The Spirit of the Church

Romans 8:22-27

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Mark 16:17-18

17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

When I think of denominations that emphasize the Holy Spirit, I usually think of…well, just about every denomination other than the Mennonite Church. I’ve even gone so far as to say that we Mennonites are bi-nitarians, as opposed to Trinitarians. We focus a lot on Jesus Christ, and rightly so. He is our Lord and Savior and our entire religion is named after Jesus; we are Christians! I make no apology whatsoever for talking about Jesus and talking about Jesus a lot. We also talk a lot about God, sometimes to the point where it is hard to tell where Jesus stops and God begins. I also think that is a good thing. If I speak in such a way that I blur the lines between God and Jesus, I think that I have done that part of my job well. We cannot separate the two. Jesus said, If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.

But the Holy Spirit? Ah, we maybe talk about the Spirit once a year or so on Pentecost Sunday. There are usually a few references to the Spirit throughout the year, but the Spirit is rarely the focus of our time together.

No, if you want to hear about the Holy Spirit, you need to go to a Pentecostal Church. If you want to experience the Holy Spirit, you go to a Charismatic Church. If you want to see the Spirit at work, you go to a Holiness Church. I’ve never seen anyone speak in tongues in a Mennonite Church. I’ve never seen anyone handle snakes in any church. And we sure don’t roll around on the floor in the Mennonite Church! I will occasionally see someone raise a hand in worship and I feel that it is necessary to look at them suspiciously. No, we praise God by singing, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come.”

It would seem that there is a huge Holy-Spirit-sized hole in the Mennonite Church. But then I go and read something that shakes up my understanding of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Historian Peter Klassen writes that within the early Anabaptist movement “there was a profound conviction that the Holy Spirit was at the center of Christian experience. The work of the Holy Spirit enabled the followers of Christ to rise above legalism to the transforming life of joyful obedience.”

Palmer Becker paraphrases Klassen, writing, “The Anabaptist movement can rightfully be called the charismatic or Holy Spirit movement of the sixteenth century” (Anabaptist Essentials, 160).

What happened? Have we as 21st-century, North American Mennonites lost something that our spiritual ancestors found so central to their faith? I think that is part of it, and I don’t want to minimize that. But I think what we have seen more than anything else is that our concept of the Holy Spirit has been dominated by just a few expressions of the Spirit to the point that we only see a very narrow slice of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. There are a lot of references to the Holy Spirit in the Bible, and praise God, most of them do not involve handling poisonous snakes. (Can I get an amen? Or is that too Pentecostal?)

So today we are going to look at two additional roles of the Holy Spirit that often are neglected. We will look at the role of the Spirit in equipping and transforming.

The first thing that I want to look at is how the Holy Spirit equips the Church. When I think of equipping, I think of gifts. Each of us has some gift that will help the ministry of the church and if you don’t know what your gift is, I suggest asking someone from the church whom you trust. We need to be affirming the gifts in one another, especially as many of us have been told that humility is a virtue and to boast about a gift would be a sign of pride.

The Apostle Paul gives us several lists of Spiritual Gifts in places like Romans 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4, and what is probably the best-known list in 1 Corinthians 12. 1 Corinthians 12:1 says, “Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.” I don’t want you to be uninformed, either. So let’s see what is going on here.

One of the words that Paul uses that we translate as “gift” is the word charisma. As you may have guessed, that is where we get the English word charisma from. When you hear a dynamic speaker who is engaging, entertaining, and a delight to listen to, you might say that they are charismatic. That simply means that they have a gift for speaking.

Charisma can be further broken down to find its root, which is the word charis. Charis is the word that we translate as “grace.” We have friends who named their first-born Grace, their second born Charis, and their third Anya, which is the Russian word for grace. With all respect to Meghan Trainor, you might say that they are all about that grace, bout that grace.

Grace, charis, is a gift from God; something that you cannot and have not earned. Likewise, charisma and the charismata (plural form) are gifts from God. And Paul calls each one of these gifts a manifestation of the Spirit. Here is just a short list of what Paul names in these passages: Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Encouraging, Courage, Leadership, Mercy, Words of Wisdom, Words of Knowledge, Faith, Healing, Powers, Discerning Spirit, Speaking in Tongues, Interpreting Tongues.

Please notice, snake handling is not on the list.

I’d also ask you to notice that this is not an exhaustive list. I think of some of the skilled positions in our church, like our webmaster or our sound technician. I usually send our webmaster the bulletin Friday afternoon and he often has it up on the website before I get home, complete with hyperlinks to the written text. Our sound guy edits the audio each Sunday and transfers it to an MP3 file and sends it to the web guy, who has it posted early each week.

These are gifts that are being used in the church to reach people outside of the church. I don’t have any problem with calling these spiritual gifts, even though they don’t make any of Paul’s lists.

And think about Jesus’ first recorded sermon, which we find in Luke 4:18-19. Jesus is fresh off his time of temptation in the wilderness, he comes to his hometown of Nazareth, and speaks in the local synagogue. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The Spirit of the Lord has anointed Jesus to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to the prisoner, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and what many scholars believe the year of Jubilee.

The marks of a Spirit-filled church aren’t exclusively speaking in tongues or ecstatic worship experiences, though it can indeed include those things and I think that we can learn something from our more charismatic brothers or sisters. But I want to ask of your church: Is there sound teaching? That’s a Spirit-filled church. Is there prophesy or wisdom? That’s a Spirit-filled church. Is good news proclaimed to the poor, the oppressed, and the prisoner? If so, that’s a Spirit-filled church. The Mennonite Church may not be what you commonly think of when you think of a Spirit-filled church, but maybe we need to rethink what it means to be a Spirit-filled church. God equips us to do the work and ministry of the Church, and he does so through the Spirit.

How about one more “charisma,” one more gift of the Spirit that is often overlooked? The end of 1 Corinthians 12:3 tells us, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

That doesn’t really seem like that great of a gift to me. We are looking at three little words, two words in Greek. What kind of gift is that and what does Paul mean when he says that you cannot say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit? I’m glad you asked, because that leads us to our second area, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

It isn’t that it is all that difficult to say the words “Jesus is Lord,” it is difficult to live out that conviction. Because to say “Jesus is Lord” is to give your highest allegiance and ultimate authority to Jesus.

In the 1st century, it was common for members of the Roman Empire to greet one another by saying “Caesar is lord.” It was a way of identifying friend from foe. Recall that the word “lord” does not necessarily mean that someone was divine, such as in the British House of Lords or the series “Lord of the Rings.” Nobody has ever accused Bilbo Baggins of being divine.

Throughout Paul’s writings we find him encouraging followers of Jesus to proclaim that Jesus is Lord. At one point he writes, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That verse is found in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Romans 10:9.

To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Jesus receives your highest allegiance and is your ultimate authority. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar is not. This does mean that you go around defying the government and its leaders just to be defiant. But for the 1st-century church, they understood the phrase “Jesus is Lord” to mean that when Jesus says one thing, and the government says something else, you follow Jesus.

Jesus told his disciples to make disciples throughout the nations. The governing authorities told the disciples not to teach about Jesus and arrested them when they kept doing what they were told not to do. What was Peter’s response? “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29b).

So the authorities, the Sanhedrin in this case, had the disciples beaten and told them again to stop teaching. We find the disciples’ response in verses 41-42, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”

Tradition tells us that eleven of the original twelve disciples, plus Paul, were killed, martyred for their faith. Were they just slow learners? Were they that dense? They were told that they would be punished if they kept proclaiming that Jesus was Lord, but they continued anyway. No, they kept proclaiming that Jesus was Lord because they believed that Jesus was Lord and therefore had ultimate authority in their life.

And ultimate authority in their death.

So when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 that nobody can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit, he doesn’t mean just muttering the words. Paul is saying that if you state that Jesus is Lord and really believe it, you will have struggles. He said this and he knew it personally! How many times was that man thrown in jail? Paul also knew that the strength to proclaim Jesus as Lord did not come from himself. That was only through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s double back to that Klassen quote from earlier: “The Anabaptist movement can rightfully be called the charismatic or Holy Spirit movement of the sixteenth century.”

Let us not forget that in the 16th century many Anabaptists were martyred for their faith. Some estimate that around 2,500 Anabaptists were killed for their faith, other estimates double that number. Our history includes stories of Anabaptists singing hymns as they were burned at the stake, men and women using their last words to offer forgiveness to their executioners, and what may be the best-known story, that of Dirk Willems saving his pursuer from drowning in an icy river, only to be recaptured and executed.

What gave these men and women the strength and courage to stay faithful in the midst of persecution? It was the same power that allowed the disciples to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, and it is the same power that is available to us today. It was the Holy Spirit.

But we can’t limit this transforming power of the Holy Spirit to allowing people to withstand persecution. This isn’t just about toughening us up! It is about forming us into the kind of people that God has called us to be. In his book The Anabaptist Vision Harold Bender talks about the role of the Spirit in what he called “the regeneration of every Christian.” This is a renewed sense of zeal, a renewed desire to serve and follow Jesus. Not because our salvation is dependent upon our works, but because Jesus is Lord.

Bender offers a number of stories and quotations from opponents of the Anabaptist movement where these opponents had really nice things to say about the people they were persecuting. Ulrich Zwingli once wrote about his Anabaptist foes, “If you investigate their life and conduct, it seems at first contact irreproachable, pious, unassuming, attractive, yea, above this world. Even those who are inclined to be critical will say that their lives are excellent” (as quoted by Bender, 22).

Bender will go on to say that some non-Anabaptist Christians were accused of being Anabaptists during the persecution period, not because anyone had heard that they had been re-baptized, but because of the Christ-like life they were living (25). You’re giving money to the poor? You must be an Anabaptist!

            I’ll be the first to admit that Bender may be a little biased in his assessment of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement. But my point today is that the gift of the Holy Spirit is more than just speaking in tongues or handling snakes. Indeed, it may include those things, but it can be much more. Godly teaching, feeding the poor, preaching, enduring persecution, web development, and declaring Jesus as Lord can all be signs that a person is filled with the Spirit.

The early Anabaptist movement was indeed a Spirit-filled movement. And maybe many people wouldn’t look at how we worship today and called us a Spirit-filled denomination. But like Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:1, I do not what you to be uninformed. You are a Spirit-filled people, and you continue to bear the fruit of the spirit.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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