Delivered at First Christian Church
on July 8, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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The temptation to preach about fake news, in response to this scripture, is real.
Twenty years ago, I was at the University of Illinois teaching students about online sources and how to vet them for reliability and accuracy. Surely, I thought, people would understand that just because anyone can publish online does not mean that they should or that their content could be trusted. You know how that has gone.
But I’m pretty sick of the Internet and fake news. I want to give my attention to God. I want to understand how we can vet the voices that say they speak for God.
For our authors of 1 John, the test is clear: If a spirit, or a person speaking for Spirit, will affirm the relationship between God and Christ, and that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, then the spirit or the speaker is trustworthy.
Yet authenticity of spirits and speakers is not their only concern. It is the timing of the spirits and speakers, good or bad, that is also an issue:
…every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.
It seems this community has been warned that spirits that are anti-Christ are coming and may in fact have already arrived. Which means that Jesus will be back soon, too.
For this Johannine community, which existed about 80 years after Jesus’s death and Easter mystery, the return of the Christ is imminent. They are experiencing the intense pressure of a very short time frame to get ready and show themselves worthy for a total and final encounter between the power of God and the powers of nonbeing. As chapter two reads, “Children, it is the last hour” (2.18).
The stakes, for assessing whether a spirit or speaker is of God or not, are quite high, then: If at any moment, quite soon, Christ will be revealed again they cannot not risk having been lead astray for a single moment.
In my experience of the United Church of Christ, we don’t talk that much about spirits or the Spirit. Some strains of the UCC and some congregations do, just not the churches I have been a member of or served, probably because they have been majority white and come out of our Congregationalist stream.
The regular exception is Pentecost.
At Pentecost, we hear a story from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. It says,
…there came a noise like a turbulent wind borne out of the sky, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting, And there appeared before them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest, one each upon each one of them, And they were all filled with a Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in tongues as the Spirit gave them to utter.(Acts 2.2–4, Hart translation)
A Holy Spirit that followed on wind and fire and inspires acts of speech.
We then learn this is happening all over Jerusalem because people pour out into the streets; Jewish pilgrims from all over the region who are in town for the holiday of Pentecost, also engage in acts of speech. Miraculously, they can be understood and understand no matter the language in use.
Some joke that everyone must be drunk. Clearly, intoxication has them all thinking that they get each other.
No, Peter says, it is real and it is a sign of the return of God predicted in the book of the prophet Joel.
SPIRIT AS SIGNAL
Again, we have Spirit as a signal of imminent presence. A Holy Spirit, or person speaking on behalf of Spirit, are signs of pending theophany, precursors to an arrival of God. And spirits that affirm Christ and allow us to understand each other are gateways to the redemption of the world.
Which I think is why that redemption hasn’t happened yet: Anyone (anything?) can affirm God in Christ without having to mean it. People can lie and spirits–the spirits of deceit and mendacity and obfuscation that exist in us all–are wily and willful. And any spirits in us or in a mythical, mystical, or metaphysical sense, that can help us understand each other have long departed or been so sidelined and silenced that we have no reason to believe they ever existed.
So what might it take for us to be open to holy spirits of redemption, to the Holy Spirit of God? So open that we would have the awareness and wherewithal to test their mettle and intent and benefit from what they portend?
I looked to Karen Baker-Fletcher, a womanist theologian of the trinity, for some guidance. Baker-Fletcher notes that the Spirit appears throughout scripture, including at the very beginning when God breathed spirit into humanity. But the term Holy Spirit first appears in the Gospel of Matthew, when Mary learns that she will be pregnant:1
(Jesus’s) mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph but, before they had been joined, she was discovered to be pregnant from a Holy Spirit.(Hart, 2.18)
The Holy Spirit is the generative force of God within a woman who, though she has no means and no standing, has such exceptional strength and vision that she can literally carry the dangerous and prophetic news of Christ.
Setting aside any issues of veracity, this is a story of Holy Spirit working with wholly nobody to bring forth a redemptive life force. The central person of Christianity—Jesus Christ—is conceived in a marginal woman through a spirit holy.
That’s what we are looking for: spirits and spirited voices that work through unexpected, and unexpectedly powerful, channels in ways that generate Christ-like community. And Christ-like communities are defined by their effort to lift up the downtrodden (or lifting up by the downtrodden) and unite the divided.
So I’d like to amend 1 John’s questionnaire for spirits and speakers. I want to amend it so that it does not immediately exclude voices that come out of other religions or no religion at all. For if the Holy Spirit worked through a nobody like Mary, then it must also be at work in communities and people more marginal that hegemonic Christianity and Christians.
- Does this voice believe women?
- Does this voice seek out the refugee?
- Does this voice feed the hungry?
- Does this spirit tend to the sick?
- Does this spirit give as generously as the widow?
- Does this spirit condemn killing, lying, and stealing?
- Does this voice comfortably affirm everything I believe—and want to believe—but through the anti-Christ techniques of divisive hyperbole and alarmist condemnation of others?
- Does this voice make God look and sound just like me or move me to see and hear God in people who are nothing like me?
We may not share the sense of intense pressure due to an imminent return of Christ, as in the time of 1 John. However, we certainly feel the pressure of apocalyptic–as in world-colliding, as in world-imploding–pain and loss. And we are beset by voices that want to tell us what is right and who is wrong. Yet our faith tells us that it is in those times, times like these, that God is most visible and most creative.
A Holy Spirit is right now working through a person with no bed, to carry the hope we need.
A Holy Spirit is right now nurturing a person with no status, who will birth the vision we need.
A Holy Spirit is right now blasting through this room, giving us the means to ignore those drunk on ego and fear, and to hear those sobered by openness and collaboration.
We may not be in the habit of paying it much attention, but a Holy Spirit is always with us. Which means that we always have a standard against which to measure all things Internet and fake. It also means that we do not have to wait for a future coming of Christ to redeem the world. If we learn how to listen, we will hear it has already begun. And not a moment too soon.
1Baker-Fletcher, Karen. 2006. Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press.