Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29
This week we continue our journey through the book of Galatians. Just as we witnessed with our study of the book of Acts, the early church in Galatia is also struggling and dealing with conflict. Today’s conflict has to do with how the Spirit is received. It was a conflict then, and it remains a conflict now.
“How did your new life start?” Paul asks. As we discussed last week, this continues the struggle about whether or not you have to DO something to be given or to find this new life. And Paul is angry here as he writes to the Galatians. He starts with these really strong phrases: in The Message version: “Did someone put a spell on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? … it’s obvious that you no longer have the crucified Christ in clear focus in your lives.” In the Common English translation it says “You irrational Galatians! Who put a spell on you?” And the NIV translates it, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you!” Regardless of which of these translations you prefer, these are really strong words. Paul is mad because people are trying to insist on certain things being done in order to be admitted into the faith. They are fighting about who is doing what, and if they are doing enough, and if they are following the Mosaic law perfectly so that they can be admitted into the faith. And he is emphasizing once again that it is not action that will save them, but grace. There is nothing that you need to do or be to be invited in, nothing that you have to fix or follow to be loved and accepted by God.
People were being foolish because they’d been a part of God working through them, they’d seen these amazing things taking place, these communities of deep faith being formed, these incredible connections with life and the Divine, and yet they’ve forgotten that this had very little to do with them, with their actions, with their behavior. It happened all around them, it happened without them, it happened despite them. They did nothing to earn it, they did nothing to bring it, it was all grace. But they had quickly, very quickly forgotten this.
This was hard then and it is hard now. My lectionary friend told me that she and a friend went to watch a baptism at the local Pentecostal church when she was a kid. They did a full emersion baptism and then they apparently told the person baptized to pray until the Spirit “descended” by which they meant that they recognized a baptism by the Spirit as one that would cause the person to speak in tongues. The person would have to pray for as long as it took for that “spirit baptism” to happen, whether it was 30 seconds or 5 hours. They believed this to be the only “real” baptism and that if it did not happen for a person this way, their baptism was not legitimate. While this was not something they had to “do” to earn grace, it was a sign that they had received that grace of the Spirit. Without that specific outward sign, they would not believe grace and the spirit were given. But you can’t force the Spirit. It happens when it happens. It comes when it comes. And it comes in the way that it comes, regardless of what you do, what you want, the signs you seek, the demands you put on the Spirit. You can listen for it, you can wait for it, but you can’t push it or earn it, you can’t control it, demand it, or expect it to manifest in particular ways.
We still struggle with this. We don’t want “cheap grace” by which we mean, we feel better about the things we get if we’ve worked hard for them. If we’ve done something to deserve them. And when gifts come to us through grace despite what we have done or failed to do, we quickly re-write that story, claiming credit for what we have, forgetting that it was by the grace of God that we met that person, or were touched by this person; that we fell into that place, that job, that situation, that relationship. We forget that grace abounds despite and not because of anything that we could do or fail to do.
We hear in this story that the Spirit manifests most fully when people take the time to listen, to see, to sit and wait. As the scripture we read from Acts 15 a couple weeks back said, “once Peter spoke, the whole assembly fell silent.” That is a taking in of the Spirit, a listening and accepting of the Spirit offered. That Spirit then inspired them to tell their stories of The Holy Spirit comes to us predominantly through LISTENING: the one thing that is so very, very hard for us to do. And that takes place in so many ways. Quakers services are all about simply listening, resting in the silence of God until insight or wisdom is given that one feels called to share. For Presbyterians we believe that the holy Spirit manifests in community. We listen at session meetings, at Presbytery meetings and at the General Assembly meetings for the Holy Spirit as it moves between and among people, understanding that it is the diverse voices TOGETHER that manifest the Spirit for us. We believe deeply that “call” is discerned in community as well, which is why when a person wants to be a pastor, they must go to their church community for affirmation of that call, then the Presbytery as well.
Whenever I think about this, I remember the Presbytery meeting I attended in Ohio where the pastor was saying that seminary students should be allowed to attend whatever seminary they wanted, without guidance from the Committee on the Preparation for Ministry. He gave a long speech about how he was called to attend a different seminary, but that the Committee on the Preparation for Ministry had insisted that he take a couple classes at least at a Presbyterian Seminary. He kept saying they were wrong to push that and he had defied them because that was not his call. But to all the rest of us it was clear that he had actually not understood at all what it meant to be Presbyterian and that his very speech, declaring a call that was in great contrast to the call discerned by the larger BODY, was proof of his lack of understanding. In fact, two years later he left the denomination completely.
The thing is that people can use “spirit language” pretty manipulatively, as we know. “God said to me” or “The Holy Spirit spoke to me” and then they usually say whatever it is they want to believe, or whatever it is that they want others to believe. This is why we believe that the Spirit is recognized, manifested, understood, and heard in community. It helps us to stay accountable for what we believe we have “heard” from the Spirit. It helps us to stay accountable for what we believe the Spirit is trying to tell us. The Holy spirit is against the personality cult. The spirit can touch us personally, it can move within each individual, but it is never private: call is discerned together, the Spirit is made manifest in community.
As my lectionary group discussed these passages and the showing up of the Holy Spirit, we all talked about the many times parishioners have approached each of us and said, “Thank you so very much for saying x today” and then went on to say something that we had never, ever said. I can’t tell you how many times that has happened for me, personally, and as we discussed it, we found that all of us had had this experience multiple times. But in those moments, we recognize that sometimes the Spirit can help people to hear what they need to hear in a moment, even if it is NOT actually what has been said at all! In those moments it is personal, but again, not private. The messages heard are always messages of caring for one another, of loving one another, of connection and community.
Barb George forwarded to me a YouTube video this week, one that I had seen before but which is really very appropriate for today’s focus as well. The video is called “shoulder taps” and in it Bill Hart says this:
Toni and I were having lunch at California Pizza kitchen the other day and I noticed this elderly woman who’s dressed nicely sitting down at a large table by herself for about five minutes. And then after a while her daughter and three or so grandkids show up. And they are looking spectacular and like they are getting ready for a nice meal. About that time a voice in my head says “You need to go and tell her how pretty she looks.” Then our food arrives, the check arrives and we’re going to go down this walkway in this strip center and on to the next thing that we are going to move to. So… on my way out, I kneel down put myself down at her level where she is in her chair and I say, ‘if no one else has told you this today I just wanted to say how lovely you are.’ And she looks at me with a look I’ve never seen before and she says, ‘I know you.’ And I said, ‘no, we’ve never met each other.’ And she says, ‘I know your spirit.’ And it gets really quiet between us and she says, “my husband died a year ago and that is something he would have said to me.’ And at that moment I can’t talk. I’m overcome by emotion and I just hug her, smile at her through tears and I leave. But here’s what I know and why I’m telling you this. I believe God taps us on the shoulders and uses us at just the right moment. And what I know for sure is that she was blessed and I was enormously blessed. So I’ve learned in my life to listen to these shoulder taps because they do happen. And the more we listen to them, the more in alignment we are with God. And that’s an awesome place to be.”
Those are moments where the Spirit reaches out and touches us with grace. But, as Bill Hart said, we have to be listening for it. We have to be open to it.
I was given a song a couple months back, called “Speak Now” from “one Night in Miami”
Listen, listen, While the storm in your heart is raging, Listen, listen, listen
Listen, listen, To the echoes of martyrs praying. Listen, listen, listen
Listen, Brothers and sisters, Listen, listen, listen
I swear we’ll never find a way to where we’re going, all alone
Don’t take your eyes off the road
Can you hear the bells ring out? Speak now, Speak now
Can you hear the angels sing loud? Speak now. Speak now
Listen, listen, To the message of hope in the whispers of ghosts, Listen, listen
Listen, For the children will grow on the seeds that we sow; They listen, they listen
Oh, listen, Brothers and sisters
Listen, listen, I swear we’ll never find a way to where we’re going, all alone
Don’t take your eyes off the road
Can you hear the bells ring out? Speak now, Speak now
Can you hear the angels cry out? Speak now, Speak now
Don’t you hold your tongue
Speak now (speak now)
Speak now (speak now)
Speak now (speak now)
Can you hear the angels? Speak now (speak now)
Growth happens, change happens because grace abounds. And grace abounds when we listen and are open for the movement of the Holy Spirit. But, just as the Galatians who were struggling to remember, struggling to be quiet enough to listen and be moved by the Spirit, we struggle too.
One of my pastor friends in Ohio began a project there known as “the Phoenix Project”. It was a church community that met in a store front in one of the more urban, poorer areas of Cleveland. And it attracted young people. Young people who were lost, most of them, struggling with many issues: poverty, drug addiction, rejection for sexual orientation or gender identity. It attracted these young people who built an amazing community of support and care. The Presbytery funded it initially, but we generally have rules in our Presbyteries that church communities have to be financially self-supportive within a five year period from their start. There was no way that this community of very young, mostly homeless and extremely vulnerable young people would ever be able to support themselves and eventually the Phoenix project shut down. The larger community of the Presbytery did not listen deeply enough for the movement of the Spirit that goes beyond finances and “what we’ve always done”. It was a tragedy.
But as we discussed it this week, I also heard that listening has to go both ways. When we bring a new project, or a new idea; one that we have learned to hear, learned to accept, learned to support as a calling of the Spirit, we have to remember that when we present it to others, what may have rattled around in our own brains for 20 years or so may be completely new to those who are hearing of it for the first time. The idea may need time to grow, to develop, to plant as a seed that will grow into a tree. Our listening has to go in both directions. The pain of change, or lack of change goes both ways. It is not easy for us, but it invites us to listen deeply to one another as we all listen for the Spirit’s movement. The UCC slogan of “I’m not done yet” – the idea of a comma instead of a period, it crucial. In Presbyterian churches we say “reformed and always reforming”. Same idea: the Spirit is not done with us yet.
The Spirit continues to move, to grow, to have new things to tell us. We can’t do anything to earn that. We can’t do anything to deserve that. We can’t force it, we can’t expect it. But it is there through grace. It is there inviting us to do one thing and one thing only: to listen.
I want to end by inviting you to hear the song I quoted above and to open your ears and hearts to listen for where God’s Spirit is speaking to you today.