Joyous Feast of Pentecost! Happy Birthday, Church!
The Spirit who brooded over the waters at creation, the Spirit who raised up a mighty host from Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, the Spirit who sustained Jesus throughout his ministry, this Spirit descends on the disciples. The excitement in our Acts reading reverberates throughout the New Testament letters: the Holy Spirit has arrived with power; fasten your seat belts!
Power. We heard about it in the Ascension Day readings:
And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Lk. 24:49)
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
We often associate power with compulsion. If I’m powerful enough you’ll do what I want whether you like it or not. But God, who treasures human freedom, doesn’t use power that way. And that’s costly for God: recall Revelation’s Lion of the tribe of Judah who is therefore the slaughtered Lamb. The Holy Spirit’s power is like that, so that in the New Testament letters we hear admonitions like “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30) and “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19). The Spirit’s choices re power are costly for the Spirit, and—obviously—for us when we grieve/quench the Spirit!
So, it’s clear that the Spirit’s coming isn’t about power as compulsion. What sort of power then? Power/strength for what turns out to be a long-term project: planting God’s life, love, grace, glory in every nation under heaven: Parthians, Medes, Elamites…that’s just the start of the list. Scroll down the list far enough and we hit the Badgers, and are by no means at the end of the list. But this power—coupled with God’s passion for human freedom—carries its own vulnerability, so our choices matter.
These choices are, in fact, the focus of the readings from Romans and John.
In John the Spirit’s coming is set in the context of the Father and the Son making their home with those who love Jesus and keep his commandments. “Making their home”—that’s what King George’s troops did in the colonists’ homes. Not appreciated, one of the sparks for the revolution. We will “make our home with them:” for God that has to be what we desire, that desire expressed in loving Jesus and keeping his commandments. That combination of love and obedience echoes Israel’s classic confession, the Shema:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. (Deut. 6:4-6)
Perhaps Jesus is updating the Shema.
In Romans Paul focuses on his readers’ choices by contrasting “a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear” and “a spirit of adoption.” That’s worth chewing on for a bit. What drives our choices? Certainly fear and desire belong in any short list.
Fear. It’s not as though there were nothing to be afraid of. Recall the parodies of Kipling’s poem “If” that started appearing early in the last century: “And if you can keep your head when everybody round you is losing his, then it is very probable that you don’t understand the situation.” There’s plenty to fear. In Luke’s description of Jesus in the Garden we hear “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (22:44). The issue is what we do with the fear, and Isaiah nails it: “Surely God is my salvation; / I will trust, and will not be afraid, / for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; / he has become my salvation” (12:2). We’re not told that Jesus received any answer in the Garden, but he chose trust over fear.
Desire. How much of Scripture—including today’s Romans and John readings—seek to nurture our desire! Paul: “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ– if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Not easy in suffering, but vital precisely there. The author of Hebrews recalls “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (12:2). And John: ”…my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” As house guests go…
C. S. Lewis: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (from “The Weight of Glory”).
Recall too the prophet Joel’s words that Peter quotes: “I will pour out my Spirit 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.” The Spirit, showering us with dreams and visions, awakening our too-feeble desires.
So, fear and desire. I spoke earlier about God’s project of planting God’s life, love, grace, glory in every nation under heaven. A big part of that is dealing with our fears and desires. In this nation, even ours with its toxic brew of fears and desires. So, we want to pay attention our fears and desires, talk with God about these in our daily reading Scripture and praying. Pay attention to these navigating whatever combination of opportunities and challenges the day presents. The choices we make re our fears and desires will make the Holy Trinity more or less welcome as houseguests. And the welcomed presence of the Trinity: what that can do in shaping our fears and desires!
Consider Peter in our reading from Acts. The Spirit has arrived, opening multiple new channels of communication. But Peter still has choices. The chief priests, elders, temple police, Romans, the crowds that seem equally happy to cry “Hosanna” or “Crucify him:” they’re all still in place. What will Peter do with his fears and desires? He opens his mouth…and throws the gates wide open: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” That’s what God’s power looks like.
The Spirit is about opening channels of communication, providing language that bridges divides. In a highly polarized context that’s perhaps not a bad starting point for thinking about how the Spirit might be working among us today. We have choices in our language and actions, to open up or close channels of communication, to make understanding across barriers easier or harder. The Spirit that brooded over the chaos and darkness at creation: that Spirit’s probably not intimidated by our current context. Those dreams and visions the Spirit’s been giving us, so easy to write off: let’s take them seriously and see where they might lead.