Prayer of the Day: O God, on this day you open the hearts of your faithful people by sending into us you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for Holy Spirit. Direct us by the light of that Spirit, that we may have a right judgment in all things and rejoice at all times in your peace, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“…[Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…’” John 20:22.
“[Jesus said] ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive” John 7:38-39.
We have a choice between two gospel lessons this week, both from John’s gospel. The context of the first is Jesus’ first post resurrection appearance to the full body of disciples (less Thomas). There the Spirit is given through the medium of a gentle breath. By contrast, Jesus’ speech given at the Festival of Booths in Jerusalem compares the Spirit to “rivers of living water.” As the good people of Midland, Michigan can tell you, rivers of living water can wreak no end of destructive havoc when they get out of control. So, too, what is characterized by John the Evangelist as a “gentle breath” came like a hurricane wind upon the disciples in our lesson from Acts. Wind and water. You can’t live without them, but it’s often difficult to live with them.
The same could well be said of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit animates the church forming in it the mind of Christ and making it his resurrected Body sent into the world. Without the Spirit, the church is but a lifeless corpse. Nevertheless, the people of God have never been quite comfortable with the Holy Spirit. That discomfort goes all the way back to Moses. In our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses is made to realize that he cannot lead the children of Israel through the wilderness and into the promised land on his own. He will need help. So it was that Moses selected seventy elders from among the people to assist him. The Spirit fell upon these seventy and they began to prophesy. So far, so good.
But things get tense when Eldad and Medad, two members of the community who were not among the chosen seventy, also receive the Spirit of God and begin prophesying. Joshua, alarmed by this breach of protocol, implores Moses to make them stop. Joshua would have made a good confessional Lutheran, maintaining as he does that “no one should publicly teach…unless he be regularly called.” Augsburg Confession, Art. 9. Moses takes a different view, replying to Joshua, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Numbers 11:29. Jesus expressed similar sentiments when his disciples informed him that they put a stop to the work of an exorcist casting out demons in his name. “Do not stop him,” says Jesus, “for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Mark 9:39.
The Book of Acts, from which our first lesson comes, illustrates the often fraught relationship between the Spirit and the church. The entire narrative consists of the Spirit pushing the church into places it would rather not be. Just as the little community of Galilean disciples are recovering from being inundated on Pentecost by three thousand new Jewish believers from all corners of the empire with differences in language, culture and religious practice, Philip’s preaching brings into the church believers from among the hated Samaritans. Next, Peter baptizes a gentile officer of the Roman occupation force and his family. Through Paul’s ministry the Spirit of God continues to demolish the racial, cultural and societal walls dividing people one from another. So far from leading this bold advance into the future, the church is dragged there-sometimes kicking and screaming-by the mighty current of God’s Spirit.
Yet as wild and independent as the Holy Spirit surely is, the Spirit is not an anonymous and impersonal force. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, that is, the resurrected Christ “abiding” with his disciples. Thus, in the 12th Chapter of I Corinthians, another alternative reading for Pentecost, Paul insists that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” I Corinthians 12:3. This is important because there are other spirits out there that are far from holy. The spirit of nationalism would have us put the interests of our nation over Jesus’ command to love our neighbors on whatever side of the border they might be. The spirit of racism inspires fear and loathing of people who differ from us in appearance, language or culture. I don’t have to tell you that these spirits and their demonic leading have been woven into the fabric of American religion parading as Christianity. For this reason, John the Evangelist warns us, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” I John 4:1. In this age of alternative facts, conspiracy theories and hateful ideologies, we need more than ever to question the voices seeking to persuade, inspire and move us. Where are these voices coming from? For whom do they speak? Are they consistent with Jesus’ life and teaching as testified in the scriptures?
The Spirit of God works on a timetable and agenda we seldom understand or foresee in advance. We can no more control the Spirit than we can channel the wind. Nevertheless, we can make room for the Spirit to work in our lives. For some of us, that means setting aside time for reading Scripture, for prayer or for worship. These days of pandemic that keep many of us at home offer a unique opportunity for that to happen. For some of us, making room for the Spirit might require exorcism of sorts. Television, social media and virtual communities all have the potential for being channels of human connection, fellowship and inspiration. But they can also become vectors of anger, hostility and fallacious propaganda. In case of the latter, it may become necessary to our spiritual (as well as physical and psychological) health to limit or excise these sources of input.
Invoking the Holy Spirit is risky. For liturgical churches like mine with strong traditions of selecting, training and vetting ministerial candidates before ordaining them to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the prospect of the Spirit’s inspiring ministry outside of that tradition and perhaps even outside of the church is a little unnerving. But remaining open to such manifestations of the Spirit is critical to the health of the church. More than once throughout history the church has been called to repentance, renewal and a larger sense of mission by individuals and groups that don’t fit strictly within its current understanding of ministry. Taken together, our Pentecost lessons call us to be both open and discerning: open to whatever the Spirit might be doing in our midst and in the world, but grounded in our relationship with Jesus so that it is possible for us to discern the voice of God’s Spirit speaking among the many voices that would lead us astray.
Here is a poem by Loretta Roche speaking of the spirit driving her artistic striving toward excellence. Perhaps this spirit is not so very different from the Holy Spirit animating the church and calling it to places it has never been and fears to go.
I have no comforting to bring you;
Mine is no cold sweet balm to lend
For a wound that aches, or a mind that darkens.
I am not one to be called a friend.
For when your hands are scarred and broken
Form shaping stony words to a song,
Cutting a meaning from glossy marble,
My voice will bite like an iron prong.
And I will sting you when you falter
With a word bitter as driving snow;
I have not lost the way of twisting
That whip I used to have-you know?
No one can silence me with weeping;
You cannot hush my voice with prayers.
When you would see out a room of refuge
I shall be waiting on the stairs.
You shall not rest while I am near you-
Mine is a will that does not bend.
I have no comforting to bring you,
And you will hate me to the end.
Source: Poetry, April 1925. This poem is in the public domain. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find anything in the way of biographical information on Loretta Roche. You can sample more of her poems at the VQR Site. If any of you reading this can share further information about this poet, I would be very appreciative.