Last week I refrained from blogging and posting thoughts about the state of disunity in the United Methodist church. Instead I spent the week penitently fasting and I praying intensely for our church and the denomination among other things. It was a great week of personal renewal that lead quite nicely into Pentecost, since which I have reflected on what unity should look like and from whence it should come. If it is truly unity that we seek, I have no doubt that it is a fresh outpouring of the Spirit of the Living God that we need rather than more legislation and certainly rather than more compromise.
Acts 2 tells us that on the Pentecost after Jesus ascended into heaven, that God poured out the Holy Spirit as never before in fulfillment of a promise. It was a promise that Jesus reminded his disciples about and that I’m sure he explained to them quite distinctly as he expounded things concerning the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3) and about himself from the Scriptures (Luke 24:44-49). It wasn’t a brand new promise that Jesus just gave them out of the blue, it was a promise that was a long time in the coming that Peter, during his Spirit-filled sermon that day, said was a fulfillment of a prophecy from Joel (Acts 2:16-21; Joel2:28-32). The prophecy of Joel was a promise of God that all of God’s people regardless of gender, age, or social position would be filled with God’s Spirit and it’s corresponding prophetic abilities, in both aspects of proclamation and prediction. I believe the essence of this prophecy, however, long predates Joel and is a promise found in other prophets as well. Joel highlights the prophetic manifestations of this new outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord that would follow the outpouring of God’s wrath against Judah and Jerusalem, what Joel, after the style of Amos, calls “the day of the Lord.”
Jeremiah, the prophet who insisted against the “prophets of peace” that judgment on Judah and Jerusalem could no longer be averted or even delayed, also received a vision of a day beyond the exile when God would do a new thing. He saw a day when a new covenant would be cut, when God would put his law within His people and write it on their hearts so that all of them would know Him, from the least to the greatest (Jer 31:31-34). Ezekiel too got a glimpse of this day when God promised to remove the stain of idolatry from His people and give them a new heart and a new spirit, God’s very own Spirit that would enable them to obey God’s statutes and ordinances (Ezk 36:25-27). God’s Spirit would be the direct cause of the renewed commitment and ability to obey. This is the same promise that was spoken of by Moses who proclaimed that after the punishment of exile the Lord God would circumcise the hearts of His people “SO THAT” they would love God with all of their heart and soul as he had called them to do all along (Deut 30:6; see also Deut 6). The context of both Deuteronomy 6 and Deuteronomy 30 make it very clear that to love God means to keep his commandments, a truth that wasn’t lost on the New Testament writers (i.e 1 John 5:1-3; Rom 13:8-10) as it has been on so many in the modern Western church. So the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel was the fulfillment of a much larger promise than establishing a more egalitarian prophetic office, and certainly involved more than making church services more fun.
It was a fulfillment of Moses’ wish that all of God’s people would receive the prophetic anointing of God’s Spirit as did the 70 elders who showed up at the tent of meeting as well as Eldad and Medad who didn’t (Num 11:16-30); but it was also an answer to the prayer of king Solomon who prayed that God would give His people “the desire to do his will in everything and to obey” God’s commandments SO THAT “people all over the earth will know that the LORD alone is God and there is no other” (1 Kings 8:54-61NLT). God answered Moses’ and Solomon’s prayers and fulfilled his own promise by keeping His word, which is what God’s steadfast love is all about, namely faithfulness to the promises of His word.
That’s why the apostle Paul says:
“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” (Rom 8:3-9 NRSV).
The outpouring of the Spirit was the fulfillment of the promise of the Father, and the result for those who receive it, and it is available for anyone (Acts 2:39), is not only forgiveness, and certainly not forgiveness with license to continue in sin (see Rom 6), but a new heart through a new Spirit. Perhaps it’s no accident that Luke tells us that the crowd that gathered to hear Peter’s first sermon was “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37), the first surgical incision of the Spirit of the Great Physician to circumcise the heart of God’s people. And the first evidence of the Spirit’s handiwork is humility, as they put away the objections, excuses, and obfuscation and cried out, “What should we do?” and then heeded Peter’s call for them to repent and submit to the Lordship of Jesus through baptism for forgiveness and to be filled with the gift of God’s Spirit as well.
As we see the ultimate mark of a Spirit-filled person is not amazing spiritual gifts which may just be lying signs and wonders (see Jesus’ rebuke of those who appeal to the gifts that they operated in his name even in Matthew 7:21-23) but a person in whom the just requirement of the law is fulfilled because he or she is now at peace with God through submission to God’s law and who by the Spirit seeks in all things to please God (see Rom 8 passage above). This is true because it is the Holy Spirit that pours God’s love into our hearts (Rom 5:5) thus fulfilling the promise of the Father as recorded in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Ezekiel. A Spirit-filled person, one who truly belongs to Christ, will not be one who continues to look for loop holes and concessions in God’s word, but one who in faith and faithfulness seeks to please God in all things. A Spirit-filled person will not seek to accommodate sin or to water down the word of God so as to make it more palatable to the tastes of a corrupt generation, x, y, millennial or otherwise. Nor will she or he seek to make anyone in any way more comfortable with sin and the ways of a fallen world, and certainly not by dismissing, mocking, and undermining the written word of God. No! It’s the Spirit working through Spirit-filled prophets, preachers, and teachers that convicts of sin and cuts people to the heart so that they humbly cry out to be saved from their sin and from a corrupt generation. It is these who receive the promise, the gift of the Spirit, and who manifest the corresponding fruit, against which there is no law (Gal 5:22) because these are the things that fulfill the just requirement of the law. The fruit of the Spirit, beginning with love, (not a romantic or sentimental emotion or a warm and fuzzy niceness, but a promise-keeping faithful divine love that keeps God’s word), as opposed to the works of the flesh, beginning with sexual immorality, that keep people from inheriting the kingdom of God, is the mark of one who is truly living and being guided by the Spirit of God, not spiritual gifts. It is the Spirit made available by the atoning sacrifice of Christ and his resurrection that does in us what the law by itself could not do, and that is to circumcise our hearts.
This is the basis of genuine unity. It’s a Spirit inspired unity where those who are saved devote themselves to apostolic teaching, not to doing what’s right in their own eyes. It’s a Spirit derived unity that results in genuine fellowship, sharing meals together, especially the Lord’s Supper, and prayers. It’s a unity marked by awe, holy reverence for God, and voluntary sharing of all things to meet the needs of the poor. And this is the environment through which the Lord works to add others to the church (Acts 2:42-47). Moreover, this is the unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17, a unity rooted in sanctification, being set apart from the world, which comes, and only comes by way of the truth of God’s word not by compromise through conformity to the ways of a fallen world. This is the unity of the Spirit, a unity given to us by the Spirit, that we are called to make every effort to keep in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3).
I believe this is what genuine unity looks like, and it all begins with conviction of sin and repentance. Yes, it is humility that we need, but, as Bill Arnold as guided by the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton has so aptly shown (“Seeing Black and White in a Gray World”, 2014. Also see my article “Seeing the Light in a Church of Gray“), it is not the humbling of the word of God to our own imaginations and desires, but the humbling of ourselves to the word of God. As Paul might say, it’s humbly submitting to the law of God. Humility is about submission, and this is something that the mind of the flesh cannot stand and will not do. Rather the person who is led by the flesh will always endeavor to humble the word of God into submission to himself. The Spirit-filled person with God’s love overflowing in her heart, on the other hand, will joyfully, not grudgingly, submit to God’s word in faith and faithfulness. A Spirit-filled person will be a person of the Word and a person of his or her word, that is, a person of truth. All of this comes with the promise of the Father, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the promise is for you and me, for our children, for anyone and everyone wherever they may be, to anyone whom the Lord may call, even for everyone in the United Methodist Church.
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. Holy Father, by your Spirit fill us with your love, your promise-keeping love, so that people all over the earth may know You, “the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). In his name and for his sake I pray. Amen.