Thursday, May 19, 2016

Is God Finished Speaking?


In this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 16:12-15), Jesus tells his disciples that God isn't finished speaking to them yet: "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." The Spirit will say to the disciples things that Jesus could not say to them while he was still with them. But when will the Spirit be finished?

There are at least three ways to hear Jesus' words. First, there's the strictly limited interpretation. You can use John 15:15 as a filter for reading this passage and decide that the Spirit may speak to the disciples but won't tell them anything new. In that part of the farewell discourse, Jesus says to his disciples, "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." Despite what Jesus says in 16:12, that makes it pretty plain that there isn't anything left to be said. I don't buy that interpretation, but I can understand it.

Second, there's the conservative interpretation. The Holy Spirit had important things to say to the apostles, but, once the last one of them died--presumably, according to a conservative reading of the bible, John on Patmos as he wrote Revelation--the revelation ceased. In short, Jesus' instruction to the disciples was limited to the disciples, and God had nothing else to say after that. Again, I don't buy it. It's tempting. It's neat and tidy. It's comfortably static. But the power of Pentecost seems too great for a sixty- or even seventy-year run.

Third, there's the continuing interpretation, which has two distinct branches. Both agree that the Spirit continues to speak and provide new revelation to God's people. One branch is the Catholic version, which states that the Holy Spirit continues to speak but only through the revelation of church dogma. In other words, those who continue in the line of the apostles--and only those who continue in the line of the apostles--have the authority to listen to and interpret what the Spirit says. The other branch is the charismatic version, which believes that the Holy Spirit can and does continue to speak in and to and through anyone who is baptized by the Holy Spirit.

I must admit that I fall somewhere in this third stream of interpretation, but I don't know exactly where on the Catholic-Charismatic continuum I fall. I do believe that the Spirit speaks through anyone--not just those in positions of authority in the church--but I also believe that it takes the whole Body of Christ to understand what the Spirit is saying and that loners or schismatics who hold a Spirit-claimed authority are probably barking up the wrong tree--or perhaps even at the moon.

Is God finished speaking to his people? Did he say everything we needed to hear in Jesus? If the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments do contain everything necessary to salvation, do we need to acknowledge anything that comes after the book closes on Revelation? Did the Spirit guide those successors to the apostles at Nicaea and Constantinople and Chalcedon into the "confession of a true faith," which is "to acknowledge the glory of the Eternal Trinity?" Might the mystics who spoke long ago and those who still speak at nighttime revivals in small country churches where the bare light bulbs hang from an extension cord stapled to the ceiling show us that God still has something to say? Who decides? Have you decided? I'd be surprised if God is finished speaking, but, if not, why aren't I paying more careful attention to what Spirit-filled people are saying to the world?

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