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What does it mean to be “in the Spirit,” “walk in the Spirit,” “listen to the Spirit,” or a dozen other ways people talk about the spiritual life? In my experience, when people actually try to articulate what these things mean, they end up with a word-salad of emotive and devotional expressions that isn’t really…well…thinkable. I don’t fault them for this; the whole subject certainly does have an ineffable aspect to it, but the quality these phrases have in the New Testament is of something much more solid—a rather permanent defining quality, as if we were supposed to live our entire life “in the Spirit,” a sort of constant feature of life. I would love to show you what such a life looked like, but I can’t; I’m no good at it. None of us seem to be, except…wait. Maybe there is one. The prophets said that one was coming who would do just that…and perhaps it’s time to meet him.
Welcome to The Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
If we want to understand what it means for a Christian to live life “in the Spirit,” then it makes sense to get a feel for how this promised Messiah lived and moved. Indeed will not, if we trust him, Christ be the perfect example of what this means? Has there ever been a person who was more dependent on the Holy Spirit than Jesus of Nazareth? Not in the view of the biblical authors. Well then, any complete answer to the question must wrestle with what this Spirit meant to Christ himself.
The first place in the life of Christ we see the Spirit’s work is, naturally enough, the beginning—his conception. When the angel Gabriel declares to Mary that she will have a son, and she observes, very rightly, that this isn’t possible since she has never… “known a man,” the angel replies by telling her that the work of conception will be accomplished by the Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Now this work has the same occasional, supernatural, and missional qualities that we have come to associate with the Spirit’s work in the Old Testament. It is unique to this particular situation—we have not seen the Holy Spirit named as the agent of a virginal birth before, and nowadays I believe they are somewhat rare. The work is not intended as a predictor of future behavior or a promise of any sort of permanent presence in Mary. The Spirit will come, do this work, and then apparently in some sense depart.
There is here, however, the introduction of a theme or problem that will come up again and again in the Christ’s relationship to the Spirit. That is, why must the Spirit do this at all? Surely, if Jesus is God, then he most certainly has within himself the power to do anything required in the incarnation, including entering Mary’s womb. And yet Gabriel is clear that it will be the Spirit who brings this about.
Now at one level this is what we would expect given what we know of the Spirit from our previous conversations. That this life-giving work should be so done is merely the natural extension of the Creatio work of the Spirit. The same Spirit who brooded over the first creation will overshadow the beginning of the new creation, as the agent of its forming-filling. The Spirit gives life, is the agent of the sharing of divine life with creatures. So when the Son of God needs to take to himself a human nature and a human body-soul, the Spirit is the one who furnishes him with it.
But it also tells us something about the nature of the Son of God as he goes on this journey into the land of fallen men. I don’t know what this means in the internal life of the Triune God, but it is clear that the biblical story is telling me how I should think about it. The Son of God will not employ his own glorious divine power to do this deed, but rather will put himself in the hands of the Spirit. Jesus will be the one acted upon, not the one acting. This passivity—or even “submission”—of the Son of God to the work of the Spirit will come back again and again throughout. What is true here at the very beginning of his mission, will be the defining quality of the whole thing—he will be a man who is wholly dependent on the Spirit.
What is true here at the very beginning of his mission, will be the defining quality of the whole thing—he will be a man who is wholly dependent on the Spirit.
We are told very little of the child Jesus, and the one story we are given—that of his teaching in the temple at age 12—tantalizes more than it explains. But the final sentence of that story is perhaps most instructive. According to Luke 2, “he came to Nazareth and was subject-submissive to [his parents].” Apparently the child Jesus lived under the spiritual authority of his parents, as all children ought, but again, a remarkable choice given who he was.
The story now makes a great leap over several decades. The adult Jesus, who is now ready to take upon himself the mission for which he came, arrives at the edge of the Jordan River where John the Baptist is baptizing. Whatever else John’s baptism may have meant in that time, he are told that those who came were “confessing their sins,” and further that John goes after those who come merely shaming repentance, calling them a “brood of vipers”—that’s catchy.
This, however, explains John’s reaction to Jesus. He points at him and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”—meaning at the very least that while others may come confessing their sin, here was someone different, here was the one who would actually remove those sins. So now imagine the shock when Jesus enters the water, not to relieve John of his position, but to stand before him as one to be baptized. Jesus assumes the position of the sinner in this picture. John is scandalized by this, and rightly so.
He will be the sin-bearer, not just ultimately on a cross, but rather his whole life and ministry will be one of bearing on his own shoulders sin—not his own—but that of his people.
But again, this act on Jesus’ part is a window into his mission. He will be the sin-bearer, not just ultimately on a cross, but rather his whole life and ministry will be one of bearing on his own shoulders sin—not his own—but that of his people. From the beginning Jesus is lowering himself, humbling himself into the place of the sinner…and anyone who knows the biography of Jesus of Nazareth knows where such a choice is going to lead.
So when the Father spoke from heaven, declaring how pleased he was with his Son’s choice, while it would have been a shock to all who witnessed it, and perhaps even to us readers, maybe it should not be. It is perfectly fitting. And the Father now sends the Spirit down upon Jesus in a form of anointing again familiar from the Old Testament stories. This one would hereafter be endowed with this Spirit. He would be moved by the Spirit, obedient to the Spirit, absolutely reliant upon the Spirit just as were the prophets of old.
This dependence is illustrated by the very next action where the gospels record that Jesus is from here led into the wilderness—or as Mark says “driven” by the Spirit into the badlands in order to be tempted. It is the Spirit who tells him to go, and he listens and obeys. Now many things could be said of the temptation story, but the point here is that all the temptations press precisely on that commitment to stand in the place of the sinner. They each in their own way invite him to retreat into that exalted status the Son of God wore before the incarnation. They beckon him to abandon the way of the Spirit and take control of the agenda himself.
“Here,” says the Tempter, “You are hungry? Turn these stones to bread.” Do you see? Stones to bread? That’s a feat only God can do….OR a man in full position of the Spirit (remember Elisha and the vat of oil and flour). But turning stones to bread was not something the Spirit wanted done. The wilderness was about the fast. So the ultimate question becomes will Jesus do an end run around the Spirit, doing it “from his own power,” or will he wait on the Spirit?
Well, he waits. He persists in his fast, which is as much as to say, “if the Father wants me dead of starvation in the wilderness, so be it. I will not act outside the Spirit’s agenda.” Now again, I do not know what this means within the Triune life of God for the Son of God to submit to the agenda of the Spirit of God when presumably they have the same agenda, but I know how the text tells me I should think about it. Jesus’ victory in the temptations is as an indication of just how far he is willing to be led by this Spirit…even to death…which is exactly where the Spirit will ultimately lead him. Listen to whom the writer of Hebrews credits the Son’s ability to remain sinless…
…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Christ’s ability to maintain his fast and do his work, his very sinlessness, would be “through the eternal Spirit.” That is how the Biblical writers have taught us to think of this—Jesus remained obedient and sinless, not through some exercise of his own glorious divinity, but through constant dependence on the Spirit…that same Spirit who has been given to us. Sort of raises the bar for us a bit, dunit?
Moving on to his broader ministry, the reliance on the Spirit for his ministry priorities and actions is not a mere theological theory, it is exactly how his own disciples came to understand what he did. Consider how Peter speaks of it in his sermon in Caesarea…
“You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.
That is remarkable. Peter does not say, he did miracles because he was omnipotent God. He certainly could have, but instead he emphasizes that Jesus did all these things because “God was with him,” and how was that? “By the anointing of the Holy Spirit.” Luke uses the same tone when speaking of Jesus’ miracles. In Luke 10, he writes…
“Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district”.
And a bit earlier in chapter 5…
“One day He was teaching; and there were some Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing.”
This latter verse doesn’t mention the Spirit, but we already understand what Luke means by the words. It makes a distinction between Jesus’ power and the “power of the Lord,” giving that power an external origin.
Now here we feel the conundrum in full force. Why does the omnipotent son of God need the Spirit to empower him to do miracles and things? Well, he doesn’t…in himself. But his mission does require it. Listen to Jesus’ own stated agenda…
“. . .Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”
and a little later…
“. . .but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.”
It is not as though the Son of God somehow lacked sufficient divine power during the incarnation to do these things, and so had to depend upon another source. Rather it was that despite the fact that he had all power in himself, he would not take it up of his own accord. In the same way his agenda was not his own and his message was not his own, so too his power was not his own. I cannot here parse the metaphysics of it, but this is how the scriptures speak.
The best way perhaps to speak of it is the way Paul did in Philippians—that “Jesus made himself nothing.” While remaining the Son of God, he places himself at the complete disposal of another in an act of humility that defies comprehension.
While remaining the Son of God, he places himself at the complete disposal of another in an act of humility that defies comprehension.
Now to be clear none of this brief material (and I could muster much more) says anything against Jesus’ own power or divinity. It merely recognizes how the biblical writers actually talk about it. It is as if they want us to see (along with Jesus’ divinity) his submission, his humility, his willingness to make himself dependent upon that same resource that his followers would have to depend upon—the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.
Now the story begins to gets pretty intense, because as Jesus’ earthly life closes out he makes a promise to his disciples that is, in its net effect, that they too shall be recipients of that same Spirit. In the upper room, on the last night of his life, he speaks repeatedly of the Spirit who will be with them after his departure. Now we’ll talk a great deal about Jesus’ upper room discourse in another homily, but for now let the following fact settle down on you. When Jesus speaks of the greatness of that one who is coming, he speaks not as a theologian well-studied from books, reciting a disputation from the lofty heights of an ivory tower; No, he speaks from his own experience with this Spirit. Jesus himself has walked with this Spirit, has relied on this Spirit, will place himself even more absolutely in this Spirit’s hands in the coming days, and this man, who has repeatedly found this Spirit strong and capable, now refers us to that Spirit as the one necessary resource for the coming days.
Remember that verse we’ve already cited from the book of Hebrews. Christ’s ability to freely offer himself on the coming cross will be a direct result of his being led there by this Spirit and sustained through the experience. That Spirit who drove him into the wilderness to be tempted is about to lead him to the cross, and so great was Christ’s own trust in that Spirit that he goes, as Isaiah said, like a lamb led to slaughter or like a sheep silent before her shearer.
That should give us hope. If the Spirit was strong and capable to lead the Christ to the cross, and that Spirit is likewise promised to us, then what dark road should we ever fear to tread? If I may make a pastiche of Paul in Romans 8, what power, what height, what depth, what created thing, can separate you from the love of God in Christ? If the same Spirit who led Christ to the cross dwells with you, then surely nothing possesses sufficient power to force the Divine Spirit’s hand.
If the Spirit was strong and capable to lead the Christ to the cross, and that Spirit is likewise promised to us, then what dark road should we ever fear to tread?
This is proved beyond doubt when we meet how the New Testament writers deal with Christ’s resurrection. While Christ himself said, “I lay down my life, and I will take it up again,” and that must be taken seriously, it is not the way the writers of the epistles tended to speak. Listen to Paul in Romans…
And if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also make alive your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you.
And a bit later
If you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
The theme is consistent: The resurrection is a work of the Holy Spirit. As with every moment in Jesus’ life, it says that he was willing to remain dead in the tomb rather than act outside the agenda of God and the power of the Spirit. And God consequently answered that faith by raising him, vindicating his claims, proving him to have been who he said he was. This is the beginning of the new creation. And if anyone is in this Christ, animated by Christ’s own Spirit, he or she has likewise become a new creation, that is we stand in the same place Christ stood. We have become people of the Spirit.
Whatever it means for us to live in the Spirit, walk in the Spirit, listen to the Spirit, or a hundred other ways we speak of it, it is not a lonely isolated, self-defined journey. It will be exactly part of our becoming conformed to Christ’s image—that is, we shall be like him for we shall have a share in his Spirit. Our conversations in future homilies about what it means to be people of the Spirit cannot be divorced from ideas like “Christ-likeness,” nor are they separate things. To be made into the image of Christ IS to be made into a person who lives by the Spirit.
Remember, that same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead is about the same kind of work in you and me—raising us to life, slow and with stuttering step here and now, but climactically and finally one day, just as the Spirit did for Christ.
So our death and resurrection are entrusted to the Spirit’s capable hands, well and good, that is of great comfort, but the call that rests upon us is to “live” by means of this Spirit as well. What is that and how are we to do it? That is the question for future homilies to unpack. For now, be encouraged, my brother. Be comforted, my sister. You have not been left as an orphan in the world. That same Spirit that empowered, comforted, and guided your Lord has been promised to the people of God. And as Christ himself proved, that Spirit is strong and capable to make us into all that God intends us to be.
We’ll see you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
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