HEROES V: TERESA OF AVILA AND THE
August 3, 2002
I well remember the first pastoral assignment that my friend Jeff Stafford received just after graduating from seminary in 1980. Jeff was called to a dying congregation not too far from Philadelphia, and his district superintendent made it quite clear what he intended Jeff to do. This congregation has been struggling for years, he said to Jeff, and it shows no signs of getting better. The people there are fighting and bickering, and they have done nothing but cause trouble for far too long. Shut it down. Jeff Stafford, fresh out of seminary, inherited a mess.
From all indications, Titus inherited a bit of a mess, too. He had been left behind in Crete, the largest of the islands off the coast of Greece, and he was told to put in order what remained to be done . No mention is made in either Acts or the other Pauline letters of any missionary work in Crete, so what we can surmise about the situation comes directly from the book of Titus itself. Even a casual reading indicates that things do not look particularly pretty.
For one thing, the Christian community in Crete lacks any effective organizational structure. There are pockets of believers meeting in various towns across the island, but they apparently have no leaders. One of Titus jobs, therefore, involved appointing elders in each of these towns (1:5-9). That could very well have been a fun job. We are not told the procedure that Titus followed, but, given human nature, it is not overly difficult to image people jockeying for position and fussing over certain nominees. Did you hear who Titus appointed to be our elder? you can hear someone ask. Well I remember what he was like when he was a child, and I would never have thought that he would be chosen. Titus inherited a messhe had the job of selecting appropriate leaders for these Cretan congregations.
But his work hardly stopped there. In addition to organizing the church in Crete, Titus faced the daunting prospect of dealing with a cantankerous group of people who were trying hard to upset the entire apple cart, so to speak (1:10-16). These people were Jewish Christians who believed that all followers of Jesus had to strictly obey each and every Jewish law, including the dietary regulations. There were certain foods that they could and could not eat. They needed two sets of pots in which to prepare their food because you could not cook meat in the same pots that you headed milk in earlier. And on and on. The teaching of these people was upsetting everybody, including Paul himself. He is irate here as he writes to Titus, quoting with apparent approval an ancient line from the Cretan poet Epimenides: Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons. Rebuke them sharply, Titus is instructed, and set them straight! Titus inherited a messI am certainly thankful that I did not step into such a situation when I began here at the Grantham Church nearly a year ago already.
Finally, after sorting through these and perhaps other problems, Titus is left with the job of teaching the believers in Crete how to live genuine Christian lives (2:1-3:2). Instructions are needed for people of all ages, men and women, boys and girls. They need to know how their commitment to Jesus affects their interpersonal relationships, so Titus is to encourage them to love one another and to respect those in authority over them. They need to know how their commitment to Jesus affects their values, so Titus is told to tell them to be temperate, avoid gossiping about others, practice self-control, and in every way live a life of integrity and godliness. They need to know, given the conflicting ideas that are in the air, upon what foundation their faith actually rests, so Titus is commissioned to remind them that they are welcomed by God, not because of their strict compliance with the law, but because of Gods overwhelming grace that expressed itself in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Tell them, Titus is instructed, that Jesus Christ gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
Tell them, and dont let anyone look down on you. That is quite a warning. I would have felt just a bit nervous had my bishop said that to me as I was about to begin my first pastoral assignment!
Titus, from all indications, had inherited a mess, and he faced what for most of us would be an intimidating assignment. Stay here in Crete, he is told. Put in place dependable and godly leaders, confront the trouble-makers, and instruct the believers in fundamental Christianity. And what should I do with my free time? one can hear Titus ask.
And from what should Titus draw his encouragement? On what basis does he have the right to be hopeful as he begins this ministry? Is there a precedent for transforming a mess such as this into something beautiful, orderly and godly? Indeed there is. Titus own experience. In a sense, his spiritual journey, along with Pauls, serves as a microcosm of the struggle going on in Crete (3:3-7):
We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various
passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating
So, Paul seemingly asks, How did we make it? How did we ever escape the clutches of sin and come into newness of life? What happened to you and me? Paul lovingly but firmly asks of Titus:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,
he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done,
but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the
This spirit, Paul continues, he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. You and I, Paul confidently reminds Titus, have been engulfed by the grace of God, saved through the blood of Jesus Christ, and made new by the presence of the Holy Spirit. This same Spirit has been poured out upon us, Paul concludes, to help us in our hope-filled journey toward eternal life. If our lives have been so thoroughly changed, Paul seems to suggest to Titus, then this mess in Crete can be straightened out as well.
Engulfed by the grace of God. Yes. Saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. Yes. And now? Renewed and enabled by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit, Titus is reminded, who takes us from point A to point B. It is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to actually become all that the grace of God and the blood of Christ invite us to become. It is the Holy Spirit who moves us from the realm of spiritual theory to the life of spiritual practice. The Holy Spirit guides us and directs you and me, Paul reminds Titus, and he can do the same for the people of Crete.
How might we imagine this ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Teresa of Avila, no doubt unfamiliar to many of you, can help us here. Teresa is perhaps an unlikely character to hold up as a model of the Spirit-empowered life. She rarely wrote about the Holy Spirit, as did people like John Wesley, and she certainly never articulated any systematic theology of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that is why she so much intrigues me on this matter. Rather than focusing on the more demonstrative and captivating aspects of the Holy Spirits work in our lives, as do so many contemporary writers and speakerssuch topics as speaking in tongues and being slain in the spirit, for exampleTeresa modeled and described a simple but profound dependency upon the Holy Spirit in living out her daily life. Teresas direction, it has been said, was marked by great sensitivity to the Holy Spirit and by great common sense in discerning what was from God and what was from the human spirit.
Teresa, a fun-loving but feisty woman, enjoyed painting verbal pictures. Two images in particular struck her in reflecting on the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and we would do well to consider them. In a letter to one of her superiors, Teresa boldly likened his soul to dust and ashes. Dust and ashes, she wrote, of their own nature incline to the earth. They simply sit there, in other words. When the wind blows, however, dust and ashes rise, and it would be against their own nature not to rise. Dust and ashes do not resist the wind. They do not cling to the earth, longing for the wind to die down. They rise, and they rise as high as the wind will carry them. When the wind stops blowing, the dust and ashes of necessity abandon their flight and crash to the earth.
So it is, Teresa made plain, with our souls. Like dust and ashes, our souls do not have in themselves the ability to soar. We simply cannot, in and of ourselves, attain the heights to which God calls us. Instead, our souls lie dormant and dirty. When the Holy Spirit sweetly breathes upon us, however, our souls rise into the very heart of God. There, as Teresa beautifully describes it, the Spirit sustains us, demonstrates his power in us, andplease catch thishelps us to understand just how wonderful it is to be in his loving presence.
Late last night, Deb and I met Jordan at the airport in Philadelphia. He had been living in Venezuela all summer, as most of you know, and I missed him terribly. When we finally met near the luggage carousel, I wrapped my arms around him and nearly squeezed him to death. How does one describe such an encounter, such a feeling? My son, I said, My wonderful son. I love you. That, according to Teresa, is the way the Holy Spirit comes to us. He welcomes our souls to his very interior, Teresa writes, and presses us upon his breast as a favored spouse . He doesnt simply give us gifts, though he does that. He doesnt simply heal our minds and our bodies, though he does that. He doesnt simply lead us and give us jobs to do, though he does that. The Holy Spirit wraps his arms around us, lonely and hurting people that we often are, and assures us that we are loved and cherished by God. When we cry Abba! Father, Paul phrases it in Romans 8:15-16, it is the very Holy Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
Teresa, in her book Interior Castle, uses a second image to capture the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Here, Teresa speaks of the silkworm. When warm weather arrives, mulberry trees begin to show their leaves, and peppercorn-like seeds appear. The silkworms feed on these leaves until they are full-grown, and then with their tiny mouths they start spinning silk, enclosing themselves in very tight cocoons. Eventually, these once large and ugly worms emerge from their cocoons as beautiful white butterflies.
Much the same can be said about our souls, Teresa asks her readers to know. When the warmth of the Holy Spirit comes, it begins to stir the many remedies that God has given to his Churchremedies like prayer, meditation, good books, honest sharing with other brothers and sisters, and even sermons. As our souls eat from these various remedies that the Holy Spirit inspires, we begin to live and grow. Soon, like the silkworm nourished by the leaves of the mulberry tree, we too experience transformation and newness of life. The same Holy Spirit who hugs us and assures us that we are loved also provides us with the food and the strength and the direction that we so desperately need.
Titus had inherited a mess in Crete. He had leaders to appoint, opponents to confront, and believers to teach, all the while dealing with his own personal needs and struggles. It was a difficult, demanding assignment. Where would Titus get the strength? What might ever give him any meaningful degree of hope? The Holy Spirit. Jeff Stafford had inherited a mess, too. His district superintendent instructed him to go and close a dying church. He was young and inexperienced, probably shaking in his boots. How would he survive? Where would he gain a sense of empowerment and hope? The same Spirit. I saw Jeff a few years after our graduation. His once dying church had regained its health, tripled in size, and was discipling many new people to serve God in the world. The Holy Spirit has a way of doing things like that.
In a real sense, you and I have messes to deal with, too. Broken lives. Unfulfilled dreams. Nasty habits. Confused priorities. Hurting relationships. Evil and injustice in the world. The road seems so long sometimes, doesnt it? And yet, if we read the Bible with any degree of seriousness, and if we listen to such Christian heroes as Bernard of Clairvaux, Frank Laubach and Thomas A Kempis, we always come away with this nagging suspicion that God longs for us to break out of our cocoon and fly. How will we ever do it? Where can we find comfort and hope? Through the Holy Spirit, whom God freely pours out upon all who receive him.
Early in her autobiography, Teresa recounts a difficult season in her life. She had experienced countless trials throughout the yearsshe had many physical problems. On this occasion, however, she had a profound spiritual problem in mind. I suffered great trials in prayer, she wrote, for the spirit was not master in me, but slave. When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he included a brief but troubling exhortation: Do not quench the Spirit. Dont resist the wind. Dont ignore his promptings. Dont neglect the channels through which you can cultivate an ever-deepening intimacy with himprayer, the fellowship of your brothers and sisters, meditation, the Scriptures. Do not quench the Spirit. Instead, follow the example of Christian heroes like Teresa of Avila, who sought continually to live in his care. As you do, you will, like the dust and ashes raised by the wind, soar to new heights.