"Power of God Waits in Church Foyer Until Chorus of 'Holy Spirit.'" So read a recent headline by the folks over at Babylon Bee. These guys have a knack for hilarious critique of Christian peculiarities, and if you haven't started following them, I would highly recommend it. A friend of mine and I were recently dialoguing about this particular headline, and he was arguing that the hole it's poking in the theology behind "Holy Spirit" was spot-on. I'm sure most who would be reading this are familiar with the song already, but for reference, the lyrics on the chorus are:
Holy Spirit you are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory God is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by your presence, Lord
If we believe the theology behind the songs that we sing matters (and I believe we absolutely should), what we sing when we sing this song (and a growing group of others like it) raises some questions that we seriously need to contend with. Questions that Babylon Bee is highlighting as they make fun of it. Questions such as:
- Does God need an invitation to be or go anywhere?
- Do we really think something happens - spiritually, physically, metaphysically, whatever - while we sing and worship?
- Should we be seeking an "atmosphere" of the presence of God?
- Is this atmosphere more true, more real, more present at particular times and places than others?
My friend is convinced that the answer to the first, and probably most important question from above, is an emphatic "NO" - that God doesn't need an invitation to be or go anywhere. He also believes the "atmosphere" the song (and the singer) is seeking is one primarily of emotionalism - an "atmosphere" characterized primarily by the emotions being evoked. He is also convinced that the direction a song like "Holy Spirit" takes us in is one where we make certain times and places sacred, over and against the "secular" times and places of the world, or of the rest of our lives. He is understandably skeptical.
If I haven't already tipped my hand by the way I've described my friend's position, I'll say it outright: I'm not convinced that the critique is founded and fair. Instead, I'm becoming more and more convinced that that critique might just cut us off at the source from some unique and powerful dynamics that can be taught, sought, and bolstered in our gatherings by an open invitation to the Holy Spirit. To put a finer point on it, I believe there is a power, an energy, a dynamism that we ought to hope for, expect, and seek out in our gatherings, indicative of and enabled by the Spirit of God. But if our theology (and ensuing practice) doesn't allow for that possibility, the experience of that power will only ever occur IN SPITE OF us. In other words, we will end up working against the movement of God, and we will sell ourselves short on a deeper, more profound and powerful experience of the presence of God if we don't expect and allow for it to be normative.
Why do I believe this? I will explore several reasons over the course of subsequent blog posts, but one of the biggest reasons, and the one I want to focus on for the remainder of this post, is that I believe the biblical teaching of the church as the temple of God all but necessitates it. While a comprehensive exploration of temple language and theology is beyond the scope of this humble blog entry, already bound to be longer than my readers would prefer, let this suffice as a roundup:
- In Genesis 28, Jacob has a dream/vision while camping at a place he soon renames Bethel (not yet a California megachurch) where he sees spiritual beings traveling up and down a "stairway to heaven," converses with God, and realizes Yahweh is present in the place; he calls what had previously just looked like an unremarkable patch of wilderness a "house of God; a gate of heaven".
- Mid-exile but Pre-tabernacle, the presence of God for the Hebrews took the form of a pillar of cloud in the day, and a pillar of fire at night, guiding them through the wilderness
- In Exodus, the tabernacle (a precursor to the temple) was the place Moses went when he wanted to converse with God (a more intimate variation of the pillar-of-fire-guidance)
- Throughout the age of the tabernacle and the temple, the glory of God, manifest as a cloud of light and fire (traditionally called the "shekinah glory"), was present in the Holy of Holies at certain times, mainly to the High Priest on the once-a-year Day of Atonement
- In 1 Kings 8:27, Solomon asks that Yahweh be present at the Temple to meet his people, even as he acknowledges that Yahweh is too great for even the heavens to contain him; he transcends the temple, but nevertheless he is present there to respond to the prayers of his people
- Jesus says quite a few things about the temple, at times correlating it with his own body (Mk 14:58, John 2:19), at others referring to the physical building in Jerusalem and its destruction (Mk 13:1-4, 14:58) - it was, after all, the epicenter of 1st Century Jewish religion and national pride
- Jesus' "Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them" from Matt 18:20 seems to suggest temple-connected presence of God
- At his trial in Acts 7, Stephen the apostle/martyr quotes Isaiah 66 to say that God doesn't live in buildings made by human hands
- Peter in 1 Peter 2:4-10 refers to the believers as "living stones," built together to form a spiritual house for God
- And finally, Paul in several places (mainly in 1 Corinthians) uses the temple metaphor to say that they, the church, the gathered people, are the new temple of God
"Temple" teaching has been convoluted in recent years by those quoting 1 Cor 6:19 ("do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit") to put forward an individualistic, Christians-should-be-health-conscious message. Not only do I not believe that that's what Paul is getting at in 1 Cor 6:19, but even if an individualistic take on temple language is valid, it's the exception and not the rule. The norm is that the collective community of Jesus followers constitute the new Temple, which is a type, a shadow, a forerunner to the ultimate heavenly temple we read about in Revelation.
So what does all this mean? Well before I get to summarizing some of my observations, let me acknowledge that we are touching on mysteries here that boggle the mind and put language and metaphor to shame. I hope that whatever theology is involved here would remain flexible and humble enough to allow for the mystery and the person of God to go far beyond what we expect and comprehend. That said, I see the following ideas related to temple language rising to the top:
- A temple in Judaeo-Christianity is where the presence of God is most potently, most powerfully, and most predictably experienced by his people
- Though God is in some sense present at all times and all places (as affirmed in the Apostles' Creed, and an idea that Tozer does a magnificent job of describing here), nonetheless particular forms of his presence are made manifest, in numerous forms (fire, cloud, light, angels, etc), at particular times and places; we might say that his power, or his dominion is present at all times and places, but his personal manifest presence is present primarily in particular times and places in human history
- After all, God is not The Force, God is not "the universe" - He is three persons. Persons. Personal, spiritual beings. Spiritual, meaning He is not indelibly tied to physicality as we are (with the possible exception of the resurrected Jesus?), and personal, meaning he has personality, consciousness, thoughts, emotions, and a presence that constitutes being somewhere, even if that "somewhere" transcends space, time, and the spiritual and physical planes
- As with Jacob at Bethel, there is an element of the presence of God that involves an awareness of what was already there before we could even see it; God could be powerfully present in a place, and the would-be observer could miss it without eyes to see and ears to hear (as reflected in the lyrics on the Bridge of "Holy Spirit"), although His presence can ALSO transcend and overwhelm the limitations that keep a person unaware of God (see Balaam's donkey in Num. 22, Saul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, and others)
- Although the "where two or three are gathered" line tends to get overplayed, especially considering Jesus is talking about confronting sin when he says it, it DOES touch on the idea of "agreeing together," that when Christ followers gather together (thus constituting the temple) and AGREE together, something HAPPENS that doesn't happen otherwise - in Matthew 18, the Father pledges to be present with them, and act on their behalf
- This whole conversation is undergirded by the belief that there is an unseen spiritual realm that is every bit as real and consequential (perhaps moreso) as the physical realm that we spend most of our time preoccupied with
- The reality of the presence of God is brought into particular focus for Christians, who stand in the fulfillment of so many promises about the abiding presence of God (Jer. 31:-33-34, Ez. 36:26-27, Ez. 39:29, Joel 2:28-29, Matt. 3:11), in the person and work of the Holy Spirit - more on this in the final post of this series.
If the church - the gathered people, not a building - is the temple of God, where His presence is most powerfully and predictably experienced, should we not expect God to "show up" in our gatherings, when the temple is being her most "templey"?
The question of the role of the invitation in this whole idea still needs to be addressed - what role, if any, does our actual invitation play in invoking or activating the presence of God? More on that next...