in us and among us

repost from November 2010

We were at a missions conference last week where I taught a workshop on discipleship and sanctification. The title was initially proposed to me as “Sowing where the Gospel has been preached,” and in that conversation, the next phrase that immediately came to my mind was “keep preaching the gospel.” And when you start talking about how to preach or know the gospel, you can’t get very far (or even start) without the Holy Spirit. If the gospel is Christ (as Paul states in Rom 1.3) and the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, then we need to be careful that all this gospel-talk is not just busy back-patting fact-rehearsing, but a talk empowered and sweetened by the Spirit to change our lives.

In my preparation for this workshop, I read a lot of James Dunn and some of the things he said are still swirling in my head. Here’s one: “The ‘functions’ of the body are precisely the charismata of the Spirit (Rom 12.4)…Charismata (or charisms) thus understood are the living movements of the body (1 Cor 12.14-26, Eph 4.16). Without them the body is dead. Christian community exists only in the living interplay of charismatic ministry, in the actual being and doing for others in word and deed…There are no dead organs in the body of Christ…”  (Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit, p. 249, emphasis mine).

First, don’t jump when you read the word “charismata.” Having and using these (the Biblical word) doesn’t make you one (the English cognate). Dunn uses it here in the best sense and it’s a word Gordon Fee defines as “a concrete expression of grace.” Now what could be more beautiful than that? And Paul uses it of lots of things other than specifically Holy Spirit-dispensed actions (such as eternal life and marriage, to name a couple). But the work of the Spirit in our lives is also in this category and I’m learning that nearly everything the Spirit does He does to us. Not just me. I used to think that the Spirit has regenerated me, sealed me, illumined my mind… But after reading Dunn, I started looking at those passages in Greek and realized that Paul kept talking to the saints in second person plural, which is difficult to translate into English. So Paul doesn’t pray (for example) that, “he may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being” but that God would grant you all (me, my sisters and brothers in Christ, the church) to be strengthened.

The image Dunn gives really helped me to process this: the Spirit’s work is the movements of the body. A body naturally does things; muscles and tendons and bones work together to go somewhere and do life, to live. But without those parts working together, no movement happens. And then our “body” is just a collection of pointless parts. That is why he says that the Christian community (and evidence of the Spirit) exists precisely in the interplay of our ministry to each other. I think I’m just beginning to understand this, but it has already changed the way I’ve experienced my conversations with fellow believers this past week. The Spirit’s goal in gifting us is uniting us to Christ and each other. This might sound goofy, but I think we often live out the body like an octopus body—each person connected to Christ, but barely connected to each other. This isn’t the Spirit’s design, though, and Christ is exalted and His work on earth furthered by our connection to each other. Not just as I read my Bible and try to become more like Christ on my own, but as the Spirit uses that process to enable me to encourage others to become more like Christ as well. And really, what kind of “Christlikeness” would focus only on my own spiritual state and leave others in the dust? Not the kind that looks like the Christ who abandoned all self-interest. So where is the Spirit’s body? Not at an address, not in a random collection of individual mystics, but in the interaction of Christ-followers as they discover the “concrete expressions of grace” in their lives. As we talk and give and serve and pray and push out into the world everything that God dwells in us to give.

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Filed under Christian Living, missions, Scripture, Theology

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