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Spirit and apostle: two witnesses?

[Note: There is an alternative sermon based on Ezekiel 37]

".... the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. {27} You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning." (John 15:26-27)

The Spirit will testify and you also are to testify. Jesus seems to be talking of two different kinds of witnesses, the Spirit and "you also". He is speaking to the disciples when he says "you also". The disciples were to become the apostles who were sent out as witnesses to him. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. The apostles were the primary witnesses to Jesus Christ in the early church. Their authority as witnesses to the truth about him came, as he said in this passage, from the fact that they had been with him from the beginning, and it came too from the fact that he had commissioned them to go out with the message about him (as here and in Matthew 28:18-20). At the same time the Spirit who would come from God the Father was to witness on behalf of Christ. At first sight it seems a harmless enough idea, that Jesus might have provided two different ways for people to know about himself: the Spirit and the apostles, two witnesses. It might even be true! But a little thought will soon reveal what a source of conflict and division this notion of two different witnesses can bring about.

Two witnesses to the truth can easily become, within the wide range of fallible human experience, two authorities which differ on what the truth may be. There has always been a struggle in the church to hear what the Spirit is saying while receiving also the witness of the apostles. It is not at all uncommon for people to say that God has given them a personal word of advice, that they have discerned in prayer, meditation, conversation or sudden revelation, what they should do or believe. Some people live that way from day to day. And, after all, do not all believers in God pray at times for personal guidance, and are we not told to listen as well as talk in prayer. Many a time such a personal word is believed to be the work of the Spirit of God guiding us as Jesus had promised the Spirit would. Such personal inspirations do not always agree with the official teaching of the church; that is, there can be a conflict between what people believe the Spirit has said to them and what has been received in the church as the witness of the apostles in scripture and tradition. Sometimes groups of people will even organise to defend their "Spirit guided" beliefs in opposition to accepted orthodoxy. Indeed, is not the idea of orthodoxy itself under challenge in the very possibility of individuals being guided by the Spirit? I wonder, did Jesus deliberately set up such a challenge when he spoke of two witnesses?

Both the Spirit and the apostles were, of course, present on the Day of Pentecost. The apostles were the core of the group who received the Holy Spirit in the great outpouring on what we call the birthday of the church. They were the representative spokesmen of the group. There is, however, no suggestion that the apostles received the Spirit in greater measure than any others who were present. The Spirit came upon all those who were gathered together.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. Each one. At the same time it is important that the great gift came to them when they were all together in one place and that the apostles were among those gathered together. That is, they were not blessed separately and apart but together.

Yet it was an individual gift albeit within the company of the whole fellowship. Each one was marked out by one of the outward signs of the coming of the Spirit. Remember there were two signs: a great rushing wind and tongues of fire:

A tongue, as of fire, rested on each of them. So the symbolism is quite clear: each one had the gift of the Spirit; there was not one great flash of light, as it were, blessing the fellowship corporately, if we might imagine such a thing. In contrast to the sign of the one wind that came to the whole group, the fire marked out each one. Each of them within the body of those who belonged to Christ was blessed personally. The interpretation of the symbol of each one being blessed is developed further and made explicit when Peter addresses the crowd, making reference to the prophecy of Joel about the pouring out of the Spirit on all different sorts and conditions of people:

Could anything be more clear: I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; ... young ...and ... old, ... Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit. Old and young, slaves and free, men and women, received the great gift of the Holy Spirit; and it was to inspire them to speak even God's word, for they shall prophesy. That does not mean that they were all equipped to do everything, for we read elsewhere that the early church soon discovered a diversity of gifts:

The particular gift of prophecy which implies speaking authoritatively about the will of God might not be given to all, but those so blessed may well be old or young, men or women, etc. The gifts of the Spirit are not confined to such human categories of worthiness, and all have gifts of some kind:

All members have gifts of the Spirit. But, of course, it is not for their own benefit individually, but each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. You will see that we have already two limitations or modifications of the false generality that the gift of the Spirit to each one makes every member an authority on everything: (1) different members have different gifts and (2) the gifts are given for the common good. So the Spirit witnesses to Christ with every individual member, it is a witness that is received within the bonds of fellowship within which it is shared with what others receive.

That sharing and moderation of the witness of the Spirit within the fellowship for the common good does not detract from the direct personal nature of the witness of the Spirit to each one. Paul to the Romans wrote of this direct personal witness:

You will see that the direct witness of the Spirit with us personally is understood here to be one of assurance, that is, assurance of the love of God, of our acceptance as the children of God. It is not an individual revelation of what others or the group should do or of God's will and purpose for the whole world. For those more general purposes there is some structure given to the fellowship within which the common good that is the purpose of the diverse gifts is worked out:

So, what threatens to become disruptive individualism in the witness of the Spirit to each one individually is modified by the very diversity of gifts given within the fellowship for the common good, and that among those diverse gifts are some gifts for leadership and teaching through the work of apostles, prophets, pastors and teachers. Leadership is not to be forgotten in the diversity of gifts. Indeed, to go back to what followed the speech of Peter on the Day of Pentecost, we find in the fellowship which was established by the gift of the Spirit to them all, they immediately entered into a life together in which the apostles had a leadership and teaching role:

These are essential marks of the catholic church, the one holy catholic and apostolic church that is the universal fellowship of all who belong to Christ if only it could be realised. We have in that simple picture of the beginning of the church what must be present wherever true believers come together: 'the apostles teaching', 'fellowship', 'the breaking of bread' and 'prayers'. Prior to this Peter, after proclaiming the message that Jesus was the Messiah, had spoken of another necessity:

So you have the witness of the apostles to Christ guiding the fellowship or communion of the saints whose sins are forgiven, and who share the gift of the Spirit, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper, as they pray together. It is the perfect picture in scripture of what it means to belong to a Christian fellowship or church. Within it there are the 'two witnesses', the apostles and the Spirit. The teaching of the apostles is not sufficient without the Spirit of God dwelling with each member, and the gift of the Spirit to each one still requires the members to learn from the teaching of the apostles who, of course, also have the gift of the Spirit for their task, just as the members are variously equipped for their different roles.

So, what's the problem? If that is the way that Jesus intended it to be, why do we have tension and division? Basically it is because of human failings, our pride and weakness. That was obvious even at the beginning when the beautiful example of the early church was established at Pentecost. It was not long before the apostles were calling on church members to preserve their unity, to master their human frailties and depend their life in Christ. And not only that, the apostles even disagreed among themselves as Paul made clear about his relationship to Peter.

While they did on occasion disagree, they all seemed to believe that the gift of the Spirit was necessary for one to belong to Christ, and that they all had that gift,

But having the Spirit did not guarantee agreement, as for example when Paul was giving advice about a number of questions which the Corinthians were trying to resolve:

It seems that people must have claimed some authority for their own opinions, based on their having the Spirit of God. And why not? After all, the possession of the Spirit by the ancient prophets had been a sign of their ability to speak of God's will. In the church, they all believed they had that same gift. At the same time, by and large, they did also recognize the teaching authority of the apostles, even if Paul had to make a point of his having the Spirit too.

I really don't know which has caused the greatest trouble over the long history of the church, the disruptive insistence of individual members that they know God's will without regard to the unity of the fellowship and the tradition which informs it, or the abuse of power by authorities in the church who represent the apostolic tradition. There have certainly been times when the authority of bishops or local pastors has overpowered too much of the contribution of ordinary members. In recent times I am inclined to think that the contrary claims of individual members who oppose their own believes to the official teaching of the church have done more damage. Where the claim comes from, there is one test of the claim to have the Spirit which would disallow most claims which overwhelm others or disrupt the fellowship, whether the claim is made by authorities who claim to speak for the apostles or by those who claim to speak a direct word of God known to the individual member, and that is the test of the fruits. Jesus taught:

And Paul wrote of the fruit of the Spirit:

The implication is obvious. Our capacity to claim in the Spirit to know the truth should be tested by reference to our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Most of us fail the test too much of the time, but God is gracious and still guides us in spite of that. It is especially likely that we will fail if we substitute secular notions of individual rights in the place of reliance upon the leading of the Spirit. Sadly, the church has been used for self serving purposes by both leaders and followers in ways that are as varied and opportunistic as the range of evil which almost but not quite matches the variety of spiritual gifts of the Spirit.

There remains one more important aspect of the tension between the witness of the apostles and the witness of the Spirit.

Ah! But! You might say church leaders today are not the apostles. The apostles died long ago. That is true. What came to the members of the fellowship of Christ when the original witnesses were dying out was the written record of their teaching, the New Testament scriptures. To some extent people in later generation have put the authority of scripture, and especially their own "Spirit guided" interpretation of it, in the place of the apostles as the primary witness Christ. It has been one of the greatest causes of division. It has been claimed too as a Protestant virtue, but inheritors of the Reformation traditions should remember that Luther warned against substituting an infallible book for an infallible pope. Sadly, it can be true that sometimes teachers within the church are not true to Christ and this can be demonstrated by reference to scripture. The same applies to the beliefs of many individual members which are far from scriptural. It should not be forgotten that the witness of scripture is the witness of the apostles. It is not the witness of the Spirit. When we speak of testing what we believe and teach by reference to scripture we are talking of the witnesses the apostles which we see in scripture and comparing it with what the Spirit leads us to in our own understanding. The two should be consistent.

At the same time as the New Testament was being written, there were leaders who were accepted as standing in the tradition of the apostles. We see that within the scriptures themselves: for example in the pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus, and earlier when Paul wrote, for example, of how he received the tradition concerning the Lord's Supper:

If the teaching of the apostles is true to the life and teaching of Christ to which they were called to be witnesses, there should never be any conflict with the leading of the Spirit. But human witnesses will never have the whole truth. If all remain in a fellowship, which is the communion of the Holy Spirit and at the same time the fellowship of the apostles through scripture and tradition, it should be possible work out the truth for us in spite of the limited grasp any of us will have. As we were reminded last week, the unity that is Christ's will his gift to the church is intended to be the kind of relationship that exists between Jesus and God the Father, and between Jesus and his loved ones. If we continue in that fellowship in which we share in the life of the true vine, the life that is even shared in the Trinity, then love and truth will be held together and none will feel justified in going out on their own to follow a separate vision of the truth about God. Sadly, it has been all too common to breach fellowship in the name of our limited vision of the truth.

That does not mean that there is no room for disagreement or that divisions are always to be avoided. Paul wrote to the factionalised church at Corinth:

The claims to truth are continually being tested, and we need to compare witnesses to discover the truth. The testing should be possible with honest recognition of differences without breaking fellowship. Both the witness of the apostles and witness of the Spirit should lead us in the same direction, that is to the reality of Christ.

We should seek consistency in the witnesses to him, for there is only one Christ, one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of us all. To him be the glory. Amen.

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