Jesus said: “It is for your own good that I go away – for if I do not go away you will not receive the Advocate, the helper, for your selves.” Looking around the world, our church, our family, in the mirror even, it may not seem as though being left on our own to carry on the mission was such a good idea?! And yet it is what we need to grow into and for this we have been given the Helper.
Some regard Pentecost as the birthday of the church which is a powerful idea and as good a day to choose as any. Indeed Pentecost is the time at which we remember that the disorganised rabble of believers were drawn together and empowered to be the body of Christ on earth. But Pentecost is much more than someone else’s birthday or an anniversary party that we attend with orange and red balloons and gifts. It is our initiation into spiritual growth as individuals and as a community of believers.
Last week in response to the festival of Ascension we explored the cycle of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and return to the divine realm (and we will explore that further still at Trinity). This was Jesus’ journey and it is the template for our journey. And in many ways it is Pentecost that initiates us for this great work for at Pentecost we are reminded that we have been given the Paraclete, the Helper, who connects us in spirit with the divine. As has been said “God became human so that humans might become God.” (early church father Athansius)
But Pentecost did not happen in a neat vacuum. Pentecost was already a Jewish festival before this event that we heard about in the Acts of the Apostles. Pentecost means fifty – 50 days after the Passover is this special festival which remembers the giving of the law by Moses and the ending of the grain harvest. It is time of joy, of studying of the law and of giving from the first fruits of the harvest. It is one of the three great pilgrim festivals, hence people of so many different nations being present in Jerusalem at that time – all of whom heard the good news in their own language. Luke, as the credited author of Acts, does not see it as an accident that the gifting of the Holy Spirit happens at this festival. We are meant to hear that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law and the ancient hopes for a Messiah. We are probably also meant to understand the church as the first fruits of this new messianic community.
But all of this is about long ago. We come to Pentecost in a specific context – in a world living through an ongoing pandemic, with continuing cycles of national, racial, class and gendered violence and discord, and in whatever personal situation of joy and sorrow we are experiencing. So how do we celebrate the birth day of our church and the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives and community?
I want to explore the three quite different experiences of the spirit described in our readings and try and relate it to our faith journey as individuals and as community. Firstly there is the familiar story from the Acts of the Apostles in which the spirit comes with spectacular effect and fills those present with amazing gifts. I find it an attractive and disconcerting image. It would be wonderful for the presence of the spirit to be so obvious and for the effect of the spirit to be so powerful. But this image has been tainted for many of us by the appalling behaviour of many in the name of God. And in a time of pandemic we have become anxious about excitable gatherings of large groups. Can we reclaim the desire and commission as church and individuals to speak in ways that all can hear themselves invited (instead of excluded)? And can we be noticed for making holy or good trouble rather than for being irrevalvent or worse still for supporting self interested unjust social structures that exclude and oppress the very ones Jesus would have spent his time with?
The second image is quite different and comes in the gospel of John where Jesus describes the spirit as more slowly revealing itself in people’s lives with a growing conviction and an unfolding understanding of truth. At first this “truth” sounds rather heavy handed and I confess has some of my least favourite biblical words in it: “And when he (the helper) comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”(John 16:8-11) It is very helpful to consider what these familiar words mean in this context: “Sin is here the failure to believe or trust in Jesus and therefore to separate oneself from God; righteousness is Jesus’ reunion with the Father, which the opponents do not acknowledge; judgement is the recognition that the power of opposition and evil that organizes this world has already been deposed.” (Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler: The Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV Bible Translation, 2010 by Oxford University Press) And so this legalistic truth becomes the life giving, and all-of-life demanding, truth that in trusting Jesus we with him are in union with the divine, the Father/Creator/Source, and therefore can taste the beginning of the freedom of being beyond the constraints of this world’s sorrow and evil and limitations. It is a truth so vast and wonderful that we need to grow into it over time and cannot do so without the spirit to entice and lead.
And the third image of the spirit is from Paul’s letter to the Romans in which he describes the spirit as praying with us and for us in our weakness, and this in the context of God’s spirit and ours groaning in labour as we together work toward a new creation. I take from this that our growth and development is always for the sake of others, for the world, as well as for our better formation. And it is in weakness and confusion that so often the great gains in wisdom, compassion and creativity come as the spirit finds room to enter in where we are not so strongly defended and self assured.
It is quite difficult, but I suspect important, to hold these quite different images together. The same spirit that at one point is expressed in mighty acts of power is also the same spirit that prays within us at our weakest and most vulnerable. And the same spirit which enabled the disciples to speak in languages other than their own is also so overwhelmingly full of truth that we cannot bear it straight away but need to grow into it. The spirit’s work is to bring us most fully alive: in our power and inspired giftedness; in our growing and journeying into truth; even in the un-kowning and weak places of our being; and all this so that a new creation might be birthed in us and through us into the world.
Which all leads to an image of the spirit as subtle and even slippery, beyond easy definition and certainly beyond capture. The spirit moves where the spirit will and we can no more command the spirit do our bidding than we can direct the wind. Rather we must become subtle and sensitive to the movement of the spirit in ourselves and others listening for truth. And when in doubt as to something being of the Spirit of God or some other source? Paul gives us several lists of the fruits of the spirit – maybe most famously from Galatians – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self control. The Spirit of God will express itself in love and all of love’s manifestations. If what is suggesting itself to you is not about love then maybe it is not of God.
So we can be assured that the spirit of God is always around us, nearer to us than our own breath, and that we have only to begin to desire the spirit and it is praying within us for us. Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ and inspire and ignite us.