Updated: Aug 5, 2021
I am not a big fan of prop sermons. It’s not like I haven’t seen some very good sermons that use props – and I have tremendous respect for our Godly Play lessons, which are pretty prop-dependent. It’s just that the first memory I have of a preacher using a prop in a sermon reminds me of some very poor behavior on my part. When I was a teenager, a young associate rector at the church where I grew up attempted to explain the nature of the Holy Spirit (or, as it was known then, “the Holy Ghost”) by pumping a pair of hand bellows. Unfortunately and because kids are cruel, rather than embracing a thoughtful, simplified way of understanding a complicated abstract concept, my church friends and I instead began referring to this unfortunate and well-meaning priest as “The Reverend Holy Bellows.” Now, I am not a believer in karma but in mercy, but now that I am older and wiser and have to try to explain the Holy Spirit myself, I would like to take this livestream opportunity to apologize to the Reverend Doug Wigner, wherever he is.
The fact is that the Holy Spirit is one of the most difficult theological constructs in Christianity – so much so that there is a very famous – and unresolved – argument about whether the Holy Spirit comes from God and Jesus or has always been part of them. Today’s gospel records Jesus as saying that while he lived, “as yet there was no Spirit,” because he had not yet been glorified. The Holy Spirit was connected to Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus had to be taken from those who loved him for the Holy Spirit to be present among us. There needed to be a void for the Holy Spirit to fill.
If you think about it, many blessings arrive this way. When we are full and happy we don’t notice opportunities for growth and renewal, but when are fearful and anxious we become more open to recognizing God’s presence among us. The Hebrew scripture we heard today about the sharing of the Spirit among the people of Moses is one of those stories. These formerly enslaved people had been wandering in the wilderness, waiting to be delivered to the Promised Land and, as we know from other tales, they were, to put it bluntly, a bunch of whiners. Moses was tired of them. Today’s reading picks up right after Moses has told God it would be better for him to die then to have to keep leading this argumentative group. God takes pity on poor Moses and tells him that he can share some of the burden. So Moses gathers seventy elders and the Lord takes some of the spirit that was on Moses and puts it on the seventy others. All seems well – until some tattletale runs to Moses’s assistant to tell him that there are two other men in camp who are prophesying – and Joshua thinks they need to be told to stop. But Moses tells Joshua he is looking at things wrong. “Do you think I should be jealous?!” Moses asks. “Why would I”? God’s spirit is not a limited resource; we don’t need to compete over it. We need to share it.
The fact that the idea of something getting bigger when it is shared is such an abnormal concept in our self-protective culture gives us a good idea of why the Holy Spirit is so hard to explain. The Holy Spirit is not about having or keeping; it’s about how not having something provides a space to fill with something bigger, with something better. The disciples who attended the Festival of Weeks in Jerusalem were, like Moses before them, burdened and weary. They still missed Jesus. They still mourned his absence. It was into this space that God poured the Holy Spirit, revealing that “The … gift of the Holy Spirit means that no one needs to carry any burden alone.” The power and magnificence of the arrival of the Holy Spirit demonstrated that when Jesus died for us his death did not make him smaller; it provided human beings with the opportunity to get bigger. It showed them that the holes that human beings experience in our lives and in our spirits cannot be filled by earthly things, but must instead be offered as containers for the sacrificial love of Jesus and the wisdom and generosity of God.
Our world right now is filled with chasms that cry out for the presence of the Holy Spirit to fill them. This week many of us witnessed a profound and disturbing absence of justice, compassion, and humanity as we saw a white police officer calmly place and keep his full weight on a prostrate and handcuffed black man while the man begged for help, wheezing for air until he died. We watched as legitimate protests were hijacked and transformed by hate, leading to more death and destruction. We learned without surprise that the coronavirus pandemic is more prevalent among African-Americans as a result of our unequal and broken health care system, which does not provide adequate care to those of lower socioeconomic status. We observed with dismay as Asian-Americans were targeted for verbal and physical abuse because they are being unfairly blamed for the spread of the virus. We were dismayed to hear that new coronavirus cases were linked to church services that were held in opposition to government restrictions, leading me to wonder how Christians can have such different ideas about what it means to love one another.
I can’t fathom how any of these behaviors are consistent with the loving, life-giving way of the Jesus I know. A Jesus who protects only the wealthy, applauds self-interest, and excludes and perpetrates violence against people because of race, culture, gender, or for any other reason does not appear in the gospels I have read. My Jesus preferred spending time with the poor and disenfranchised. My Jesus spoke out against those who chose self-interest over compassion, social status over humility, and wealth instead of generosity. My Jesus welcomed marginalized people, engaged in theological conversation with “foreigners,” forgave sinners, and despised liars. The Jesus I know asked anyone who was thirsty to come to him so that they would be filled -with living water, with the Spirit of God – primarily so that they could fill others with it as well.
The Holy Spirit is not a puff of air. It is not what is left over when Jesus has left the building. It is not a pale shade of the Jesus who walked the earth two thousand years ago. It does not rest on the heads and in the hearts of only the powerful and charismatic. It is not the exclusive privilege of a self-assured few. The Holy Spirit resides in the souls of all who thirst for justice, compassion, peace, and love. It is the force that holds within it the means to change this world into the home of God, and God’s people into the faithful children we are meant to be. We are living in a time in which simple human kindness is more and more rare. We are overwhelmed and in danger of simply accepting moral bankruptcy rather than fighting against it. We are living in a time of absence, when God’s people thirst for righteousness. Now, once again, on this day, God has sent us the Holy Spirit – to offer guidance and provide the power to change, to put aside our fear and mourning, and to become a people of courage, flexibility, impartiality, and grace. Let us walk together- filled with the Holy Spirit, protecting the vulnerable, defying the destructive, and creating a world in which all are blessed, all are loved, and everyone who calls out for God shall be saved. Amen.
Carole A. Crumley, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 4.
David M. Bender, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 18.