The Breath of God – John 20:19-23
So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.
I could have as easily named my blog site In the Middle With Tension instead of In the Middle With Mystery because their can be a lot of tension within mystery. Our passage has stirred my memory of an occasion where there was some tension. I was hosting a retreat for some younger men at a lakeside getaway for the express purpose of listening to each other’s stories. I had primed them to be thinking about this in light of where they have been and where they currently perceived themselves to be.
My recent experiences had led me to believe the Holy Spirit liked settings of this nature. I had made a discovery; the transparency that becomes possible in a safe space can draw men and God together. Men were discovering what walking in the light looks like, a place where our hearts become more open to the reality of our own situation, to God and to others. I had watched the Holy Spirit do enough things in settings such as this to believe the inevitable tensions would be worth the trouble. And blessed tensions there were.
On the guest list were those who had very different understandings and experience with Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit was to some the Counselor whom Jesus had left on earth primarily to interpret the Bible when it would come along in a few hundred years. And then there were friends of mine present whose daily Bread was not necessarily the scriptures rather it was whatever was being said to them that day (or that moment) by the Holy Spirit. We called our gathering a Kingdom Summit. It should have been promoted as Sola Scriptura meet Sola Pneuma.
The sola scriptura men were young, devout, heavily involved in ministry and decidedly certain. The written word of God was central in their understanding of God’s authority. Hmmm. I am having a flashback. Now I am recalling there was also some tension (although well managed) between these brothers. One of them saw ministry as saving souls and caring for the poor and one saw ministry mostly as preaching of the word and discipling men. Regrettably, they were moving in different directions relationally.
Then there were my friends whose backgrounds had equipped them with a knowledge of scripture which would match or rival anyone in the room. They were older, passionate for Jesus and keen on listening to the Holy Spirit. After each man had told his story (and a few were heart rending) the other men were invited to offer input if they believed God had given them something to share. This is where we entered into The Middle With Tension.
This opportunity for “ministry” flushed out everyone’s understanding of what God was doing in the earth and how he was going about it. (Maybe this is why the word ministry sometimes gives me an icky feeling.) After one particularly gut-wrenching and humble disclosure (which I would have characterized as walking in the light) the knee jerk response from the sola scriptura contingent was to immediately direct this aching soul to the particular scriptures (chapter and verse) which (if applied) would fine tune his repentance and get his life back on track with God. I knew the person pretty well who had just told his story. He came from a bible-fixer upper background. In fact some of his despondency came from attempts and failures to achieve biblically-informed repentance. Was his a hard and unrepentant heart in need of correction? Or, was his a broken and disoriented heart that needed to be heard and encouraged?
As I listened I was definitely convinced that, in this moment, it needed to be treated as the latter type of heart. I felt this so strongly I found myself looking for tables to overturn. Something in me kind of went off. With an uncharacteristic boldness I publicly called a time out to the unfolding biblical counseling session. It was profoundly awkward because I loved our biblical counselor. We had to call a time out to let the pressure out of the room and so sola scripture and I could regroup. The break was tense but succeeded in restoring the bonds of trust between us.
The would-be counselor deferred to my role as a facilitator and with humility agreed to set that approach on the shelf for the day. I can’t recall if I hugged or kissed him but I clearly recall wanting to do both. Naturally speaking, tension is not my thing. This is a problem because I don’t know any way to the truth except through tension. I do not believe we can just sail around it. In a fallen world I believe the truth will often be found in this domain of tension. However, as the card carrying pacifist I am, I prefer to think of this realm as mystery – a realm where man’s tiny thoughts are dwarfed by the Life of God and where certainty regarding God’s ways is out of place. Back to our retreat. Our encounter with tension was not over. We had not yet heard from Sola Pneuma.
When it came time to pray for the Sola Scriptura-Care for the Poor specialist, my Pneuma oriented friends weighed in during the waining moments of our prayer time with personal prophecies and a an extra treat; One of them leaned in near and did what He believed Jesus was doing in that moment, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
As I was also engaged in earnestly praying for this young man, I noticed something happening in me again. It wan’t as intense as before; I didn’t want to knock tables over but I did find myself wanting to at least rearrange them OR SOMETHING! I sensed my poor unsuspecting sola-scriptura friend had been ambushed. More tension! This was so difficult because I loved these men too. In this instance I didn’t feel like I succeeded in keeping things safe for my younger friend who had been receiving prayer. But, looking back, I comfort myself knowing I had helped facilitate (even if it was by default) an experience he would not soon forget.
Someone ask me, “Why (in the world) do you call your blog, In The Middle With Mystery? That’s why you only have 5 subscribers!” How did they know this? (My low readership was exaggerated for humor’s sake. We all know how humor diffuses tension!) For the record; there are actually 6 subscribers.
MwM received its name because my life has been filled with theological, alienating, fellowship-breaking tension. (plus, the name MwM just popped into my head and I liked it.) Churches I have participated in (and even help lead) have split; my own family has been divided. Debate (Oh God I hate that word!) has never diminished tension or created an iota of energy. On the contrary, debate for debates sake only compounds division and provides entertainment for contentious souls.
Since I associate division with separation and I see separation as a primary woe which our ancient foe doth seek to work on us, I have taken a different road and (with only 6 subscribers) it certainly feels like the one less travelled. This road is simply my attempt to live out a life that was breathed into me. I have known the breath of God independent of the scriptures and I have certainly known the breath of God emerging from the printed page. Word and Spirit are so integrated to me. I have comforted myself (whether I am exegetically entitled to do so or not) with the notion that the words of Jesus might apply…..
But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23-24)
My prayer is..
Father may this be the hour when you breathe once again upon us and find all those who will worship you in spirit and truth. Help us to escape our sola-stances, which alienate and divide. Help us to discover the vast, safe and mysterious expanses of your Life. May we jointly find our security and unity in you, the Mystery of the Ages.
Note: I have taken modest writer’s liberties in applying the term sola (or only) to a few folks. This was an exaggeration. I should have used prefera scriptura or prefera pneuma to depict their love for scripture or of Holy Spirit.
These are not the only persons with preferences around me. I am also surrounded by other unique perspectives. Let’s see. There is the foreign missions givers and goers, the word-faith devotees, the prophetic-apostolic oriented persons, the intercessory prayer and warfare people, the Israel-intercessors, the Bethel and the IHOP disciples, the lectio divina folks, The N.T. Wright re-read the bible guys, the anti-establishment community friends, the care for the poor zealots, the house church and high church friends. I am related to and surrounded by these and more. They make up my community. As I see it, we are together in the middle with Christ, our Common Life, who has surrounded us and engulfed us in his vast wisdom, love and power. It is my simple ambition that Jesus, as mysterious as he may be, may find expression through us which would validate our claims of being new creations. However, I am not setting my hopes on unity just now.
Once again i am humored and honored to read your seemingly fresh but definitely tested ambition. I appreciate your persistence and walking with us through triumph and loneliness, victory and desert… It is ours alone we journey and we can at best be called brothers in the Lord… Truely of the same blood…His
The scriptures do urge us to pray for unity. I applaud your noble and obedient efforts. My experience on trying that flushes out religious spirits. Yuk, mysterious!
Since its obvious (at least to me) that none of us have cornered the market on truth perhaps our widely differing perspectives are the under-appreciated (yet essential) setting where unity (of a higher order than mere idealogical unity) will find expression. Perhaps our disunity is out opportunity instead of our liability.
Here, no one (if they are wise) casts stones to quickly. Here, we acknowledge Christ in each other. We look and listen for him in each other and encourage each other in this reality. This is why the word “mystery” has come to represent a place of hope for me. I may need corrected here but given the idea I just stated, faith becomes living intentionally in the presence of uncertainty. Uncertainty being the only posture for an inhabitant of the vast and mysterious kingdom of God.