The coming Sunday is the celebration of Pentecost: often called “the birthday of the church”, it is a celebration of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. We talk about the Spirit a lot, yet what we mean by that is not necessarily clear. For me, the Spirit is about our on-going, living connection with God, that which continues to open us up to the life of God. It is God meeting us and us meeting God. This connection is a part of us, but our awareness of it is not automatic. While we may experience it, we may name it differently. And if we want to experience the full dynamism of this connection, we must cultivate it through intentional spiritual practice.
Often, it seems to me, we are unwilling to accept just how important and dynamic this connection is. When Jesus speaks of the Spirit, he often does so in ways that are unsettling, because he suggests that the Spirit may overturn things that we hold dear. In one of his most well-known teachings about the Spirit, Jesus says,
The wind 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.’
— John 3:8
In these words, Jesus suggests that living fully in the dynamism of this spiritual connection is like being blown about by a strong wind that is likely to take us where we might not think to go ourselves, or where we might be strongly opposed to going.
That suggestion is amplified by this Sunday’s Gospel reading (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15), in which Jesus says,
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”
While the Spirit may want to take us to places we are not ready or willing to go, Jesus recognizes that we cannot go fruitfully to those places before there is a certain maturity, and certain level of spiritual development. The Spirit pushes and pulls us, but is also sensitive to what we are able to bear and what we are not. And yet, the Spirit will not wait indefinitely.
In my experience, as the Spirit pushes and pulls and tries to say new things to us, a lot of Christians put a lot of energy into pushing back, and sticking their fingers in their spiritual ears. Often, we do that by locking the Spirit up in the Bible, and insisting that anything the Spirit might have to say to us now must have been said before. If you can’t justify it according to the Scripture, then it must not really be the Spirit who is speaking. That, I think, is a betrayal of Jesus.
After all, who do we say that Jesus is? We say that he is the icon of a person who is deeply and fully caught up in the dynamic connection of Spirit. We say that the goal of the Christian life is to become as Christ-like as possible, which means to be as deeply and fully caught up in the connection of Spirit as possible. Jesus knew the Scriptures of his time well, and yet he never felt himself bound by them. The gospels report that when people heard Jesus teaching, they were astounded because he taught them as one who had authority. Biblical scholars tell us that what amazed them is that Jesus did not teach by reiterating what the well-known rabbis before him had said, and then basing his teaching on the foundation that they had laid, which was the classic teaching style of his time. Instead, Jesus simply taught, without reference to those who had taught before him. He relied on a profound inner authority that flowed from that Spirit connection. Jesus had new things to say, and while he honored his tradition and believed that the basis of what he was teaching could be found there, he was not afraid to say those new things, even when others were convinced that he was radically departing from the accepted theology and morality of his time.
That is one of the ways in which we are called to be like Christ. To cultivate our connection with Spirit is to cultivate that inner authority that flows from Spirit. That opens us up to new expressions of truth, and allows our tradition to evolve. Too many Christians today seem to want to entrench themselves behind biblical barricades, insisting that the Spirit can only speak in biblical terms. And yet, we do not worship a once upon a time God. We worship a God who is living and active, who is not interested in guiding us to live like first-century or fourth-century or nineteenth- century people, but rather in empowering us to live fully in our own time, enlivened by the Spirit.
What we celebrate at Pentecost is the God who continues to speak to us today, and who calls us into new ways of living and being that the people of Jesus’ time could not possibly have imagined. That doesn’t mean that they were wrong and we are right, or vice versa. What it means is that human beings are evolving as spiritual beings, and our relationship with God is evolving, as well, allowing God to say things to us that we could not bear before. Some of us are still not ready to bear them. But, the Spirit does not wait indefinitely.