A Chaos of Uncalculating Love

COVENANT NETWORK CONFERENCE 2003
New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC
Sermon – Friday Morning, November 7, 2003

A Chaos of Uncalculating Love

Kenneth E. Kovacs
Pastor, Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Maryland

 

It might come as a surprise that at the end of his life, the venerable Karl Barth (1886-1965) reflected upon the Christocentric nature of his Church Dogmatics and said if he had to do it all over again – he would get a good editor.  No, he didn’t say that.  He said that if he had to do it over again he would start not with Christology, but with Pneumatology -with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. [1]   He seemed to say there would come a time, an Age of the Spirit, when in order to meet the demands of the time the church will require a theology of the Holy Spirit. [2]  

I believe we are living in such an age and that the turbulent times we’re facing in the church might have less to do with the fact that we have lost our way (as some suspect), and more to do with the fact that the Holy Spirit is shaking the foundations of the church, forcing us to get off our butts and move where Christ is taking us, enticing us to give up old patterns of knowing, old ways of being, and opening us up for something radically new, creative, bold. I’m not talking about a free-wheeling movement of the Spirit doing whatever he/she wants, but the work of the Holy Spirit which is firmly grounded, connected, and committed to the ongoing power of Christ’s resurrection. [3]   This is why I linked these two texts together – one, an account of the resurrection and the other a reference to the movement of the Spirit.

 The Spirit of the Risen Christ is pulsating throughout the universe, a Spirit who is working deep against the defenses of the human ego, yearning, struggling, groaning to realize something within us that we could never achieve nor imagine on our own.  And it should not be surprising that the same Spirit who searches the depths of God’s own nature, a God who reveals the depths of love through the power of resurrection, would be at work in the world in ways that are startling, disturbing, conflict-producing, and even chaotic.

When Cleopas and his friend encountered Jesus on the Emmaus Road, grief, confusion, and infinite sadness enveloped them.  Jesus’ crucifixion threw them into a conflict of immense proportions; it shattered their hopes and dreams and left them with existential shock. [4]   We might think the resurrected Jesus, once they recognized him, resolved this conflict and made everything better.  Sure, their hearts burned within them and they ran enthusiastically – en theos — all the way back to Jerusalem (probably at night).  But do you think they returned to life as normal?  For what is “normal” after you’ve encountered resurrected death?  The resurrection turns everything upside down and inside out.  It’s a shattering experience.  When the Resurrected One encounters us on the road of life we’re thrown into a conflict of immense proportions, it threw them into crisis and chaos.  It’s the end of the world as they knew it (to quote R. E. M.) and the start of something radically new. [5]   Everything changed.  “Once you wise up,” Kierkegaard (1813-1855) said, “you can’t dummy down.”  Their knowledge of the world, their knowledge of themselves, their knowledge of God would all have to yield to the higher knowledge offered in that moment of radical insight.  What they had previously assumed and thought was sure and steadfast was completely undone.  God had done a radically new thing.   Once they realize what God had done, Jesus vanishes from them and moves on. 

Have you noticed that Jesus is always ahead of us?  Luke loves this about Jesus.  In Luke, Jesus is always going further, always on the move, leading us forward into something new. [6]   Sure, he will sit and share a meal, open up the pages of scripture for us, offer us fellowship, but Jesus never stays in one place.  He calls us and takes us along his road, he moves us toward a new horizon, that far country, the realm of God’s justice, into what scripture calls “that day,” that New Day.

It’s this sense of movement which Jesus offers that I want to stress this morning.  And it’s the Spirit who takes up this movement for Christ. The Holy Spirit is moving – powerfully – with resurrection power in the world today.  I believe the Spirit is extending the work of Christ, completing and perfecting what began with the resurrection.  The Spirit is kinetic, flowing with the pulse and rhythm of God.  The Spirit is infinitely swift, blowing where she will.  The Spirit cannot be managed, controlled, tamed, or constrained by the human spirit.  While the church has often identified the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, my mentor, James Loder (1931-2001), who taught at Princeton Seminary, taught me the Spirit is also the Provoker and the Conflictor.  The Spirit is wild and not afraid of conflict – if conflict is what it will take for us to wake up and see what Christ is doing in us and through us. [7] The French refer to the Holy Spirit in terms L’esprit audace: the audacity of the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is daring, never contained, recklessly bold, intrepidly daring, adventurous.  The Holy Spirit is risky, sportive, and playful.  Michael Mitton writes, “The Holy Spirit is not a tame bird, kept in a clean cage, to be released for short bursts of charismatic meetings. . . .  The Holy Spirit makes his habitation in some of the wildest, darkest places this world has to offer. . . .  The Holy Spirit is wonderfully free, able to go to the dark places of our own lives, for healing to the dark unvisited places of our churches, and to the dark and demon-infested places of our society.” [8]   But, we need to trust where these experiences are taking us and not pull back in fear.    The wild experiences in the Spirit can be chaotic, revealing what we might call the Pandemonium Tremendum, but this does not mean she is capricious, regressive, or destructive.  We Presbyterians need to learn that chaos is not the opposite of order.  For is not the void and chaos a part of God’s creation, the stuff of existence, over which the ruach of God moves and calls life into being? [9]

All of this is to say that the Holy Spirit not exclusively in service to the church.  The Holy Spirit is in service to the Word (that is Christ), who through the Spirit is continuing the work of Christ with resurrection power, enfleshing human life with the Spirit of God in the church, but also out in the streets of the city, in the world.

Three years ago I was at a wedding rehearsal dinner.  After cocktails, we were told to find a seat for the meal was about to be served.  I noticed that the bride’s brother, who lives in New York City, had a guest with him, a male, Jose, and it was clear that they were together.   There was an open seat across from them, so I sat down.  We talked about life in Baltimore and life in New York (I grew up outside of New York in Northern New Jersey).  During a lull in the conversation, Jose looked at me earnestly and said, with fear and trembling, “Why does God hate me?”  Everyone around us heard the question.  “Why does God hate me?”  Slightly stunned, I replied, “The church might hate you; but God doesn’t.”  I don’t know if that answer was from the Holy Spirit or not, but that’s what I said.  In that moment, for some reason, I needed to separate the voice of God from the malicious statements of the institutional church.  Where did he learn all of this?  From the church. Jose moved to New York from Puerto Rico. He was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and was disowned by his family because he’s gay.  Then he told me about two experiences he had.  One time, Jose said he literally felt, as he put it, “the hand of God,” resting upon his shoulder, offering him assurance as a gay man.  Another time he was in the subway when he sensed God’s presence and heard a voice that was not his own say to him, “You’re okay.”  The experience overwhelmed him, lasting fifteen minutes.  As he was telling me this, beads of sweat were running down his forehead.  He was so excited, but also nervous. “I was afraid when you sat down across from me,” he said, “because I knew that I had to raise this issue with you.” 

He knew that God didn’t hate him, but he didn’t learn this from the church.  He learned it from God and he was afraid of me because he didn’t want someone representing the church to tell him otherwise.  I told him there are plenty of churches in Manhattan that would welcome him and his partner and celebrate God’s love for them and each other.  But I don’t think he believed me.

This was painful for me because I was being identified with what he perceived primarily as a hateful institution that excludes and condemns. I don’t ever want to be seen this way.  And I don’t want to be part of a church that is seen this way, either, that cannot be clear about God’s radically inclusive love. 

This encounter was another reminder that we cannot ignore the experience of countless gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender(ed) persons who have encountered the Resurrected One on the Emmaus Road, who have come to know the love of God and the movement of the Spirit sometimes apart from and despite the witness of the church.  Some today argue that theological conviction is more important than experience.  Yet, we must remember that experience comes before dogmatic formulation, experience grounds conviction (as it was in the early church). [10] In one of her letters, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) wisely wrote, “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.” [11]   Sometimes, I fear we Presbyterians have become terribly harsh in emphasizing conviction and ignoring, if not silencing the experience of many sisters and brothers who are trying to tell us something of Christ’s love and what the Spirit is doing in their lives.

My God – how did we get this way?  There are days when I’m in my study, reading Presbyweb or The Presbyterian Outlook or The Layman (when I’m really bored) wondering, what on earth are we doing to ourselves? There are days when I don’t even recognize this denomination any more.  Several years ago, I remember being at the General Assembly in Charlotte, listening to the comments from the floor, hearing a theological vocabulary that was thoroughly un-Reformed, and I said to the person next to me, “Did I stumble into the Southern Baptist Convention by mistake?”  To borrow from Michael Moore, at times I want to scream, “Dude, where’s my church?” [12]   I love the Presbyterian Church.  But sometimes we just don’t get it.  We’re so busy trying to preserve the institution or denomination, wrestling for control in our blessed rage for order – but at what price?  We’re getting in the way of what Spirit is doing in the world and what Christ is trying to do through us.   It’s enough, as Anne Lamott says, to make Jesus drink gin from the cat dish. [13]

The Holy Spirit, Barth told us, has no respect for the past or for traditions, per se, no respect for ecclesial institutions, but only for the redemption of human lives and community. [14] The Spirit of Christ is moving in the world and the church can either be part of it, caught up in the Spirit’s work, or it can stand aside.  But the Spirit of Christ will not be constrained. 

One of the oldest prayers of the church is Veni, Creator Spiritus. “Come, Creator Spirit.” I’m always praying this prayer. It’s a prayer, as one theologian put it, of “open surrender to the absolute creativity of God.” When the church is trusting in the movement of the Spirit, open to where the Spirit wants to take it, then the church will be free, truly free to be as revolutionary and as radical as we here know the Gospel to be. To live this way liberates the church to be as creative and imaginative as the age demands. And there is no one more creative and imaginative than the Holy Spirit who is continually creating and recreating the world and our lives from within the generative power of God’s redeeming love. Then the church will be unshackled – infinitely swift – free to move down whatever road the Spirit wishes to take us!

In one of his prayers, George MacLeod (1895-1991) – the Presbyterian minister, prophet, and visionary (he was one of the firsts to fight for the rights of gays and lesbians in the church, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s), moderator of the Church of Scotland, founder of the Iona Community, my guess is he probably preached in this pulpit on one of his American tours – petitions to Christ for help in figuring how to be the church in a changing day. He confesses that we have spent too much time making the “Church an institute,” knowing full well that God wants the church, as he put it, “to be a chaos of uncalculating love.” I love this image. For me, it says it all. I wish I could take credit for this vision. But I embrace it with all my heart and “we,” together, offer it to the church. Thanks be to God!

[1] Philip Rosato, The Spirit As Lord:  The Pneumatology of Karl Barth (Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1981).

[2] See Hans Hoffman (1923-?), “How Karl Barth Influenced Me,” Edited by Edwin Lewis, Theology Today, 23 (1956):  369.

[3] John McIntyre, The Shape of Pneumatology:  Studies in the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1997), p. 671

[4] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs, CO:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), pp. 99ff. I am indebted to Loder’s reflections on this story

[5] R. E. M. “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (and I feel fine).” Capitol Records, 1987.

[6] See Luke 4:30, 4:43, 4:44, 5:16; from Luke 9:51 until 19:44 Jesus I on his way to Jerusalem.  In the book of Acts the gospel of Jesus spreads “to the ends of the earth.”  The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1995), p. 479.

[7] For the role of conflict in Christian transformation, see Loder, The Transforming Moment, pp. 36ff.

[8] Michael Mitton, Restoring the Broken Chord (London:  Darton, Long & Todd, 1995) cited in Ray Simpson, Exploring Celtic Spirituality:  Historic Roots for Our Future (London:  Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), p.  123.

[9] James E. Huchingson, Pandemonium Tremendum:  Chaos and Mystery in the Life of God (Cleveland:  The Pilgrim Press, 2001), pp. 96-115.

[10] Luke Timothy Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity:  A Missing Dimension in New Testament Studies (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 1998), pp. 39ff.  See also Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, Translated with a new Foreword by Douglas Horton (Gloucester, MA:  Peter Smith, 1978).  “In Biblical experience nothing is less important than experience as such.  It is an appointment and a commission, not a goal and a fulfillment; and therefore it is an elementary thing, hardly conscious of itself, and necessitating only minimum of reflection and confession.  The prophets and apostles do not wish to be what they are; they have to be.  And therefore they are. (p. 69)”

[11] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being:  Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Selected and Edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York:  Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1995), p. 97.

[12] Cf. Michael Moore, Dude, Where’s My Country? (Warner Books, 2003).

[13] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies:  Some Thoughts on Faith (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1999).

[14] Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man.  “The Holy Spirit makes a new heaven and a new earth, and therefore, new men, new families, new relationships, new politics.  It has no respect for old traditions simply because they are traditions, for old solemnities simply because they are solemn, for old powers simply because they are powerful.  The Holy Spirit has respect for truth, for itself.  The Holy Spirit establishes the righteousness of heaven in the midst of the unrighteousness of the earth and will not stop or stay until all that is dead has been brought to life and a new world has come into being. (pp. 49-50) ”

[15] Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (London:  SCM Press, 1965), p. 245.

[16] George F. MacLeod, The Whole Earth Shall Cry Glory (Isle of Iona:  Wild Goose Publications, 1985), p. 39.  See also Ronald Ferguson, George MacLeod:  Founder of the Iona Community (London:  HarperCollins, 1990).

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