One of the things that most annoys me about contemporary popular Christianity is the domestication of our practices, or really the infantilization of them. In our attempt to help outsiders make sense of what we do and what we believe, we have a tendency to dumb things down. It may also be that language and imagery developed to help children understand our worship, practices, and doctrine have become so ingrained that as adults we reach to them as well.
One such example is the notion that Pentecost is the Birthday of the Church. There is some truth in the idea. After all, at least for Luke, the church comes into being through the work of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. The problem I have with it is what we have come to associate with birthdays, cake and icing, parties and gifts, party hats. It’s a trivialization of an important idea.
To call Pentecost the Birthday of the Church does something else, however. It tames the Holy Spirit into language, imagery, and power that we can control. The only mighty wind associated with birthdays is the breath that’s used to blow out candles on a cake. In fact, it could be that everything the church has done over the centuries with regard to the Holy Spirit has been a single, relentless effort to bottle it up and prevent its freedom.
I’m not going to try to explain to you what, or who, the Holy Spirit, isand how the Spirit continues to work in the world and among us. I’m also not out to make us feel guilty because the Spirit seems not to be moving in our lives today in the ways that is has moved in the past or continues to move in other Christians or in other places. Instead, I would like to use today’s scripture readings to explore some of the scriptural language around the Spirit, and use the diversity of that language to help us think more broadly and more creatively about the Spirit’s movement.
The first lesson is the Pentecost story as told in Acts. We’ve actually got a depiction of it in the stained glass window over there. The disciples were gathered in the upper room, the same room where they had shared the last supper with Jesus, where they had gathered after his crucifixion and burial, where they had heard the news that he was raised from the dead, and where he later appeared to them. Jesus had returned to the Father and now they were waiting to see what would happen next. Suddenly there was a violent wind and tongues of fire hovered over their heads. They begin to speak in all matter of languages. It was bedlam, utter chaos.
In fact it was so loud that they gained the attention of the neighbors, who came to see what was happening. Hearing the ruckus, they suspect the disciples have begun partying a little early in the day but Peter and the others come out into the street, where Peter proclaims boldly the good news to all who have gathered.
In the gospel of John, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as our Advocate, Comforter, or Guide. Literally, it means to come alongside another which can be understood in the sense of provide counsel or advice. For John, the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to the community, offering not only comfort but also leading the community into the future, as it deepens its understanding of God in Christ and as it faces new challenges along the way.
There’s something almost shocking in this, if you think about it closely. We are accustomed to looking back, to the words of Jesus, to scripture, even tradition, for the sources of authority. We usually think that Jesus’ words have greater authority for us and for the community of faith than anything else. But here, Jesus suggests something different. The Spirit’s continuing presence in the community and the world will help the community discern its stance in new situations and contexts. The Spirit, Jesus says, will guide you into all Truth.
So far, then, we have an unruly, even violent Spirit, breaking into our lives with new phenomena, new experiences as we see in Acts. In John, the Spirit is a guide, interpreter, even comforter. In the lesson from Romans, we see the Spirit acting in another way. In the other two lessons, we see the Spirit acting in community. Here, we see the role of the Spirit in the lives and experiences of individuals:
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
Here, the Spirit acts on our behalf, communicating with God when we are unable to, giving us words when we are inarticulate. This is good news indeed. Wherever we are in our spiritual journeys, however practiced we may be in prayer, there is always more. We can go deeper, entering into a deeper, more intimate relationship with God. For most of us, however, I suspect that we struggle with our prayer life, we wish we could pray more sincerely, find words that better express our situation and our desire for God.
Paul’s words here are profoundly reassuring. He’s not saying that the Spirit teaches us how to pray. Rather, he is saying that in those times when we cannot pray, when we cannot find the words, when literally we are reduced to “inexpressible groanings,” the Spirit is there, interceding on our behalf.
There’s another rich image in the text from Paul. He begins with a marvelous phrase, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains; not only the creation but we ourselves.” Paul seems to be saying that creation is suffering. But its suffering is like the suffering of an expectant mother, looking forward to the birth of her child, eagerly awaiting that joyous event. Creation languishes in present pain, but hopes for its redemption, a redemption already present in the first-fruits.
In the Psalm, we also see reference to creation, and the words here help to fill out both the role of the Spirit and our understanding of God’s work in creation. Two key themes emerge. First, the beauty and diversity of creation, seen in the wide variety of creatures, but also in the amazing diversity of their natures. The Psalmist uses as an example Leviathan—often understood to be the mythical sea monster that symbolizes chaos. Here, God has created even Leviathan, showing God’s power over chaos, but more interestingly, why did God create Leviathan? Our translation says, “for the sport of it.” We could also say, to play with.
This is a remarkable statement of God’s playful creativity and we could cite many other examples from creation of animals that are wondrously and beautifully made, for no other reason perhaps than to show the miracle of nature.
Playful creativity is one thing but the second theme that emerges is God’s continuing care for creation: God gives them their food in due season, sustaining creation with life. But creation is not just a one-off. It continues:
You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.
In an age when we humans confront the reality that we may destroy the planet with our activity, when climate changes threatens not just our way of life but our very existence in the long run, creation’s groanings, in ways like drought and natural disaster bear witness to our folly. When we destroy the environment, we do more than that, however, we undo creation and we rebel against the creative work of the Holy Spirit.
Even as we see in this psalm praise to God’s creativity, joy, and playfulness, so to do we see in our texts a range of images and ways of thinking about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit cannot be defined in narrow terms, its work cannot be limited to the community of the faithful or the inner life of the individual believer, or even the work of creation. The Spirit is active in all of those ways and others. It comforts, creates, prays, challenges us. It leads us forward into the future, into places we have not been, into new experience and new worlds.