Scripture Reading: Matthew 28:16-20
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Summer sermons based on topics requested by the congregation
The Holy Spirit has been described as “the most neglected doctrine of the Christian faith.” [A Handbook of Christian Theology, Arthur Cohen and Marvin Halverson, eds. p.170] I had never thought about it that way. But I realized that I would probably find it a lot easier to talk about the doctrine of God, or doctrine around Jesus as Christ, or doctrine around the Trinity as a whole, than just the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. So, I consider myself guilty of just such neglect. Then, I wondered, why? And, I can only speak for myself, but here I will make my disclaimer and declare my prejudice. I think of people who do a lot of talking about the Holy Spirit as people who do not place as much value on reason and logic as I do. I associate heavy reliance on the Holy Spirit with anti intellectualism. Like the case of Alani, a child in Brazil. Her father became convinced that she had healing powers, and when she was just 51 days old, he placed her infant hand on the distended stomach of a woman, and claims that it immediately deflated. That, apparently, was her first healing. [The Christian Century, 7/8/15] That’s the kind of story I associate with people who are obsessed with the Holy Spirit. This is my bias having grown up in a setting that was very religious but also very intellectual. So, now you know my prejudice in this discussion.
I will also admit that having done more investigating into the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, I continue to have reservations about giving this doctrine more attention.
We first meet what later becomes referred to as the Holy Spirit right up front at the beginning of the Bible. The word for Spirit is also used for breath and wind. At the beginning of Genesis, the Spirit of the creator God is portrayed brooding over the waters of creation. Later references to the Spirit as Wisdom, Sophia, are also connected with creation. So the Holy Spirit is associated with the Spirit of Yahweh present at creation, the life force, animating the clay of the earth; breathing life into creation. The Spirit is also the life force that reanimates the dry bones in the vision of the prophet Ezekiel. So the Holy Spirit is associated with the life force.
In the Hebrew Bible, there continue to be references to the Spirit of Yahweh. It is the power and presence of the preeminent God of the Jews. The Spirit leads the people. It teaches them. And it causes people to do things that carry out God’s will in the world. Things that are bold, unpredictable, and perhaps superhuman. Here’s an example involving Samson, of Samson and Delilah, from the book of Judges: “Then Samson went down with this father and mother to Timnah. When he came to the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion roared at him. The spirit of God rushed on him, and he tore the lion apart barehanded as one might tear apart a young goat. . . .” [Judges 14:5-6] That’s the kind of thing the Spirit of Yahweh is famous for.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit is also associated with anointing for a particular role or office. Kings and priests are thought to be blessed with the Spirit of God. Prophets are also considered to be Spirit-driven, called by God, and the mouthpiece of God to the wider society, particularly speaking truth to power. These prophets challenged the authority of kings and rulers calling them to account on behalf of God. These prophets were power disrupters and were put in a dangerous situation. Many were killed for being the voice of God. In Micah, the prophet tells us, “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of God, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.” [Micah 3:8]
As we mentioned, the Spirit is personified in the Hebrew scriptures, in the figure of Wisdom, Sophia, featured in the book of Proverbs. Wisdom is associated with the process of the creation of the universe. She stands on the street corner, teaching the people. She functions as a prophet, calling the people to the right path. With a feminine figure associated with the Spirit of God, there are both male and female aspects to God. God is presented in a way that would have fit into a cultural setting of polytheism with many female divinities. An early Christian presentation of the Trinity featured God, the logos (the word expressed in Jesus Christ), and Sophia (the female wisdom figure). So the portrayal of Spirit in the Hebrew tradition is rich and varied with a strong feminine aspect.
In the Hebrew Bible, we see the Spirit as a powerful force in the world, working in people and situations to see that the will of God is done. It is the life force. It teaches people and leads people and empowers people. It is a force for justice. It may put people into a trance or an ecstatic state. It may cause people to dance, sing, and praise. It is associated with bold, unpredictable, happenings. So the Spirit of God was not just something active in the world, in creation, but it is also active and present in the lives of people, influencing their behaviors.
In the New Testament, we see this happen most fully in the life of Jesus. We think of Jesus as the model of a life that expresses the full indwelling of the Spirit of God. This idea begins with the story of the annunciation of Mary, when she is told that she will give birth to a child and this will come to pass as the work of the Holy Spirit. God is making something happen in this child that is to be born. So, even before he is born, we are told that Jesus’ life will be intimately connected with the Spirit of God. This is affirmed by the Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, and John the Baptizer, who, filled with the Holy Spirit, confirm the identity of Jesus as the bringer of God’s salvation to the world.
We see the Spirit again in Jesus’ life in the story of his baptism. We are told that the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove at his baptism. The dove was a symbol for the goddess of love, Aphrodite, and the bird was a common image for female deities in Near Eastern religions. [See She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth A. Johnson] Like a ruler or person with authority, Jesus receives the Spirit. Like a prophet, Jesus is given the Spirit to be a mouthpiece for God. And the Spirit immediately drives him out into the wilderness to be confronted with evil and to be tempered and prepared for his ministry.
This prophetic image of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, is vivid in the story in the gospel of Luke of Jesus going to his hometown synagogue and reading the lesson for the day from the prophet Isaiah: “The spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s favor.” [Luke 4:18-19] In the ministry of Jesus, it is by the Spirit that demons are cast out, and people are delivered from sin and death. Sometimes in scripture, we see the Spirit take possession of people for a limited time. But in Jesus, we see the full, ongoing indwelling of God’s Spirit.
Then we have the stories in the New Testament that tell of the Spirit being given to the community of followers of Jesus. Jesus is killed and his Spirit is given to his followers to continue his mission for God. In the gospel of John, we hear of Jesus breathing upon the disciples declaring, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” An echo of the creation story, creating the church, a new beginning. In the Pentecost story from Acts, we hear of the Spirit of God present as flame and wind coming upon the followers of Jesus. The prophet Joel is referenced in the Pentecost story – God’s Spirit is poured out upon all flesh. Young and old, women and men. All see visions and dream dreams.
In the book of Acts, we see the followers of Jesus led by the Spirit to spread the life giving message of God’s love beyond just the Jewish community to the world as a whole. We heard this call in the Great Commission that was read from Matthew this morning. The Jesus community goes into the world. It reaches out with an extravagant welcome to all. The Spirit leads the people to ethnic groups, other communities, and religions that have been enemies of the Jews. The work of the Spirit overcoming division and creating diverse community is very exciting in the early church. People are bold and courageous, reaching out well beyond their comfort zones, embracing new understandings and radical departures from former beliefs all in the interests of spreading divine universal love. Life in the Spirit, as the Christian life was called, was a new life for the believer in egalitarian community. The Spirit is challenging, guiding, and liberating. It is very exciting. Love in action. This unpredictability, dynamism, and wildness of the Spirit is captured in the Celtic image of the Spirit as a wild goose. Again, a bird image, a cross religious symbol of the divine.
But as the church becomes more of an institution, as hierarchy and homogeneity are imposed to solidify the identity and control of the church, it seems like the Holy Spirit becomes coopted to fulfill the agenda of the human church rather than the agenda of the universal God. Yes, I know, these agendas should be the same, but we all know that often they are not. As the church emerged, there was power to protect and political interests to appease. So the Holy Spirit was put into service.
Christians were baptized with water and the Spirit. This could only be done by countenanced church leaders with the proper authority. So, now the Holy Spirit could only come to people who were baptized, through the leadership of the church. And thus the Spirit was only available to Christians. Those of other religions did not have the Divine Spirit. They were not valued and respected because they did not have the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit was also defined and confined by its incorporation into the Trinity. This doctrine which emerged in the first few centuries of the church was fraught with controversy and was then concretized forever and ever, amen. There were those who saw the Trinity as God, Logos (word), and Sophia (wisdom). There were those who believed the son and Spirit came from God. Others believed the Spirit issued forth from God only, not from the son. This is one of the root causes of the split between the eastern and the western expressions of Christianity. Was there submission within the Trinity? Or were the three parts completely equal? These were topics of fierce debate as Christianity struggled to solidify its identity and its power. So, in our stream of Christianity, we basically got an all male, all equal Trinity. Three aspects of one God. And a hierarchical, patriarchal church.
The Holy Spirit now did the bidding of the church, basically, in the name of God. In some ways, it seems as if the Holy Spirit went from being a free agent of a mysterious God to the lackey of an institution. Calcified in a doctrine. A bird in a cage. No longer disrupting power, no longer universal and inclusive, but blessing certain human power arrangements and those they favor.
My spouse, Jeff, teaches at a Catholic High School. We see the well-intended domestication of the Holy Spirit in a cheer that was led by the school chaplain at an opening assembly. The chaplain led, “Seniors, who loves you most?” And the students cheered back, “The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!” And it went on from there, class by class, setting the tone, reminding the students of their spiritual roots and the core values of the school. Not a bad thing.
But are they thinking about the Spirit calling the students to challenge the power arrangements of society? Or calling the young people to confront their leaders and those in authority even in the school? Are they thinking about the kids being called to serve in situations, beyond the military, that might prove fatal? Do they think about asking these young people to be led by a force that, as we read in the gospel of John, “blows where it wills”? About submitting themselves to a force that leaves them no control? I don’t think the chaplain thinks he is promoting rebellious radicalism. Yet that’s what the Holy Spirit used to be all about. . .
In his poem, “Spiritus,” Steve Turner beautifully shares the contradictions in the common conceptions of the Holy Spirit:
I used to think of you
as a symphony
full of no surprises.
Now I see you as
a saxophone solo
into the night,
a tongue of fire,
flicking in unrepeated patterns.
[Steve Turner, in Resources for Preaching and Worship Year B, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 151]
We are left thinking about the possibility of the Holy Spirit being liberated from the imprisonment imposed by the doctrine of the church. Can we think of the Holy Spirit in new ways? Actually, maybe in old ways? Can we think of the Holy Spirit unleashed to heal the pain of the Earth? Can we conceive of the Spirit poured out upon all flesh, not just some flesh? Can we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit empowering bold actions which challenge the divides of our day? Can we receive the Holy Spirit breathing new life into the church, the human family, and creation? Do we have the courage and the freedom?
Considering the domestication and containment of the concept of the Holy Spirit, maybe it is better to simply neglect the doctrine of the Holy Spirit so that Spirit may be redeemed. Amen.
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