Posts Tagged ‘breath’

Wholly and unreservedly

June 3, 2017

Pentecost – 2017

John 20:19-23

Marian Free

In the name of God who enlivens and empowers us to do God’s will on the earth. Amen.

The third person of the Trinity is, in all but Pentecostal circles, the most neglected of the three. For a start, out of 52 Sundays each year we only dedicate one to the Holy Spirit. The Apostle’s Creed mentions the Holy Spirit only by name. The Nicean Creed describes the Holy Spirit in more detail, but both creeds include the Spirit with belief in the church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body. It hardly seems respectful, but it does illustrate the fact that the church as a whole becomes lost for words when trying to describe and express faith in something as indescribable as the Holy Spirit. God’s creative energy and power are visible in creation. Jesus lived and breathed as a human being, but the Spirit is elusive, vague and impossible to pin down or to define.

In the New Testament the Spirit is described both as breath and as fire or violent wind. At Jesus’ baptism the spirit appears as a dove. In Corinth the Spirit was discerned in the ways in which members of the community were gifted to speak in tongues, to prophesy or to teach. According to Galatians observers will recognize the Spirit through our love, gentleness, patience and long-suffering. Apparently the Holy Spirit can be wild and unsettling or tame and enabling.

In the church’s calendar we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (the Jewish Festival of Booths) fifty days after the Passover, or in our case fifty days after Easter. The scene for such remembrance is one with which we are very familiar – the rush of wind and the tongues of fire; God’s dramatic bestowal of the Spirit from heaven.

According to John’s gospel however, the conferring of the Spirit on the disciples is very different. The Spirit is given directly to the disciples by Jesus. It is not conferred remotely, dramatically or colourfully nor is accompanied by signs such as being able to speak in a multitude of languages. In John’s gospel the bestowing of the Spirit is, as you might expect, intimate and intensely personal, indicative of the union between Jesus and the disciples that has been the theme of our readings over the past few weeks. The giving of the Spirit brings to a conclusion Jesus’ mission and it brings to fulfillment the promises Jesus has made to the disciples almost since the beginning of his ministry.

Jesus has made numerous references to the Spirit. When he visits Jesus at night Nicodemus is told that he must be born of water and the Spirit. In the same chapter readers are told that the one whom God has sent – Jesus – will give the Spirit without measure. In the alternate gospel reading for today (Chapter 7) we read that those who believe in Jesus will receive the Spirit which will be like streams of water flowing out of the believer’s heart. At his final meal with the disciples, Jesus promises that the disciples will not be left orphaned by his going, because he will send “another Advocate” – the Spirit of truth who will continue to teach them and will remind them of everything that Jesus has said to them.

Jesus’ guarantees the Spirit as a quiet assurance that the presence of God that they have known through Jesus will not abandon them even when Jesus is not physically with them. He promises the disciples that the intimacy that they have shared with him will continue through the presence of Holy Spirit.

John’s time frame is quite different from that of the author of Luke/Acts. Whereas Luke divides the events after Jesus’ death into the resurrection (three days later), the Ascension (forty days later) and the coming of the Spirit (fifty days later), the author of John records the giving of the Spirit on the same day as the resurrection.

John provides us with a much more personal account of the conferring of the Spirit. There is no rushing wind, no tongues of fire and no terrifying, awe-inspiring visitation from heaven. Admittedly Jesus appears out of nowhere but having given the disciples proof that it is he, Jesus simply breathes on the disciples transferring his Spirit to them. In so doing Jesus is extinguishing everything that had made them distinct or separate from him. From this moment on their union with Jesus is complete. The role that God gave him to perform, Jesus now gives to them. As the Father sent him, so now he sends the disciples. Jesus does more than hand over the baton. He empowers the disciples to do everything that he has done (and more) (14:12).

These are the same disciples who fled when Jesus was arrested, denied him three times and abandoned him to face the cross alone. Weak, faithless and frightened, these are the people whom Jesus commissions to take his place. That the Spirit empowers them to rise to the challenge is demonstrated by the fact that despite being few in number, uneducated and unknown they were sufficiently effective that, two thousand years later we are here affirming the faith that they proclaimed.

Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives himself wholly and unreservedly to us – entrusting us to be the presence of God in the world. Jesus unites himself to us so completely that there should be no distinction between the Holy Spirit and ourselves. If there is any separation between us it is not because Jesus distances himself from us, but because we distance ourselves from him.

Jesus gives himself wholly and without reserve to us. What is it that prevents our giving ourselves completely and wholeheartedly to him?

If the Holy Spirit could inspire and enliven such a rag-tag group of people who had no resources, no education and no influence or power, imagine what the Holy Spirit could do with us!




The Trinity and Paul – some thoughts

May 30, 2015

Trinity Sunday – 2015

Romans 8

Marian Free

In the name of God who created us, died for us and enlivens us. Amen.

The Apostle Paul gets a lot of bad press. From the time the author of 2 Peter wrote: “There are some things in them (Paul’s letters) hard to understand”, there have been those who accuse Paul of being difficult, culture bound and chauvinistic. As a Pauline scholar I would of course, contest all such negative comments and claim them to be misrepresentations at worst and misinterpretations at best by those who have not taken the time to study and understand the genius that is Paul[1].

I am not saying that the letters of Paul are immediately transparent, or that there are not some parts that require a certain amount of effort to understand, but I would claim that what Paul has to say is absolutely essential for our understanding of the gospel and that he says it in a way that is quite masterful and compelling.

One of the difficulties that we face when we read either Paul’s letters or the gospels is that they were written in the first century for a first century Mediterranean audience. The letters are even more specific. Paul was not writing for our edification. In fact I think that he had no more idea of his letters being turning into Holy Scripture than we would imagine that our assignments in theology would one day be accepted into the canon.

Paul was writing to specific situations that had arisen in communities that had come to faith as a result of his teaching or, as is the case with Romans, a community that he wished to visit. His intention was not to write theology but to set the recipients straight on matters of faith or behaviour. The communities to whom he wrote consisted by and large of people who had had no grounding in the Jewish faith and who therefore had considerable catching up to do in order to begin to understand the gospel.

What I find remarkable is, that in this context and within twenty years of Jesus’ death, Paul – who never met the earthly Jesus – was able to distil the significance of Jesus’ life and teaching and to give them a meaning that continues to inform us today. The gospels give us the story of Jesus (albeit with interpretation). Paul, writing considerably earlier, tells us what it all means. In so doing he foreshadows ideas which later scholars turned into theology and into doctrine.

Take the notion of the Trinity for example. Over the centuries much ink has been spilt in trying to elucidate the nature of God and what it means for God to be both one and three. Paul simply assumes a Trinitarian God – Creator, Son and Spirit. This is particularly evident in Romans 8:9-11. “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” Paul is making an argument about life in the Spirit, but in order to do so he also speaks of God and Christ as if they were all one God.

In verse 9 Paul speaks of “being in the Spirit” because the “Spirit of God dwells in you” and adds “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. He goes on to say “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you”, “the Spirit dwells in you.” The Spirit incorporates believers into the life of Christ that in turn incorporates them into the union between Christ and God. It seems that it is perfectly natural for Paul to think of God as the one who raised Jesus from the dead, as Jesus and as Spirit and that as a result he is able to use the expressions interchangeably.

The notion of God being known as God, as Spirit and as Word is not new to Paul. Genesis 1 introduces the Spirit in the form of ruah or breath and in Ezekiel (37:5) it is God’s ruah (breath) that brings life to the dry bones. The same Spirit animates Ezekiel, transports him to the valley of bones and will give life to the people of Israel. (This is not dissimilar to Paul’s idea that it is the Spirit that gives life to the believer (Rom 8:11)). Proverbs introduces Wisdom (sophia or logos) as co-creator with God. So in the Judeo-Christian from the beginning of creation there has been an implicit notion of the complex nature of the One God.

It would be the Incarnation that would give this idea flesh both literally and figuratively. God in human form proved much more challenging than the less concrete ideas of God as breath and wisdom. How could Jesus be both human and God? How could Jesus be pre-existent? Where did the Spirit fit in all this? It would take the church close to four hundred years to express the idea of the Trinity in theological and doctrinal terms that were universally accepted[2] and many more centuries for scholars to continue to explore and name what it means for God to be both one and three and how to express this without diminishing one of the persons of the Trinity.

For Paul and the early church the nature of God was not something to be intellectualized or argued. It seems to have been taken for granted that God could be known as Father, Son and Spirit, the one who sent Jesus, the one sent (Jesus) and the one whom Jesus sent (Spirit), the one who raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus who was raised from the dead and the Spirit.

Instead of worrying about how the Trinity works and which analogies are heretical or not, let us take a page out of Paul’s book and assert that God simply is – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[1] When I speak of Paul’s letters I refer to the seven letters that are considered genuinely Pauline – Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon.

[2] Some would claim imposed was a better word.

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

June 7, 2014

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.



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