We’re going to explore just a few of the pictures of the Spirit, acknowledging that no one image can ever come close to the fullness of this animating force of the divine. So, where to begin Penny?...
(Penny) I think we should begin with wind, or breath. In both Hebrew and Greek they are the same word - Rûaḥ in Hebrew or pneuma in Greek. In Ezekiel 37:9 God says “Come, breath (rûaḥ), from the four winds (also rûaḥ) and breathe into these slain.” Rûaḥ or pneuma is the invisible force of wind or breath that gives life and animates the physical world. Nothing happens without it. This is the divine force that broods over creation in the beginning, and that continues to breathe in every one of us this morning. Without it we are dead. And we need to receive it before we can give it – we need to breathe in before we can breathe out. God’s breath in us – or God’s wind if you want something a bit more vigorous – God moving in us from birth onwards – that’s where I’d start. What do you think?
(Jo) Yes, that’s pretty essential and elemental – but it can be a bit wishy washy – ‘let’s all just sit and breathe’. I like a bit more energy myself. What about the Spirit as Fire – energy, life, warmth? That’s definitely an appealing image as we move towards winter here in Sydney! But the spirit is of course so much more than the cosy comfort of a log fire – there’s no doubt that the Spirit is dangerous too, more like a bushfire. I love the words of the late Irish priest-poet John O’ Donohue who said:
“I think there is a wonderful danger in God that we have totally forgotten. Because one of the things humanoids like to do is they like to bring in the tamers to tame their deities.”
(see: John O’ Donohue, “Imagination as the Path of the Spirit” on YouTube)
There is, O’Donohue says, a wildness in God and we are called to “make God dangerous again.” Isn’t that a great thought – if folk perceived God as dangerous (in a good way, I’m not talking about the truly dangerous uses to which bad religion is sometimes put!) – if God was seen as dangerous and not boring and out of date, what a difference that could make!
(Penny) Well trust you Jo to enjoy playing with fire! But I like how the fire is described in Acts – ‘tongues of flame’ – and then of course the writer goes on to speak about other kinds of tongues – tongues in the sense of the different languages that can all suddenly hear the one message. Of course, for the writer of Luke/Acts it is all about reversing the story of the tower of Babel in which human arrogance leads to division and confusion – and they are only speaking about Judeans from all those many places. The giving of the spirit to Gentiles as well is yet to come in the story. Yet this picture of all tongues speaking and hearing as one points to the universal and cosmic dimension of the Spirit. Too often the church has reduced the experience of the giving of the Spirit to something about personal, individual empowerment. Rather it’s about the presence of the divine in all creation – every creature no matter their species, receiving from God the gift of life.
(Jo) Yes – there is no escaping the conjunction of spirit and life. It’s right there in our reading today from Ezekiel. Without the spirit, there’s just a valley of dry bones – approximately 206 per skeleton, mostly from hands and feet, which is quite a thought! In the living, bones are quite extraordinary of course. As Bill Bryson records:
our bones do a lot more than keep us from collapsing. As well as providing support, they protect our interiors, manufacture blood cells, store chemicals, transmit sound (in the middle ear) and even possibly bolster our memory and buoy our spirits thanks to the recently discovered hormone osteocalcin.[i]
There is much life and potential in bones, but not as they are pictured here. For Ezekiel they are a picture of all that is dead and desperate.
(Penny) Yes, I have to say that Ezekiel does strike me as a fairly unpleasant character in many ways – even his God is much more about God’s own honour and glory than about any real compassion for the poor old people of Israel in exile. Yet in this passage I do like his honesty. I can picture him looking at all this death and destruction – rather as we look around at our world today in the face not just of COVID, but of violence in the middle East, famine in Yemen and so much that is death-dealing – I can see him shaking his head, as I shake my own and asking ‘can these dry bones live?’ And on the face of it, it’s pretty hopeless. Yet God says, three times in this text – and I believe continues to say – ‘you shall live’. The Spirit here is ultimately about promise and hope despite everything. That’s a comforting thought, and we talk about the Spirit as comforter, - but when we really attend to the Spirit they can be very disturbing and uncomfortable!
(Jo) Indeed, the spirit both comforts and unsettles – a bit like the prophets. I guess that’s the role of a prophet – to up-end our expectations. And according to Peter this is another role for the Spirit, that of prophet and one to which we are all called. We sometimes miss this because of the power of those earlier, elemental images of wind and fire, but Peter in the story is telling us that the Spirit makes prophets of us all. Peter is recorded here re-interpreting the words of the prophet Joel for his own times. We might ask ourselves how we re-interpret our own times – these COVID times; these times of gross disparity within and among nations; these times of “stuckness” in our institutions both political and ecclesial? For the prophetic Spirit is always moving us towards justice and liberty. What might that mean for us Penny?
(Penny) It will always be evolving. It is certainly not just about even the full spectrum of old and young, male and female as Joel and the writer of Luke /Acts express it. As the theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:
The Spirit of God is no respecter of social distinctions; it puts an end to them. All Spirit-impelled revival movements in the history of Christianity have taken note of these social revolutionary elements in the experience of the Spirit and have spread them. They became a danger to the patriarchy, the men’s church and the slave-owners.”
– and I think we’d already want to add a few things to that excellent summary. The spirit is dangerous to any social system that excludes, and is thereby always opening up new possibilities. So, what do you think Jo, what Pentecost imaginings can empower us today?
(Jo) I think it is the diversity of images that is so helpful – different ways of expressing this experience of empowerment that can speak to each of us at different times. Maybe amid all the stress of recent days it is the gentle breath we need; or maybe we have sunk into the doldrums and need firing up; or maybe we need to take courage to speak in our own tongue or to face the dry bones in our lives and let them live. Our experiences as we go through life are so varied, yet the power of the Spirit always gives life and releases us from the fear of death. For once we realise that death has no ultimate power, nothing can hold us back.
(Penny) So today as we ask for the Spirit once again to come upon us, we may experience that in a multiplicity of ways, but each of us can hear the invitation in language we can understand? - a language that above all will point us towards life. Let’s ask as we conclude for that gift of the Spirit, joining in the prayer on our liturgy sheet today…
Come Holy Spirit, breathe down upon our troubled world,
shake the tired foundations of our crumbling institutions,
break the rules that keep you out of all our sacred spaces.
And from the dust and rubble,
gather up the seedlings of a new creation.
Come Holy Spirit, inflame once more
the dying embers of our weariness,
shake us out of our complacency,
whisper our names once more,
and scatter your gifts of grace with wild abandon.
Break open the prisons of our inner being
and let your raging justice be our sign of liberty.
Come Holy Spirit, and lead us to places we would rather not go;
expand the horizons of our limited imaginations.
Awaken in our souls dangerous dreams for a new tomorrow,
and rekindle in our hearts the fire of prophetic enthusiasm.
Come Holy Spirit, whose justice outwits international conspiracy;
whose light outshines spiritual bigotry,
whose peace can overcome the destructive potential of warfare,
whose promise invigorates our every effort
to create a new heaven and a new earth,
now and forever.
[i] From Bill Bryson “The Body: a Guide for Occupants”.
by Penny Jones and Josephine Inkpin for Pemtecost Sunday 2021