I don’t know about you, but I would rather a life that is orderly and predictable. I can take a little chaos now and then, but I prefer the orderly and predictable kind. When friends invite me to dinner at home, I am tempted to ask if I can bring my dog. That might trigger a recall of the initial invitation. Can we welcome Father’s dog? Will he get along with our other 3 dogs, 6 cats, the iguana, and 11 hamsters? Will the kids be okay? How about the other guests that are coming? As I consider the chaos I might bring into the mix, I also think it’s probably just easier to leave the dog at home. Then I don’t have to set up the dog car seat cover, and vacuum all that dog hair after. When faced with a choice between total chaos and a mild disorder, it’s really not that difficult. I just ask myself, what am I willing to tangle with right now?
The evangelist Luke, author of the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, likes to tell a story that is generally orderly and predictable. Scripture scholars agree on Luke’s general outline in these two works. The gospel begins with Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, recounts his ministry in Galilee, and concludes with his passion and death in Jerusalem. In Book 2, the Acts of the Apostles, the community of Jesus’ followers gets established in Jerusalem. After violent persecution and the scattering of believers in all directions, the gospel is proclaimed in Judea and Samaria. And with the missionary work of Paul and the arrival of Peter in Rome, the gospel is proclaimed to the ends of the earth. It is a tight orderly progression. Occasionally there is a disruption in the plan for dramatic effect, but it returns quickly to the orderly and predictable outline. Stephen is put to death, and the church in Jerusalem implodes. Philip, one of the seven chosen to address the dispute involving the Greek widows and the Hebrew widows in last week’s reading, makes for Samaria. He proclaims the gospel with great conviction. He casts out demons, heals the sick, and performs powerful signs. And God brings calm to the chaos and order to the disorder. And yada, yada, yada, in this the work of redemption is accomplished. Ta-da!
The evangelist John, however, is not quite a fan of orderly and predictable. The Christian community that grew around him, and the gospel account that emerged from them celebrated the less orderly and less predictable movements of the Spirit of God. Jesus promised the Spirit would guide, console, encourage, and teach the community of believers. Luke tells how the church in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria to lay hands on those who had been baptized so that they might receive the Holy Spirit—perhaps to say it was important to connect the apostles with the newly baptized. Yet John in the gospel adds nothing to Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit other than that we keep his commandments, and he would ask the Father to send another Advocate. In effect, the Holy Spirit needs no one’s permission to accomplish God’s wonderful design.
So there exists this tension between structure and freedom among and within the community of Christian believers. Some believe that Jesus founded the church on the rock that is Peter, and gave approval and blessing to structure and process in the life of the Christian community. Through the laying on of hands, Peter and the apostles entrusted Jesus’ own mission to others. So for many generations, we would follow a similar pattern, orderly and predictable. We can be assured that the Holy Spirit employs orderly structures and predictable processes to accomplish God’s work of redemption. We know who’s in charge. We are all on the same page. We can tell the difference between faithful and unfaithful, amateurs and professionals, in-laws and outlaws. And when Jesus returns on the last day to judge the living and the dead, we can hand over our baptismal and marriage registers, and our budget and annual reports, to help him separate the sheep from the goats. Ta-da!
And then some Christians firmly believe that the Spirit of God is as awesome and mysterious and unpredictable as the wind. They have no use for order and process. God will make sense of it all in the end. Feel free to follow where the Holy Spirit leads. He speaks to your heart. He knows your spirit. He has a game plan and he knows what he is doing. Embrace the chaos, the ambivalence, the uncertainty. And when the dust settles, all will be made clear beyond doubt, and the faithful will be taken up into the highest heavens to behold with wonder and awe the mighty deeds of God. Ta-da!
Now it doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be both/and because the Holy Spirit will not be limited or defined by our imperfect understanding or acceptance of his role in God’s plan. We can tell there is order in the world because we are rational beings, although some choose not to use the brain God gave them; and the laws of nature are laws precisely because they will always work; and dinosaur bones are clear proof that dinosaurs existed; and we will one day find the cure for cancer; and human beings will one day travel to the far reaches of outer space; and peace on earth is not a pipe dream; and every child is God’s way of saying he is not finished creating the world. So if the Holy Spirit brings about growth among believers through violent persecution and the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles, who are we to stop him? If the Holy Spirit chooses to accomplish God’s work of redemption with the help of non-Christians, or lapsed Catholics, or Democrats, how can we to tell him “No”? We might get in the way of God’s plan occasionally, but God’s will will be done. Always.
“I will ask the Father,” Jesus tells us, “and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth … You know him, because he remains with you, and will be with you. … I will not leave you orphans … The world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. … Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and reveal myself to him.” Jesus invites us to trust the Spirit of truth. “You know him, because he remains with you, and will be with you.” In the meantime, we bear witness to the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in our daily lives. We proclaim with great joy the good news that God reconciles us to himself and one another. We live with hope the new life God gives us in baptism. So Peter encourages us, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for the reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear.” And in all this God accomplishes his awesome work of redemption. Ta-da!
Rolo B Castillo © 2014