Pentecost – speaking in tongues… what was that all about? And what is John on about when he quotes Jesus saying he will leave a comforter with us to help us out when we are being persecuted?
I sometimes wonder if some are too quick to attribute their insights or words to the Holy Spirit. Years ago at a lay preachers’ course conducted by the great Rev Dr J.J. Lewis, Lewis was telling the lay preachers about the need for research and careful preparation for preaching. One of the participants put up his hand. “ I have no need of the preparation. I simply go to the pulpit and with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit I can go on with my sermon for anywhere up to 40 minutes without pause”.
Another participant put up his hand. “I attend this man’s services he said. I had no idea the Holy Spirit was so boring, repetitive and short of ideas”.
When I was still at University I once attended a Pentecostal service to see what it was all about. The congregation responded to the words of the visiting preacher by standing , arms in the air, swaying and babbling in strange sounding words. I too was carried away by the emotion and joined in swaying, waving and babbling. Then suddenly a baby started crying in the front row. The annoyed preacher suddenly abandoned his babbling with “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 that experience and the nature of the one the experience was supposed to honour. In terms of my subsequent understanding of the Holy Spirit I confess that incident made me cautious to accept all claimed apparent encounters as genuine religious experience, and even more unlikely to accept this as a phenomenon available to be turned on at will.
Now back to the gospel. Why did the Gospel writer John recall the words about the comforter which Jesus claimed he would leave with his followers when they faced a threat for acting on belief. John of course was recalling these words 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 heat was being turned up on this small sect of Christian followers. They needed to be assured that Spiritual help was available.
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 was 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 would not be 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. 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 last week’s New Testament readings about the Ascension, Jesus’ removal from the scene is emphasized. 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 forget that message attributed to the angels. Some modern Christians certainly act as if Jesus is still going to do the work on our behalf. 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 peace-making or supporting peacemakers. Jesus I pray for my neighbours sounds a bit empty when 600 of those wanting to be neighbours drift as boat refugees for six months in appalling conditions because my government along with all those other governments had the not welcome signs up. We note in passing in was a group of Muslim fishermen (acting as good Samaritans)not Christians who eventually took pity on them and brought them ashore to a temporary makeshift hospital.
In today’s reading, 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 side-lines.
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 preaching outdoors to the poor 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 should be 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.
It would then follow it is a 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 the unequal deal offered to whole populations. While our country is chasing the policies that will continue to keep us near the top in luxury and peace, there are boatloads of starving refugees desperately seeking anywhere they can land to give them a start in life. The rich nations certainly don’t see them as neighbours in the sense that Jesus advocated. Each time we have a budget it is fair to remind ourselves that our true beliefs are revealed in the policies we demand. Socialism maybe, capitalism – maybe …. but it is fair to ask which form of government most closely reflects the Spirit of Christ.
To leave Christ out of the equation would for example be to focus entirely on one’s own immediate needs and only give token concern to the needs of those others less fortunate. Is this what others might see in us.
Each time we have an election we hear outrage expressed by the left about the plight of the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Those among the rich seem more concerned about their taxes going to help the unemployed. The thought that all of us should be primarily concerned not for ourselves but for our neighbours, rich or poor doesn’t seem to come into the discussion.
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 ,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.