The Presence of his Absence

Jason Micheli —  January 28, 2018 — 3 Comments

Here’s my sermon from Galatians 3 for this weekend.

I spent this Tuesday at the infusion center near Alexandria Hospital receiving my latest monthly maintenance chemo to keep the cancer at bay.

Now if you’ll feel really bad if you fall asleep during my sermon.

An average of 4 days a week for a year and twice a month ever since, I’ve been to the infusion center so often my iPhone recognizes the “Cancer Specialists” WIFI network. On Tuesday my nurse poked around for a vein big enough to handle the chemo. It sounds wimpy but you get to the point where you’re just tired of being sick and stuck all the time with needles.

On one of the two TV’s in the lab every commercial break- I’m not exaggerating- featured an advertisement from Lexington Plastic Surgeons, who, according to the voiceover pitchman, have more offices around the country than Skynet.

“Do you think I’d look good if I got a Brazilian Butt Lift?” I asked my nurse as she clamped the needle down into my arm.

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

“Um…maybe?” she replied, “You’re not really my type, butt lift or no butt lift.”

The other TV in the lab was playing Rachel Ray’s cooking show. Every commercial break of Rachel’s show featured a spot selling Rachel Ray’s own line of boutique dog food, which if you’re counting at home is reason #93 to hate Rachel Ray.

“Do you think it strange that in between recipes for people food Rachel Ray is also selling dog food? I mean, are those transferable skills?” I asked my nurse.

She laughed as she hung my bag of pre-meds. She had short buzzed hair that she’d dyed turquoise that matched the gem stud in her nostril and complemented the purple cat-eye glasses on her nose.

Looking at the tattoo on my arm, she told me that her girlfriend was a tattoo artist.

“We’re thinking of getting married, my girlfriend and me,” she said, “You’re a priest, right? You probably think we’re sinners?”

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

“If you’re going to ask me these sorts of questions, I think you should return my copay.”

But she just sat on the wheeled stool next to me, waiting on me.

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

And then added: “But no more than me.”

She looked confused, like what I’d said wasn’t as bad as she’d feared and not as good as she’d hoped.

“Look,” I said, “Christians have a simple formula:

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

Another commercial from Skynet came on the television, this one for breast augmentation and eyebrow lifts and wrinkle removing along with a lie about defying time and aging.

“It’s kind of a waste of their ad budget to have their commercials played in here, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of obvious and unavoidable here that nobody is getting out life alive but that’s exactly what Skynet is promising.”

“Skynet?”

“Nevermind.”

She handed me a little plastic cup of pills (meds to minimize the tremors the chemo causes) and she said:

“Can I ask you, since you brought it up, if you died- or, when you die- do you know where you’ll go?”

“What are you?” I asked, “Some sort of undercover lesbian evangelist?”

She smiled just a little.

“No, I’ve just never been that religious and I don’t know how you know, you know, that you’ll go to heaven or be with God or whatever.”

I nodded yes.

“You’re really certain?” she asked me. She was studying me, the way she did at the end of infusions to make sure I was okay to drive home.

She was studying me. So I said it: “Yes.”

“How can you be so sure? How can you have that much faith?”

I shrugged my shoulders and I said: “I dunno.”

———————-

     Seriously, your duly ordained reverend shrugged his shoulders and said: “I dunno.” No wonder Young Life rejected me as a leader in college. A question like that should be my bible bread and butter.

You people pay me a salary and benefits- too much, Lew says- but someone asks me point blank about faith and heaven and eternal life and the best I can do is shrug my shoulders and fart out an “I dunno.”

I was so inarticulate with her you’d think it would take a miracle for me to give her the Gospel.

———————-

     The Apostle Paul says that God has spoken to us in two different words, Law and Gospel, that’s what he’s getting at in the end of our reading today.

And in another of his epistles, Paul urges believers to learn how to rightly divide the Word between Law and Gospel.

And here in today’s text in Galatians 3 we see one of the reasons why it’s so important for us to distinguish between the Law and the Gospel.

The Law does not bring the Holy Spirit:

“Answer me one question: did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the Law or by believing the Gospel?”

      It’s not just that what you do for God does nothing for you and your standing before God; it’s that the Holy Spirit does not come to you through what you do for God.

The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of charity or compassion. The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of piety or hospitality. The Holy Spirit does not come through your spirituality.

Or your service to the poor. Or your standing up for social justice.

Obeying the Law does not bring the Holy Spirit. Following the Sermon on the Mount does not bring the Holy Spirit. Imitating Jesus does not bring the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit comes to us not by what we do. The Holy Spirit only comes to us by trusting the promise that all has been done. By Christ. That’s Paul’s point here in Galatians, that in exchanging the Gospel for the Law they’ve exorcised the Spirit:

“When God gives you the Spirit…is it because you keep the Law, or is it because you believe the Gospel?”

Those who were best at discipleship and bible study and prayer nailed God to a tree.

If that doesn’t reveal the Law’s inability to make you righteous and justified then the gift of the Holy Spirit should be a convincing Exhibit B.

That’s what Paul is arguing at top of chapter 3:

“It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified…Did you receive the Holy Spirit by doing the works of the Law or by faith in the Gospel you heard?”

The Holy Spirit was present in thunder and fire and wind at the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

But after that first Pentecost on Mt. Sinai, the Holy Spirit did not come to anyone through following the Law.

Not to Moses or the Prophets. Not to John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit did not come even to Paul back when he was Saul and following the Law so fully as to be blameless before it.

The Holy Spirit did not come to anyone doing the Law. The Holy Spirit only came to those who trusted the Gospel.

When Peter preached the Gospel at the second Pentecost and the crowds received it by faith, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. When Phillip was explaining the Gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch, the Holy Spirit came to him and baptized him, this most untouchable of outsiders. While Peter was sharing the Gospel with Cornelius, a Roman centurion, the Holy Spirit came over him, the enemy. And the Galatians- they received not only the Gospel from Paul but the Holy Spirit too, Gentiles all of them.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through the Gospel not the Law.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through trusting in what Christ has done for us not in our own doing for Christ.

Through faith not works- not, even, your work of worship.

We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as this mysterious, mystical, subjective spirit inside of us, and, as a consequence, people like us- people who tend not to raise their hands during hymns or dance in the aisles or speak in tongues- tend not to speak about the Holy Spirit.

Because we don’t look or act or worship like charismatics, we all quietly conspire to assume that we must not be spirit-filled.

You can take it from the reverend: that’s nonsense.

Mysterious and mystical and subjective- emotional: nothing could be further from how St. Paul and even Jesus talk about the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is not primarily something we experience subjectively inside of us because the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to mediate something that is objective, outside of us, something that is historical before it is emotional: Jesus Christ.

     The Holy Spirit comes with the Gospel not the Law because the Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ promised in the Gospel.

The Holy Spirit isn’t just any spirit but the Spirit of the Crucified Christ.

The Holy Spirit is the abiding presence in our world of the absent Christ.

How Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit is how Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room:

“The Holy Spirit will convict the world about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father;  about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

According to Jesus explicitly and echoed by St. Paul, the Holy Spirit, as the presence of the absent Christ, mediates the work of Christ to us and the Holy Spirit does so in 3 ways.

1. The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

2. The Holy Spirit mediates the priestly work of Christ.

3. The Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ as King.

I thought I’d preach another 3-point sermon just to show off how I can keep my New Year’s resolutions longer than you.

So my first point…

———————-

    The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

Or, as Jesus puts it in the Upper Room, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. The role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, therefore, is not experiential but ethical. It’s not the role of the Holy Spirit to give you a transcendent personal experience; the golden calf gave God’s People a transcendent personal experience.

     Ignore your Pentecostal in-laws.

     Your emotions are not reliable evidence of the Holy Spirit’s activity in your life.

     But your contrition is.

Because Jesus says it’s the Holy Spirit’s work to teach you about yourself.

It’s the Spirit’s work to show you, prophetically, the truth about you and the world to which, at best, you’re a guilty bystander.

The Holy Spirit’s purpose is not like Kevin Bacon’s in Footloose.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions and get you to dance and sing with abandon. King David did that in front of the ark and that story ends as badly as it did for Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions. It’s the Holy Spirit’s work to break down your lies and your self-justifications.

To cut you, as the Spirit did at Pentecost, to the heart.

This is why Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, as in, the Attorney. The Holy Spirit prosecutes Christ’s case against our greedy, eye-for-an-eye world of white-washed tombs. And the Holy Spirit does so by cutting us and speaking the accusation of the Law into our broken hearts.

I know for you baby-boomers who have an overly optimistic self-estimation (even after the Clinton administration) that any talk of sin turns you off, but the Holy Spirit’s work to convict us of the s-word isn’t bad news.

So often when we become aware of our sin we suppose that God must be angry with us or far off from us.

No. Your awareness of your sin is all the evidence you need that God is nearer to you than you are to yourself.

For self-deceivers like us- if you can look yourself in the mirror and know that you don’t measure up, that you need to be forgiven, that’s an achievement. You’ve outdone even the President Trump.

To know you need forgiven- that’s proof the Holy Spirit is at work in you.

For self-justifiers like us- if you can read the newspaper and name racism as sin, sexism as sin, nationalism as sin, in a culture of fake fake news that’s an accomplishment.

Not everyone can do that- that’s proof of the Spirit of the Crucified Christ working on you.

————————-

     But the Holy Spirit doesn’t just convict us of our sin, the Holy Spirit comforts us as well, which brings me to my second point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the priestly work of Christ.

Jesus in the Upper Room calls the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, the Comforter, but Jesus doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is like Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, there for you to call whenever you’re feeling sad and lonely.

Jesus doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit is a hug from heaven anytime you need one.

Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Comforter in the sense that, after convicting us of our sin, the Holy Spirit mediates to us the comfort accomplished by Christ our Great High Priest.

That is, the Holy Spirit assures us of Christ as the forgiveness of our sins and the source of all our righteousness.

Contrary to how Christians often (mis)speak, the Holy Spirit is not in you. Your conscience is in you. And the Holy Spirit, who is outside of you, speaks into you. Into your conscience.

As Martin Luther said, the Holy Spirit mediates Christ’s priestly work to us by being a Preacher, that if Christ and his Cross are the pledge of the Father’s love for you, then the Holy Spirit is the Preacher of that promise.

And like any preacher of the Church, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim, and the Holy Spirit preaches that particular promise by attaching to particular things: to the Word, to Water, to Wine and Bread.

And, heads up, this particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call BS on counterfeit preachers like Joel Osteen, who speaks of the Spirit through his toothy vacant smile but even while speaking of the Spirit neglects to speak of our sinfulness.

Joel O (baby-boomer) says sin is a downer.

And instead of Christ’s righteousness, Joel O invokes the Holy Spirit so that we can accrue our own righteousness, of which prosperity is the sign.

The particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call foul on the TV preachers. Ditto the Jerry Falwells and the Franklin Grahams and the Al Sharptons. The Holy Spirit might be an accuser of our politics. But the Holy Spirit is not a Preacher of our politics.

Like me, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim to you:

Cross and Resurrection

Grace

The Gospel:

The forgiveness of your sins

The gift of Christ’s righteousness reckoned as your own

Despite how trendy it is to say today, the Holy Spirit does not speak a new word. The Spirit is still speaking, but the Spirit speaks the same word, over and over, in new and different ways. The One by whom the Word was made flesh is now the Preacher of the Gospel Word to our flesh.

———————-

     And St. Paul says that Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, frees us from captivity under the Law to be his subjects under grace, which brings me to my final point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the work of Christ as King.

As Jesus says of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room, the Spirit “will prove the ruler of this world wrong for the ruler of this world has been condemned.” 

He’s talking about Satan, whom St. Paul calls the Power of Sin, who- in case you haven’t read the newspapers or checked Twitter lately- doesn’t appear to have been deposed.

Because our world in no way looks like anyone has defeated the Power of Sin, the Holy Spirit gives us faith.

When Protestant Christians speak of the solas, faith alone and scripture alone, this is what we mean. We mean that only by faith alone can we possibly believe the Good News isn’t fake news. Because everywhere our eyes would have us believe the opposite.

———————-

     When St. Paul writes about the curse of Christ’s cross and our redemption, he uses the aorist tense; that is, his cross and our redemption are concurrent.

They happen at the same time.

Likewise, when Paul speaks of the Galatians receiving the Gospel in faith and their receiving the Holy Spirit, he uses the aorist again.

They’re concurrent.

———————-

     The Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith.

They’re concurrent, which means our faith in the Gospel is not our doing. Our faith is not another work of the Law because our faith is not our work. It’s not an accomplishment.

Which gets back to my undercover lesbian evangelist nurse-

Maybe my pathetic dribbler of an answer to her question was accidentally more biblical and Yoda-like than I intended. Because if the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith, then “I dunno” isn’t a half-bad answer for me or for you.

Whether your faith is the size of a mountain or a mustard seed, it doesn’t much matter because you didn’t muster it up.

It’s all miracle.

Look, I used to hate questions like the one my nurse asked me Tuesday: “If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

Like every good liberal Mainline Christian, I used to scoff at questions like that from born-agains and street preachers.

I used to dismiss those questions as terrible reductions of Christianity. And they are reductionistic, sure.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got the medical bills to prove that eternity’s no longer abstraction for me, but, while the question is a reduction of the Gospel, it’s also true that if you can’t answer the question simply and straight-up then you don’t understand the Gospel.

It’s another simple formula:

     Your sins are forgiven.

Christ’s righteousness is your own.

Ergo, as far as eternity goes, you already have everything necessary.

     How much faith or how little faith you have in that matters not at all because you are saved not by the amount of your faith but by the object of your faith:

Jesus Christ.

And whatever sized faith you have to receive this news you’re sitting on a miracle. It’s not your doing. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So if that undercover lesbian evangelist nurse ever asks you that same question, like Peter Venkman advises in Ghostbusters: For God’s sake, say yes.

Say yes:

With water the Holy Spirit drowned me in Christ’s death for my sins.

And with water the Holy Spirit raised me up to give me Christ’s righteousness for my heaven.

And even now the Holy Spirit gives me the miracle of faith to trust what my eyes cannot on their own believe.

Say yes.

Whether you say it sure of yourself or in spite of yourself, that you can say it at all is a miracle.

Jason Micheli

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3 responses to The Presence of his Absence

  1. So I am with you on this sermon until the last point: “The Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith.” Paul in Galatians 3 seems to leave some room for human agency in the relationship with God (e.g. 3:5, “by your believing what you heard,” NSRV), but you seem to deny it. Are you preaching a sort of predestination here? I.e., it is only those whom God wills to have it that have the faith that justifies us? Is arminianism just as wrongheaded as semi-pelagianism, in your view? And if I am reading you correctly, what’s at stake for you in denying that humankind have a role in establishing a relationship with God?

    • I have in mind this article from the Articles of Religion
      Of Free-Will.
      The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith; and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

      • So I don’t read that quite as strongly as maybe you are. I see it as saying we cannot be in relationship with God, no matter what we do, without God’s grace. But I don’t see it as saying that “our faith in the Gospel is not our doing.” God makes our faith possible by grace, but we have to accept it. I am no great Wesley scholar, but Thomas Oden characterizes Wesley’s thought like this: “Faith is affirmative response, a yea-saying to that grace offered to all through the cross.” This seems consistent with what Paul says in Galatians 3, and resonates with my personal experience. To me, without this freedom to accept God’s grace, it seems like we are all just puppets in God’s great game, and the cosmos is just about as meaningless as if there was no God at all.

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