Today, as we all know, is the celebration of Pentecost. Perhaps, without going any further, we should pause, to consider the meaning of the very word “Pentecost.” Where did it originate and what does it mean?
The term “Pentecost” is derived from the Greek word meaning “fiftieth.” It has its roots in the ancient Jewish calendar and what is known as the Feast of Weeks. That feast, which always occurred on the fiftieth day after Passover, marked the end of the grain harvest. Rabbis would also come to identify this as the day when the law, the Torah, was given to Israel in the wilderness at Mount Sinai. For Christians, however, Pentecost became the basis of the conviction that God’s law has been written within us—on our hearts, as the prophet Jeremiah puts it. And how does God do this? By pouring out the Holy Spirit, on us and in us, so that we are saturated with God. Pentecost is the celebration of this tangible outpouring on the first Christians, fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection. But Pentecost isn’t just about what happened to those first Christians; we also celebrate that same outpouring and empowerment of the Holy Spirit in and among us.
What, or who, is the Holy Spirit? The first thing we can say is that the Holy Spirit is the third persona of the triune God—the one God who subsists in three personas—or personae, if you want to get your Latin accurate. Let me try to unpack that a bit. Many early theologians of the church, over the first 300-400 years of Christian history, made a crucial distinction between substance and persona. The substance of God—divine “stuff,” if you will, God’s essence—is singular and indivisible. So it makes perfect sense to speak of one God, since there is but one divine substance. But on another level God is three differentiated personae (some theologians prefer the term modes)—what the creedal tradition calls Father, Son and Holy Spirit—each of these three personae or modes sharing equally the same single substance of divinity. The Holy Spirit is just as much God as is the Father and the Son.
What else can we say about the Holy Spirit? The Book of Acts tells us that the Holy Spirit “rested upon” the earliest Christians and “filled” them—all of them indiscriminately. The Spirit didn’t come to some at the expense of others. No, Acts says clearly that all were filled, men and women, young and old. These terms and images are important. They suggest that the Spirit isn’t the presence of God “out there” that we encounter objectively, apart from ourselves. We might think of God’s presence in that way when we consider God the Father (the Mystery and Source of all things), or God the Son (the divine Word that assumed human form in Jesus of Nazareth). But the persona of the Holy Spirit is different because the Spirit fills us, seeping into every aspect of who we are. Furthermore, the Spirit permeates each of us—laity and clergy; young and old; male, female, trans; gay and straight; black, white, brown; poor and wealthy—God is ever present to, and in, each of us. Have you ever felt far from God or unable to relate to God? In the history of Christian thought, we have done ourselves a disservice by imagining everything about God as spatially apart from us. The reality, however, is that the Holy Spirit—the very substance of God—has been poured out upon us and fills us. That’s what the water poured over our heads at baptism symbolizes. We are saturated with the renewing and transformative power of God! And that power is nurturing us, even in the toughest of times when we can’t bring ourselves to pray or even to muster any courage to believe.
What can be said about the work of the Holy Spirit? The Apostles’ Creed concludes with these words: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” All of these things are the work of the Spirit among us and within us, but let me highlight two. First, God’s Spirit draws us into the catholic church. Let’s be clear: this doesn’t mean the Roman Catholic Church, but rather the great universal company of all those who are committed to following the Way of Jesus (the word “catholic” simply means “universal”). The Spirit deepens our identity as individuals by connecting us to others all over the world. There’s a prayer in the Book of Alternative Services that describes the church as “that wonderful and sacred mystery.” It certainly is that because the ultimate boundary of the church is wide and invisible. Remember that the church cannot be reducible to its institutional forms. In the final analysis, the church is comprised of people—all kinds of different people, supporting each another, accountable to each other, loving each other. Never underestimate who might be included. There are many ways that people, even those who might identify with other religious traditions, struggle to follow the Way of Jesus with integrity.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who I’ve mentioned a few times recently, wrote about “unconscious Christianity.” The German church in Bonhoeffer’s day was split between the established church that supported Hitler and the Confessing Church that resisted and was forced underground. But even the Confessing Church was riddled with conflict and disagreements about the extent of appropriate resistance. Toward the end of this life, Bonhoeffer became very frustrated with the Confessing Church and joined a plot to assassinate Hitler, led by people outside the church. As a theologian, he found himself wondering how to make sense of these co-conspirators and comrades in the struggle for justice, even though they weren’t Christians. Or perhaps they were, in their own way. So Bonhoeffer coined the term “unconscious Christianity” to indicate that it is possible for someone to be a Christian while not self-identifying as a Christian. Insofar as people act compassionately and live sacrificially for other, they are emulating and imitating Christ—which, at the heart of it all, is what it means to be a Christian. It is the Holy Spirit poured out that empowers us, and others, to live in this way.
Let me mention, in closing, a second aspect of the Work of the Spirit that is mentioned in the Apostles Creed: the communion of saints. The Holy Spirit connects us to those figures, well-known or lesser-known, who model for us what it means to follow Jesus. We learn from them what it means to be fully human and what means to be empowered by God—or set on fire by the Spirit. In this way, saints become real, very much alive to us in the present. Some of us are attracted to well-known saints. But the communion of saints does not refer only to those “canonized” by the pope. A saint is really anyone who strives to follow the Way of Jesus, from whom others derive inspiration to do the same. That means the communion of saints is boundless. It also means that history matters—what and who has come before us is significant because their lives and their legacies shape us and give us meaning. That doesn’t just happen accidentally. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit.
So, today, let’s celebrate the presence of God among us and in us, past, present and future. Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine!