January 25, 2013

The Problem With Prophecy


Text: I Corinthians 12:3b: “...no one can say ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

Let me just start with the conundrum in order to get it out of the way, or maybe more accurately to make sure it is squarely in front of us. Think about these words of Paul’s for a moment: “no one can say ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” There are at least two things that this might mean.

It might mean that whoever makes this proclamation—whoever out there in the church or in the street makes the claim that Jesus Christ is Lord—by virtue of saying it has the support of the Holy Spirit. It might mean that. You can’t say “Jesus Christ is Lord” without in some way having the authority of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who says those words is supported by that authority.

Or—or—it might mean that no one can say “Jesus Christ is Lord,” no one should dare to make that proclamation, unless they do so with the authority of the Holy Spirit. No one can say it and mean it, no one can say it and really make the difference Jesus came and lived and died for us to make, unless you do so through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

That is no small difference. One is a kind of blanket assurance of authority; the other is a lot more restrictive. One makes any place on earth a pulpit; the other makes a pulpit a place of very great and very dangerous privilege. No one can say “Jesus Christ is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Which do you think it is?

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In our church we often speak of being prophetic. Not long ago the Presiding Bishop was the keynote speaker at the annual dinner of the Episcopal City Mission, a historic ministry to the poor and underprivileged in Boston; and in her remarks she spoke of our need for “bold and prophetic voices.” We have in the diocese a program for nurturing young people in relational evangelism, and I find in some of the materials describing it a line that speaks of it as having the purpose of “developing the next generation of prayerful and prophetic leaders.”

It is certainly the case that we are the inheritors of a tradition, we are the bearers of a faith, that has been shaped and pushed forward through the voices and the visions of prophets. This very weekend we set aside time to remember and celebrate perhaps the most prophetic voice of our age, Martin Luther King, Jr.

But simply bringing that to memory begins to give us a sense of the answer to the conundrum. The fact that Dr. King spoke with such prophetic power was not merely because he invoked the idea of Jesus Christ as Lord. King’s claim to the mantle of a prophet came from a deep study of the scriptures, so deep that he practically internalized the message of justice that is a uniting theme from one cover to the other of the Bible.

It came from years of patient reflection on the circumstances of prejudice and discrimination our country in ways that understood them and spoke of them not merely as social or political issues, but as spiritual challenges. It came from a profound gift for communicating that message to people far beyond the circle of the church that was his home to people in every kind of faith community.

And it came from a deep commitment to the principles of non-violence, ideas that he had studied with deep care and to which he held despite pressures on all sides—from those in the movement and those opposed to it—to take a more violent approach to the problem of changing America.

We speak easily in our church today of prophetic voices. We contend that we speak prophetically on a dizzying array of issues. We speak prophetically about protecting the environment, about economic justice, about immigration reform, even about which banks people should use. We are quick to claim the mantle of prophetic pronouncement.

The problem is, it is not so easy to know when we are doing this with the authority of the Holy Spirit, and when we are just pleading God’s authority for our own preferred positions. I’m saying that we may just be a little too quick from time to time in claiming to speak prophetically. Because, as the example of Dr. King shows, it is actually very, very hard to do.

For one thing, if we look at the evidence of the Bible, prophets always have the same answer for God when God calls on them to speak prophetically. Consistently that answer is to say, in so many words, you called a wrong number; you must mean someone else. Richard Clifford, my Old Testament professor, used to say that the sign of a true prophet in the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures was not that they jumped at the chance to climb up on the ledge and speak prophetically; it was just the opposite. It was to put off the insistence of the Spirit until finally you couldn’t anymore.

I am not so sure that sounds like us. I’m not so sure that sounds like most people out there in the public square claiming to speak in the name of Christianity.

I’m always on my guard when I hear some person being interviewed on whatever the issue of the day is talk about how a given position will be opposed or supported by—here’s the phrase—“bible-believing Christians.” I just know from the context that whoever is saying those words pretty much rules me out as a Bible-believing Christian, for the plain reason that I don’t read the Bible the same way they do. But I am not willing to have taken away from me the claim that I believe in the truth of holy scripture.

And I am sure that those Bible-believing Christians who hear me or anyone from our tradition speak of the Christian call to work for economic justice or for the dignity of all people don’t think I would regard them as Christian in that sense. They would feel just as left out of my claim to speak for Christians as I feel left out of theirs.

That claim to speaking a prophetic vision in the name of Christianity has become almost a staple of our media diet, and whenever I hear it, it seems to me it is almost always wrong. It is almost never a claim I think comes with the authority of the Holy Spirit.

Because if we pay attention to the Gospel stories, if we pay attention to the life and ministry of Jesus, what we have to contend with is that Jesus rarely comes out and takes one side or another of any issue.

Yes, it is plain that Jesus takes the side of the poor and the marginalized. But it is not clear that any way we propose recasting the world to make it more just and more inclusive can call itself “prophetic” or “Christian” just because it claims those goals.

When they came to him with the coin and asked him about paying taxes to the emperor, when they confronted him with the woman caught in adultery and demanded he condemn her, Jesus simply didn’t buy into signing up for one side or the other. Instead the prophetic witness he offered was one that shows a different path—one that seems to say that a world of taking sides and easy solutions is a world that falls short of the hope of God.

So the problem with prophecy is not that there is too much of it. The problem with prophecy is that there is far, far too much pronouncement out there claiming to be prophetic simply because it is believed passionately. But that turns out not to be a very good test.

What then should we do? How are we to live out our commitments of faith in the world?

First of all it’s pretty clear from the story of scripture that the true prophetic voice is a rare thing. It is a voice that arises from a particular set of circumstances that make for a clash between God’s hopes and our structures of power and opportunity. It is a voice that speaks with the authority of one called to do so, not one who presumes to do so. And it is a voice that speaks with the particular authority of a deep awareness of both God’s call and the situation of those who are suffering.

Second, a truly prophetic voice is not likely to be one we find comforting. A truly prophetic voice is not likely to be one we always find agrees with our own political preferences. Because when that happens we are likely making the move of simply wrapping up our own platform in the authority of God. And that fails the first test of any prophet, which is humility.

Finally, as followers of Jesus we look to the example of his life and teaching for how a prophet really looks and sounds. One of the ways that Jesus is understood in the tradition of the gospels is as the last prophet, the last of the long line of voices with particular authority to call us out of our rut and back into relationship with God.

Now, we would probably say that we have seen other prophets in the years since Jesus, Dr. King being just one. But the example of Jesus has particular authority. And what we see in that example is that rarely speaks or acts in highly dramatic terms. His exercise of prophetic authorityalways makes clear that none of the ways of this world, none of the political platforms or the policy proposals or the tax codes or any of it, none of those things speak in the language of the Kingdom of God.

That kingdom is a very different place, where the most important thing is not your wealth or your power or your reputation or education but your relationship with God. It is so far removed from the way this world works that we really need to think twice before we dare to claim that our way of seeing things, our way of wanting to order things, is one that would receive the Jesus seal of approval.

This does not mean we should be paralyzed into doing nothing. The gospel message gives us no choice; we must act. We have been sent out in his name by virtue of our baptism.

But it very likely also means that the quiet witness of faithful people gets more done, in the end, than the loud voices. It means the ministries we do and the kindness and compassion we show in complete obscurity are more important than the programs and the platforms that get the press releases and the news stories.

No one can say “Jesus Christ is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Let us then pray that we, through our prayer and our work, may be counted among those who speak those words with that authority.  Amen.