Many people in this church value the use of language which doesn’t limit our understanding of God. We particularly don’t want to limit God to being male or make it seem as if only men are made in God’s image. Language which attempts to express the divine as beyond the limitations of human sexual differences is known as ‘inclusive language’. Although there are some really good things about using inclusive language – language which includes both masculine and feminine aspects of God – a downside is that we can lose sight of some other, important aspects of God. When we just use the name ‘God’ in order to avoid the Father language it’s easy for us to accidentally forget about the Holy Spirit.
Today I am going to redress that a little by talking almost exclusively about the Holy Spirit. In the reading from John, Jesus says ‘the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.’ But the Holy Spirit was active long before this. Back in the first story of the Creation we are told that the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. In the second Creation story, God breathed into the form he had made and it became alive as the first man. God’s breath and God’s spirit are the same. So, if God’s breath, God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit was present and active in the Creation, how could Jesus tell his disciples that the Father was going to send the Holy Spirit in His name?
In Luke’s account the disciples and the resurrected Jesus were at Bethany when he told them that they were to wait in Jerusalem for the power from on high. A power whom he called the Promise of My Father. Then after he had blessed them he was carried up into heaven. They returned to Jerusalem with great joy and spent time together in prayer and worship. At that point there were about 120 disciples, not just the twelve.
On the day of Pentecost, they were gathered together when the Promise came. The whole house was filled with the sound of a violent wind and it seemed as though flames of fire appeared on their heads. Then they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak other languages. A crowd gathered and was amazed because people from all over the known world heard them speaking in their own language.
One of the readings we could have used this morning was from Genesis, the story of the tower of Babel. In this ancient Hebrew story, the people tried to build a tower tall enough to get them into heaven, but God was not amused. In fact God was alarmed at the possibilities. What might these people achieve if they continued to cooperate together? In order to prevent their attempts to climb into the heavenly court, God confused their language. As a result they scattered across the earth with different groups speaking different languages.
Why would we want to hear that story today?
Because it is like a book-end to the Pentecost experience. At Babel our languages were separated so that we could not become like God. At Pentecost our languages came together again with the gift of the Holy Spirit. And it is the Holy Spirit whom we are told will lead us into all truth… it is the Holy Spirit who enables us to come to God. We don’t have to build a tower to climb into heaven, the Holy Spirit is given so that we may experience the Reign of God.
The Reign of God was actualized by Christ’s life, death and resurrection but it is up to God’s people, the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit to make the Reign of God a reality in the world.
What that actually means is open to debate.
Some people believe that the Reign of God will not be realized until this world has passed away, so the work is to hasten the end of this world. So for them, it is important to fully understand the prophecies of what must take place before the end of the age and work to make those prophecies come to pass.
Others believe that our work is to bring the Reign of God into being in this life. This is the reasoning behind the Episcopal Church adopting the Millennium Development Goals as a mission priority - surely the Reign of God will include enough food, education, clean water and health for everyone. Of course there are critics who think the Reign of God is more spiritual and is about bringing everyone into discipleship. They accuse the church of mistaking the Reign of God as being about people rather than God.
However you understand the Reign of God, there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit was given in a new way as a gift at Pentecost to enable us to live quite differently from before.
So how do we experience the Holy Spirit today?
Those who belong to Pentecostal churches or charismatic groups have a specific understanding of the gift of the Holy Spirit as being a second blessing in the life of the believer. The first blessing is the experience of salvation through Jesus and the second blessing is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Spirit is usually evidenced by speaking in tongues or by one of the other charismas or gifts of the Spirit. There is evidence of this second blessing in the New Testament, but it was not consistent. There is no one-size-fits-all experience of the Holy Spirit. To expect the Spirit to always work in the same way with everyone would be to limit God.
While I critique some of our sisters and brothers for limiting the Holy Spirit by expecting her to act in specific, predictable ways, I suspect that we are guilty of an equal failing. That of not expecting. Of not expecting the Holy Spirit. Period.
The disciples didn’t know what to expect. They were promised a helper, one who would lead them into truth; a comforter, one who would strengthen them. Jesus said ‘I will not leave you orphans’ so the Holy Spirit would be close to them in the way Jesus had been. Remembering the prophecy of Joel, they may have expected to dream dreams and to see visions but I doubt that any one of them expected the sound of wind and the tongues of fire.
We don’t know what to expect. Should we expect to speak in tongues? Should we expect to see visions? to hear a rushing wind or see flames of fire?
We don’t know. But we can wait in expectancy. We can pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us, or as Joel says, to be poured out upon us. That’s such a rich image isn’t it, of the Spirit of God being poured out upon us so that we are full, drenched, dripping, laughing, dancing in the Spirit?
It is my deepest longing that this church will be filled with the Holy Spirit. That God’s Spirit might be palpable here. That each one of us might be enabled to pray and worship as never before. That we might be enlivened, transformed, healed, filled to overflowing with God.
It doesn’t matter whether we speak in tongues or have the gift of healing. It doesn’t matter whether we dream dreams or see visions. What matters is that we allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us in powerful, unexpected ways. Then we will know how to work for the Reign of God in this place, in this community, among our friends and family, among strangers and enemies. Then we will be shaken to our very core by divine love.
That is what it is all about. Our yearning is to know God. Our yearning is to be filled with God’s Spirit and to be centers of healing not only for ourselves but for all those around us. Our yearning is for this building to be filled with God so that all who come here are deeply touched by the Spirit.
We have the yearning. We have the promise. Now let us expect God to move in our midst in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.