It was an ordinary Thursday afternoon as I began my commute home from seminary in Delaware, Ohio. The weather wasn’t great; I expected to drive through rain and thunderstorms most of the way. That wasn’t unusual; I’d driven through bad weather before. I’d already driven through several storms by the time I approached the ramp onto I-75 in Findlay. The rain had stopped, though the clouds were still pretty dark. Even so, the sun had begun to send some dramatic rays of light earthward.
Just as I approached the ramp, a rainbow appeared. It was clear and beautiful, and it felt like a blessing. But it was nothing compared to what I witnessed a few miles up the road—something I’d never experienced before or since. As I drove northward, I was suddenly surrounded by something like a golden, sparkling light. But, it wasn’t light exactly; it was more like a twinkling fog. But it wasn’t exactly like fog either; it was more like a cloud of golden glitter.
I felt as though I had driven right into the yellow band of the rainbow. I admit I slowed down, right there on the interstate. I even thought about pulling over and stopping, because I wanted to remain inside that beauty for as long as I could. And I wasn’t alone. Other drivers slowed down, too (and not just because I was in their way). Clearly, they were experiencing the same thing. It was one of the most beautiful and amazing things I’ve ever witnessed in my life.
But, I’m willing to bet that, as you sit there listening to my description, you haven’t really been able to get a sense of what I saw that day on the freeway. Because, I don’t have words to adequately describe it. All I can say is that it was “like” this or it “seemed like” that. It was an experience so out of the ordinary, that ordinary language just isn’t up to the task of describing it.
Luke seems to have the same problem describing the events of Pentecost, as he tells the story in Acts. 120 believers had gathered together in Jerusalem, waiting as Jesus had instructed. They prayed together. They voted Matthias in as an apostle to replace Judas. the Day of Pentecost arrived, and that’s when the promise they were awaiting was fulfilled. The presence of the Holy Spirit was made known and, in a noisy and rambunctious act of creation, bound the believers together as one Body. The Church was born.
The eyewitnesses of the Pentecost event, whose testimony Luke recorded, apparently couldn’t fully describe what it was like to experience the presence and activity of the Spirit that morning. All Luke has to work with are metaphors and similes. “Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” He says, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and rested on each head.” It was an indescribable experience—one that couldn’t easily be summed up or nailed down.
God came to us in the visible, describable, human flesh of Jesus. But, when Jesus left his earthly ministry, he sent the invisible in his place. How, then, do we describe the presence of the Spirit in our lives—this being sent as the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise? We put on our detective hats, and we begin to search the Scriptures for the words that we need.
It’s important to remember that Pentecost isn’t the Spirit’s first appearance. As a person of the Trinity, the Spirit is eternal. So, the Spirit’s fingerprints are all over the Biblical story, from the beginning of Genesis to the closing verses of the Revelation. As we search the Scriptures, we find many ways to describe how the Spirit is involved in the life of individuals, in the life of the Church, and in all of creation.
I’ve recently been listening to a podcast by some preachers and seminary faculty who discuss the lectionary passages for each Sunday. In the episode for today, they spoke of the many roles that the Spirit plays in the world. Their conclusion was that preachers should pick one and focus on that. Usually I’m pretty much on the same page as the podcasters. But, not this week.
Instead of focusing on one of the many ways the nature and work of the Holy Spirit are described, I think we should become familiar with a variety of them. Because, Jesus sent the Spirit to accompany us in our daily lives, both individually and as the Church. Our lives and our needs vary from day to day. In the past few months of the pandemic (can you believe it’s been months?), we’ve found our lives changing from hour to hour. The Spirit, as our constant companion, walks with us in all those moments, offering us what we need, when we need it.
It’s kind of like the experience of children with their parents. Depending on their developmental stage and what’s happening around them, children may need a teacher or a nurse, a protector, a disciplinarian, or a playmate. So it is with us and the Holy Spirit.
The first two verses of Genesis read, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” From the very beginning, and before the beginning, the Spirit is present. The same Spirit who was the agent of Jesus’ conception is also an agent in the creation of the world.
The Hebrew word that is translated as “Spirit” in the New International Version is the word ruach. Here it means the animating life-force that fuels thought and emotion. But it also means “wind” and “breath.” The same is true when we get to the Greek of the New Testament. The Greek word for Spirit is pneuma—like pneumonia and pneumatic. But the meanings are the same—wind, life-force, breath.
What did you picture when I read the verse a minute ago: “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”? What do you see and feel? How would you describe the Spirit here? I sense a presence who is keeping watch, offering tender protection. When life seems chaotic and out of control, we can feel the Spirit hovering over us, protecting us. We may feel tossed about on the choppy waves of our lives, but the Spirit of God—God’s love and care for us—hovers over us.
Listen to the way the New Revised Standard Version reads: “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” How does this change your perception of the Spirit’s nature? I picture the ocean on a dark, stormy night, where you can feel and hear the wind whipping up the waves. Its power feels mysterious and a little threatening.
This is how the Spirit works in us when we begin to sense that something is changing in our lives and our hearts. Something is being formed in us—some new awareness of an injustice that needs to be rectified, a long-held attitude that just doesn’t seem to fit anymore and needs revision, a conviction that we are being called to a new level of commitment to God’s kingdom. When the Spirit is present to us as a wind from God, things may feel stormy. Things may feel unsettled as the Spirit blows through our lives until what is formless takes shape and something new is brought into being.
Here’s a third version: “the breath of God swept over the face of the waters.” When Peyton was little, she’d sit on my lap and lean her head way back so that I could blow gently on her neck under her chin. She would laugh and laugh each time she felt my breath on her skin. That’s what I think of when I picture God breathing over the infant world—a mother breathing over her beloved child.
The breath of God sustains our lives—both spiritual and physical. Without it, our lives come to an end. As I hear the stories of people who have survived COVID describing their struggles to breathe, I think of the air pumped into their lungs by a ventilator—breath that makes life possible. I think of how our breathing in song and in prayer is so powerful that it can potentially cause illness in others. I think of how the current administration’s rollback of clean air standards is expected to cause hundreds of thousands more gasp-inducing asthma attacks in the future. I think of the tragic consequences when breathing is made impossible by senseless human action. When we compare the Spirit to the breath that sustains our lives, we need the living, breathing Spirit of God to move us to preserve and defend the ability and the right of every person to breathe.
Isaiah gives more insight into the nature of the Spirit. Speaking of the promised Messiah, Isaiah says this: “The spirit—the ruach—of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The Spirit brings all these resources to those whose hearts are open to the Spirit’s presence. When we are confused and don’t know which path to take, when we wrestle with difficult questions and nagging doubts, when we feel alone and weak, there is the Spirit, with the wisdom and understanding and strength we need to order our lives.
The Spirit is not a tamed house pet. We learn that from Jesus himself in his conversation with Nicodemus about being born of the Spirit. “The wind—the pneuma—blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit—the pneuma,” Jesus says. Once we give ourselves over to the movement of the Spirit in our lives, we may be in for a wild ride—one we can’t control and whose destination we can’t anticipate, but one which will bring us closer to God and to the people God desires us to be.
It’s in the Gospel of John where we learn the true extent of the gift of the Spirit. Anticipating the day when he’ll leave his earthly ministry behind, Jesus comforts his disciples with a promise—the promise that his Father will send another Advocate. Jesus himself was the first. The second, who will come when Jesus returns to his Father, will be the Holy Spirit. This other Advocate will continue to do all that Jesus has done in the lives of his disciples—teach and remind, comfort and encourage, strengthen and embolden. This advocate will be with them forever.
On Easter Day, according to John, when perhaps the disciples most needed those gifts, Jesus appeared in the room behind locked doors and made good on his promise. Just as the Spirit was breathed over the earth at creation, Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Receive the breath of truth and wisdom. Receive the breath of life.”
Fifty days later, on Pentecost, the same God-breathed Spirit filled another room full of eagerly-waiting followers of Jesus. As when the Spirit-Wind blew over the face of the water at the dawn of creation, the Spirit appeared in the role of Creator. Jesus’ followers were bound together into a new creation—Christ’s body in the world, the Church.
The Spirit would enable the Church to carry on Christ’s mission in the world—his mission to bring good news to the poor. The Spirit would continue to reveal the truth of God’s kingdom to the Church, so that the Church would, in turn, open the eyes of those who are blind to God’s compassion, blind to God’s redemption, blind to God’s justice. The Spirit would open the mouth of the Church to proclaim freedom to those imprisoned by the world’s prejudices and who are held down by those more powerful than they. The Spirit would empower the Church to announce the gift of God’s favor—the invitation to repent, to believe in the good news of Jesus Christ, and be saved.
And so the Church would. The Book of Acts recounts the stories of how and where those early believers—bound to each other as the Church—would spread the Good News throughout the world. Paul’s letters describe the life that is made possible by the presence of Holy Spirit in the lives of believers: How the Spirit gives gifts to the Church to build it up. How the Spirit confirms us in the knowledge that we are free from the power of sin and the fear of death. How the Spirit makes it possible for a motley crew of individuals to be bound together as one Body. How, when words fail us in prayer, the Spirit prays with the sighs that express our deepest fears and longings.
The work of the Church that was born at Pentecost isn’t finished. The Spirit-led work of building God’s kingdom continues through us. We are bound together by the same Spirit that blew through that room in Jerusalem. We have the same resources that the Spirit showered on the early Church. And, we have the same assurance that the Spirit—the Advocate, the Comforter, the Teacher—continues to be with us and will be with us forever.
It’s funny. Our “western church”—the part of the Church that has its roots in Rome rather than in the eastern traditions of Alexandria and Antioch—seems hesitant to talk about the Spirit much. Maybe it’s because we’re focused on facts and clear reasoning, and a description of the Spirit is hard to nail down. It’s hard to describe the Spirit in a few concise, easily understandable words. It’s hard to describe our own experience of the Holy Spirit—how the Spirit works in us and how we feel the Spirit’s presence.
But, I encourage you to try. Scripture gives us a rich menu of possibilities. Even if you can only come up with metaphors and similes, tell others how the Spirit has worked and is working in your life. Tell others how the Spirit testifies to your spirit that you are a beloved child of God. Describe your own experience of the Spirit, so that others will long to feel that wind, breathe in that breath, and live in the joy and power of the nearly indescribable Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young