Today is the day of Pentecost. One day we set aside to talk about the Holy Spirit. We don’t talk about the Holy Spirit much. In seminary this was true as well. When, in our senior year, we finally had a class called The Holy Spirit and the Triune God, we still spent much of our time talking about things like the church in general. When a student questioned our professor on this, he said the Holy Spirit resists being spoken of. Speaking of the Spirit is like trying to capture wind.
My professor went on to tell us “If you wonder if you have the Holy Spirit, just breathe.” The word used in today’s scripture (John 20:22) when Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples is the same word used in Genesis when God breathed life into the first human. The Spirit is the spirit of life by which we are able to draw breath. To feel the Holy Spirit just breathe.
Now that is not to say if you have difficulty breathing due to asthma or lung disease somehow that means you have less of the Holy Spirit or that the Holy Spirit abandons us when we cease to breathe at the moment of death. These would be examples of why the Spirit resists being spoken of. When we speak of the Spirit we are forced to use limited human vocabulary and limited human ideas. Therefore we often end up saying things we do not intend and whatever we say will not be wholly accurate or adequate.
I think in some ways we have forgotten this is true of all aspects of God, not just the Holy Spirit. Too many people think they can define God, can define who God is and who God’s followers are. And even when we resist this kind of arrogance we tend to be a bit casual about identifying where God is at work. We praise God for saving us from a tornado without pausing to give thought to what such praise communicates about God’s love for those who did not survive. We give God credit for intervening to bring a person comfort in a time of need without taking seriously questions about why God did not intervene to prevent the tragedy which brought the need for comfort in the first place.
Though we still often refer to God as “Lord” Christians have strayed far from the idea which brought about such a habit. The idea behind this phrasing was to replace the name of God with the word "Lord" because God’s name was considered too holy to be spoken. In attempting to capture the intimacy of God, God’s presence in our lives and the dearness of God’s love for us, we have unintentionally come to think of God as a person so near to human as to be restricted to a particular gender and too often defined by the characteristics associated with that particular gender. In attempting to imagine God we have created God in our own image so that God matches our own cultural idiosyncrasies. In this region of the country, there are times one would think God drove a pickup truck draped in the American flag complete with a fully loaded gun rack in the super cab.
But it is difficult to avoid these pitfalls. Our language and even our imaginations are so limited by our experiences. When people try to avoid these they speak of God as “the ground of all being” or “the force of love” “the spirit of truth.” In these images God is reduced to something with no more agency than dirt, no more intimacy than an idea, and as difficult with which to communicate as the wind. God is mysteriously beyond us and tremendously near to us in ways words just cannot capture.
This is not to say we should cease speaking of God, but simply a call to remember the best theology we may create is both true and not true. To remember to approach conversations about theology with humble spirits and generous hearts, leaving room for the spirit to transform our stumbling words into a language we all can hear.
Pentecost, with its emphasis on the Holy Spirit, is a good reminder of the mysterious nature and transcendence of God. So let Pentecost serve as a call to humility and a word of comfort. We remember today the spirit of God which is both beyond words and so close to us as to be the very air we breathe. Thanks be to God. Amen.
This was my sermon last Sunday and in anticipation of these words, when I was speaking the confession I found myself wondering how the Christian church with all its talk of sin could have so entirely missed the call to humility. How is it we have come to think we have a monopoly on truth? How is it we have come to a level of confidence and certainty about our own beliefs we would not only stake our own salvation on it but damn our neighbors accordingly? How is it we have become so wrapped up in our own “right” beliefs that we invest nearly all of our energy, our time, and our collective will in preaching and worship rather than the justice and mercy which would allow us to help people here and now?
It is good to have personal humility. It is good to remember, as I say confession, I have my own failings and am of no greater value than every other human being. It is good also to remember humility collectively as the church. Christianity does not have a monopoly on truth, has made and continues to make mistakes. Wouldn’t it make sense then to base our activities upon living love in ways which help others and all of creation rather than basing them on something as uncertain as our beliefs?