Salt, Fire, Spirit

I Corinthians 2:6-16               Salt, Fire, Spirit                   February 6, 2011
John Roth, son of Paul and Carol, tells a fascinating story in the introduction to his book “Choosing Against War”.
I’m sure that many of you already know the story, since you know John or are related to him.  But bear with me if you know the story.
It was late one evening after a full day of meetings in the city of Hamburg, Germany.
His hotel was some distance from the conference center, so he had to take a train every evening during this conference to get back to his room.
On this particular evening, John was the only passenger in the train car that he was in.  So, he made himself comfortable and began to doze.
At one stop a mentally handicapped old man dressed in rags got on the train.
He was followed by a group of heavily tattooed, chained, loud teenage hooligans who had been out drinking and were just beginning to enjoy themselves.
The train left that stop and started back down the tracks on its way to the next stop.
John describes the horrific scene that unfolded before him as the teenagers first began verbally abusing the old man, and then began to physically assault him with punches and kicks.
So there he was.  John Roth, who is by no means a large man, alone in a train in a foreign country, rushing along the tracks late at night, with four drunk teenagers cursing, beating, and kicking a mentally handicapped, poor old man.
He describes the rage he felt, the anger and the fear and the questions that filled his mind during the couple of seconds it took to register what was happening.
He writes just a few of the questions that went through his head in those seconds.
“If I jumped in, what would keep them from attacking me?  If they did assault me, would I try to defend myself?  Did they have weapons?  Were they drunk enough to kill us?  There was no one else in the car to turn to for help, and the next stop was still several miles away.”
What would you do?
I read that story and I had to put the book down for a couple of minutes and think about how I might respond if I was in the situation he describes.  Anger and fear are two very powerful emotions.
I have to wonder which one would seize me if I were in his shoes.
Would I lash out at the teenagers in anger, seeking to inflict as much pain as possible in the name of defending this elderly gentleman?
Or would I succumb to my fear of getting hurt and hide behind the seats, hoping they hadn’t noticed me?
Anger or Fear…Fight or Flight…Lash out or do nothing?
Which one would be the Christian response?

…I’d like to suggest this morning that the Holy Spirit of God enables us to choose a third way; even in the heat of the moment.
It’s a third way, a way  that isn’t available to us until we take that first step, not knowing where it will lead.
Those of you who know the story, know that John got up out of his seat without really knowing what he was going to do.
He approached the group, fully aware that he was risking his own safety and even possibly his life.
This is how he puts it.  “As the teenagers began to kick and pummel the old man, I whispered a deep prayer: “God, calm my fear.  Show me the right thing to do.”
And then, without really giving my next actions any careful thought, I got out of my seat and walked purposefully toward the old man and his attackers.  “Hans!” I called out in my best German, “Hans, how are you?  It’s been such a long time since we’ve seen each other!”  And then, slipping between two of the surprised young men, I embraced him, helped him to his feet and said, “Come sit with me, Hans.  We have so much to catch up on.”
In the sudden silence that ensued, the old man followed me toward the rear of the car, slid into the window seat, and slowly, haltingly, began to respond to my onslaught of questions about his health and his family.
The teens looked on, not sure how they should respond.  For a time they talked among themselves.  But when the train pulled into the next stop, they got out.  And at the following stop, “Hans” left as well, mumbling a word of thanks.“

I wanted to tell that story this morning because I think it puts flesh on what Paul is saying in this passage from 1 Corinthians.  Paul can be a little bit wordy, so it helps me to have an example sometimes when I’m trying to understand what he’s trying to say.
See, Paul writes of a “secret wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.”  But we make a mistake when we equate that glory with the world’s glory.
Rather, it’s a glory like the lilies of the field–glory that blooms as it should; even amid rocks and desert; even in a lonely train that’s turning hostile quickly.
Humanity properly understood is something like seeds of the likeness of the Glory of God.
And the Holy Spirit is what makes us bloom as God intended.
The Spirit set the train right that  night.  But only through John.
So, where is the spirit setting the world right, but only through you?
Now, Paul goes on to say that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him…but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.”
And it’s easy to read that start to get a headache.
If no eye has seen it, no ear has heard it, and no mind has even conceived it; then how can it be revealed?
I’d like to suggest that we’re too focused on what our eyes can see, what our ears can hear, and what our minds can conceive.
God reveals that which can’t be seen, heard, or conceived of through the Holy Spirit.
When John stood up on that train, he was responding to the Holy Spirit that was busy working within him, searching the deep things of God, as Paul puts it.
It’s not a special thing that John did.
I don’t think he sat there for those two seconds and remembered some obscure passage of scripture that helped him form a response (though it’s important that scripture did form him).
I don’t think he remembered some kind of conflict transformation skill he had learned in college (though it is important that he grew up learning pacifism).
I think he responded faithfully to what the Spirit of God had in store for him in that moment.
He responded to the Love of God which is greater than our fear, and the result turned out well.

John could have been beaten up or even killed because he responded to the Spirit.
But that wouldn’t have meant he did the wrong thing.
The Martyr’s Mirror is filled with stories that ended differently; stories of people responding to the Spirit of God in their lives, confronting fear and even death with the Spirit-filled power of sacrificial love.
*God’s love is stronger than our fear.  It’s stronger than even death itself.
The question is; how are we responding to that love?  How are we responding to the Holy Spirit that dwells deeply inside of each one of us?
The Spirit can be easy to ignore; to fill the silence into which God speaks with the noise and clatter of our schedules, our jobs, our families, and other things.
*It’s easy to believe in the Father and the Son; and ignore the Holy Spirit.
But at what cost when you’re on the train and it’s only you?
**The world doesn’t know what to do with people who look fear in the eye and choose to love anyway!!  But thank God we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us!  We have the mind of Christ; which doesn’t mean we have our lives all figured out; far from it!
*To have the mind of Christ is to risk it all on an uncertain outcome.

Whenever I have conversations about the Holy Spirit with other Christians, the question always comes up at some point “how do I know if God is really telling me this, or if it’s just my own mind?”
And as I’m reading this passage, I’m tempted to respond by asking “how clearly can you see the outcome?”  “How easy is the journey?”
If you think you can see the end result, if it’s fairly easy to do and you have the training and the skills that you think are necessary—then more often than not, it’s probably your wishful thinking.
But, if you sense yourself being led him purposefully toward that which youi fear most; if you feel drawn towards a situation that you’re completely unprepared for, that you can’t plan for and never could have imagined; there’s a good chance the Spirit is working.  When the only step that’s clear is the one right in front of you, and it’s not the one you would choose, then it’s likely the mind of Christ making itself known.
We have the mind of Christ.
But what that means has more to do with responding in Real Time than it does with thinking things through.
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.
The Spirit searches all things, but we must train ourselves to listen.

It’s kind of like what Jesus tells his disciples at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5 verse 13.
He says “you are the salt of the earth.”  And then he goes on to say that if the salt loses its saltiness, it is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on the ground.
Well, I learned something interesting this week about that passage.
What I learned was that in ancient times, people would mix salt with animal dung that they were going to burn.  It was part of a child’s job, to pick up the dung that they were going to use and mix salt in with it, forming something like bricks that they would dry in the sun.  They then used these bricks to fuel their fires.
Supposedly the salt mixed in with the dung helped the fire burn steadier, longer, and more evenly.
And then, when the fire was done burning; (that is, after the salt had lost its saltiness) the leftovers were thrown into the street.  If it was muddy they served the purpose of soaking up some of the mud as people trampled it as they walked by the house.
Now, obviously I don’t want to extend the metaphor real far here!  Nobody in this day and age wants to be compared to salt that’s been mixed in dung, sent through the fire and then trampled into the mud.
But I like the illustration.
We are the salt of the earth.
We’ve been mixed in with the world for a very specific purpose; to shine forth with the fire of the Spirit, who nudges us to faithfulness in our everyday encounters, until we’re thoroughly used up!
So as you go from here today, may the wisdom of God guide your steps, your thoughts, and your inner life.  May you shine with the fire of God’s spirit until you’re all used up.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done, that which no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind conceived.
Amen.

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