A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs
There once was a bishop: Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Constantinople. It was his mission in life to defend the Doctrine of the Trinity as stated in the Nicene Creed against those who would, in effect, strip it of its mystery. And one of the biggest mysteries of the Trinity (and there are plenty of them—more on that next week) was how, or even if, the Holy Spirit fits into the Trinity as its Third Person, of the same substance as, and co-eternal and co-equal with, the Father and the Son. To those who would minimize or eliminate the Holy Spirit in their theology, Gregory had this to say:
Look at these facts: Christ is born, the Holy Spirit is His Forerunner. Christ is baptized, the Spirit bears witness to this … Christ works miracles, the Spirit accompanies them. Christ ascends, the Spirit takes His place. … I tremble when I think of such an abundance of titles, and how many Names they blaspheme, those who revolt against the Spirit!
Gregory was my kind of guy. The Spirit transformed how he saw the world.
Gregory wrote and preached copiously about this in the fourth century, and his work was tremendously respected—one of the titles given him by the Church was Gregory the Theologian. This simply goes to show that when people (like me) talk freely and admittedly enthusiastically about the movement of the Spirit—this isn’t a touchy-feely New Age-y thing: This tradition is ancient and powerful.
But be honest. Doesn’t the Holy Spirit make you just a wee bit nervous? Because it should.
We wear red. We put out balloons, we’ll have red goodies at coffee hour and some churches even sing Happy Birthday to the Church. And that’s great—I love to see people engaged in a joyous celebration in the life of our faith. But if we’re not just a little trepidatious at the power of what we are celebrating, we’re missing the point.
The Spirit is hard to pin down. Unlike the other two Persons of the Trinity, commonly referred to as Father and Son, most of the words used to describe the Spirit are conceptual, like Truth and Wisdom, or functional, like Advocate, Guide, Teacher and Comforter, or material but kinetic, like fire, water, wind. The Dove is the only image that we can really get our hands on, but even then, just try to catch one.
And when it comes to gender, the Spirit is absolutely fluid. I know today’s lessons and the Creed, due at least in part to patriarchal influence, refer to the Spirit as male, but this is an incomplete picture. The ancient tradition was to equate the Spirit with Wisdom, or the Greek feminine, Sophia. The word for Spirit that Jesus would originally have used is the Aramaic, ruach, which is a feminine noun. And the Greek, pneuma, is neuter. So there you have it, the Spirit’s gender is definitely—indefinite. Genderless. Or all-gendered, whichever—isn’t theology fun?
Pentecost was a Jewish celebration before it was a Christian one. The Jewish Pentecost, or Shavuot, is the commemoration of the giving of Torah to Israel. So this is why Jews were gathered all in one place from all around the area, bringing with them their own languages, traditions and ethnic identities. Parthians and Medes, Elamites, etc… Imagine the cacophony of voices and languages, the rich mosaic of faces, the scent of different kinds of food…the tension of people encountering the unfamiliar.
And suddenly. The “sound like the rush of a violent wind.” Not simply enough to mess up your hair—think more like helicopter rotors, sending everything flying. And then tongues of flame, followed by a total linguistic paradigm shift, as everything they thought they knew about how they spoke or related to one another—was thrown out the window in one great Tower of Babel reversal. Imagine how disorienting this would be, for those who experienced or witnessed it.
This Holy Spirit is powerful. No wonder she makes people nervous.
There are those who see it/him/her as mostly the territory of evangelical and Pentecostal households of the Christian faith, looking askance at the surrender of the rational
in favor of the less quantifiable and predictable, and perhaps even more unnerved by the idea of speaking in tongues. For people who like things orderly, the Spirit can be overly mischievous, taking its own time about things we need to get settled now, and nudging us in directions we don’t understand, or even like.
We have learned to be skeptical of things we can’t control. We are products of a New England, Anglican, disenchanted Enlightenment point of view that has a difficult time accepting guidance from a flexibly-gendered immaterial out-of-the-box and generally stubborn Spirit. And yet, on that first Pentecost, lives were changed. The Church was born. All at once on that windswept and fiery day, people began to speak the language of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and the Dream of God began to take hold.
How do we know if it’s the Spirit that is urging us on? How do we know, in this era when people claim to be guided by the Spirit, but are actually indulging their own wishful thinking about a world that reflects their fears and a conception of God that conveniently matches the face they see in the mirror? How do we know? It’s a good question, and it gets to the heart of what it is to discern—to weigh, through listening in community and with the Spirit’s guidance—what we are called to do.
In our church ,we have a template that helps us with discernment– our Baptismal Covenant. (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305)
Listen to the questions that it asks, and how it directly confronts us with our vocation and identity as followers of Jesus:
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Worship, prayer, reconciliation, community, justice, compassion, evangelism, humility. This is our Christian identity. With God’s help.
No pressure, right?
This Covenant is where the Spirit nudges (or sometimes shoves) us as we discern our path. No wonder it makes us nervous. It requires measures of courage, perseverance, and steadfastness that we fear we don’t have. It requires us to make the living out of our faith the centerpiece of our lives; every minute of every day.
And in these days when we are bearing worried witness to the groans of a Creation in painful transition on so many fronts, discerning the Spirit’s movement and letting it/her/him set us aflame with Gospel energy is an invitation we are being called to answer in the affirmative. With God’s help.
Today is one of my favorite days in the life of the church—the celebration of Holy Baptism and the welcoming of a new member of the Household of God, Madeleine Mae McCloskey. When I first saw her and heard her name, I instantly thought of the words of children’s author Ludwig Bemelmans—his description of the main character in his beloved Madeline series: “She was not afraid of mice; she loved winter, snow and ice. And to the tiger in the zoo, Madeline just said, ‘Pooh, pooh!’”
The qualities that endear Madeline to us—courage, joy wonder, spunk—these are qualities of the Spirit that we pray our Madeleine—and in a few minutes we will, as a community, claim her as ours—these are the gifts that we pray Madeleine will offer to a world in great need of Gospel courage, joy, wonder and spunk.
Today we will, as we always do at baptism and Pentecost, call upon the Holy Spirit, eagerly waiting to welcome her/him/it into our midst. But given what we know about her power, and her persistence, perhaps we should consider that, rather than waiting for the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is waiting for us.