Saturday, July 5, 2014

In our Experience

What do you want me to tell you about the Holy Spirit today?

Every year, seven weeks after we have celebrated Easter, we celebrate this day called Pentecost – we all know it has something to do with the Holy Spirit, but somehow, when we are reminded of that story in Acts of the Holy Spirit coming in such a dramatic fashion, most of us look around the church as we know it and say “So What?”

Do these kinds of things ever happen here at Holy Cross?  I know that some of you have experienced a somewhat Charismatic style of Anglicanism, either here or elsewhere.  

For many of us, though, this kind of experience of the Holy Spirit is quiet foreign to our experience in the church and so we generally dismiss it as something that is all too hard to understand.

Some of you may even look rather longingly at the enthusiasm for the faith that your friends in charismatic or Pentecostal churches have and wonder why you have missed out – weren’t you good enough?  Or faithful enough?

This situation generally leads to one of two responses:-

1.       We might be inclined to relegate all this signs and wonders stuff to the past – that God used them to get the church started but God doesn’t need them now!  OR
2.       We get very defensive and go down the line of saying that all this Pentecostal stuff is wrong; its fake; or even its evil!

If I was to objectively describe my experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church, I would have to say that what I see is two very different pictures.

One is built around signs and wonders – like the Acts story.  I have colleagues for whom this experience of the Holy Spirit is congruent with their own – they see signs and wonders such as healings, words of wisdom or insight, the ecstatic utterances in what seem to be foreign languages which are then translated into a prophetic word from God.  I have a cousin who is a pastor of a small country church and regularly I am told of miraculous healings in which the blind see and tumours vanish from MRI images.

The other is built around images of quiet unassuming people whose lives manifest those fruit of the Spirit that the Apostle Paul talks about – people who are growing in grace and wisdom as they walk day by day with God and guided by this Advocate or Helper.  Sometimes these faithful souls, these wonderful “salt of the earth” type people, are wracked with anxiety that they have missed out on something or guilt that their lives have failed to measure up somehow.

Which of these is right?


Despite my four-year theological degree and years of pastoral ministry in which I must have preached more than a few Pentecost sermons, it has only been recently that I realised that there are two very distinct Holy Spirit Traditions in the New Testament – and funnily enough they seem to match very closely the observations I have just shared with you about my experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Let me share with you some insights into these traditions.

In the same way that media observers of politics seem only to notice the flamboyant, or outrageous, so when most of us have think about the Holy Spirit in the Bible and the Church we have only notice the Signs and Wonders tradition.

The Signs & Wonders Tradition

This is the tradition that Luke records for us and which took root in various places in the earliest church and in the church as we know it today.

Signs and Wonders are said to be things that call us to faith – and for many people they do.  The way Luke tells this story is a very deliberate strategy by which we are drawn into an understanding of what God was doing through these amazing events.

For the early church, these stories were inextricably linked to a very ancient Hebrew story about God’s plans for the world.

Way, way back in the mists of time, the story is told, everyone spoke the same language.  People were essentially nomadic, so this was a good thing.  They settled for a while in the river country of Mesopotamia and decided to build there a great city, as well as a tower – a huge tower – that reached up to heaven where they could meet with God and make themselves famous.

For some reason or another, the Lord God didn’t particularly like this idea, and as a solution decides to mix up everyone’s speech so that they can no longer co-operate in this tower-building enterprise and will be scattered all over the world. 

We all know the Tower of Babel story, and we all understand that at the heart of it was the idea of punishment for wanting or doing something wrong.  Whether we regard this story historically or as a kind of parable – we know that in it we were supposed to learn something very true.

The Lukan tradition of the Holy Spirit is grounded in this story as it brings together people from all over the world with their different languages – all gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate this wonderful festival.

And an amazing miracle happens!

The language about it is a bit ambiguous.  We generally understand it to mean that the Apostles were miraculously able to speak in so many other languages that all the visitors in Jerusalem were able to hear the stories of Jesus in their own language. 

But it is possible to understand the words as meaning that the miracle was more in the hearing than in the speaking – that the Disciples were telling the stories and even though people might not have been able to understand Aramaic in normal circumstances, by some miracle they were able to understand the stories.

Either way a miracle happened – signs and wonders – that was clearly undoing the act of God on Babel; reversing that punishment and ushering in a new season or era of life empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The Breath of Life Tradition

But there is another tradition of the Holy Spirit in the Bible, and the Gospel we read today gave us a hint at it – and it is quite different from the Signs and Wonders tradition of Luke in Acts.

John uses quite different language about the nature and work of the Holy Spirit.  The words John usually uses for the Spirit are THE ADVOCATE or THE HELPER and sometimes THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH.

There are no great miracles associated with the work of the Spirit for John.  In a very intense conversation Jesus has with his Disciples at the last supper he tells them that he must leave them and that the Holy Spirit will, in a sense stand in his place – a continuation of the Incarnation of God in the world. 

The image of the Advocate is a legal one – for someone who speaks on our behalf.  There are hints here of the way in which the Spirit might give us the wisdom to say the right thing and so be speaking through us in a sense, but I wonder, too, if there could be a sense here of the Spirit speaking on our behalf before God Almighty – saying things for us that we could not possibly say.

There is another sense of Advocate that some translators pick up and that is of the Helper.  When we unpack this idea we come up with a sense of God that is very real and present for us in our day to day living.

That other phrase Jesus uses here is the term The Spirit of Truth.  In some senses because God is Truth, this term is just a different way of saying The Spirit of God, but it also embodies a whole lot of great ideas about the work of the Spirit being involved in helping us know what is true and being transformed by what is true.

This sits closely with the ideas of Paul about the Fruit of the Spirit becoming increasingly evident in our lives.

Now some of you are already jumping ahead of me and thinking – where does all of this link into the Old Testament like the other one did?

This is where the passage we read today makes its contribution to the John tradition.

The story begins with these words:  “It was late that Sunday evening,” (after the first Resurrection appearances).  All the disciples were terrified that the Romans or the Jewish religious leaders would be coming to get them.  They were hidden away in a locked room and suddenly, Jesus appears right there in the room.

As you might imagine, fear and amazement gives way to joy when they realise who it is, and then Jesus does something totally unexpected which harks back to a much older Hebrew story.  He breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive people’s sins they are not forgiven.”

In my mind this is a very powerful image, and it is an image that has carried on in the life of the church – one or two of you came to the Chrism Eucharist just before Easter when the Holy Oils are blessed?  When Archbishop Roger blessed the Chrism Oil – the oil we use for Baptisms and Confirmations – he stooped down and blew over the oil; a very powerful symbolic gesture.

There is another story in which breath is used in an amazing way.  Again in the mists of time, God was playing around with clay and fashioned himself a man – not like those Chinese warriors that have all been turned into immovable terracotta – this was till soft, pliable wet clay – and God breathed breath into his nostrils and the man began to live.  It is there in that Ezekiel story we had some time ago about the valley of dry bones.

This life-giving breath of God that John calls the Spirit of God is showing us that in the Spirit we are new Creations; this story of Adam is set before sin enters into our experience, so there is a sense in which this work of the Spirit is about creating us fully into God’s original plan for humans.

So, we have these two great Holy Spirit traditions in the Bible and in the Church and they both can teach us stuff, not least to be respectful of those whose experience of the Holy Spirit is different from our own.

On this Pentecost Sunday let us give thanks for both the quiet and the spectacular, but most of all for the fruits of the Spirit, and especially for that most important gift of the Spirit that Paul tells us about – love. 

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