Benediction Online

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Discerning the Spirit

Acts 2:1-21

As some of you know, for several years I lived in the Findhorn Foundation, a spiritual community in north-east Scotland. The community of Findhorn was formed around the spiritual guidance received by one of its founders, Eileen Caddy. Each morning the community gathered to hear the guidance that Eileen had been given for them that day. Sometimes it was very practical, often it was inspiring and uplifting. Everyone in the community met before breakfast to start each day with meditation and Eileen’s guidance. Until the day came when the guidance was that there would be no more guidance.

Eileen had heard that the time had come for the community to stop being dependent upon her spiritual inspiration and to start getting its own. Which of course created quite a problem – how does a diverse group of people including some very strong-willed individuals, work together without a central leader laying out the vision and setting the pace?

This was a problem for the early church too. The disciples were used to following Jesus and listening to his teaching. Now it was time for them to become teachers. Now it was time for them to learn how to be faith community without a single leader. And so in the gospel reading Jesus reassures them,
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I have said these things to you while I am still with you.
But 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.”

Instead of an external leader, they were to have an intangible, inner Spirit or Advocate – one who would speak for them and who would teach them all things. The focus of their lives was to go from outer to inner; from a physically present Master to an inner listening. When they had had disagreements with one another they had had someone to turn to to adjudicate – now when they had disagreements they were going to have to solve them by a process of listening, discussion and discernment.

It was not as though they suddenly all started to agree because the Spirit was abiding with them. Sometimes it seems as though the Spirit tells different people different things.

Early in the Old Testament there is a myth of the coming of multiple languages. The people are cooperating to build a tower which will reach into the heavens. This is called the tower of Babel. God is threatened by this apparent encroachment upon his territory and so he prevents the completion of the tower by giving the people different languages so they cannot communicate and cooperate easily.

Theologians sometimes see that story as a bookend with today’s reading about the day of Pentecost when suddenly the disciples are speaking many different languages and being understood by people from all over the known world. This new outpouring of the Spirit enables people very different from one another to understand the Gospel. This is a demonstration of the reign of God which is one of cooperation between humans and between God and humanity. But while the tower of Babel myth shows one human language being shattered into many, Pentecost does not extinguish difference. Pentecost doe snto make everyone suddenly and miraculously speak the same language. The Holy Spirit doesn’t bring red and blue together and make everyone think in purple!!

Our unity as Christians comes not through sameness but through a focus on the same goal – brigning the reign of God on earth, and through listening to the same Spirit.  That kind of cooperation is quite different from having an external Teacher who brings us inspiration and guidance that we can all follow. It it is often easier to have an external authority -  throughout history we see examples of charismatic leaders who have gathered large followings for good or ill – but that isn’t our calling.

The Holy Spirit does not operate in the same way with each person or with the Church in each age. We have not experienced her as a roaring wind and tongues of fire. We may experience him in a sense of knowing, in a moment of quiet ecstacy, in an event filled with synchronicity, in the word of a friend. Each one of us will have different ways of hearing, different ways of discerning. Some of us have a strong feeling of the Spirit’s presence; others just trust that God is with them and that God is speaking. There is no one right way.

Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, and the Church was born in diversity. “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs”-- in their own languages they heard them speaking about God's deeds of power. And in their own languages, people from all those places would come to know God through the power of the Holy Spirit. What draws us together with Christians from around the world, with Christians from across the street is that we are all looking to the same place – we all have our eyes on Christ and our ears open to hear the quiet voice of the Spirit.

After Eileen’s guidance stopped being shared with the Findhorn community it developed structures for discerning together. It found ways to make decisions in community rather than waiting to hear the guidance. It found ways to share inspiration, hope and new understandings of Spirit. As each person developed his or her own spiritual understandings through meditation and spiritual reading, so these became part of the communal search for Spirit.

It is the same for us. The Spirit is moving on our midst. Our task is to be attentive to her subtle promptings. Our task is to choose to cooperate. To allow ourselves to be swept up in worship, to allow ourselves to see what God is doing and to be willing to get involved. The Holy Spirit abides with us and the Holy Spirit is patient, waiting for us to choose to know his power in our lives.

The disciples gathered in that house in Jerusalem were expectant. They had been promised. And they had been promised by Jesus, who was a man of his word. So they were ready when the Holy Spirit came. Let us too become expectant. Let us expect to see God answering prayer, God transforming lives, God bringing comfort to the bereaved and freedom to the captive. We increase our level of expectancy every time we report a God-sighting. Every time someone tells me they think maybe the Spirit was at work in their heart or mind, it increases my own sense that God is at work here. Every time someone shares their sense of God it increases my own faith. This is what is important, not what we know or what we have studied, not our belief system or whether we can recite the Nicene Creed without crossing our fingers.

What matters is that together, however different we may be, that we discern ourselves as the Body of Christ and that we discern the presence and movement of God’s Spirit. And then we can welcome the stranger among us as one who may bring us new insights, new words of God’s amazing love and power.

The Spirit is here. The Spirit is with us. May God open our eyes to see her at work and open our lips to share our experience of her presence.


  • Well done Caroline. I am in harmony with your weaving your past experience at Findhorn with what is prompting you now.

    By Blogger Dennis, at 6:37 PM  

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