The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What is the Holy Spirit, anyway?



Another double-deal this week.  Text and video.  Maybe this is a thing for a while...

Pentecost, Year B


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

What is the Holy Spirit?

Today the church celebrates the Day of Pentecost - the commemoration of the church having received the gift of the Holy Spirit - but we don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking about it.  What does it mean to have the gift of the Holy Spirit?  What does that gift look like?  What do we do with it?

We talk about the Spirit a lot in passing.  We talk about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Just a couple of weeks ago we celebrated a baptism, and in it, I announced that Shaina had been “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  Every week we say the creed, and in it we proclaim that we believe in the Holy Spirit.

But what is that “Holy Spirit”?  What does it look like?  Feel like?  Sound like?

Today we heard three very different explanations of the Holy Spirit.

In the reading from Acts we heard the most iconic version of the story of the Holy Spirit.  The disciples are gathered together, still living in fear from the horrors that they had witnessed in the crucifixion.  Through it they had forged an even tighter community - if that could have been possible.  And in an ironic affront to their fear, suddenly they were engulfed in a violent rush of wind.  The spirit descended on each of them in tongues as of fire, and inexplicably they each began to speak in other languages.

They knew things that they hadn’t before known.  They understood new languages.

It’s a shocking image.

But then we turn the page.  We hear from Paul about the “first fruits of the Spirit”.

For Paul those “first fruits” are not so much about understanding or knowledge as they are about intercession.  The Holy Spirit is the helper that makes up for our own weakness.  The Spirit provides a conduit - almost a transmitter or a path - for clearer communication with God.  For Paul the Holy Spirit is not that “violent rush of wind”, but instead, is the one who intercedes for us to God with “sighs too deep for words”.

They’re very different images: a violent wind and a deep sigh.

Then we come to Jesus.  As he prepares to leave the disciples - and perhaps more importantly, as he prepares the disciples for his leaving - we hear yet another image of this gift: this Spirit.

Jesus describes an “Advocate” - a “Spirit of truth”, he says, who will come to reveal all of the things that had been left unsaid.  As he said, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  As our ability to bear the truth grows, so, too, will the truth that will be revealed.

Truth, it seems, was too much for one lifetime - even the lifetime of the Christ.

So just in the context of this one Sunday we hear three different understandings of the Holy Spirit: the violent rush of wind that brings knowledge and understanding, the sigh too deep for words that intercedes on our behalf, and the Advocate bringing truth we cannot yet bear.

If we were to look elsewhere in the Bible, we would hear other images still.  Most notably I remember the story of the giving of the Holy Spirit from John’s Gospel that we hear every year on the Second Sunday of Easter - it’s not just the story of “Doubting Thomas” - but a story about the Holy Spirit - when Jesus gives the Spirit of peace to the disciples through no more than a breath.

So the question remains - what is the Holy Spirit?

I think there are so many different descriptions of the Holy Spirit, because we all have so many different understandings and experiences of it.  Though most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Holy Spirit, nearly all of us have had experiences of the power of the Spirit at different times in our lives.

We all have different needs and experiences - we all are God’s creations, each in our own unique ways - so the Spirit meets us in different ways and at different times.

As I was preparing to preach today, I thought I’d be telling you about some of mine - some of the times that I believe that I’ve been in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  One of my favorite stories about that was about six years ago when I heard about the election of our current Presiding Bishop.  I’ve often preached about that moment: sitting in the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, and hearing the collective gasp of hundreds of surprised Episcopalians as an experience similar to that “violent rush of wind” that we hear about in Acts.  Or, I thought I might tell you about feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit at my two ordinations - how we prayed that God would send the Holy Spirit, and how I felt that rush of peace and understanding and intercession that the biblical stories promise.

I even thought I might tell you some of the simpler stories: about how every time I sit down to prepare a sermon, or stand up to deliver one, I invoke the Holy Spirit, and how even I am surprised at how often my prayers are answered.  Or about how every time I approach a meeting that I don’t want to go to, or feel uncertain of its outcome, how I turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance.  Or about how every time I find myself in a difficult or frightening pastoral situation, how my first step is to pray for the Holy Spirit to intercede - to give me the strength that I wouldn’t have simply on my own.

I think those are all important stories.  They all reveal a bit of what the Holy Spirit is and does and looks like and feels like.  At least for me.

But the common thread is that each of those stories - each of those experiences of the Holy Spirit - is preceded by openness; asking; making room for what’s already there.

The Holy Spirit is our gift: the gifts of understanding, peace, intercession, and truth.  Gifts that are available to us if only we could be more open to receiving them.

We celebrate Pentecost to remember that those gifts are there for us.  We celebrate Pentecost to remember to make room.

So what is the Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit is what we need, when we need it.

It may look different in your life than it does in mine.  I would expect that it would.  The real question is, will we see it?  Amen.

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