[The following was presented at the House of St Michael the Archangel Devotional Conference in January of 2013]
If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept Him because it neither sees Him nor knows Him.
We have received a Spirit whom the world neither sees nor knows.
Are we prepared to accept the consequences of that?
I worked for a time under a pastor who, among his other duties, led a weekday service at a residential facility for the physically and mentally challenged. There are many people who attended that service whom I will never forget. Our friend with autism who insisted every week that he had thirteen prayer requests. The man who could not speak but always came forward to light the candles. The man who came occasionally to sit in the corner and insist out loud and repeatedly that we did not love him – no matter what we said or did. The woman who clapped with happiness from the time she walked in the door clear through til the benediction.
One of the most beautiful, and one of the saddest, parts of the service came every week during the time for prayer requests. When we asked if anyone who had come needed special prayer, Minnie always came forward. Minnie was an elderly woman who had spent her life confined to a wheelchair. She had two badly twisted legs and one of her arms was bent so that it was permanently frozen by her face. She was blind in one eye. Every week, Minnie would drive her motorized wheelchair to the front of the chapel with her one good hand and ask us to pray for her legs to be healed. And every week, we would pray. The pastor with whom I was working had been praying for Minnie for years.
I have yet to read or hear a theology of healing prayer that has made sense in a comprehensive sort of way to the deep places of my heart, so I do not profess to be an expert on the subject. I have, however, witnessed people being healed by the prayers of others. And I have prayed for my patients at the hospital and seen some of them become well in ways that cannot be accounted for by medical knowledge alone. So I also do not profess myself to be absolutely unknowledgeable with respect to God’s willingness and ability to bring healing in response to our prayers. What I would like to lift up today is a particular aspect of healing prayer – or of any other work we do in God: the willingness of our spirit to cooperate with the will and action of the Holy Spirit.
I asked the pastor once how he understood the relationship between his prayers and Minnie’s health, and he replied with a candor for which we should praise him – for truth cannot come out of politic half-truths and lies: “I have often wondered if the reason Minnie is not healed is that I don’t really want her to be healed. Because if she suddenly stood up out of that wheelchair, what would happen next? What would I say to the people here at the home? What would they say to me? If word got out, what would I say to my congregation? To the TV news? I’m not really sure that I want to be the pastor who healed a crippled woman. There’d be no getting off the hook after that. It would change the course of my life.”
My temptation in that moment was to judge him. To say, “What do you mean you won’t want to see God’s presence revealed in the world? Don’t you want the darkness and sadness in that home to be replaced by happiness and light? You know, that’s just the problem with the church today.” But Jesus, who is the rightful judge of the words of human beings, has something else to say:
All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when the time comes, you will remember.
Jesus knows that the response to the presence and moving of the Spirit is not likely to be unambiguous joy or pleasure. It was not when He acted, and He was the sweetest, most beautiful man who ever lived. Indeed, through the power of the Spirit with whom He is One, Jesus did the sweetest, most beautiful things ever done by human flesh, and they nailed Him to a tree for it. And He sweated blood in the Garden in dread of those nails. Jesus, unlike my judgmental self, is not naive about the consequences of bringing Light into the darkness.
We have received a Spirit whom the world neither sees nor knows. Are we prepared to accept the consequences of that?
Whether that pastor ever said consciously to himself, “I fear persecution for righteousness sake,” his anxiety was tapped into a real spiritual reality. “The true light that gives light to every man [came] into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him.”
Why? Why did humankind not recognize or receive the very One is whose image they were made? The answer is sin. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light, because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the light comes into the light, that it may be plainly seen that what he has done he has done through God.”
The question is one of authority. The presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the world raises the question of God’s authority. The role of the Holy Spirit is not just to comfort and to guide but to reveal the rightful order of the universe and convict humankind of our disobedience. If that pastor had healed Minnie, he would have revealed himself as one in league with the rightful Ruler of the universe. For only creation’s rightful Lord can restore a broken bit of creation with the touch of a hand.
We can’t do that. I work in a hospital. I help care for the sick. I see, daily, what we can and cannot do. We can patch up broken people. We can replace worn out or diseased bits of them with new bits we’ve gathered from other people or fashioned ourselves out of synthetic materials. We can ease their pain and try to encourage their natural healing processes. But we can’t with a touch – just like that – make them new. Only creation’s rightful Lord can do that. And if creation has a rightful Lord, then all the schemes of mortal human beings stand doomed to fail.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not crazy about meeting the doom of my plans. That’s why the most controversial part of Jesus’ ministry was not that He could heal: it was that as He healed, He proclaimed the forgiveness of sins, revealing Himself as the One who had the right to commute the curse that has been placed on us. When people saw Jesus heal, they saw One to Whom they were accountable for their participation in the sickness and brokenness and evil of the world. In the shining of Jesus’ light, they saw their own darkness.
And Jesus, entrusting us with the ministry of reconciliation, has given us the power to bring healing and to forgive sins in His name. When we speak and act in Jesus’ name by the power of the Holy Spirit, we stand in the same controversial place in which Jesus stood, as signs of the rightful order of the universe – as little lights shining in a dark and reluctant universe.
We of course pray and work for the salvation of all, but whatever may happen in the world to come, it is clear that – although He desires it – Jesus does not expect for everyone to accept His kingship here on earth. The fact that there remain people who do not know Jesus has two consequences for us: a lesser and a greater. The lesser is that we will not always be understood. As Jesus tells Nicodemus: The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. This does not mean that those who are Spirit-filled are incomprehensible, but that to those who do not share our birth from above, the source and cause and reason for our actions will be as invisible as the source of the wind.
We have received a Spirit whom the world does not know. Are we willing to accept not being understood? We are, in a sense, spending these two days playing with fire. It is easy to desire the presence of the Spirit in a place where people are of relatively like-mind. It is, in my experience, much more difficult to desire the presence of the Spirit when it makes you an unreadable, incomprehensible sign. Have you ever read the prophets? Fallen and weak – as are we – they are not always glad to be called, though they in the Spirit were given the gift to foresee the Consummation of all things. To be a prophet is not to be a popular person. They were – and are – often despised and mocked. Indeed, one of God’s chief complaints is that Jerusalem is a city where prophets not only undergo the lesser consequence of service to the Spirit – being misunderstood – but where they undergo the greater consequence – death.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing…
The pursuit of the Holy Spirit is a beautiful thing, but also a dangerous one. I am entranced by the way Symeon speaks of the Holy Spirit, but I’m not sure I would have wanted his life. Have you been listening to what he says? His purchase of the pearl of great price cost him exile from the world. It cost him Everything.
What will it cost us?
We don’t always live like it, but there’s a war going on, a war as ancient as – or older than – time. I don’t know if you’re all Christians. But if you are a Christian, you have sworn allegiance to one of the sides in that war. The winning side, the Scriptures say and the power of the Spirit demonstrates. If you are not a Christian, I invite you to join us in swearing your allegiance to the rightful Lord of all, for to Him belongs all praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever. Amen.
But I would also invite us all to be aware of the cost of our allegiance, and aware of our perception of that cost. We do not, perhaps, all have the gift of healing the sick. We are not all prophets or writers of great hymns. But all Christians are called to participate in the ministry of the Spirit. Do you know the sound of His voice? The pressure of His invisible hand guiding your heart? The way He lifts the veil from your eyes? His urgings – so dire, so sweet that they are almost irresistible, but not quite, to let us maintain our free will. If not, ask Him to make Himself clear to you. We should all be asking for His voice to become clearer. If you do know it, be aware and be honest in those moments when you feel His prompting. Be aware of the battle, for it is much easier for us to win fights of which we are aware, than those of which we are not. Ask yourself when you feel the Spirit leading you as you go forth from this place, “Is my response to the guidance of the Holy Spirit being limited by my fear of ridicule? By my fear of death?”
And then remember the victory of Jesus and the ministry with which He has entrusted us – that He is willing to let us be like Him in the world. Remember that it was by ridicule and death that He overcame. And then, when given the choice to choose between being light in the darkness and letting the darkness alone, choose to be Light. If you find you have not the strength to choose, be honest with Jesus about that. He is gracious to forgive and to heal, to encourage and to strengthen. Friendship with the Holy Spirit is more difficult that we could imagine because God’s ways are not our ways, and we are both mortal and sinners. But it is also easier than we could guess, for He desires us so.
The Spirit wants to teach your heart to be obedient and to turn us ever more into the likeness of Jesus, that more and more people, seeing Jesus’ likeness revealed in us, may make their choice about, may be drawn to, Him.
We have received a Spirit that the world neither knows nor receives, but the Spirit wants them to receive Him. He wants to so transform us that Christ is visible in us – His death that means the death of sin and His life that means His breaking of the curse. The Spirit wants to be so clear in us that seeing us the world sees its judgment and redemption. The Spirit wants to so rule your heart that the gospel is written on your flesh, and is the only language of your tongue. This is the path He has set up for the redemption of all things. And if you have any inclination toward it at all, He will do it in you. He will give you the obedience of Jesus. I can’t promise that the consequences of that won’t be terrible. But I can promise that they will be glorious.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Come, Holy Spirit.