holy Spirit is trying to teach me in these readings. “For our sins” may be linked with Peter’s statement about people “oppressed by the devil.” In order to find any link, I probably need texts with the original language and references to lexicons or other resources that explain that either the same word is used, or the word used is related.

Finally I reach the gospel reading. Mark tells only that three women went to the tomb, where they found the stone rolled back. Inside, Jesus’ body was gone, and a young man in white spoke to them. He said, “Jesus of Nazareth … has been raised; he is not here.” This is an eyewitness account that underlies the passages in Acts and 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians passage nails down information that might result from investigation of the report of a resurrection. In Acts, Peter explains what it means for us that Jesus rose from the dead. It is becoming apparent that the term “oppressed by the devil” may really have a strong link to the meaning of resurrection and salvation. I wonder if I can find a book or commentary that will help me see the whole picture.

After prayerfully reading all four texts, I conclude that I will focus on Peter’s statement that during Jesus’ ministry he set individual people free from the devil’s oppression. I will examine the concept that sin is Satan’s tool to oppress us, and that Christ’s death and resurrection eternally set all people free from that oppression. I will use some commentaries, dictionaries, and perhaps some individual books that shed light on these passages and these concepts. Eventually I expect to reach a moment in which some truth just for me will emerge from this study. I will use the following strategies:

  • Ø  Research Bible Study – reading and taking notes from reference materials
  • Ø  Sustaining Bible Study – one or more meditations on themes that emerge from my research
  • Ø  Transformational Bible Study – time set aside to ask God what needs to be different in my life because of this study

Everybody needs to study the Bible in order to grow as a Christian. We all have different life schedules, different gifts, different callings, and different ways of learning. Some people do not learn best in the pages of a book or sitting still somewhere. Know yourself, and study using the means and opportunities God gives you. I share this information as a prompt for you to discover the method or style that opens your heart to the guidance and teaching of the Holy Spirit. I am deeply grateful not to be a cookie-cutter human, just like everybody else. You, too, are unique. Discover how special you are in relationship with Christ.

What learning method or style draws you so close to Christ that it is like walking together in conversation?

 

 

 

Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic
Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic (Photo credit: jakebouma)

The teachings of Jesus are all about love. In fact, when we read those teachings closely, we discover that the teachings of Jesus are about transformation. When we get close to Jesus and spend time listening to him, we open ourselves to become different. When the Holy Spirit dwells within a person, that person simply cannot continue to be like everyone else.

Today’s daily news is filled with rhetoric about the way people relate to each other. If I read only the specific spoken words, I would conclude that all the people involved are trying very hard to get along with each other. Each party to the conflict simply feels the need to point out some little failing in the words the other person is using. Simply using better words would clear everything up in a flash.

NOT!

Politically correct language is not about loving anyone. The rules for speaking politically correct language do not transform anybody, and abiding by those rules will not produce a culture where people love or even respect one another. The best possible outcome from mandating correct speech is tolerance. If you have ever dealt with a sibling you could barely tolerate, you could testify to the fact that tolerance is not love.

Still, the secular culture of our day holds the usage of correct speech in high regard. The level of regard is expressed by those who not only watch what specific approved or disapproved words are spoken, but they also peer beyond the specific words and recognize when otherwise innocuous words have become code for forbidden words. I don’t need to elaborate on this image. You hear it every day from commentators and politicians and the spokespersons for politicians.

The problem with policing speech is that while people can be legislated to use or to avoid specific words with some degree of success, there is no corresponding success in changing attitudes. The underlying problems remain, and the problems are not all in the hearts of those who use what is considered to be offensive speech. For every person who expresses a heart illness that is manifest in speech that assaults someone, there is someone who cannot forgive some past offense, and that person is on high alert to find the slightest remnant or suggestion that the offense is approved by any speaker. Someone who takes offense at people who have done nothing to offend, finding hate speech and code words everywhere, has a serious problem with the inability to forgive. The mechanism of managing verbiage can never heal an unforgiving heart. That heart must be transformed by love, and that kind of change can only be made by the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to achieve transformation of the culture by policing the speech of the people.

It is hard to imagine how such behavior arose in a nation whose regard for the freedom of speech given to every human being by God himself at the moment of creation is enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution. As often happens, it arose in response to very real wrongdoing, but effects of the perpetration of evil have been exacerbated by the effects of the inability of people to forgive, even when the old wrong no longer even exists. This problem mirrors the behavior of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, and when we look at what Jesus thought about the Pharisees, we can see clearly why political correctness will never have the desired effect. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for washing the outside of a cup and ignoring the garbage inside. He accused the Pharisees of being like mausoleums – ornate and beautiful on the outside, despite being full of rotting corpses and the bones of the dead.

The solution to a culture where people actually do get along, where people respect one another and even love one another, is not political correctness. The solution is in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus said that love is the greatest commandment of all. We should love God above all, and love our neighbors as ourselves. He said that even if a neighbor became an enemy, we should love that neighbor anyway, and even pray for that neighbor. Furthermore, if that neighbor needed anything from us, Jesus said we should give it. We should not withhold ourselves or anything we have from that enemy neighbor while it lies in our power to make the situation better. When people are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to live the law of love, then this culture will be transformed as well.

When I point out that political correctness will not solve attitude problems, I do not suggest that we should all abandon good manners and polite consideration for others in our words. I simply mean that good police work never ends crime. Criticizing or even punishing people for unacceptable speech does not really do anything for the issue that lies beneath the words. There is only one way to transform the human heart. That heart must be open to the Holy Spirit.

How does this work?

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:16-17