March 21, 2014
Psalm 135: 13-21
1 John 4: 1-6
“Testing the Spirits”
Grace and peace to you in the name of the Triune God. “Testing the Spirits”. That is the heading for this passage in my NRSV. Neither this text nor our Psalm assigned for today appear anywhere in the three year lectionary. So there was no help from textweek or working preacher. This text has certainly received my attention these last months. I know many of us have been “testing the Spirits” to try and listen carefully where it is that God may be calling us, as we wonder how God is at work in our midst and in the world. I have listened around the table in my office and around the lunch table in the community and it is clear that many of us have been testing the spirits in an attempt to separate one’s own wants, selfish desires and self-interest from what might actually be the Spirit of God.
But what does it mean to “test the Spirits?” Is it simply a way to rationalize what I know I really want to do anyway? Is testing the spirits about imposing one’s own interpretation on a situation and trying to label it “spirit?” Does testing the spirits involve being wholly unprepared for something, like an exam or an interview and claiming “I’ll leave it to the spirit.” Perhaps evidence of this testing of the spirits is when you come around to my way of thinking.
This text today from 1 John provides a compass point of orientation for the courageous work of testing the spirits. This compass point is one word and it begins this passage... Beloved. To be called beloved presumes certain things. It takes for granted that you are already in relationship. It takes for granted that you are loved into being. The divine lover has embraced you. You are beloved.
To be beloved means we are not left for this testing the spirits on our own. We are grafted into a community, a body of Christ, that means there are people of faith who are committed to hold us and such testing of the spirits in prayer. Have you been bold enough to actually ask specifically that people hold you in prayer in times of testing? Even if you haven’t, we do it anyway as a community of faith, whether you want it or not. It is a bit like grits in the deep South. A friend who was making his first visit to Atlanta ordered breakfast and with it came a bowl of grits. He called the waitress over and said, excuse me, I didn’t order this. She responded with a twinkle in her eye, oh honey, nobody orders grits, they just come. Prayer just comes in the testing of the spirits as part of being beloved.
A consequence of being beloved in the testing of the spirits is we are given the freedom to risk new adventures. We are invited into the freedom to be for one another in new ways. It is NOT a free pass to security, comfort, prosperity. Luther writes that this knowing we are beloved could lead to the misguided presumption that God is favorably disposed to us. How often are we tempted to think that when testing the spirits we deserve some kind of plum assignment as a reward for faithful service.
We are reminded today that testing the spirits as one who is beloved, may not reap obvious rewards.
Today is the commemoration of Thomas Cranmer. The BBC History report notes that “Cranmer was archbishop of Canterbury (1533 - 1556) and a leader of the English Reformation who was responsible for establishing the basic structures of the Church of England. With Thomas Cromwell, he supported the translation of the bible into English. In 1545, he wrote a litany that is still used in the church. In 1549, he helped complete the Book of Common Prayer. Thomas Cranmer was born on 2 July 1489 in Nottinghamshire. His parents were minor gentry. As his father only had enough land to give his eldest son, Thomas and his younger brother joined the clergy. Cranmer was given a fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge in 1510, which he lost when he married the daughter of a local tavern-keeper. She died in childbirth, at which point he was re-accepted by the college and devoted himself to study. He took holy orders in 1523. A plague forced Cranmer to leave Cambridge for Essex. He came to the attention of Henry VIII, who was staying nearby. The king and his councilors found Cranmer a willing advocate for Henry's desired divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Cranmer became ambassador to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Cranmer was sent to Germany to learn more about Lutheranism. Here he met Margaret Osiander, the niece of a Lutheran reformer, who he married. After Edward VI's death, Cranmer supported Lady Jane Grey as successor. Her nine-day reign was followed by the Roman Catholic Mary I, who tried him for treason. After a long trial and imprisonment, he was forced to proclaim to the public his error in the support of Protestantism, an act designed to discourage followers of the religion. Despite this, Cranmer was sentenced to be burnt to death in Oxford on 21 March 1556. He dramatically stuck his right hand, with which he had signed his recantation, into the fire first.”
Every time I go to Oxford, England I am reminded of this hot-handed reformer who was burned at the stake in the same spot at the center of Oxford as Ridley and Latimer six months earlier. That place is now marked by a large monument. Testing the spirits as one who is beloved does not guarantee an easy road. Many of our own stories of testing the spirits through the vicissitudes of our journey of faith are perhaps, thankfully, not so dramatic as Cranmer’s, but they are certainly closer to the heart. Rick, Luke, Ariel and Donna have sacrificed so much in separation during these last four years and many of you could share similar stories. Testing the spirits doesn’t ensure and easy road.
One other way that Luther suggests we may test whether the spirit is at work is “when we speak from the spirit of God the majority snore. “ In that case I may have preached very spirit filled sermons judging by the snores-even this morning.
The hymn we are about to sing captures the sense of God’s claiming us as beloved and that belonging frees us in testing the spirits to manifest God’s love in what we do, how we act, in the discernments and decisions we make so that we bear witness to the love of God with each other and with the world.
This text ends with an emphatic “we are from God.” It does not mean that either the church or our own testing of the spirits are infallible, but it provides us the compass point that “God’s grace is larger than our sin and God’s mercy greater than our ability to grasp it. That’s the good news for today. AMEN!