The Holy Spirit – wild and exuberant or quiet and restrained?

Pentecost – 2014

Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13, John 20:19-23

Marian Free

In the name of God whose holy Spirit energises, enlivens and empowers us. Amen.

 

We have a feast of readings today. They reveal, among other things, a variety of ways in which we can think about the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. Of course, there are other readings that would shed a still further light on the subject and give us an even wider perspective. Today however, let’s just look at those we have heard this morning – Acts, John and 1 Corinthians. The first two provide us with two different accounts of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples whereas the letter to the Corinthians gives us a glimpse into how the Spirit was experienced by at least one early community.

The descriptions in Acts and in John are so different that we could be excused from thinking that they were accounts of different events. In Acts the Spirit is explosive, uncontrollable, empowering and life changing. The Spirit appears out of nowhere and yet is visibly and audibly present to the disciples in the violent wind and tongues of fire. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would give the disciples power that would enable them to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, still I imagine that the actual event took them by surprise. Whether it did or not the effect was immediate – without warning and without years of study – the disciples discovered that they could speak in the variety of languages represented in a cosmopolitan Jerusalem. As a consequence of their newly acquired skill 3000 people joined the believers on that day.

In contrast to the very dramatic and public event described by Luke, is the report in John’s gospel. Here the coming (or the giving of the Spirit) is quiet, discrete, peaceful and controlled. In Acts, the disciples are depicted as a confident community – they meet together to pray and sing. They have just elected someone to replace Judas which suggests some sort of leadership structure. This more settled situation may reflect the fact that in Luke’s account the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples at least forty days after the resurrection. They have had time to get used to Jesus’ risen presence and to think about the future. John’s version however, takes place on the very same day that Jesus rose from the dead.The disciples have heard the reports of the empty tomb, but they are yet to see Jesus for themselves. They are frightened and disorganized and have no apparent plan. Into this fear filled situation Jesus (not the Spirit) quietly appears. He offers them peace and breathes his Spirit on them. There is no wind or fire, just the gentle breath of the risen Christ. The event is private and personal and the consequences subtle and indeterminate. Instead of being given the ability to speak in difference tongues, John’s disciples are empowered to forgive or to retain sins. No converts are added to John’s community on that day, but the disciples have been armed with an important tool for the formation and building of a community of faith – the forgiveness of sins. The giving of the Spirit and Jesus’ resurrection appearance occur concurrently. Frightened disciples are not only assured of Jesus’ victory over death, but are powerfully reminded that, as promised, Jesus will not leave them alone.

Finally (for today) the reading from Corinthians provides us with an insight into the experience of the Spirit in one particular situation – the community in Corinth. Here the work of the Spirit does not equip the recipients for mission. Rather the Spirit endows members of the community with the gifts that will enable them to play a variety of roles within that community – the use of unintelligible language to worship God and to prophesy, the ability to utter wisdom and knowledge or to work miracles and heal. If we read further, we discover that the Spirit also empowers those who teach, lead and administer. In this fledgling community the Spirit seems to be inwardly focused rather than outwardly directed. The Spirit gives to members of the community different skills and these are to be used within the community for the building up of the church. As in Acts, the impression here is that the Spirit is exuberant and unable to be contained and that it leads it recipients to behave in ways that they would not otherwise behave.

What are we to take from all this? It seems clear that we will be able to build a coherent or accurate historical picture of the sending/receiving of the Spirit or that from today’s readings we will be able to neatly sum up the way that the Spirit is manifested in the communities that made up the early church. What we can do is to use all the information that we have to hand to help us to understand and to interpret our own experience. In so doing, it will be important for us to hold together the various biblical accounts and to allow each to inform the other, to recognise that just as the first Christian communities experienced the Spirit in different ways, so too, our experiences may differ one from the other. For some the presence of the Spirit might be wild and unrestrained and for others it might be understated and contained. Some of us will be gifted with the more extraordinary gifts and others will have to be content with those that seem to be less glamorous.

As we try to interpret our experience and to recognise our gifts it is important that we heed Paul’s caution and understand that the Spirit is of God and cannot be used or manipulated for our own ends, nor should the Spirit provide us with a means to compare ourselves favourably with others. The Holy Spirit is not something that we own or control, but a gift from God – the presence of God with and in us that prods us to take risks, that reveals skills that we did not know that we had, that gives us courage in the face of persecution, provides us with wisdom and understanding and opens us to new things, new teaching and new experiences and helps us to build and sustain Christian communities.

As we seek to recreate and renew the church both here and elsewhere, let us be alert to the Spirit in and among us, open to the Spirit’s leading and willing to be led into whatever future the Spirit has in store for us.

 

 

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


%d bloggers like this: