Pentecost, 2006: The Holy Spirit (6/4/06)
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
Dr. Gary Cox
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the first day of the season of Pentecost. For those who follow a liturgical calendar, there are six seasons in the church year, and today the season of Easter is officially over, and the longest of the church’s seasons—the six-month season of Pentecost—begins. I know we’re not an especially liturgical bunch, but I like to keep you apprised of the movements of the church year.
The Christian faith would not exist if not for Pentecost, because Pentecost commemorates the day the church was born. I mean, even if Jesus had been resurrected on Easter morning, the story would have ended there if not for Pentecost. Because Pentecost signifies the fact that people started experiencing God in new way after the death of Jesus, and they credited those experiences to Jesus himself.
The story didn’t end with the crucifixion. The story didn’t end with the resurrection. In fact, the story didn’t end at all—it’s still going on! And we’re in it! Christians celebrate Pentecost as the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, but Christianity would not have survived over the centuries if men and women had not continued to experience the Holy Spirit of God through their embrace of the Christian faith.
At the time of Jesus, Pentecost was a significant Jewish feast day. Seven weeks after Jesus had been crucified, the Apostles gathered in the company of Jews from all over the known world to celebrate the early spring harvest, known as the Feast of Weeks, or the Feast of Pentecost. Let’s look at the story, as found in the Book of Acts.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all of these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
Well, the crowd soon concludes that the apostles must be drunk. Peter counters that charge by pointing out that it is only nine o’clock in the morning, which would be quite early even for Jesus’ old gang to be drinking to excess (something both they and Jesus were evidently accused of with some frequency.) Peter then preaches the church’s first sermon, and according to the author of Acts converts 3000 people to this new faith.
Pentecost is all about the Holy Spirit. I like to preach on the subject of the Holy Spirit, because I think it is an important element of the Christian faith that those of us in the more enlightened and theologically liberal branches of the mainline churches tend to ignore. The reason I think the Holy Spirit is an important subject is because it is the only real point of contact we human beings can have with God.
Next week is Trinity Sunday, when preachers all over the world wrestle with the idea of the Trinity, much to the dismay not only of their congregations, but also of those preachers themselves. Were I to write a book on the Trinity, I would start with these words: The Trinity is a great mystery. And we wouldn’t have to cut down many trees to print that book, because that one sentence says just about everything I have to say on the subject.
One of the primary theological reasons for the first great schism in the church—the split between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox faiths in 1054—was over the nature of the Trinity. It seems the Western theologians—the Roman Catholics—believed that the Son proceeds from the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son. “Not so!” exclaimed the Eastern Orthodox—the Eastern theologians. Why clearly, both the Holy Spirit and the Son proceed directly from the Father.
In my last year of seminary I read several very dense textbooks written from each perspective, and after I was done, all I could think was, “Well, that’s a good hundred hours of my life I’ll never get back.” I usually enjoy wrestling with philosophical enigmas, but I never even figured out what it means to, quote, “proceed from the Father.” For humanity to have developed such an ego that we think we should be able to specifically define the inherent nature of God…and for us to be so sure of our differing opinions on the subject that we would divide ourselves over the matter…well, I’m reminded of Jesus’ admonition to become like little children. I think we sometimes misinterpret that as meaning we are supposed to be childish. No, we’re supposed to be childlike, not childish. There is a difference between being childlike and being childish, and I sometimes think an awful lot of our religious arguments fall into the latter category. To be childlike is to be innocent and faithful like little children. Dividing ourselves with petty bickering over matters that are clearly beyond our ability to comprehend, well, that seems to me to fall into the childish category, or worse.
The most intelligent thoughts I’ve ever seen regarding the Trinity came from a 4th century bishop and theologian from Asia Minor named Gregory of Nyssa (nice-uh). He basically said we were going way off the path when we start claiming we understand the nature of God. Gregory of Nyssa said we should think of the Trinity as a gift from God. God is unknowable, a mystery beyond human comprehension. But God has provided the human mind with a gift—a way of thinking about God that helps us make sense of the mystery. When we think of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are not defining God. We are simply using the faculties God has given us to embrace in our limited way the unknowable. The Trinity isn’t so much God as it is an idea that helps us think about God.
I like that, because it keeps people from using various notions about the Trinity as tests of faith. And I can’t stand tests of faith. There seem to be plenty of people in the church who are happy to let everybody know who is in and who is out in God’s eternal scheme of things. It seems to me we should let God be God, and accept that we are not meant to create rules by which God must abide—let alone pretend we can accurately explain God’s inherent nature.
For example, I have many good friends who believe the only way for a person to stand in God’s grace is for that person to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. And let me be clear on this. I absolutely believe that when people accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, and surrender their will to Almighty God through Jesus Christ, they are indeed in God’s grace. In fact, I believe that is the best way to align oneself with God—through Jesus Christ.
But where I get into disagreements with some of my friends is over whether or not a person can stand in God’s grace without a particular confession of faith in Jesus. I ask the question: Does God have the power to accept into the eternal kingdom a good and loving person if that person has not confessed Jesus Christ as his savior?
To me, the answer is obvious. Of course God can do that. God doesn’t have to do that, but I’m not about to make the rules for God. I don’t get to make the rules. A congregation doesn’t get to make the rules. A denomination doesn’t get to make the rules. The worldwide church doesn’t get to make the rules. Sometimes we forget that part of our role in life is to surrender to God—not to become God.
Part of our surrender to God, it seems to me, is admitting there is a lot about God that we cannot know. We can only use images and metaphors to help us have some understanding of God. That’s why when we say God is the Creator, we are saying we believe God called the universe into being. We don’t think it is a meaningless accident. It has purpose, and meaning, and there is a power beyond our imagining that makes electrons spin around nucleuses and planets spin around stars and conscious life rise out of the dust. So we call God Father—the Creator.
But we can’t get our arms around that whole idea, really. I mean, we are talking about a very big God. It doesn’t matter whether you look to the outer reaches of the universe or keep slicing the material world into smaller and smaller slices—whatever intelligence it is that made all this happen in the first place and continues to hold it together is way, way beyond anything I can get my mind around.
And so we have another metaphor for God, another way of thinking about God that gives us something we can hold on to. We say God is not only the Father—the Creator—but also the Son—the Redeemer. And we have lots and lots of books that pretend to explain all this in detail, and some very helpful creeds that the church has developed over the years, but the bottom line is this: if we push this beyond its very significant symbolism, we are pretending to understand that which will remain forever a mystery.
To say that Jesus is God’s son is very helpful to me. What that means to me is this: I can never understand the full glory, power and might of God, but I can see a reflection of God in the person we call Jesus. God’s redemptive and healing love was in place from the moment of creation, and we can get a sort of peek at that love when we look at Jesus. Jesus reveals God’s love. Jesus reveals God’s nature. People are welcome to push that metaphor to the limit and claim all sorts of things about what theologians call the ontological nature of Jesus, claiming he was a being of a different sort from you and me. And if you find that helpful, go for it. But I hope you will avoid the trap of telling others they must come to the same philosophical conclusions as you regarding the inherent nature of Jesus. To hold such ideas as a way of strengthening one’s faith is wonderful. To insist others agree with you as a test of faith serves no purpose, other than creating divisions within the church.
The third metaphor for God is God as the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit causes a lot of confusion as a metaphor for God, because it is usually portrayed as a bird. The Holy Spirit is often envisioned as a bird coming down from heaven and hovering over a person’s head, which is a fine image, and a beautiful metaphor, but loses all of its punch if we move beyond the metaphorical into the literal. For one thing, that image made a lot more sense in the ancient world when people thought that heaven was up there, and that any point of contact between heaven and earth would occur through the sky—the area between heaven and earth. The descending bird was a perfect symbol.
Or course, the better theologians, even in the ancient world, understood that God was something more than a bearded fellow beyond the clouds who might occasionally send his loving spirit to us in the form of a bird. The Apostle Paul said that it is in God that we live, and move, and have our being. I don’t think Paul was looking at the clouds to figure out where God was.
But if God is God and human beings are human beings, then where is the point of contact between us? That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. It is the Holy Spirit of God that lives within us, binding us both to God and to one another. And really, the Holy Spirit is a critically important element of our faith because it is our only point of contact with God. When we pray, we may fix ourselves mentally on that amazing power and intelligence that created the universe, and we certainly might want to pray through Jesus Christ, but it is the Holy Spirit that we can actually feel within us. It is the Holy Spirit that gives meaning to our every breath, because it is the part of God that we can touch and that touches us. The Holy Spirit is love.
Which brings us to the whole point of this little walk we have taken through Pentecost and through the idea of the Trinity. I don’t know very much for sure, and the more I learn the more I realize I don’t know. But we all need something on which to anchor our lives, and for me, that anchor—that unshakeable foundation—is the fact that love is the only reason the universe exists. And I’m not talking about romantic love here, although that is certainly a viable form of love. The love I’m talking about is an awed reverence and spiritual embrace of the glory and beauty of life, and the desire to see all God’s creatures, from the greatest to the meekest, revel in the glory of creation.
Only love was powerful enough to call creation into being in the first place, only love can redeem this fallen world, and only love sustains it moment to moment. I really believe that. In fact, that’s about all I really believe for sure.
We can go through life without giving the whole matter much thought, but that would be a terrible waste of time. I once argued that all of life is the search for something worth dying for. Think about it. If we could really find something that we thought was more important than life itself—something that was actually worth dying for—then our lives would be complete. Because we would have an answer for the end of our lives. We would have found something even more ultimate than our life itself.
For me, that ultimate thing is love. I know of nothing other than love that is truly worth dying for. Everything else in the universe is dust, at least in comparison with love. But everyone who has ever truly loved knows that he or she has discovered something even more important than his or her own life. They have found something that is more important than existence itself.
And since we’ve spent a fair portion of this morning talking about metaphors such as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we might as well end with one, perhaps the greatest metaphor known to all of humanity. We are welcome to hammer this metaphor into a rigid doctrine if we want to, and to make all sorts of claims about how important it is to believe it literally with all our hearts. But for now, for now, let’s just listen to the words, and open our hearts to the mystery, to the symbolism, to the metaphor.
Because if God is love; and if love is the only reason the universe exists; and if Jesus is a reflection of God’s love to the point that we can call him God’s son; then what do these words say about God’s attitude toward us?
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
For the person willing to open both heart and mind, that’s the type of metaphor upon which you can build your life.