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Where the Spirit of the Lord Is
September 12, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church


We are entering a new era for our church With the coming of John and Marilyn. We had a college intern working with us for a couple of years; now we have a seminary graduate and a seminary student in her third year. I’m excited about the insight, understanding, maturity, and commitment that they bring to their task, and are going to bring to this church. It's exciting. We are going into good times. I'm confident that we will handle the financial responsibilities. As we've taken quite a leap of faith going into this new era with the addition of more people, I'm confident that we will together handle the financial responsibility. 

As they begin, this gives us an opportune time to once again, as we must do from time to time, look at what we are about as a church. From time to time, we ask ourselves the question—what are we as a church, what is a church? It's a temptation for a church to act like a club with all the protocol, procedures and style of life that accompanies a social club. Of course, the church is a club in in many respects, but if a church is only a club, it's not a church. 

There's a temptation for a church to act as if it's just an institution. Of course, we are an institution with organization, buildings, hierarchy, offices in Modesto, San Francisco, and national offices all over the country. Of course, we are an institution. But if we are only an institution, we have ceased to be the church. It is a temptation to identify the church with a building, “Oh, yes, I go to the church on the corner of North and Powers.” Well, this building is not the church, and the facilities on the corner of North and Powers are not the church. If we consider the church as a building, we cease to be a church.

There is a temptation for a church to act as if it were an extension of the minister's ego, an extension of the minister and act as he or she believes and feels. When that happens, it ceases to be a church. Or, there's a temptation, and there are places around the country where the church is an extension of one, two or three lay people's ego. They have power over that church, and they act as if the church exists solely for their glory. They feed their emotional needs out of that church. When that happens, it ceases to be a church. 

What is a church? And where is it? The Affirmation of Faith is introduced by that very magnificent and grandiose statement that defines the church for us. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the one true church.” That's a grand statement and I love to hear it read majestically. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the one true church, apostolic.” With its roots in the Bible, with its heritage in the apostles, the church is apostolic and universal or catholic without limitations, without boundaries, without geographical boundaries, without national boundaries, without class or caste boundaries—universal, holy and catholic is where the Spirit of the Lord is. Every group, every club, every class has a spirit. Every home has a spirit. School began this week. You can go into every school building, walk its halls and you can feel its spirit. You can go into each classroom where it will have its own unique spirit. You can go to a church and you can feel and sense a spirit. Underneath, undergirding and surrounding the unique spirit of a church, when it's a true church, you can sense the Spirit of the Lord. 

And what is the Spirit of the Lord? In the first letter of John, as read in the New Testament lesson, he said, “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” There are all kinds of spirits. There are all kinds of feelings. There are all kinds of group and class spirits. Test them to see if they are of God. Much of the New Testament was written because of conflict, fighting, divisions and schisms. Sometimes we think the Bible was written by the Lord sitting up in heaven (wherever heaven is!) sending down dispatch notices through people who sat down and wrote in a peaceful, calm setting. But much of the New Testament was written because they were fighting and squabbling. They wrote to clarify, to bring sense to a situation. First John was especially written because of the major heresy at that time called Gnosticism. To deal with that heresy, to confront that heresy several Church Councils were called. The majority of the church voted for the Apostles’ Creed, which we recite quite often, and the Nicene Creed. These were written and hammered down to establish the truth of the Christian faith in contrast to the heresy.

Let me very simply tell you what the Gnostic heresy was. The Gnostic heresy spread like wildfire through the church at that time. It became a huge movement. The Gnostics believed that the world was evil; it was bad, the body was bad, the flesh was sinful, all bodily appetites and desires were bad. Therefore the purpose of life was to be spiritual, to seek the spiritual, to nurture the soul so the soul could be freed from bondage, freed from this evil wicked body and its bondage to the evil wicked world. They denied themselves food at times. They fasted, they denied the body its appetites, they denied sex, they denied marriage. They said that pure, holy people do not participate in such dirty things. They denied the world with its pain, sufferings, and injustices. They said, “Well, after all, it's bad anyway.” 

The purpose of religion was to develop the soul, to save the soul, to be freed from this evil bondage. Therefore, they said that Jesus could not possibly be a human. Jesus could not have been a human because God could not have had anything to do with the body. Jesus as the Son of God could not possibly have been born like other babies. He could not possibly have suffered. He could not possibly have known pain. He couldn't have bled. He couldn't have died. 

This battle between the Gnostics and the Christians has been going on for centuries. It is still being fought today. It's still alive. There are many in our churches who say the world is evil, the body is evil, and the concern for the material and the concern for the physical is of lesser importance than the concern for the soul. The purpose of the church is to save the souls. The feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, doing something about injustice. Where people are hurting is all going to pass away anyway so ignore them. Jesus is going to come and destroy this wicked world anyway so let's be in pursuit of the soul. We hear this heresy on every hand. We hear that the church should stay out of the world's concerns, and stick to religion, stick to the Bible as if there is a difference between the way people have to live in this world, and our relationship to God. 

This battle is still very much alive. First John says, “Test the spirits.” And the first test is, “Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.” That's the first test of a church. Does it believe that Jesus has come in the flesh.? This is talking about the doctrine of Incarnation. I'm giving you a lot of heavy stuff this morning, but school started so your heads ought to be in shape! The doctrine of Incarnation means that God was incarnate, God was embodied in a man, Jesus. God came in a person like you and me—incarnation. First John says the first test is t believe that Christ was a real person. He suffered. He shed his blood. A lot is made of blood in the New Testament not only because of Old Testament sacrifice, but because of the Gnostic heresy. For to say that Jesus shed his blood, to say that blood cleanses from sin, to say that blood washes away sin is to say, in very dramatic terms, this was a real man who had blood in him, and who died like you and me. 

To believe in the incarnation is to believe that Jesus the Messiah, the one who was announced, the one who was anticipated for centuries to come to save this world, came as a human being, God took human life upon himself. We've been taught incarnation since our childhood, but the mystery escapes us. Try to imagine what it means to believe and it surpasses our understanding to believe that God who created everything, God who is the ground of our being, that God took upon himself the limitations of a human being. God gave up his glory and became like you and me. God knows what human life is like. God knows what suffering is like, God knows what pain is like, God knows what trials and temptations are like. God knows because he became a person. God cares so much for this world he took upon himself to be a person. That is mind boggling. Jesus came in the flesh to proclaim that flesh is good, to proclaim this world is good, and to proclaim it worthy of redemption. 

Therefore, the test of a church, whether it is in the Spirit of the Lord, whether that church is taking seriously God's concern for the world for all of human life, whether that church as the body of Christ today in this world is willing to take upon itself the suffering of humanity, is willing to be concerned over injustice, is willing to be concerned and involved in the conflicts of South Africa, of the rights of the blacks and the coloreds as they struggle, whether the church is concerned about suffering and hungering humanity, the test of a church is whether it cares enough to take upon itself the suffering of the whole world, and to give itself to do something about it, and to place that priority on a higher level than its buildings, on a higher level than its programs, on a higher level upon whatever we do for ourselves. Do we believe that Jesus came in the flesh, and, therefore, we are now his body? 

The second test John gave them that day of whether a church is a church, John wrote, “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says I love God and hates his brother, he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. By this we know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren.” We love the brothers and sisters. The gnostic heresy at that time was that those who had this special knowledge—and gnostic is from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge—meaning those who believed as they believe, became a special superior elite group within the church and have special privileges of a higher order. But John came along and said that the test of the Spirit of God is whether you love everyone. The Christian church is an inclusive fellowship. There are no exclusions, there are no limitations. It is inclusive. It is a fellowship that knows no boundaries, no racial boundaries, no sexual boundaries. No one has any more rights or authority than anyone else. It is a fellowship where there are no classes. The amount of money we have, the way we dress, the way we wear our hair, how much education we have is all irrelevant for before God, we are all equal. We are all brothers and sisters. Our fellowship extends and reaches out in a caring, sharing way to everyone. For love in First John is not just a sentimental feeling that we have for each other. Love is action. He wrote, “Let us not love in word or speech, but in deed, and in truth.” The true Spirit of God is seen in a church where it reaches out to everyone, where its caring, its sharing and its love envelops us all. God is our Father and each other are our brothers and sisters, 

The third test of a church in First John, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him. All who keep his commandments, abide in him.” The test of a church is does it confess Christ? Does it honor and glorify Christ? Does it keep his commandments? A church is unique among all human institutions because of its concern for the world. With no vested interest, we're not trying to sell anybody anything. We're not trying to put any kind of political philosophy on them. We're not trying to sell our country. The only motivation for Christian caring and mission throughout the world is love, and that is unique among all human institutions. The church is unique because of its inclusive fellowship. 

And because of loyalty to Christ, do you serve in this church? Do you serve wherever you are out of loyalty and devotion to Christ? Or for personal gain, for prestige, for glamour? Or do you serve out of loyalty to Christ? Our purpose as a church is to find God’s will and do it. Only what is done for Christ, only what is done in his name will last. All other ground is sinking sand. Are we together consciously seeking God's will that we may be his church and not just do what we want to do? Not just our little schemes, not just my pet projects, not just your pet projects, but together seeking to do the will of God, seeking in humility to know his will? If so, then we are a church. 

Beloved, test the spirits. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, where there is a concern for the world, where there is an inclusive fellowship, where Jesus is honored and glorified, there is the church.

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris