11 May 2008

John W. Sewell


Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days after the Resurrection.  We have a fairly clear idea about God  the Father and God the Son, but the notion of God the Holy Spirit sounds mysterious and unclear. Actually that is how it should be.  There are reasons why God the Holy Spirit is unfocused in our minds.  After Pentecost the word, God, alone was no longer adequate to describe what the Christians were experiencing.


John Polkinghorne,  p. 146   The Faith of a Physicist, “The early Church felt that it experienced divine power present within it with a peculiar intensity and personality. 


There was language available to them from the tradition to describe this experience:


1.   the language of spirit (ruah), used in the Old Testament  in relation to creation (Genesis 1: 2f.)  As Everertt Fox translates it, “At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters —- .” 

2.   the empowerment of individuals (Ex. 35:30-36:1). God filled Betzalel, with the spirit of God in practical wisdom, in discernment and in knowledge, and in all kinds of workmanship to design designs, to make them in gold, in silver and in bronze… .”


3.   … In both Greek and Hebrew the word for spirit means also ‘breath’ or ‘wind’, so the allusion fitted the word to cover many applications. 


What all these experiences have in common is:  certainty of effect —- together with invisibility of presence. “ Or in other words, God is working but we can’t tell just how it is happening.


Thomas Merton wrote in his journal on April 14, 1950 that “the mystery of speech and silence is resolved in the Acts of the Apostles.  Pentecost is the solution.  The problem of language is the problem of sin.  The problem of silence is also a problem of love. How can a man really know whether to write or not, whether to speak or not, whether his words and his silence are for good or for evil, for life or for death, unless he understands the two divisions of tongues – the division of Babel, when men were scattered in their speech because of pride, and the division of Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost sent out men of one dialect to speak all the languages of the earth and bring all men to unity: that they may be one, Father, Thou in Me and I in them, that they may be one in us.


The Acts of the Apostles is a book full of speech.  It begins with tongues of fire.  The Apostles and disciples come downstairs and out into the street like an avalanche, talking in every language.  And the world thought they were drunk. But before the sun had set, they had baptized three thousand souls out of Babel into the One Body of Christ.”


The reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the day of Pentecost as being the start of the indwelling of God’s Spirit in some new way, more continuous and more manifest than had been experienced before. 


After the ascension, the resurrection appearances had come to a close but, to use the language of John’s Gospel, ‘the Counselor, the Holy Spirit …  the Spirit of truth’ had now been sent to continue Christ’s work.  Other special givings of the Spirit are mentioned, but his presence and activity are implicit throughout the whole book of Acts and, indeed, the New Testament generally.”


For many people the Holy Spirit is like the force in Star Wars – may the force be with you. The force is a sort of natural but impersonal like gravity.  That, of course, is exactly NOT what the Holy Spirit is. The reason we speak of the Holy Spirit as a person, and not just as an impersonal force or power.  The Spirit deals individually with different people.  John V. Taylor says, ‘That which was encountered was not simply energy but also form; not simply drive, but also direction; not only holy, but also righteous.”  I would add, ‘not simply general but also particular’.  The One who is the creator of the community of the Church must be personal, that is able to meet people both in their individuality and in their relatedness.  Taylor continues, he is ‘God working anonymously and on the inside: the beyond in the midst.’  In the world of our personal encounter he is the third party whose unseen presence is the enhancer of our meeting.  “We can never be directly aware of the Sprit, since in any experience of meeting and recognition he is always the go-between who creates awareness.’ 


The question on this Pentecost is where are we in our partnership with God, the Holy Spirit?  The Sprit will enter the open places of our lives. Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco says, “The Spirit then is present in three open spaces in our lives: in the unpredictable, in the place of risk and in those areas over which we have no control.”  


UNPREDICTABLE:  We do not know what is going to happen. Someone  once asked Herbert O’Driscoll about the fear in the Church as we face the issues of our time. “Everywhere I look in the Church people are afraid.”  O’Driscoll said, “It’s prudent to be afraid.  The world is very dangerous.  We will always be afraid so long as we are alive.”  Then he said, “The question is do we have hope mixed with our fear?” I’ve been thinking about that ever since. Life is unpredictable.  But the Spirit is always present in the open place we call unpredictable.  Do we have hope in that place?


THE PLACE OF RISK: Where are the risky places in your life.  But then the Spirit is always present in the open place we call risk.  “Gregg Lavoy tells the story of a friend’s father, who was a musician at heart but who worked for 35 years selling televisions, refrigerators, and glassware in a department store in San Francisco. One day he told that the store was closing.  In those days there no golden parachutes or retirement benefits, and when they asked him if there was anything they could to for him, his only request was to have the chair he’d been sitting in all those years.  They sold it to him.

       One day the friend’s father brought the chair to his friend’s house and placed it in my living room and told me about all the years he had sat in it, and then he made me promise that I would never sit down in that chair, ever.”  Let it never be said that we NEVER took a risk.  The Spirit is working in the place of risk!”


THOSE AREAS OVER WHICH WE HAVE NO CONTROL:  We do not like to be out of control. We would like to control things so that we never get hurt. We love control. In the early 1980’s a young couple in New England decided to give up the “rat-race” of modern life.  So they begin to look at what they could do.  For a year, they researched the world, examining the laces best suited for raising a family away from society’s pollutants – a place where they could get a new start.  A place that would be free from the economic rat race, where their children could get a quality education, where they all could develop to their full potential in a healthful, environment.  Finally they found and they left in January of 1982 for a small, isolated island chain off the coast of Argentina: the Falkland Islands.  And, of course, in April of 1982, the Falkland’s War began. 

 I believe it was Lenin that said, “Freedom is good but control is better.”  For who?  We are not in control.  The good news is that the Holy Spirit is present in the open spaces where we have not control.  And since that is most everywhere, the Spirit is very present!


What is the Spirit saying to you and me, to us, on this Pentecost Sunday?  If we will ever get over being self-sufficient and in charge it will likely be more than we can hope or imagine. That is how the Spirit works.