Day of Pentecost

Pentecost     The Rev. Wendy Smith, PhD May 24, 2015

The Spirit of Truth

(Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15)

Both in Hebrew and in Greek, the word for spirit, is also translated wind, and breath.  Wind-breath-spirit all refer to an invisible movement of air, which brings new ideas, moves things around, and creates change.  Today, I will reflect on the ways the disciples were moved around, and how we are moved by the Holy Spirit.

As I reviewed these passages from the Book of Acts, and the Gospel of John, I was reminded that we have two different traditions about the giving of the Holy Spirit. I wonder if any of you have noticed this?  The tradition we are all familiar with, is the one we heard from the Books of Acts, our first lesson, when the holy Spirit descended on the disciples at Pentecost in tongues of fire.  Originally, Pentecost was a harvest festival, observed by the Jews on the 50th day of the barley harvest, hence the word pentecost, which means, 50th.   Later, Pentecost became the celebration of the giving of the 10 commandments to Moses at Mt. Sinai.  So it is quite significant that the Holy Spirit descended on the same day that God had given the commandments.  Furthermore, these tongues of flame empowered the disciples to proclaim the good news in languages they did not know, but which were intelligible to Jews who were visiting from many different countries to celebrate the festival.

The second tradition about the giving of the Spirit comes from the Gospel of John.  Every year on Pentecost, we read a different passage from the Gospel of John.  Remember that this Gospel was the last of the four to be written, near the end of the first century AD.  The Holy Spirit plays a much bigger part in this Gospel than the other three.  In chapter 3, in the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus,  Jesus told that puzzled Pharisee that “no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (3:5).  Then in chapter 4, Jesus told the Samaritan woman that what is important, is to worship “in spirit and in truth” (4:23).  In chapter 7,  Jesus announced that living water flowing from Jerusalem, would be a flow of spirit coming from himself (7:38-39).  So even before we get to the Farewell Discourses of Jesus in chapters 14-17, we can see that St. John was highlighting  the things Jesus said about the Holy Spirit.

There might be a very particular reason for this emphasis.  We know that the first generation of Christians believed that Jesus would return soon:  within their lifetimes.  By the time John was writing his Gospel, at least 60, or perhaps 70 years had passed since the resurrection.  Jesus had not come again in power and glory.  There was a big question in the minds of Christians about what this meant.  It seems likely that John was telling his community, that Jesus has come, and is among them, as the Holy Spirit.  John would have been arguing that Jesus didn’t mean he would come in the flesh;  no, John said, remember the words of Jesus, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever . . . the Spirit of Truth”.  That title, Advocate, in the New Revised Standard Version, was translated Counselor in the old Revised Standard Version, and in the King James Version it was Comforter.  Behind these three English words is the Greek, παρακλητος which means, “one who comes alongside”. That idea could also be translated, Supporter, Friend, Helper, or, Comforter, Counselor, Advocate.

Now there is something very subtle going on in these chapters of the Farewell Discourses.  At the beginning of the discourse, when Jesus said he was going to prepare a place for us, he also said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (14:6).  So Jesus is “the Truth”.  A few verses later, he said, I will send you “the Spirit of Truth” (14:17), which must mean, he is sending his own Spirit..  The Spirit of Truth, seems to be the Spirit of Jesus.  Then he said, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  In a little while, the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live . . . you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me and I in you . . . those who keep my commandments are those who love me . . .  I will reveal myself to them” (14:18-21).  What Jesus was saying here, is that his followers will be aware of his presence, both when they meet for worship, and when they are alone in prayer.  In chapter 15, Jesus explained how this would work, using the metaphor of the Vine and the branches.  As long as the branches (the believers) maintain their connection to the Vine (Jesus), they will be nourished and strengthened by that living connection.

Now we come to today’s Gospel reading, which begins again with the promise of Jesus that he will send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth. The Spirit of Truth will guide the Christian community into truth, especially truths that cannot be revealed now, but will be revealed in the future.  Finally, all of this instruction about the Spirit culminated in St. John’s account of the giving of the Spirit–not at Pentecost–but on the evening of Easter day, when Jesus appeared in the upper room, showing the disciples his hands and side.  We read this passage every year on the Sunday after Easter.  Jesus breathed on the disciples, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22).  So this is the second tradition of the giving of the Holy Spirit.  I think it is very likely that both of these events happened, and that the church has chosen the first tradition, according to St. Luke, with the tongues of fire and the many languages, as the more dramatic way to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The crucial questions for us, considering both these traditions, is how we can become aware of the Holy Spirit, and how we can receive that promised guidance. leading us into Truth.  My answer begins with a reminder that the Holy Spirit is like a breath or a breeze:  always invisible, usually gentle, subtle, and therefore difficult to notice.  Occasionally, very rarely, the Holy Spirit will become more like a hurricane; for example, when St. Paul was knocked off his horse.  But most of the time, the Holy Spirit is like a soft breeze, and we are merely aware of a suggestion.  So then the question becomes, how do we distinguish the suggestions of the Holy Spirit, from our own thought and feelings?

The answer I have, or the set of answers, can be visualized as a target, with four concentric rings around a center.  The first outer ring, is that dwelling in the Vine, about which Jesus spoke in chapter 15, on which I preached on May 10th.  We must be in a living relationship with Christ, in which we are in regular communion with him through prayer and through the sacraments.  The second ring, is that we must intend to open ourselves to the Spirit.  This may seem too obvious to mention, however it is crucial.  If we can’t even imagine the possibility that the Spirit will give us guidance, we are very likely to miss it.  Or we will say to ourselves, “what a strange idea I just had” and ignore it. So in our living relationships with Jesus, we must do more than asking him to give us strength, and to heal other people, because that is a one-way relationship.  You and I must deliberately, intentionally open our hearts to “hear”, to receive, to perceive what the Spirit of Jesus is saying to us.  We must be quiet, silent, attentive, and patient, for the Spirit is like the wind — it cannot be controlled.  Let us place ourselves in the Presence, ask for the guidance we need, and wait for it.  It may take some time; nevertheless, we can assume that guidance will be given when we ask in faith, and open ourselves to the Spirit.

Now comes the third ring of the target, for we need to know how to distinguish between our own thoughts, and the guidance of the Spirit.  To make this distinction, we need to have in mind what God’s purposes are, and then ask ourselves, does this thought, which might be the Spirit’s guidance, fit with one of God’s purposes?  In general, those purposes are, to proclaim the Gospel, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ”(855), to enable us to live in harmony with, and to care for the creation (852),  “to enable us to grow in the likeness of Christ”, and “to bring us into the Kingdom of God” (851).  If you are still not certain the thought you have is from the Spirit, ask yourself how you would feel if you witnessed someone else acting on your thought. Here I have to acknowledge that most of the guidance I have received in my own life from the Holy Spirit, has been to do something beyond my comfort zone:  often they are things I would have rejected as too difficult . . . yet they have all been things I was able to do.  The fourth ring of the target is to take what you believe is from the Spirit, and ask one or two other Christians, whom you respect, if they agree that you have received guidance from the Spirit.  At the center of any target, is the bullseye, which in this metaphor, is, what I would call obedience:  committing oneself to follow God’s call.  Several times for me, it has taken me months to fulfill God’s call, and twice, it has taken years to carry out.

When we remember those disciples in the upper room, we see a group of men and women with very limited experience of the world, with little education and few resources.  The Holy Spirit chose them to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and gave them the strength to set out on this huge task.  Let us be grateful that our tasks are smaller, that our resources are greater, and that imperfect as it is, we have a faithful church, and a rich tradition, to draw upon.