This morning we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and the Good News of Christ was spoken in the languages of the known world. Traditionally, this day has been celebrated as the birthday of the Church, it has also been seen as the reversing of the Tower of Babel. As I look at this event, I see it as the day when the Holy Spirit made its presence undeniably known to the world and within the church.
As Episcopalians, we don’t emphasize the Holy Spirit as much as other churches do. If asked, most of us would claim a working relationship with God the Father, because that is often who we visualize when we pray. My previous rector used to like to say, “as Episcopalians, we prefer to skip over the interns and residence and work directly with the attending.” And to some degree this may be true in regards to our prayer lives.
But to ignore a relationship with the Holy Spirit in its entirety leaves a hole in what could be a fuller and more wonderful relationship with the Godhead. In Old Testament theology, the Holy Spirit is often linked with the wisdom of God. In Greek, wisdom is Sophia, which in the past has allowed the Holy Spirit to hold the feminine attributes of God.
The Holy Spirit is the part of the Godhead that we as humans yearn to connect with, and once found, guides us towards becoming more fully the image of God we were created to be. Tradition has taught that the Holy Spirit is the active, non-physical presence of the Godhead on earth. I like to believe that the Holy Spirit is what St. Patrick’s Breast Plate refers to when we sing, “Christ be with me, Christ with in me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me”.
The challenge we face each and every Pentecost is, do we truly believe in this omni- present Spirit that has the power to transform, not just our lives, but the world as well? Or, do we believe in something different? Do we believe in a Godhead that is removed from the world, who is like a clock maker, who winds the springs and starts the clock ticking but will not engage with the world until the clock needs to be rewound.
If this is how we understand the Godhead, then we see the world on a linear path, and we are merely defenseless pawns in a process over which we have no control or hope of changing. How sad and pointless creation becomes, as suddenly it has a beginning and an end and we are mere travelers somewhere in the middle of the two end points.
Does this ring true with the God we know? Does this describe the God who created all the heavens and the earth, who at the end of creating the earth, created humanity as the pinnacle of the creative process? Does this even begin to describe the God who knows us while we are still in our mother’s wombs, and knows the count of every hair on our head? Does this even touch upon the God who so loved this world that he gave his only begotten son so that all who believe in him would not die but have everlasting life?
The answer to these questions is, no. The Bible, Salvation History, tells us we believe in an active and omni-present God. A God who, as St. Patrick says, is beside us, with in us, before us, behind us and all around us. And yet, when we gather each week for Holy Communion or go about our daily business, very few of us, if any, expect to have a direct experience of the Holy Spirit.
At least not in the way those who witnessed Pentecost did.
I wonder what it was like to be one of the Apostles for the ten days following the Ascension. After all, Jesus told them not to despair as he was about to send them the Holy Spirit, the Advocate. I wonder if they were like expectant parents at the very end of a pregnancy, when they wait and watch and wonder if every abdominal pain is the start of labor. We all know approximately when a baby is due, but never know exactly when the event will happen. The same was true for the Apostles, they knew the Holy Spirit would descend upon them, but not exactly when. And so they waited and listened and wondered if with every breeze or heavy wind, were they experiencing the arrival of the Holy Spirit within their midst.
When the Holy Spirit did arrive, the experience literally overtook and overwhelmed them. From the outsiders’ perspective it appeared as if they were drunk, overwhelmed as they spoke in languages foreign to theirs.
Are we open to be overtaken and/or overwhelmed by the movement of the Holy Spirit? Would any of us ever expect to hear the voice of God in the form of a burning bush as Moses did, or in the form of the still small voice as Elijah did?
I know we are Episcopalians, often referred to as God’s chosen frozen. Like most everything else in our lives, we approach our faith from the stand point of the rational. We dutifully give it shape and structure by surrounding our relationship with God with what we consider good and reasonable boundaries. We have learned well how to keep control of our emotions and our sense of spirituality. Unfortunately, we may have even learned, on some level or other, to control the freedom of the Spirit in our midst.
Maybe the gift of the Charismatic Movement of the seventies and eighties was to let us know the Holy Spirit can still enter the Church. Somewhere interspersed with the need to sway our hands in the air and to sing some of the worst praise music ever written was an indwelling of the Holy Spirit that showed us it is okay to relax in church, that the gift of tongues and healing are still out there waiting for us and that the experience of the divine is not just reserved for the clergy or a hand full of others in the midst of Sunday worship. The movement taught us what the annual observance of Pentecost is meant to reminds us each year, that with God we can and should live in joyful anticipation, knowing it is alright to expect the unexpected, that the Holy Spirit will be present and make itself known among us.
St. Ignatius taught his followers to take time at the end of each day to ask how they have experienced the Holy Spirit throughout the day. The discipline is simple, but when adhered to raises an awareness of God’s presence that becomes undeniable. It helps us realize that those quirky coincidences in life are really the hyper-natural miracles of which Dick Wiley spoke of last fall. These miracles really do happen on a regular basis and God is part of them.
Yes, today is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, the day when the Good News was proclaimed in all the known languages of the Mediterranean world. It is also a day in the church year in which we are challenged to seek and celebrate the Holy Spirit among us.