Year A, Pentecost
June 8, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
Holy Scripture is just astounding, sometimes. The interwoven connectedness and holy integrity of the Bible can be mesmerizing. So many different kinds of writing by so many different people from so many different places across so many hundreds of years integrate to reveal a truly organic vision of God and the creation with phenomenal structural integrity. Threads of deep truth span time and space: themes of exile and return, fall and redemption, being lost and being found, indelible love, eternally offered grace and abiding mystery. Oh, there are outliers in our scriptural inheritance, there are plenty of historically/culturally contextualized teachings and practices that are far from universal truths, things such as slavery, patriarchal subordination of women, homosexual conduct as a capital offense and the imperative to circumcision, barbaric stuff, but the whole of our Holy Scripture is much greater than the sum of its parts, collected, bound, infused, propagated as it is by the Holy Spirit. And today, Pentecost, is all about the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost is maybe not best understood as the birthday of the church, that was that gathering in the upper room after the Ascension last week, (right?), but rather, Pentecost is maybe better understood as the remembrance of the very specific in-breaking of the Holy Spirit in the wake of Christ’s Ascension. Pentecost marks the fulfillment of Christ’s promise that while He was going away, God would still be with them, “to the ends of the earth.” The Holy Spirit, present from the beginning, would come to them afresh, in very particular ways. It would come to them as the living water flowing from the believer’s hearts in our Gospel today from Chapter 7 of St. John’s Gospel, or Christ’s breath imparting the Holy Spirit as related to us later in John, the alternate gospel for Pentecost. The Spirit is elemental. Come Holy Spirit, come!
As so many of our historical churches in England are built upon earthen mounds used by our pre-historical, pre-Christian ancestors for their sacred purposes, our Christian understanding of the nature of God and existence is built upon ancestral revelations of truth. Nowhere in our tradition is this more clear than in our apprehension of the Holy Spirit. From the breath of God coursing over the abyss in the first sentence of Genesis, to the gifting of the water of life in the final chapter of Revelation, the primal, elemental face of God that we call the Holy Spirit is interwoven throughout our narrative. And it always has been.
The ruah, the breath of God, the spirit of God is the creative force that heralds God’s creation of everything from the formless and watery chaos; the same creative breath infuses that red clay, adamah, with life and humanity exists – from the dust we come, to the dust we shall return, just add (or subtract) Spirit. The pillar of clouds that led Israel in the desert by day, the pillar of fire by night; the smoke that enshrouded Mt. Sinai, the whirlwind from which God spoke to Job, all the way to the Spirit which descended “like a dove” at the Baptism of Our Lord and the breath of Christ on his Disciples. The Spirit is in the wind. A river flows through the city of God in the psalms; it is poured out upon all flesh in Joel; Jesus offers living water to the woman at the well, the water of life is gifted in the Revelation and flows out of the believer’s heart. The Spirit is in the waters. There is the burning bush, Daniel’s fiery chariot, the baptism St. John offered, a baptism “…with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” “the divided tongues, as of fire…” resting on the heads of the twelve in that first Pentecost… The Spirit is in the fire. We, humans, have always known that one of the faces, one of the personalities of God is primal, elemental, organic, a flow of some mysterious, animating energy, some serendipitous creativity, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, that drives the water through the rocks that drives my red blood is a face of God that we are loathe to forget.
If the nature of God the Creator is hard to define, and the nature of God the Son is hard to agree upon, the nature of God the Holy Spirit is downright ethereal. The Creeds try. The Creeds speak of the giver of life, the speaking of the prophets, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, and the holy triumvirate of forgiveness, resurrection and life everlasting themselves. In the Holy Spirit our sons and daughters shall prophecy, our young men shall see visions, our old men shall dream dreams, (I am not sure what we in the middle are supposed to be doing), portents will be shown in heaven above, and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and smoky mist. The sun itself shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood. There is nothing domesticated about the Holy Spirit.
We don’t speak about the Holy Spirit very much in church. Theology is largely the study of God, and is the normative scholarly posture of inquiry. Christology is concerned with the nature of Christ, and countless volumes have been published in the West on this. Pneumatology is the study of the Holy Spirit and as educated as I am, I have trouble spelling it. In an intensely unscientific inquiry, Powell’s in Portland reveals 315 books under “Pneumatology,” 1,953 under “Christology,” and 22,012 for “theology.” Totally an amateur query, but it says something about the Spirit and the difficulty we have even mentioning it.
Well, it is hard to make truth claims about truth, to speak wisely about wisdom, to harmonize with harmony itself. Visions and dreams, prophecy and breath… These are hard things to speak about because they are hard things to think about. By its very nature, the spirit hovers on the margins of graspability. It is like the wilderness: its mere existence in relation to occupied land, civilization, reminds us of the reality of the whole. The Spirit, dancing as it does on the periphery of consciousness, pulls us, drives us, as it did Jesus, into the wilderness and as products of civilization, uncivilization, wilderness is frightening.
As important as a factor in our discomfort as the uncivilized, uncolonized, undomesticated nature of the Holy Spirit, there is also the decidedly feminine nature of the Holy Spirit that has traditionally been off-putting to the patriarchs of the church. Imagine that! The Spirit has always been associated with the feminine, Hokmot in Hebrew and Sophia, in Greek, mean “wisdom,” and are both decidedly feminine nouns. In Matthew 11:19, “Yet wisdom (Sophia) is vindicated by her deeds.” Metaphors of “Giver of Life,” “…as a mother hen broods over her chicks,” the feminine energy of God is a subversive notion that can carry us much further beyond God the Father than many (in control) are comfortable with. Much more needs to be said on that, but another time.
So where does this wild, uncivilized, undomesticated personality of God alight on this, our orderly, civilized, household of God? What does this somewhat esoteric pneumatology have to do with our collective and individual average Tuesday mornings? Everything, actually, and we need to work more and more on it all the time.
Our scriptural inheritance delineates the fruits and gifts of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-3). Wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1-2). These traits manifest, Paul teaches, for the common good, in the utterance of wisdom and knowledge, faith, healing, miracle working, prophecy, discernment of spirits and bringing us back to Pentecost, the speaking and interpreting of tongues. (1 Corinthians 3b-13).
The wise, the relational, the animating, and life-giving, and mysterious, are manifestations of the Spirit. When we prioritize truth over fact, substance over form, love over being right, the Holy Spirit is fluttering, like a Dove right above your head. Intuition, woman’s and otherwise is a product of the Holy Spirit: follow it! Follow what you know to be right even when you don’t know exactly why; faithfully do what you know to be right even when you don’t know what will come of us, or heed Wendell Berry’s encouragement to “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” This is following the Holy Spirit.
The will of God is revealed to us in many, many ways. The tugs and wait-a-minutes, the niggles in the back left corner of your mind, the sliver of truth sandwiched between rants by the wacko on the street corner or the UFO guy with the tin foil hat; the hints of the sweet fragrance of Spring on the breeze, or the first whiff that you might have held onto that milk one day too long… the Spirit reveals to us the truth, the will of God in decidedly non-linear, but just as decidedly real and grounded ways. So, tune your ears to other frequencies. Follow your heart. Lean fearlessly into God in Christ as the Holy Spirit calls you too, be it through a lump in your throat in the face of staggering beauty, a tug on your heartstrings in the direction of trusting someone, or a tongue of flame dancing on your head. Come, Holy Spirit, come. May we have the openness and courage it takes to follow you to the ends of the earth. AMEN