Monday, May 16, 2016

Haunted by the Holy Ghost

My sermon for this week was based on Acts 2:1-21.

If I could go back and witness any point in time, I think I would go back and witness Pentecost as it is portrayed in the Book of Acts.  I know, you'd think a Christian and a priest would want to go back to witness some event in the life of Christ, or at least the Resurrection, but not me.  There is something about Pentecost which is so awe-inspiring.  It just sounds like the type of party I would want to be at.

Pentecost is not originally a Christian celebration, so when people refer to the scene in the Book of Acts as "the first Pentecost", they are actually in error.  Pentecost (Greek for fifty) is the Greek name for the Jewish celebration of Shavuot (Hebrew for weeks).  It is referred to as the Feast of Weeks because it is celebrated 49 days (7 weeks x 7 days in a week = 49 days) after the Passover.  If you include the Passover itself, you have 50 days, hence Pentecost.

The first Passover, we will recall, happened on the eve of the Exodus when Moses led the people out of Egypt, and Shavuot celebrates the day 7 weeks later upon which Moses received the Law from Yahweh.  So when Peter and the other disciples are gathered together with fellow Jews from a variety of countries, the reason why they are gathered is that they are celebrating a Jewish festival together.

At this celebration, so the account from Acts goes, people could not understand one another because they all came from different countries and spoke different languages.  But the Holy Spirit ("Holy Ghost", for you older folks) descends upon the people in the forms of tongues of flame, and suddenly they could all understand one another.

Now, who knows for sure what really happened that day, and speculation abounds.  Some people believe that people literally started speaking other languages that they had not known how to speak before, the basis for those religions who practice "speaking in tongues".  Others believe that people were not speaking other languages, but were granted to ability to understand languages they did understand before.  Still others believe that the event had nothing to do with language at all, but simply with an understanding that went beyond the spoken word.

What we do know is that something very moving happened to the people at this celebration, and it had to do with understanding of some kind.

I come from a Trinitarian faith, and at it's heart, the Trinity is a mystery.  You have God the Father, Christ the Son and then the Holy Spirit.  They are all distinct, but they are all one.  Now, I am no good at math, but I am pretty sure that does not add up.  The Holy Spirit adds a much deeper element of mystery than the other two elements of the Trinity: I think we can all wrap our heads around the concept of God, and the concept of Jesus Christ as God incarnate, but what exactly is the Holy Spirit?  Although Christ makes vague allusions to it in the Gospels, one would be hard-pressed to find a real Scriptural basis for it.

Put simply, the term "Holy Spirit" is not Scriptural.  It was coined by the early Christians to describe how they were experiencing the work of God in the world in the absence of Christ.

Remember that Judaism at the time of Christ was marked by a transcendent theology of God, meaning that God was felt to be distant, somewhere "out there", unable to be discerned amidst the joy and suffering of humanity.  Taken to its philosophical extremes, transcendent theology posits that God not only does not care for humanity, but is incapable of caring for humanity by virtue of his vast superiority.

Christ represented an immanent  theology, a theology which affirmed that God was indeed present with us, was not somewhere "out there" but right here, all around us, infusing all of creation.  God, therefore, could be discerned amidst the highs and lows of life, and this theology affirms that God does indeed care for us deeply.

But here is the problem: Jesus eventually left the disciples.  Scripture tells us that Jesus ultimately ascended into heaven and was no longer present with the disciples in the 3-dimensional, discernible-to-our-5-normal-senses kind of way.  God, in other words, apparently went from being transcendent to immanent, then back to transcendent again.

Imagine how this must have impacted the disciples.  Although there is little or no Biblical evidence to indicate that the disciples realized Jesus was God incarnate until after his death, resurrection and ascension, they seem to have clued in around the time of the Ascension and Pentecost.  So they had to shift their theology rapidly and radically to acknowledge a God who was literally present instead of absent, and then suddenly God was seemingly gone again.  Talk about stress!

The Holy Spirit, if you will, is a bridge between those two theologies.  The Holy Spirit is that mode or manifestation of God that you and I are able to discern.  The Holy Spirit is that expression of God making himself felt and know in the world and in our lives.  The Holy Spirit, as it descended on what I guess you could call the first Christian Pentecost, was a reassurance that even though Christ was no longer present with the disciples, God, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Righteousness, the Advocate, the Comforter, would always be present with them, to guide, to support and to direct.

I have said before that the downside of having a canon of Scripture is that this tends to lead us to the conclusion that God hasn't spoken to humanity since John laid down his pen after writing the Book of Revelation, when nothing could be further from the truth.  God is consistently and constantly being revealed to us throughout history, enlightening us, educating us, moving us closer to the goals of peace, justice, equality.

The Holy Spirit is that aspect of God that is constantly at work in the world, progressively revealing God's will to us, writing the next chapters of our progress as a people.

My prayer today is that the Holy Spirit will move through you and move through us all.


  1. Through Him, with Him and in Him, that is the true relationship with God.
    It is a work of consciousness and love every moment, but we are only human ...


  2. Wonderful ! Jason and very good to hear from you again.