Para-what?!

**I just returned home after attending the annual Apprentice Gathering. This  year’s theme was “The Joy of Kingdom Living,” and all the large group gatherings and workshops focused on the six traditions of Christian spirituality outlined by Richard Foster in his 1998 book Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. In keeping with this year’s theme, I thought it might be worthwhile to post a series of sermons on the same subject I preached back in the spring of 2012.  Each week during the series, I included a bulletin insert with some suggestions for trying the practices of each tradition, based on suggestions at the end of each chapter of Foster’s book.  This is the third week’s sermon, on the Charismatic Tradition.

 

April 29, 2012
Para-what?!
John 14:15-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7-15

In the spring of 1976, my family changed churches. We had belonged to the Southern Baptist church, out on the west side of town, as long as we’d lived in Coffeyville, but one day we just didn’t go there anymore. I had only been baptized in that church a few weeks before that, interestingly enough; looking back now I don’t know why my parents didn’t just tell me to wait a little bit, until I could talk with the pastor, or talk with them, or talk with Gram, or whoever, about what it meant—particularly since at that point I’m sure the change was at least being considered. But they let me get baptized, even though I was probably too young, and then we changed churches.

Instead of First Southern Baptist Church on the west side of town, with its plain brick building and tall, white steeple, we started going to the American Baptist church, First Baptist, downtown—right across the street from my grandpa’s store and around the corner from my dad’s cafeteria. My uncle Galen and aunt Beth and their kids were already members of that church, although I don’t know how often they actually went. I remember my mom saying that we changed because of that, as well as because its location made it more likely that my dad would be able to slip away from the cafeteria and join us for worship.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned the real reason for the change. In the mid-1970s, the Charismatic movement was in full swing, and a group of Charismatics had joined First Southern. They apparently were trying to remake that church to suit them, trying to get folks to speak in tongues or one thing and another.

There was a prayer group in the congregation, maybe part of the women’s group but I don’t know for sure, that met regularly to pray for anyone who was in need. Like most prayer groups, they heard and prayed for very personal matters in various people’s lives. But some of the Charismatics in the church attended that meeting, and then they would talk in other settings about the things they’d heard in that prayer meeting.

This egregious violation of confidentiality was the last straw for my mom, who had actually been growing more and more uncomfortable at First Southern from the moment the Charismatics first showed up there. She had grown up in a Pentecostal Baptist church in Oklahoma, and although she won’t really talk much about it to this day, there must have been some troubling things going on there. At the very least, that church—like the one in Corinth to which Paul had to write over and over again—had elevated one spiritual gift above all the others. They apparently insisted that people weren’t really saved until they demonstrated that they could speak in tongues. The one thing my mom will say about that church is that, since they required tongues as proof of salvation, people who didn’t have that gift—and not everyone does—would sometimes fake it, just to be accepted in the congregation.

When she was about sixteen, she decided to read the Bible through for herself, not depend on others to tell her what was in it, and when she did she discovered that many of the things her church taught were not in keeping with Scripture—including their overemphasis of tongues. And she left; she started attending another, non-Pentecostal church with a friend’s family; but her formative experiences in that Pentecostal church left her very sensitive to Charismatic excesses.

She’d have been incredibly uncomfortable at the Disciples church I attended while in college in Wichita, where there was still some influence from the Charismatic movement, and a woman once said in the Bible study group I went to on Tuesday nights that she “felt led” to stand before the congregation on Sunday morning and tell us that if we were not raising our hands during worship, we were Doing It Wrong and our worship would not please God. She never did, so I suspect the pastor may have had a quiet conversation with her about the diversity of belief and practice that is expected and welcomed in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

All this is to say that the Charismatic Tradition of Christian spirituality comes with a substantial risk of misuse, perhaps even more than the other five traditions. That’s not anything new; it didn’t start with the Charismatic movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which infiltrated more mainline-leaning churches like First Southern in Coffeyville and Broadway Christian in Wichita. It didn’t start when the modern Pentecostal movement emerged in Great Britain, California, and southeastern Kansas at nearly the same time in the early twentieth century. It goes back at least as far as the Christian church in Corinth, one of the churches Paul began.

We know a great deal about Paul’s understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit because of the misuses of these gifts in the Corinthian church. We actually would not have the beautiful “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13, except that the Corinthians, like my mom’s childhood church, were elevating tongues and other spectacular and dramatic spiritual gifts over others, and treating people differently, perhaps even making them feel unwelcome in the congregation, if they did not have those particular gifts. The twelfth chapter talks about spiritual gifts in general, and then Paul turns to the gift of love that he believed must undergird and flow out of the other gifts if they are being exercised correctly. The fourteenth chapter turns to a discussion specifically of tongues, intending to rein in their abuse and their misuse as a test of fellowship.

(My mom says that when her childhood church studied 1 Corinthians, they skipped right from chapter 13 to chapter 15, apparently because they did not want to hear what Paul said in chapter 14.)

Many of us in mainline churches are very uncomfortable with the idea of speaking in tongues—indeed, with just about anything having to do with the Holy Spirit. We tend to prefer things to be done more “decently and in order,” to borrow a phrase from our Presbyterian brothers and sisters; but the work of the Spirit tends to be pretty unpredictable. We certainly don’t value the out-of-control nature of the ecstatic gifts, including tongues; they don’t really fit so well with the reverence and rationality we have come to expect in our worship and our prayer life.

And I think Paul might have words to say to us, too; we’re not all that different from the Corinthians, except that we tend to denigrate the gifts they overvalued, and overvalue other ones. We might not appreciate the gift of tongues, in the sense of ecstatic speech (I’ve heard it interpreted, more in line, perhaps, with what happened on the Day of Pentecost, as the ability to learn easily and use foreign languages to proclaim the Good News); instead, we elevate preaching, and teaching, and musical abilities. But all gifts are given, Paul says, by the same Spirit, for the same purpose, which is building up the body of Christ, the Church.

Paul has quite a lot to say about the gifts of the Spirit, and our exercises for this week encourage us to read what he wrote on the subject, both positive and negative. But I’d like to turn now to Jesus’ own words about the Spirit’s role in our lives, as recorded in the Gospel of John.

The very first thing we notice—as we do in Paul’s writings, actually—is that the Holy Spirit is given by God and Jesus Christ to every Christian. John doesn’t talk about the gifts of the Spirit, as Paul does, but about something perhaps even more important.

As I began this morning, I read to you five passages from the three chapters of the Fourth Gospel known as the “Farewell Discourse.” Chapters 14 through 16 of the Gospel are portrayed as the things Jesus and his disciples talked about at the Last Supper, after Judas leaves to go set things up for Jesus’ betrayal. This Farewell Discourse begins with a passage beloved at funerals, where Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” and “I go to prepare a place for you.” He is comforting and instructing his disciples about what’s going to happen to them when he goes away, when he is crucified and returns to the Father.

In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the incarnation of God—God’s essence born in human form and living among us. When the time comes for his earthly life to end, there is a major crisis brewing. Is the Incarnation over? Is God’s presence among us finished when Jesus dies?

In five short passages that are part of the Farewell Discourse, the Evangelist has Jesus explain how God’s presence will continue to be among them even after he goes away. These five passages are probably the most-studied passages in the entire Fourth Gospel, with the possible exception of the first eighteen verses, the Prologue that starts with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” They’re easily identified because of their use of a specific word in Greek, which doesn’t really appear anywhere else: Paraclete.

That’s the Greek word, and unlike a lot of Greek words, it doesn’t get used commonly in English; so the translators have looked for another way to express it. It’s not easy, because the meaning of the word paraclete is very complex.

The Bible I read from this morning, the New Revised Standard Version, translates it as “Advocate.” The New International Version uses “Counselor.” We know what those words mean: someone who comes alongside us, works on our behalf, guides and comforts us. The King James Version used the word “Comforter.” It’s a word with dense, complex meaning; but what’s clear is that in each of these five passages, it refers to the Holy Spirit.

Once Jesus is gone—he actually says it’s a good thing that he would be going away, because then the Holy Spirit would come to them—the Holy Spirit will be the ongoing presence of God in their midst. And these passages tell us a number of things that the Spirit will do. The Spirit will be with us forever. The Spirit is called the Spirit of Truth. The Spirit teaches us about God’s will, helps us to understand how we are to be faithful. The Spirit reminds us about what Jesus said to us. The Spirit testifies on Jesus’ behalf—as we sort out how to follow Jesus when Jesus is no longer visible to us. The Spirit is our guide, and we can trust the Spirit because the Spirit speaks God’s words in a way that glorifies God and Jesus.

Given these words, coming from Jesus himself, then how do we incorporate the Charismatic tradition of Christian spirituality—the tradition most concerned with the work of the Holy Spirit—into our own spiritual lives?

The Holy Spirit is a part of every believer’s life, whether or not we belong to a church in which people speak in tongues or raise their hands during worship. Any time we study the Bible or seek to figure out God’s will for our lives, the Holy Spirit is at work, teaching us, helping us to understand. The abilities we have that we use in service to God’s kingdom and Christ’s church come from the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit guides us as we seek to use them.

That takes us back to Paul, of course, and his writings about the variety of gifts the Spirit gives to each of us; and if you don’t know what your gifts are, I encourage you to do the exercise this week that asks you to spend some time thinking and praying about that, even talking to others about it. Actually, the Holy Spirit is involved when the body of Christ, the Church, helps a member figure out what their gifts are and how to put them to use—sometimes it’s hard for us to see what our own gifts are, because what we mostly tend to do is see and envy the gifts other people have that we don’t have and wish we did.

The Charismatic tradition has included some pretty odd, to our rational and controlled way of thinking, practices; but the reason why it’s one of the six streams of Christian spirituality we are looking at during this Easter season is that the Holy Spirit is an essential part of life for every Christian and every Christian community. The Holy Spirit is the presence of God within and among us, even though no one has ever seen God, and Jesus, who was God incarnate, has gone back to the Father. Without the Spirit we wouldn’t be here at all—which is why Pentecost, the day of the coming of the Spirit to the first Christians in the Upper Room, is called the birthday of the church. The Spirit makes it possible for us to read and understand the Scriptures, helps us figure out how to follow Jesus in a time and place very different from the one in which he lived and taught, gives each one of us abilities that we can use to serve Jesus and his Church.

 

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