When I was still a university student, I first witnessed the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. On that occasion I went as an invited guest to a Pentecostal service in Christchurch. The experience left me with two lasting impressions. First it was weird. And second, for this particular instance the claimed out-pouring of the Spirit seemed (well, to me at least!) to have little to do with the life and teachings of Christ.
Apparently under the spell of the invited famous English preacher, the crowd swayed, waved their arms and an extraordinary jumble of sounds came from every part of the large hall. Those around me appeared in a trance and although the noises they made sounded superficially like language, it was unlike any I had heard before. I found myself caught up in the emotion and before long I too was swaying, waving my hands and making similar noises. Unfortunately for those wishing me to join their movement, at that very moment a baby near the front of the hall chose to start crying. The preacher, who perhaps I should not identify by name since I understand he has been highly respected in the Pentecostal movement, stopped, pointed and said loudly – “Lady, get that baby out of here!”
I do not think for one moment that all Pentecostal preachers would have done the same, yet since my rudimentary theology at that stage was (and I suspect still is) much more in sympathy with Jesus’ reported statement, “Suffer the little children to come unto me” than it was in treating small children as an unwanted nuisance, I was uncomfortable at the mismatch between the experience and the nature of the one the experience was supposed to honour. In terms of my subsequent understanding of Pentecost I confess that incident made it difficult to accept all claimed apparent encounters with the Holy Spirit as a genuine religious experience, and even more improbable as a phenomenon available to be turned on at will. I also note in passing that as far as the Gospel writers and Paul himself were concerned, each had their own individual interpretations of what such encounters signified.
The different slant given by each gospel to the story of Jesus is partly because each gospel was written for a different audience. The gospels and the book of Acts, were of course written at a time when the emerging Church found itself under increasing pressure from hostile neighbours. The Jews themselves were trying to regroup having been recently driven in disarray from Jerusalem after their rebellion failed. The last thing the majority of Jews felt they needed was an apparent splinter group challenging traditional orthodoxy.
Remember the Gospels were written at a time when their writers would have been well aware of the actions of those like Saul, later known as Paul, delegated to root out the heresy and to see to it that these apparent rebels were punished according to the full letter of Jewish law.
At the same time the Romans were gradually becoming even more of a threat. One of the key ways the Romans had been seeking to exert authority, was to insist that although there was to be some local freedom of religion, the number one requirement for all people under Rome control was to first acknowledge the divinity of the Roman Caesar. That this new grouping of Christians was insisting that their Jesus was their only Lord, together with their failure to acknowledge the Emperor’s pre-eminence, to the Roman eye was tantamount to rebellion and as a consequence, persecution was beginning. It was factors such as these requiring a source of encouragement, rather than the need to find Spirit-filled worship that must have been upper-most in the minds of those in the fledgling Church.
At the beginning of John Chapter 16 Jesus is saying “they will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” This is of course a direct reference to Jewish persecution. Perhaps it is also an obvious point, but the implication is that the place where the action takes place is not normally in the synagogue or place of worship. For our generation where there is a temptation for Christians to see our main focus as being what happens in the Church building it is also a reminder that, the activity of whatever Spirit Jesus is describing, it finds its real meaning in the challenges we meet in the sometimes confusing and sometimes even scary everyday world.
Although Jesus makes reference to the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (or Advocate) – in today’s gospel passage this is most certainly not encouragement for some holy withdrawal from reality…and nor does it invite expecting the resurrected Jesus to somehow perform magic to take away the threat or even to do the work on our behalf.
The power of the magic and mystical has always held some attraction. We might note for example there is a company in the United States called Paraclete that manufactures and sells bullet proof vests! I see little evidence that the Holy Spirit provides protection from bullets as the followers of many Christian martyrs through the ages will no doubt attest. Yet this is not to say the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with our coping with adversity. John records Jesus as giving examples of the threat being real real. In summary he appears to say, “I will no longer be there to act on your behalf, but the Spirit will help you find the words to say and the actions to take”. Please note, he did not add …. “and thereby you will avoid pain or real danger.”
You may recall that in the New Testament readings about the Ascension, Jesus’ removal from the scene is emphasised. The two “angels” (or at least men in white) who were said to be present when Jesus disappeared asked the disciples, “Men of Galilee, Why do you stand looking up?” (Acts 1: 11) Whether this was recorded as a symbolic or actual event, the clear implication was that it was no longer appropriate for the disciples to continue looking for their help from Jesus in heaven. Their immediate tasks and challenges were tasks very much grounded in what we might now call “the here and now”.
Perhaps we are tempted to ignore that message of the angels. Some modern Christians certainly act as if Jesus is still up there as the main leader and source of strength and power. For example public prayer often comes close to exhorting Jesus to do those tasks where we may be tempted to avoid responsibility.
Prayers of the kind: “Jesus, heal my friend in hospital” sound trite if I am not at least prepared to spend time visiting my friend in hospital.
“ Jesus, bring about peace in the Middle East” also loses any sense of sincerity if we ourselves are not prepared to grapple with the practical tasks of learning how to show forgiveness for enemies, and to become involved in acts of peacemaking or supporting peacemakers. Jesus does indeed say that the Spirit is available for those seeking to answer their accusers – and perhaps by implication we might presume available to those attempting the tasks of the kingdom. He does not however say the Holy Spirit is going to help those who only watch from the sidelines.
A moment’s reflection about the variety of people all claiming guidance of the same Spirit and yet who appear to have come to radically different conclusions as to the direction the Spirit is leading should give us pause at this point.
Peter the Hermit stirring up blood lust at the time of the Crusades was clearly driven by a different Spirit than St Francis of Assisi. Those “guided” to fly planes into the Twin Towers or strap explosives to child suicide bombers may well have believed that God (Allah) was directing them through his spirit but they are hardly in tune with the same spirit as a John Wesley with his heart strangely warmed or a Mother Teresa called to work with the poor of the slums of Calcutta. Believing then that we are driven by the Spirit may not necessarily be the same Spirit as Jesus was referring to in today’s passage from the Gospel of John.
Perhaps the response is not so much to stay looking up to heaven – but rather to ask the simple question. Is the action I am directed towards – or the words I am about to speak – in line with what I know of the teachings and spirit of Jesus? If it is the same spirit that motivated Jesus, it would seem follow that the actions led by that spirit should fit the main thrust of the life and teachings of Jesus.
The other traditional mistake is to act as if the Christian walk of faith can be accomplished to meet the real challenges of the everyday world without any direct connection with Jesus’ main teaching.
One of the current serious issues facing much of the Western world at present is very much down to earth in its effects on whole populations. This is the question of finding appropriate economic policy so that there will be good outcomes for the majority, and for the future of the peoples of the world. Since both the philosophy of market forces and of socialism are equally defended by different groups of Christians, and since some major European countries are currently reconsidering which of the two alternatives is most appropriate, it is fair to ask which form of government most closely reflects the Spirit of Christ.
Strangely the answer might be neither – or even both. To leave Christ out of the equation would for example be to focus entirely on one’s own immediate needs and not on the needs of those others less fortunate.
Although there has been recent outrage expressed by many in the French population turning to a socialist President as a consequence of the apparent failure of the market economy which had widened the gap between the rich and the poor, the real breakdown had been that the rich continued to get rich while apparently ignoring the cries of those disadvantaged.
On the other hand the advocates of the Socialist choice would do well to remember that those who reduce work effort because their personal needs are met by subsidy and welfare are no longer helping build the economy for those to come.
For Capitalists and Socialists alike, history teaches that short term benefits engineered for a single dominant group whether they be the workers or the rich is a long term recipe for disaster.
How very different is the focus of those dominated by the Spirit. In one of the alternative readings suggested in the lectionary for today ,which is 1 Corinthians Ch 12 verses 3 -13, Paul explains that there are different gifts of the Spirit, but the point is that each is designed for the common good and not by implication for personal advancement. The fruits of the spirit are similarly easy to discern. Love, joy, kindness and generosity should indeed be discerned in gifts of the Spirit, for the genuine Spirit we seek is the same Spirit which was shown to be expressed in Jesus – and now which must be expressed in those who claim to follow. Perhaps we too need to ask ourselves if the gifts we express in our every day interactions reflect something of the Spirit of Christ.