Sunday, May 15, 2016

Invisible Church, Immanent Community

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

In the liturgical calendar of the Christian tradition, today is Whitsunday, the Day of Pentecost, a day to commemorate a marvelous, mostly invisible miracle. As the story goes, the resurrected Lord had left His disciples 10 days earlier; as Ronan Head put it in a fine post just a week and a half ago, "Jesus was, in some profound way, with God and not, in bodily form at least, any longer on the earth." But the disciples continued to meet has they had been commanded, and on Shavuot, as thousands of Jews from parts both far and near gathered at Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, the miracle occurred. As the King James Version puts it (Acts 2:2-4):

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

I've written about Whitsunday before, and why this particular holy day means a good deal to me. It is, in its most fundamental form, a promise: that the Holy Ghost--the ruach Elohim, the Spirit of God, the still small voice, call it what you will--will fill and surround and sustain us all, with such gifts of faith and action as will enable us to both know of God's hand in our lives, and serve as His hands in blessing the lives of others. Not all spiritual gifts are invisible, of course--in the story from Acts, there tongues of fire which descended upon the disciples, and then they went forth and spoke in a dozen different languages to all of those in the city. But most of the time, for most of us, what gifts we may have are unseen. We may hear them, we may feel them, we may know they are there, but they come (and go) invisible to the human eye. (As Jesus was, after His ascension, of course.)

Craig Harline, a professor of European history and a Mormon like me, recently wrote a long, kind of strange, but I think beautiful reflection on Pentecost, placing that marvelous event in the context of a later revelation and development in Christian history: Peter's vision of eating unclean beasts, and Paul's realization that following through on the implications of that vision would mean (as Craig put it in a delightfully stream-of-consciousness way) "sitting down and figuring out how you could tweak your ways a little here and even make a wholesale change there and okay even rethink even certain apparently non-negotiable unmissable ways in order to help accommodate people you’d thought were strangers, because you were sure that your mutual hope and love in Jesus rose above all that, or better yet underlay it, like some big pillow, softening everything." In other words, once blessed by the breath of God, you want everyone to similarly feel that wind, that touch, that grace, that gift, and you may well feel inspired to reconsider some of the most fundamental givens (or things you thought were givens) in your life, just so they, too, however strange or alien or disobedient they may appear to be, might hear that whispering. Such reconsiderations aren't invisible, necessarily, but neither are they usually formal pronouncements; as Craig observes, they "happen mostly in the doing rather than the preaching." To accept such fruits of the Spirit, things which emerge organically, unannounced, usually unseen until already accomplished, is a hard thing. In fact, Jesus let everyone know how hard--yet also how obvious--it would be, long before Pentecost, or His Ascension, or almost anything else in His ministry. While Craig looked forward in the story, I look back to John 3: 1-8, near the beginning of His mortal story.

There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:

The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

In the Revised English Bible, those final, key verses read slightly differently: "You ought not to be astonished when I say, 'You must all be born again.' The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born from the Spirit." 

You do not know where it comes from or where it is going. There are many hard and profound teachings from the New Testament that have echoed in my head over the decades, but this is one of the hardest. God's will--His breath, His gifts, His comforting and confirming and sustaining grace--comes and goes as, presumably, He wills it. Nicodemus wanted to understand Jesus's power and authority in terms of tangible, trackable, see-able things; the Lord's talk of being "born again" struck this learned (though, lest we forget, ultimately Jesus-believing!) man as nonsensical--because, after all, no one actually can be born again. Well, no, obviously not: not physically, literally, visibly, anyway. But through the Spirit? In a way that cannot be seen, that cannot be predicted, than can only be felt and heard through the fruits it makes manifest in the lives of those so touched afterwards? That's the basis of the radicalness of the whole Christian message, a radicalness which Pentecost, and Peter's vision, and Paul's vision too, and hundreds of millions of other moments of grace and giftedness and inclusion and reconsideration besides, all underline. The invisible work of the Spirit, made visible, made immanent, through the actions of those who, unseeing and often even unknowing, received and were thus reborn through His breath.

Such radical freedom does not mean "anything goes"--it can't, because Jesus clearly intended to bring His disciples together, and such togetherness is going to require some particularity, some notion of what is true or good: this community, not that one. So the winds which have historically tossed the faithful to and fro are not the same as the Holy Spirit. Being able to tell apart these two very different winds is one reason Paul talks about the need for apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. But note that Paul does not say in Ephesians that these individuals exist to identify the work of the Holy Spirit for the rest of us; rather, they are called so as to enable the members of the community to be equipped to minister to one another--and it is not difficult to suppose that it is in and through such mutual ministering, such edifying and perfecting (such "doing" as Craig put it), where we work out exactly what radical (or mundane, or both) thing God's invisible breath is gifting us to be able to conceive.

To speak of things invisible points in the direction of Protestant mysticism, of course (though not only that; the "mystici corporis Christi" is orthodox Catholicism), and I would assume a majority of believing Mormons would say that part of the whole point of having "apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth" is to keep such mystical ideas away from our religion. Through our peculiar doctrine of the Light of Christ, most Mormons would be, I think, accepting of the idea that God's will probably really is manifest everywhere, doing all sorts of things outside the purview of the visible church. But can the communion of Saints be guided by such invisible operations? I would suspect that the common Mormon answer is "no." But Craig is right to point to the story of Peter's vision, and Paul's operationalization of it, as a model which all of us, in our own ways, in our own lives and families and congregations, are nonetheless always involved in. As he put it in a response to a comment on his post, asking how the "serious accommodating of serious differences" might undermine the togetherness which Jesus called His disciples to: "Does binding have to come through following basically the same practices and rituals and even detailed beliefs? Or does binding happen through something that transcends those, ethereal as it sounds?"

Put me down on the side of mysticism and ethereality, though I'm not sure speaking of such in terms of that which "transcends" is particularly helpful. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were a large number of Protestant thinkers (beginning in Germany, but soon spreading through all of western Christianity) who thought seriously about what it would mean to make devotion to Jesus--as experienced invisibly through one's own personal associations and actions--the center of one's faith life, as opposed centering it upon a confession of a detailed theological belief, as made visible through the creedal church. Their conclusion, which came through both study and practice, was that such devotion would be anything but a source of separation; rather, it gave rise to intense feelings of Christian solidarity and intimacy. Through these informal, often invisible associations, through the ecclesiolae in ecclesia ("little churches within the church")--or as the philosopher J.G. Herder later put it, through attending to that shared religious language which constitutes one's volk, the peoplehood one has by sharing a history and a place and a way of speaking and hearing and doing, as opposed to sharing some distinct denominational confession--community is realized, strengthened, made visible. A binding community, then, perhaps can be found immanently, through all the invisible associations which the reception of God's gifts enable us to create through sharing and speaking and ministering with and to one another, in the most ordinary and non-transcendent of ways.

Mormons like myself actually already know this, though perhaps we don't fully know that we know it. Once a month in our church meetings, we have what is called "testimony meeting." In it, we invite one another to publicly stand up and speak and share and inspire, as God's unseen breath may happen to move us. There are--of this I have no doubt--more than a few problems with how we go about that testifying. But whatever the failures or complications of the particular rhetorical practices of American Mormons, the plain fact that we do it so regularly, and so devotedly, is, I think, itself an immanentization of God's binding love for us all. We listen, sometimes attentively and sometimes not, but simply by listening we show respect for one another, learn about each other, and gain an appreciation of what God is doing with each of us and, thus also, with all of us altogether. Through this, we learn to love one another, and learn to see how God is planting His love for us all in all our hearts. Remember that, according to the story, before Peter taught Jesus Christ and Him crucified to the people of Jerusalem, they were amazed and marveled and were brought together--Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, Arabians, and Jews--because they heard. God's breath, His unseen, unbidden, undirected, unknowable, yet nonetheless binding breath, did that.

Now, the pragmatist will ask: did it last, and did it resolve all of the concerns all those different individuals had? The scriptural record makes it clear it did not. And neither could any of us say that that one testimony or sermon which really spoke to us one Sunday remade us entirely. But perhaps that just means God wants us to keep at it, keep ministering, keep reconsidering, keep including, keep sharing. If we keep at it, then who knows just which foreigners and strangers and pilgrims God may be able, through us, to see feel His wind, and be born again? After all, it's not as though His gifts, both visible and invisible, will ever run out.

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