Some human experiences, some spiritual experiences, are so overwhelming that only the language of metaphor and poetry can adequately begin to describe them. Today’s festival of Pentecost recalls the transformational coming of the divine Spirit, the Holy Spirit, to the disciples, transforming them from disciples – learners or pupils – into apostles – missioners, bearers of the gospel. At Pentecost – fifty days after Easter – there is so sudden and dramatic an outpouring of the Spirit of God, that only the language of metaphor will convey its reality. It is as if the wind and fire associated with the presence of God in the Old Testament (do you recall how the Lord appeared before the prophet Elijah in the wind and earthquake and fire?) are now once again dynamic indicators of the presence of God – no longer distant from, but descending upon and dwelling within his servants. And this indwelling of the Spirit is an empowering gift, somehow enabling the apostles to communicate with those of other cultures and languages. It is as if the confusion of languages and communication which in the Genesis story derived from the divine destruction of the tower of Babel is somehow reversed: instead of confusion there is communication: ‘in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power’.
Breath, wind, spirit: what links these words from our Pentecost readings? The ideas are all intimately associated in the Hebrew and Greek languages in the words ruach and pneuma. St John describes how Jesus ‘breathes’ on the disciples, inviting them to ‘breathe in’ the Holy Spirit, or as we might say be ‘inspired’ or even ‘enthused’ (indwelt by God). Jesus sends them, empowers them; gives them authority in his name to pronounce or to refuse God’s forgiveness – an authority which still resides in the Church and which is exercised by its priests both in the private confessional and in public prayer. And the activity of the Spirit of God is symbolised by a ‘rushing mighty wind’, a presence at once disturbing and exciting.
St Paul speaks of the outpoured Spirit of God in the first church communities of Asia Minor. For him, in an early church context characterised by a kind of chaotic dynamism, all these powerful manifestations of the divine – whether in ecstatic utterance – the ‘gift of tongues’ – or in healing powers or in faith or in prophecy – all emanate from one and the same divine source: ‘we were all made to drink of one Spirit’. ‘In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body’.
So if Christmas is the festival of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the babe of Bethlehem; if Easter is the festival of redemption through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus; then Whitsun, Pentecost, is the festival of the mission of God in the world, the empowering God who is the source of all mission. If Christmas is about Emmanuel, ‘God with us’; if Easter is about the redemptive ‘God for us’; then Whitsun is about the empowering ‘God within us’. So what can this mean for us? How can we understand ‘God within us’, the God who is Holy Spirit?
God’s Spirit ‘moved on the face of the waters’ at the Creation. God’s Holy Spirit is the source of all creativity. The artist’s vision, the actor’s or singer’s voice, the craftsman’s skill, the poet’s metaphor, the engineer’s calculation, the scientist’s imagination: all derive from God; all are his gifts. As Paul says elsewhere: ‘what do we have that we have not received?’ And as creativity is from God, so too is compassion. The nurse’s skill, the doctor’s healing art, the counsellor’s empathy, the teacher’s understanding, the mother’s care: all are from God’s Holy Spirit. And if creativity and compassion are from God, so too is communication. The spark which ignites between people when language is understood is the spark of the Holy Spirit. All the human gifts are gifts of God. And – perhaps most importantly – character too is a product of the divine activity. The fruit of the Spirit, writes St Paul, ‘is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against such things.’ Thanks be to God!