Holy Spirit

Signs and wonders of Pentecost as material effects of God’s work on the earth.

If we focus on what is seen, heard, touched and is located on the earth in Luke’s account of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21), we can gain a sense of what are the material effects of the incarnation and the descent of the Spirit. If we’ve encountered the reality of God come in Jesus of Nazareth, the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, we will have seen it, it will have a material effect.  This material manifestation is oriented towards a goal, that is only understood if we know how to interpret what we are seeing hearing and handling.  These manifestations show God’s work on the earth. God’s work is to restore the relationship between God and God’s creation, to reconcile humanity and God. The purpose of God’s work in the world is relational, and is born out of God’s desire for us and for all creation: the work of God in the earth is aimed towards relationship and love.

Using the above framework, we can look at the manifestations of Pentecost and their interpretations given to us by Luke in his recounting of the Descent of the Spirit on the Church.  First the manifestation and its effect are things that are evident and noticeable. Sound of wind, tongues of fire that are seen, languages spoken.  Those who wanted to discount what was happening couldn’t deny the event they simply gave it another explanation, the drunkenness of the individuals around whom the commotion started. But the manifestations aren’t random either.  Sound of wind, tongues of fire: These are consistent forms of epiphany and theophany that the people of Israel have known and experienced. They aren’t new, remixed yes, entirely new, no.  God manifesting God’s presence through meteorological phenomenon especially wind, and in fire is consistent with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which the celebration of Pentecost marks. The effect of the coming of the Spirit as a continuation of the work of Jesus Christ, does so in continuity with the work of God in human history in people Israel. The manifestation and effect is relational and reconciling, it bridges gaps and breaks down barriers that simply are the case in the world.  Languages and location and identity divide us as human beings, on the Day of Pentecost God uses what divides to bring together, and shows that the intended effect of the incarnation and the passion is to bring together, to reconcile in relationship. Furthermore, Peter in referencing Joel tells us the effect is intended for all no mater one’s social location or identity and the speaking of all languages from all parts o the earth shows that your geographical location doesn’t matter. Yet the descent of the Spirit also doesn’t erase those differences or identities, rather the work of God makes possible relationship and connection where such seems impossible or difficult. Lastly, it shakes up what is considered inevitable, simply set in the nature of the cosmos, or dictated by the powerful.  Peter tells us that what we have seen in the descent of the Holy Spirit is the same as the cosmic powers of Sun and Moon being changed, shaken and upended.

On this Pentecost, what might we take from all of this?  First, Pentecostal and Charismatic manifestations and signs and wonders aren’t meant to be ends in themselves, without interpretation they are dead ends. Yet, to ridicule or otherwise diminish them is to deny the incarnation. To so ridicule or diminish is to deny that salvation is earthly and material.  The story of God’s activity in the world to reconcile God and God’s creation that begins with Abraham and is brought to fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth.  If we attend to that story we will see that this reconciliation this transformation isn’t an escape from materiality and the earth, but is a deep and profound affirmation of all that God created.   Yet, many of the material conditions of our current worldly existence are at odds with God’s transforming and reconciling work on the earth and in the entire cosmos. The miraculous, or signs and wonders, are manifestations, epiphanies, that are meant to point out how and where God is at work.  We members of Christ’s body, the Church, should be both where these manifestations appear and those who are looking for these theophany. Yet, these epiphanies and theophany aren’t only the miraculous. We should find, in various ways, a transformed and reconciled and transfigured world replacing the world as we know it and find it.

The Church isn’t supposed to be seeking merely the reform of worldly structures and certainly isn’t supposed to be a means of escape from this earthly existence, rather it is to up end the worldly powers whatever name they go by: socialist, communist, capitalist, neoliberal, progressive, conservative, democracy, monarchy, ad infinitum.  God came to earth to transform and redeem and reconcile God’s creation the physical and material created universe, seen and unseen. The signs of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the signs and wonders that manifested around the early Church and show up again throughout history, show us that God means to transform our material existence.  God’s reconciling work is for the earth, for all creation, for the entire universe. Our very existence is to be transformed, and it happens in time, in history and on earth. Yet, the work of God is also not from history, nor is it historical nor merely material. This is the incarnation, this is the coming of the Spirit, this is the meaning and reality of the Church in germ. Look, listen, be sent into the world so that we may truly see where God is at work and be ourselves individual and corporately sites of God’s reconciling and transfiguring work on earth, upending all world systems.

Spiritual Gifts, the Holy Spirit and our Abilities

For Pentecost I preached this sermon.  The sermon emphasizes a certain aspect of Spiritual gifts: namely that they aren’t equivalent to things we do well or like to do.  For instance you don’t have the Spiritual gift of Hospitality because you like to and are good at throwing parties.  To put it another way, having a spiritual gift isn’t the same as being ‘gifted’, as in having a native talent or ability to do X above and beyond other human beings general ability to do X.  What I preached is that Spiritual gifts are about receiving something that isn’t part of one’s native ability or natural inclinations.   The gifting of the Holy Spirit gives us that which take us beyond ourselves.

I have a problem with my sermon: What is summarized above is only part of the story.  Since I was trying to get people to connect with the divine presence in themselves, that stream of water spoken of by Jesus in The Gospel of John, I didn’t explore the connection between our native abilities and gifts and the abilities and gifts received from the divine presence in us, the Holy Spirit.  The only hint I gave that I believed there was some connection between our personal abilities and gifts and the gifts of the Spirit was to emphasize a couple of times that according to Paul gifts were given to each individually.

In my sermon I was seeking  a corrective:  we at times too easily equate a desire or propensity towards something to be our Spiritual gift. Yet,  if take seriously the account of Pentecost in Acts and Paul’s argument in Corinthians the point of being gifted by the Spirit isn’t an aspect of our own effort or ability.  In a sense speaking in tongues and gifts of healing are obvious and thus quintessential Spiritual gifts.  Other Spiritual gifts like hospitality or even discernment could also simply be natural ability or bent, though Paul also speaks of  these as Spiritual gifts.

I didn’t bring it up in my sermon (sermons are limited like that) that I do believe there is a needed discernment of the connection between what has been gifted to us from the Spirit, our personhood and our native abilities and inclinations as persons.

What might be the nature of this discernment?  There are a few things I’d suggest we need to keep in mind and pray about when we have the question of what gifts we have received.

1) As the baptized we have been given the Holy Spirit, in meditation and prayer seeking that flow of life in us is a place to begin.  In this discerning meditation and prayer where in your life, in interactions with others, do you see life springing up both in yourself and in others.  The metaphor of streams of living water for the presence and gifting of the Spirit is to direct our attention to the unexpected places we find life springing up like well watered plants.

2) The Holy Spirit chooses, the Apostle tells us, but also that the Holy Spirit gives to each individually.  While the focus of our gifts isn’t on our native abilities, that the Holy Spirit is God in us and the one who can articulate our deepest longings and desires before God in prayer (Romans 8:26) means that our personality and talents aren’t ignored in the giving of gifts by the Spirit.  I suggest that in discerning one’s gifting one is looking in that space between who you are and the edge of your abilities and inclinations.  This could mean that a gifting of the Spirit takes a natural ability and takes it beyond what one is able to do, or it may offer a means to do something consistent with ones personality but to do something that doesn’t come easy. For instance praying in tongues can be for an extrovert that way to be silent before God and wordless prayer with words, that is a means to meditate for someone who may find regular wordless prayer temperamentally challenging.

3) Paul does connect desire and receiving of gifts.  When in prayer and meditation seeking to know one’s gifting is to seek those places of ones desire.  What do we long for?  Paul seems to even show that in seeking to know the gift one has received that we are to desire certain gifts.  We may find that we aren’t given what we initially desire, again Spiritual gifts do take us beyond ourselves.  Yet, in allowing ourselves to desire good things, which all spiritual gifts are, is key to becoming aware of the gift we have been given by the Spirit.

4) This will require discernment, and talking it out with others whom one trusts.  Spiritual gifts aren’t for our private and personal enrichment, they are how we are to Spiritually relate to other members of the Body of Christ, and the way in which God seeks to bring life to the World.  Therefore the feed back of those close to one: Spiritual counselors and friends are key in discerning what gift one has received.  Again those who are close to us are part of who we are as persons and individuals, they will be able to tell you how they see you fitting together in the Body of Christ.

As I grew in the faith and found my way into the ordered ministry, much of the above discernment happened for me informally and implicitly. Though ordered ministry and office is a different but related thing to the Spiritual gifts, gifting and office also aren’t completely separate.  But that is another post, and a topic that I’m still unclear on myself.  My point though is that this discernment will take time, it also may not always be obvious, or in the moment of a specific conversation where one asks another for feedback on Spiritual gifts.  This process can be those small bits of affirmation, someone  pointing out something one did that one wasn’t even aware one was doing.  There is something organic and fluid to this process, not mechanical or procedural.  And this shouldn’t be surprising because it is about receiving and being the conduit of abundant life, those streams of living water.