It is less common today than it used to be, but there once was a time when every household had one person who was almost always left out of group pictures. It might have been one particular friend, or mom or dad, or a certain relative, but there was almost always one person absent from visual records. This was the person that usually took the pictures. Any outsider looking through the photo album could be forgiven for thinking that person was not an important member of the household.
This analogy of someone being out of the picture is often used in Christian spirituality to get us thinking about the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit that makes the Christmas story possible. It’s the Spirit that shows up at Jesus’ baptism and confirms the unique connection between Jesus and God the Father. It’s the unique presence of the Holy Spirit in his life that gives him the title of “Anointed One” (Christ or Messiah). The Spirit does all this and yet is still the one holding the camera, drawing attention not to herself (or himself) but to the Divine Origin and to the Anointed One (God the Father and God the Son in more traditional terminology).
Having just crossed the threshold into a new year, this a good time to reflect on the Holy Spirit and consider what it could mean to be a bit more mystical in our spiritual lives.
Last year I began a pattern of making pizza for my household every Friday evening. The part of the process that I like the best, and which I’m still not reliably good at, is making the dough. You mix flour (dead stuff) together with oil, water and a pinch of salt (also dead stuff). But it’s when you add a little yeast that you get this living, breathing, growing thing. You can smell it and work with it. It’s the presence of the living yeast that makes the difference.
The same can be true for our own lives and for our churches. The presence of the living God makes the difference.
Our reading today came from Ephesians 1:3-14. This isn’t part of the logical argument that Paul develops later in the letter, as much as it is a summary opening. Before Paul addresses various challenges to the community’s unity in Ephesus, he wants to establish a shared understanding. He wants to place the church’s struggles within the frame of God’s work.
Let’s notice something about this chunk of scripture. It comes to the fore right in verse 3 with the repeated use of the word blessed (Εὐλογητὸς) or blessing. The word is repeated three times in one verse (half a Pauline sentence): blessed, blessed, blessing. God is blessed, yes, but God has blessed us (Paul’s audience) with blessings.
If you read through the whole paragraph with this in mind you’ll notice that it’s full of similar notions: blessed, loved, adopted, lavished, enlightened, given hope. The foundation of what Paul will go on to say to the church in Ephesus is God’s blessing, God’s lavish gift-giving, God’s generous invitation to join the family celebration.
A few weeks ago CNN ran a piece on what people had once thought 2020 would be like. It turns out that a lot of people, even just 20 years ago, thought that robots would have taken over most of our physical labour by now. In 2005 one British futurist said he was sure that by 2020 computers would have emotions. That would be important, he said, because without human pilots in airplanes, we would want the robot pilots to be very worried about crashing.
In 2004 another futurist said that we would probably not be eating food in 2020. Instead we would have little nanobots inserted in our digestive tracts. These little machines would monitor our health and excrete just the right amount of nutrients. The CNN piece said that a lot of people were sure that we would be taking vacations to the moon by now.
In 1964 the RAND Corporation did a study that assured people that by 2020 we would be communicating with extraterrestrials and traveling through time. The same study said we would have developed a global language by now. Those of us who could not afford robot personal assistants would be able to afford specially-bred apes to perform the household tasks we didn’t want to do.
What we actually have is Google and Amazon assisting and spying on us. Some futurist’s predictions are correct, but not enough to be useful.
In Ephesians Paul tells his readers that God knows full well that without some kind of down-payment, some guarantee in the hear-and-now, the claims about God’s blessings aren’t very meaningful. The problem with futurists making predictions is that there isn’t much for them to lose if they get things wrong. They may well be gone before anyone knows if their predictions come true or not. In fact, futurists get more attention (money) if they make outlandish predictions. It serves their interests to make wild claims.
The life of faith can seem like this sometimes—wild, untestable claims, no way to know if anything is actually true or not, no way to know if God will make good on the sorts of claims Paul makes in Ephesians 1. Where is this lavish blessing? What are the signs of hope? What is the mark of this generous welcome into the family? How this different from overly-optimistic, headline-grabbing predictions?
Scripture actually has an answer to those questions. It might not be exactly what you’re hoping for, but it is an answer. Paul says that those in line to receive these lavish blessings have been “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” A seal in this sense was a guarantee of authenticity and reliability. In the ancient world messages were imprinted with seals to testify to their reliability and authenticity.
Paul says that the presence of the Holy Spirit is that mark. It is that guarantee. He goes on to say that the Spirit, “is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.” The presence of the Spirit is the down payment showing that God is serious about coming through.
We sometimes hear people talking about evidence-based decision-making or evidence-based medicine or evidence-based policy. As much as we talk about faith in Christian circles, we often miss this deeply biblical claim about evidence. God’s Spirit is among us for a variety of reasons, but also as evidence. The Spirit is a seal, a guarantee, a pledge—evidence.
This introductory paragraph in Ephesians invites us to a way of being in connection with God. It invites us to a way of being where time is no barrier to a connection with Jesus. It invites us to a way of being that is soaked in gracious, divine blessing. The sign of that blessing, Ephesians tells us, is not financial success or a life free from painful disappointment. The sign of that blessing is God’s spiritual presence in our lives.
There’s a whole lot more we could say about how we attend to the Spirit’s presence. For now, it will have to suffice to say that this is a capacity we can learn. The Spirit’s presence is like the person taking the pictures. We can identify the Spirit’s work because it features Jesus. We may hear the Spirit in a subtle internal sense, our in our minds-eye, or through the voice of a friend or the poetry of a hymn, and we will recognize God’s Spirit because she sounds like Jesus.
On the other hand, if someone tells you they have a message from God and it sounds like something they are interested in, and not something congruent with God’s revelation in Jesus, that’s a time to guard your wallet and your heart. The Spirit points us in the direction Jesus walked.
Here’s another way to put this invitation given to us from Ephesians. It’s an invitation to discover a mystical side of the Christian way of life we may have not taken seriously before. If we’ve found our spiritual life to be too closed-off, too dry, too exhausting, we may need to consider the possibility that we’ve closed ourselves off from God’s living presence.
If you’re trying to knead together a life made up of only dead ingredients, nothing is going to bubble or rise. Your life will be rigid and unpliable. You’ll find yourself protective and worried. What if it isn’t true, you’ll wonder? What if I run out of belief? For all this, God offers us the presence of God’s own self—the presence of the Holy Spirit.