Freedom of the Spirit

Acts 2:1-21

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

John 7:37-39

Pentecost Sunday celebrates the occasion described in our reading from Acts when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples as they were gathered together shortly after his death and ascension. The Greek word for Spirit also means wind and breath and, according to Acts, the Spirit came with the sound of a mighty wind, with tongues of fire resting on the heads of the disciples. A tongue of fire, like wind symbolizing the Holy Spirit, is the official symbol of the United Methodist Church. Pentecost itself was a Jewish holiday celebrating the giving of the law, the Torah, to Moses. The disciples were in Jerusalem, which was filled with Jewish pilgrims for the festival of Pentecost from all over the Roman Empire. Being filled with the Spirit, the disciples were able to speak to each group of pilgrims in the language of their homelands. Our text lists the languages and homelands.

Scholars have pointed out that this speaking in many languages was very different from the glossalalia or “speaking in tongues,” using nonsense words that later characterized some Christian communities, for instance, Paul’s congregation in Corinth. Rather, the Pentecost language phenomenon was intelligible communication.

In our gospel text from John, Jesus predicts that the Holy Spirit would come to his believers after he had been glorified, that is, after he had been killed, raised, and drawn into heaven. Jesus likens the Spirit to rivers of living waters, not fire or wind this time. He called himself the water of life. The general context for this speech of Jesus was the Jewish festival of Booths that commemorates the Exodus wandering in the wilderness, and the specific context, the last day of the festival, remembers the occasion when God provided water from a rock to save the parched Israelites: hence Jesus’ image of the water of life. This festival also celebrates the anticipation of the Messiah to save the people. Peter’s sermon, quoted in our text from Acts, cites the prophet Joel’s proclamation that the Holy Spirit would be poured out “upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” This would happen on the “day of the Lord,” that is, when the Messiah comes.

In the New Testament and in the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Holy Spirit is closely associated with Jesus as the Messiah. In John’s gospel, Jesus says the Spirit will come to the disciples after he is gone to guide and sustain them, to interpret to them the meaning of his life and the direction of theirs. Christianity is a Trinitarian religion because it believes that, just as Jesus is God in some sense, so is the Holy Spirit. We baptize and bless others and ourselves in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

And yet! And yet, the Holy Spirit has never been received comfortably within the Christian Church. In the first centuries of the Church, the debates about the sense in which Jesus was divine were fierce and brought to resolution in creeds long before much was said about the Spirit at all. You remember in the Apostles’ Creed, God the Father is declared to be the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth, and a whole paragraph is devoted to Jesus’ conception, birth, death, and resurrection. Then in the last paragraph the Holy Spirit is mentioned without definition in a list that includes also “the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Later in the Middle Ages the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches separated over a dispute as to whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from the Father and Son together. This was not an edifying dispute, and theology of the Holy Spirit has more or less languished ever since.

The Holy Spirit has played a somewhat larger role in the piety of the Eastern Orthodox Churches than in Western Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. The reason for this has been the Eastern emphasis on sanctification, which those churches call “theosis,” or becoming more God-like. The Holy Spirit is the source of sanctification. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, picked up the emphasis on sanctification, and with it the importance of the Holy Spirit. This distanced him from the mainline Lutherans and Calvinists who emphasized the acts of Jesus Christ in the past and in eternity, but without much enthusiasm for the freedom of the Holy Spirit in the present. Because the Holy Spirit reinterprets the Bible in the present for new occasions, the Wesleyan emphasis distances that movement from the literalist fundamentalists as well. The Wesleyan movement and its influences includes the Nazarenes, Pentecostals, and Charismatics as well as most African American religious sensibilities that emphasize the movement of the Spirit. Poor people with little investment in established institutions, and uneducated people who have no formal liturgies or biblical learning, are rightly drawn to religious practice that emphasizes the Spirit’s present reinterpretation of things, making all things new. Those who have little to lose are especially responsive to the Spirit, which is often resisted by people grounded in the past.

You can see why the Holy Spirit is vaguely threatening to established churches. As new wine does not fit into old wineskins without bursting them, a Spirit-filled people does not fit into old forms without relativising them. When new circumstances seem to be ill-served by the old church structures, by the old liturgies, by the old theological expressions, by the old interpretations of the Bible and of the mind of Christ, people trusting in the Spirit are willing to try new ways.

Of course, the discernment of spirits is difficult and never infallible. To distinguish the Holy Spirit from the spirits of ambition, power, greed, lust, and nostalgia is not easy. For this reason a critical connection with the past is always necessary. Spiritual judgment about contemporary innovations should always be guided by analogy to the innovations of the past that proved to lead to the Spirit’s marks of justice, joy, love, mercy, and peace. Yet think how drastic some of those past innovations have been! Think, for instance, of the invention of the Christian movement out of the Judaism of Jesus’ time, as recorded in Acts. We need to be ready in our time for drastic innovations in the evolution of Christianity.

Mark just how the Holy Spirit is dangerous, however. Permit me a moment of metaphysics, if you will, while I say what I think all those symbols of the Holy Spirit are getting at. John says that Jesus is the incarnation in human form of the Logos, the structures of things, or that which makes things harmonize into structures. The Spirit is the creativity of God within the world that builds up those structures. The creativity of God also destroys structures to build others. As you have heard me say many times, the immensity of God’s creativity that builds up and then destroys to build more is wild. The Big Bang and the rush of cosmic gasses to form suns, which in turn flame out as supernovas, have no regard to the human scale of things. The fragile structure of the human habitat is a wonder of creativity and it is subject to the other forces of creativity that will destroy it one day. The wild God is fecund beyond measure and the manifestations of the Spirit’s creativity in human experience are also wild. Any settled human structure is in danger from the wild Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes churchmen and churchwomen nervous! You can see why Paul was so nervous, in our text, to insist that the Spirit is one, when all those manifestatio
ns—wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, miracle-working, prophesy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues—seem to be going off in different competing but compelling directions.

The Spirit of God’s creativity means something a bit different on the human scale from what it means on the cosmic scale. Although human beings are free to ignore or reject the point, we live in a world surrounded by obligations to do better rather than worse. Our habits and institutions should embody those virtues I mentioned earlier, justice, joy, love, mercy, peace, and many others. Our sanctification depends on embodying them in ourselves, so that they add up to divine creativity on a human scale. The Holy Spirit comes to us as the creativity always to do better than we do now. Come to us, the Holy Spirit also is the creativity to deconstruct, destroy, and give up those things that hold us back. Sometimes this is extremely painful, especially when we remember what a glory it was to achieve in the first place those things that now hold us back. The Holy Spirit makes Christ present to us as judge. Destruction of those we love is incomprehensible to us, even when it makes room for others: such suffering and grief are in themselves gifts of the Holy Spirit, ambivalent as that is to human judgment.

With danger signs all about, the message of Pentecost, nevertheless, is to live dangerously. With all due care to test the spirits, we are urged to trust the Spirit in its creative urgings. When our community’s hidebound structures entrench poverty and injustice, let us call for the Spirit to give us new directions and a new energy; let it destroy our fears and investments that reinforce evils. When our family relations and friendships feed on domination and unwarranted dependencies, let us call in the Spirit to destroy those bad ties and lead us into freer loving relations. When our personal prospects seem blocked or confused, let us call down the Spirit to show us how to possess more aptly the mind of Christ, and how to dispossess ourselves of the expectations that lead nowhere. When our souls are mired in sin, panic, and self-hate, let us call up from their depths the Holy Spirit that can create in us clean hearts and destroy the things that bind us.

Some Christians believe that what counts is what God did in the past with Jesus. I say that does not count unless the Holy Spirit can make that happen today with us. God’s creative transformation is not less powerful today than in Jesus’ time, and our spiritual practice gives us the teaching and example of Jesus to discern the true spirit of creative transformation. We might think we languish with a society where nothing can be done about injustice, with personal relations that starve as well as feed, with personal stories that are dead ends, with souls we would deny, even with a religion of the past that is nostalgic at best and boring at worst. But that is illusion. The Holy Spirit of God’s creative love, which began the cosmos with a mighty blast and turns swarms of cosmic gasses into garden worlds like ours, pours through our lives like a mighty river surging through underground caves to burst forth in fountains of transformation. Come Holy Spirit and lead us to the crosses that destroy our evil and bondage! Come Holy Spirit and raise us to new lives in which our own creative efforts are more like God’s own! Come Holy Spirit and groan in us a new and true prayer that our lives together host the God who would live incarnate among us. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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