Pentecost – the commemoration of the coming of God’s Holy Spirit among Christ’s followers – is one of the high holidays on the Christian calendar. But it doesn’t have the same significance to believers as Christmas or Easter – I mean, just look around you. We don’t draw the same crowds as on other high holy days.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that God’s Holy Spirit is a quite difficult concept to grasp. What is the Holy Spirit? Even the Bible gives only vague descriptions of the Spirit: in Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends on him like a dove, and in the Pentecost story, there is mention of wind and tongues of fire – but the Spirit remains a rather abstract power and hard to define.
The way God’s Spirit is experienced is usually through the effects the Spirit has on the one who receives it. In the creation story, the Spirit brings about life. Political and military leaders in the Old Testament receive either supernatural powers or a brilliant strategic mind or perseverance – and sometimes all of the above. Prophets see divine visions. Mary, mother of Jesus, becomes pregnant. Galileans speak in all kinds of languages about the love of God as experienced in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul speaks of all different kinds of gifts of the Spirit, from serving to hospitality to preaching and teaching and speaking in tongues and charity – and, by the way, all gifts are equal, since all are needed for life in community. These are the effects of the Spirit which can be experienced, even though the Spirit itself remains elusive. And these effects create community in Christ – and beyond.
The famous Pentecost story from the Book of Acts is about God’s Holy Spirit creating community: on Pentecost Day and thereafter the Holy Spirit brings people together, people who formerly were divided by language, ethnicity, gender, social norms and social and economic status. What is so fascinating about the early Christian community is that it, very quickly, transcended all differences, starting on Pentecost Day; through missionaries like Paul, soon there would be Christian communities throughout the entire Roman Empire, from the Middle East to Southern Europe to Northern Africa – and beyond. The Spirit moves people out of their comfort zones and into rather adventurous and maybe even unsettling places of practiced love and mutual respect.
In the beginning, these followers of Christ took to heart what Jesus had taught: to love friend and enemy and live with all people in peace. There’s a reason why so many Christians were martyred – killed for their faith – in those first centuries, before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire: they followed the non-violent example of their master to the end. They didn’t fight back. But their dedication to peace and a God of peace and love was threatening to the powers that only knew force as a way of welding power. The famous ‘Pax Romana’, the Roman peace, came at the price of brutal suppression of anything that stood in the way of Roman ideas and domination. Christ’s rule signified – and still signifies – a new kind of rule.
All this is an effect of the work and – at times quite subtle – power of the Holy Spirit. A power of peace, a power that brings people together around the common goal of God’s peaceable kingdom. The Spirit has the power to transform communities and the world, not through force, but through love.
And I think it’s interesting to look at today’s passage from the Gospel of John in this light. Here Jesus speaks about the advocate, the Spirit of truth that is to come after his death and resurrection and give the disciples guidance. Truth.
‘What is truth?’, Pontius Pilate asks Jesus according to the gospel of John as he interrogates him. And in our day and age of partisan politics, selective reporting, pundits, and the internet and other media with its plethora of information and misinformation, in a world where ‘alternative facts’ have become an excuse to ignore what’s obvious an insist on one’s misguided ways, we may ask the same question: what, in the world – what, in the name of God – is truth?
Truth is an important concept in the gospel according to John. Here Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ When Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit being a Spirit of Truth, he doesn’t just talk about facts or laws, something that is concrete and set in stone, something you can recite in order to convince others. Truth is connected to the life and work of Jesus Christ; it is in that Spirit that we are called to serve one another and the world in love. Truth bears the fruits of love. Truth is experienced in the fruits of love.
The Greek word that is used here for truth, ‘aletheia’, is multi-faceted: it means truthfulness, authenticity, dependability, and uprightness in thought and deed – integrity. The truth has to be lived through us, and like anything that is lived, like anything that is alive, it is flexible and fluid with lots of room to grow. How we live out this truth may be as varied as the gifts of the Spirit – but at the core of it is Jesus Christ, whose mission in this world was and is to bring the kingdom of God’s love and peace and justice near. And love and peace and justice can only thrive when we live in communion and community with one another; when we respect one another. When we love one another, even though this love may be hard and difficult at times.
Now we’ve come a long way from the days of the first followers of Christ. We don’t have unity, not even within the church. And we live in a world in which we see all kinds of spirits at work: spirits that bring people together for a certain purpose or around a common specific goal, but usually in opposition, and sometimes passionate and even violent opposition, to some other group with different views and values – or even worse, we dehumanize them. These are not spirits that unite people in love and help them overcome differences, these are spirits that fan the flames of fear, ignorance, disdain and hatred.
We see these spirits rear their ugly heads in places like the Middle East – will there ever be peace in the Holy Land? But it’s not only people far away in other and historically conflicted parts of the world – one just has to take a look at what’s going on in this country: we are polarized over many issues. Again this past week, 10 lives were lost and countless more people hurt – physically, emotionally, and psychologically – in yet another act of senseless gun violence. This country is divided over the question what’s more valuable and important: unrestricted gun rights or the life of its very own children.
And there is division over many more issues. We live in a time of constant indignation. Most if not all of us are unhappy with something or someone or a certain group of people we tend to paint as a uniform mass of opponents. We are possessed by spirits who tempt us to think that of course we know what’s going on, we got the facts, we got the truth – and we become inflexible and unable to be in communion, in community, with the ones we disagree with.
It has been proven over and over that, even though you might be right and have all the evidence, you won’t be able to convince someone who’s made up their mind about a certain thing. What might move someone to change their opinion, their mind about something is – relationship. Once we engage with folks who have a different view of things, once we acknowledge them as human beings worthy of respect, once we overcome our image of someone as being ‘other’ or even an opponent, there is a chance to bridge the gap that divides us (and I say ‘a chance’, because I’m not naïve enough to believe that relationships can overcome any divide). If everyone just insists on their ways without seeking middle ground, nothing gets done or done right, and the community suffers – and especially the ones who are the most vulnerable already. And we are moving farther and farther away from the kind of community God envisions for us and for all, a reign of peace and justice for all.
So as we pray today for God’s Holy Spirit to come and fill us, let us pray – not for some ecstatic experience that somehow removes us from this world – but for God’s Spirit of truth to enter our lives and make us truthful, dependable, and upright in word AND deed as we live IN this world. May our prayer be that God’s Holy Spirit is experienced in how we live. May our prayer be that the truth – Christ – shines through in all we say and do – Christ, who came to reconcile; Christ, who came to overcome divisions between people; Christ, who advocated for the most vulnerable in society; Christ, who came to love; Christ, whose Spirit on Pentecost Day created a community where previously there was none, out of many languages and ethnic groups and cultures and classes, out of men and women, and whose Spirit has the same power to work the very same today – if we only allow it.
We may need God’s Spirit of truth that bears the fruits of love more than ever. And so may our prayer be: come, HOLY Spirit, come. Amen
Picture by Benny Jackson via unsplash.com
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