2018 June 3rd - People Of The Spirit



Mysterious are the ways of the spirit that blows where it wills. In today’s readings we encounter stories of the spirit’s effect in the lives of particular people. As we journey with them and observe their experience, it may be that we will emerge more enlightened about our own experience of the life of the spirit.

PART 1 ELI: A flickering spirit

Eli is a priest in the temple of the Lord. A faithful servant of God, he is sadly burdened by the aberrant behaviour of his sons Hophni and Phineas, who basically desecrate the Temple and its worship. There is a correlation between the mention of scarce visions in verse 1 and that Eli’s ‘eyesight had begun to grow dim’. It is not that God is withholding anything, but that the channel of vision has become murky. Eli’s poor sight is emblematic of the blindness of the people.

And yet, despite failing in body and spirit, it is not all over for Eli. A spirit of discernment still flickers within him, so when the boy Samuel wakes him for the third time, under the impression that Eli has been calling him, the light finally breaks through the mists of sleep. It is God, seeking to communicate through a more receptive channel- the ears of Samuel.

Many of us here know about this sense of decline, the progressive loss of faculties that were once sharp. I find that other people do not speak as clearly as they used to. It is a source of some amusement in our household when I tell Helen what I actually heard her saying, as opposed to what she actually said. We may also relate to the distress of Eli, in a sense of failure regarding the spiritual inheritance of our children. We are faced with the possibility in our later years of enveloping sadness, dwindling faith and declining spiritual energy- of growing old ungraciously, grumpy and bitter.

This is not how it is with Eli. The spirit of discernment still flickers in him, and in this instance, flares with recognition of the voice of God, even if it is through another set of eyes and ears. He still has a part to play. We can understand how the boy Samuel is highly reluctant to tell Eli the message God has given him about the dire consequences of his childrens’ blasphemy. Very few of us are keen to give the messages that will make the ears of the recipients tingle. But whatever else is failing in Eli, in this he is strong: Samuel- tell the truth! Do not hide the words you have been entrusted to speak.

"So Eli emerges as an entirely noble figure…sensing that Yahweh’s words to Samuel concern him, he coaxes the news of God’s impending judgment from the young man, and to his credit, does not fault Samuel for this terrible verdict. Lonely and tragic figure that he is, Eli bows to God’s will, basing his attitude on the affirmation that, since God is good, that which God does cannot be otherwise.” Eli has made a lot of mistakes, yet he still has asomething to give- notably, gentleness (how would you go being woken up three time with the same question?), discernment, and the ability to hear hard things.

I invite you to reflect on how the spirit that flickers in Samuel is the same spirit that can flicker for us when we sense that we are not what we used to be. In our home we have a saying, born out of our own past struggles, that the story is not yet over. As the wheel of life turns, it reveals ever-new surprises, especially in the heart and soul where God abides.

TIS "Abide with me”

PART 2 SAMUEL: An emerging spirit.

It may not be as easy for some of us to embrace the emerging spirit of Samuel as it is to recognise the flickering spirit of Eli. As the searching Pharisee Nicodemus exclaims to Jesus "How can anyone be born having grown old? " Of course the answer to that is "What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit.” An emerging spirit, a new revelation, starting again, is a spiritual experience that need take no account of age.

Interestingly, Samuel does not, as far as we know, bring any particular advantages to the arena of this temple drama, except perhaps, a pushy mother. He is a so-called ‘blank canvas’, an innocent recipient of a divine intervention. He is vulnerable. What really sets his path is that God has chosen it for him. Now, I am not really a fan of predestination. I am just reporting what the scriptures are saying about this. The point is this. God’s spirit is ever present. The fact that it could not get through to Eli’s lot was their problem, not God’s. That same spirit is available to Samuel, and while God sets the path before him, it is still up to him to respond, and to do the work of spiritual formation in order to be able to gain understanding for himself.

This emerging spirit can be discerned not only in individuals, but fledgling communities, or churches such as this that are seeking a new way for a new day. Hamilton Wesley has been here for nearly a hundred years, but it has never been here before. What we need to do is look around us with a fresh eyes and listen with new ears. The sights and sounds of the spirit may not be familiar to us, for we are young as far as fresh expressions of mission are concerned. We are not yet thoroughly familiar and at ease with formulae such as the Five Marks of Mission. There are others who can school us and lead us into this new space, and we have to try (and I find this difficult) to listen humbly, just in case the messenger, young Samuel though he may be, is reporting to instructions of God.

Among other things that he did, Samuel was responsible for two critical initiatives that determined the course of nations. He was the anointer of Saul, who saved the Israelites from the Philistines, and then the battle king, David. The fact that these two great leaders had serious flaws of character did not mean that Samuel misheard God’s instruction. They all played their part in the divine drama. I wonder if we, who are now in a similarly critical phase of history when the people of God, are seeking the guidance of an emergent spirit to discern which leaders will best serve the critical needs of the nation. To do this we have to get past the greedy, selfish motives of Hophni and Phineas, and discern in whose hands the common good of all creation will be best served.

TIS "The lord is my shepherd and I want to follow…”

READING: MARK 2: 23- 3:6

PART 3. PHARISEE: A blocked spirit

If the prophetic spirit could not speak through Eli because of his passive acceptance of his son’s greedy and debased activities, the problem expands exponentially when a whole tight-knit group of powerbrokers work actively to block the possibility of either flickering or emerging spirit in the community.

Not that the Phrisees deliberately set out to disobey God. In fact, they would claim that their intention was just the opposite. They wanted to maintain the spiritual tradition that had been handed on to them- make things stay the same, keep all the rules, and make sure that everyone else did too. If Eli’s eyes were becoming dim, the Pharisees spiritual eyes seemed to be totally without sight, their ears blocked to the messianic message. Where Jesus brought hope, all they could see was threat. When he talked about love, they heard the word ‘license’. When he led the hearts and minds of people towards freedom, all they discerned loss of control. Their control!

The critical message of Jesus into this situation is- you cannot fast at a wedding feast. You cannot sew a new patch into old cloth, or put new wine in old wineskins. The Pharisees have to change, and they are unable to do so. They cannot afford to see how a hungry person could pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath, or hear of a work of healing on that holy day. They could not entertain his completely reasonable argument-" Is it lawful to do good or to harm on the Sabbath, to kill or to heal?” A good argument can sometime change open minds, but it never works on hardened, fearful hearts.

I hope that we are open enough to look within ourselves and see where are our blockages to the spirit. We all have them, simply because we are human, hard wired to choose our own survival. We also know, as followers of Jesus, that these blockages are not immovable; and we have the stories of three Pharisees to prove it.

Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night of his ignorance, and heard how the spirit blows freely. Joseph of Arimathea defended Jesus in the Sanhedrin. Both men were there at the end to give the body of Jesus a respectful burial. The blockages to their journey toward truth were removed by the power of their encounters with Jesus of Nazareth. The biggest miracle, however, is Saul. Breathing death threats about the Christians of Damascus, his spiritual blindness becomes physical in his encounter with the risen Christ on the road. Then, a few days later, his eyes are opened to new truth through the witness of another brave and obedient conveyor of the spirit, Ananias.

The great love of God in Christ breaks every barrier, lays low the hills, and shakes the mountains.

TIS: ‘The scream of police car sirens vs. 1-3

Part 4. JESUS- Renewing, reforming spirit.

When we look at the work of the spirit in the ministry of Jesus, we see immediately one who is in a different league. There is nothing flickering about the way the spirit shines through him, no doubt that the word of God is getting through. We do discern an emerging spirit from the testimony of Luke about Jesus at age 13. When his frantic parents finally locate their missing son in the temple, debating with the scribes, his astonished response is "Where else would you expect to find me?” Just like the young Samuel. From the time, however, of his baptism, and the subsequent trials in the wilderness, the spirit in him is full-blown, clear and strong. This is why for Christians, Jesus is the primary way in which we know something of the mind of God.
The scriptures describe over thirty so-called "gifts of the spirit’, for example, wisdom, knowledge, healing teaching and prophecy. According to St Paul, every committed Christian has at least one gift of the spirit to be used for the good of all. Some may have two, a few, even three! When we look at Jesus, there is no gift that appears to be missing!

Jesus does share some qualities with the Pharisees. Both have deep respect for the law and the traditions of the Jewish faith. The difference is that in Jesus, the spirit comes as a renewer of hearts and minds, a reformer of how the teachings of the faith are to be understood. Jesus accepts the challenge to try and clear the blockage in the hearts and minds of the religious leaders of his day to the spirit of renewal and reformation. The gospel evidence is that in this, he often failed.

Today’s Gospel reading shows the renewing, reforming spirit at work. When the Pharisees call out Jesus’ disciples for plucking grain to eat on the Sabbath, he defends them, drawing to their attention the inconsistencies of his adversaries’ argument. When he encounters the man with a withered hand, his power of healing is full-blown. Again, his defence of this action on the Sabbath is backed up by the logic of compassion. When the Pharisees dig their heels in his grief and anger wells up. When one’s heart is full of compassion for the vulnerable and the suffering, the callous cruelty of others can be like a body blow.

Jesus, as bearer of a full-blown spirit, is not removed into some higher spiritual realm, but is taken deeper into the needs and agonies of the human condition. The evidence here is not just of an ignited mind, or a richly compassionate heart, but an emotional, even bodily commitment to the task at hand. The life of Jesus is the life of one who is fully engaged at all levels of human functioning.

TIS ‘The scream of police car sirens” vs 4

PART 5: In a spirit of wholeness.

My hope is that as we hear this account of four manifestations of the spirit, in four different individuals or groups, we can make points of identification with each one. Or perhaps, one stands out more than the others to best describe the spiritual space in which you find yourself- flickering spirit, emerging spirit, blocked spirit, renewing, reforming spirit. Even better, we might see how each is a part of us at one time or another. Let’s face it, there are times when things do look rather dim, and we can lose confidence in in the inner fire we once felt. Then again, how exciting is it when we move into new areas of activity or learning, and feel the surge of something new emerging in our lives. Predictably, this might just be the time when that inner Pharisee keeps whispering in our ear- don’t change anything, don’t rock the boat, don’t challenge the status quo. Finally, how good are those moments when it all comes together, when in following of Jesus we feel a surge of energy, a renewal of compassion, and the courage to face down whatever stands in the way of justice and peace; when the spirit that directs our lives is truly the spirit of wholeness.

Sing "O God, you search me and you know me” vs. 4 and 5

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