Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I will sing with my spirit

Not only because it is the season, but because the presence of the Holy Spirit brings song to God’s people, let us pause to acknowledge the day of Pentecost.

Granted, the book of Acts does not tell us anyone sang on the day the Holy Spirit came and filled the room like a mighty rushing wind and rested on the disciples as tongues of fire. If that were the entire history of the Holy Spirit in the apostolic church, we could leave the manifestation of the Spirit to preachers and writers. But let’s stick with Saint Paul on this matter, and celebrate the gifts the Spirit brings that are expressed musically.

To the church in Ephesus, Paul wrote: … be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart … (Ephesians 5: 18,19) Speculation here: after 40 days of Jesus’ instruction (“everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms …” Luke 24:44) it is not too big a stretch to think that some of those Pentecostal utterances were addresses in psalms.

When correcting the theology of the Holy Spirit to the Corinthian church, Paul seems to take for granted that singing was a common manifestation of the presence of the Spirit: “What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing praise with my mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15). And what does he say as he wraps up his teaching with practical matters for orderly worship? “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn …” (14:26) Now, I don’t think Paul uses “hymn” here as a function of priority, but I am always fascinated that he includes it at all. And in this discussion of the gifts of the Spirit in worship here, he says “Let all things be done for building up.”

Christians are a singing people. That is something, I believe, that simply comes with the presence of the Holy Spirit. And it is my further conviction that the Holy Spirit is always giving the gift of new song to his people. (Though, I believe it was hymn scholar Alan Luff who observed about some claims that the Holy Spirit inspired specific songs, “we are surprised to learn that the Spirit is such a poor craftsman.”)

The Spirit’s role is to point people to Jesus. But perhaps it is not out of place to highlight a hymn text about Himself. The best Holy Spirit hymns do both:

Born by the Holy Spirit's breath,
loosed from the law of sin and death,
now cleared in Christ from every claim
no judgment stands against our name.

In us the Spirit makes his home
that we in him may overcome;
Christ's risen life, in all its powers,
its all-prevailing strength, is ours.

Sons, then, and heirs of God most high,
we by his Spirit 'Father' cry;
that Spirit with our spirit shares
to frame and breathe our wordless prayers.

One is his love, his purpose one;
to form the likeness of his Son
in all who, called and justified,
shall reign in glory at his side.

Nor death nor life, nor powers unseen,
nor height nor depth can come between;
we know through peril, pain and sword,
the love of God in Christ our Lord.

Timothy Dudley-Smith ©1984 Hope Publishing

Monday, May 5, 2008

He ascended into heaven!

Lest it pass entirely and get lost in Pentecost reflections, I wanted to note the Evangelical Feast of Ascension, which would have been properly celebrated on May 1, 40 days after Easter. During those 40 days following the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples, teaching them and showing how all the scriptures – Law, Writings, Prophets – spoke about himself. These days climaxed with his dramatic ascension to heaven, taken up in clouds (a powerful biblical symbol of God’s glory).

The continental reformers, busy tossing out all kinds of liturgical accretions, maintained what I have heard called the Evangelical Feasts. That is, the celebration of actual events clearly from the life of Jesus, found in the Bible. An altogether evangelical commitment, I should think. We can pinpoint Easter, because of its connection to the Passover. And we have the actual count of days for Ascension and Pentecost. We believe these things happened, so let’s let them inform our worship of our glorious, risen, ascended, Spirit-sending Savior!

A hymn to mark Ascension:

The head that once was crowned with thorns
is crowned with glory now;
a royal diadem adorns
the mighty Victor’s brow.

The highest place that heaven affords
is his, is his by right,
the King of kings and Lord of lords,
and heaven’s eternal light.

The joy of all who dwell above,
the joy of all below,
to whom he manifests his love,
and grants his name to know.

To them the cross with all its shame,
with all its grace, is given,
their name, an everlasting name,
their joy, the joy of heaven.

They suffer with their Lord below,
they reign with him above,
their profit and their joy to know
the mystery of his love.

The cross he bore is life and health,
though shame and death to him:
his people’s hope, his people’s wealth,
their everlasting theme!

Thomas Kelly, 1820

Ascension hymns are sometimes “filed” under Jesus Christ: His Reign. Other good hymns to mark the day and occasion include: Charles Wesley, “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise,” and “Rejoice, the Lord Is King” (when he had purged our stains he took his seat above); and William Dix, “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus” (though the cloud from sight received him when the forty days were o’er/shall our hearts forget his promise, ‘I am with you evermore’?)