“I only asked a simple question”. So said one of our Members of Parliament at a recent enquiry into whether two major pharmaceutical firms should merge. He was exasperated because to his mind the reply he got was simply incomprehensible jargon. There are times, aren`t there, when you simply have to ask: “What on earth are you talking about?” (And when I`m in full flow, perhaps you`ve often wanted to say that to me- so, let me get my apology in first!) But sometimes peoples` language seems so obscure, so technical, so bland or laced with jargon that it`s difficult to work out exactly what they are trying to convey.
And this is especially true of much religious language. In one sense, we`re no different from any other group in that we have particular ways of relating and familiar expressions that we use and in fairness I don`t think we should beat ourselves up about the fact that in becoming a Christian there will always be much of this stuff to learn. So, there will be a need to help people become familiar and conversant with the new life which Baptism asks of them. I mean, I don`t think we do ourselves any favours by assuming that everyone will just `get` this Christian `thing“ from day one. It`s because we assume that they should that we often end up `dumbing things down`; we over-simplify and collude with a lazy and unthinking culture which has little time for nuance.
But, problems arise however, when language (and especially religious language) is used not so much to communicate or enlighten but rather to obscure. We complain that politicians do this all the time; but the use of some words- particularly when some people may not really understand them- is just one way in which we mark our territory. Certain language is used to say, “We`re in and you`re not”. Certain language is used to assert superiority and reinforce boundaries. Being `in the know` or privy to certain information or even pseudo `divine knowledge` carries a certain Kudos and spurious status in some quarters. That`s why observing what that Member of Parliament experienced, one commentator said: “So much language is tribal and reinforces belonging”.
Quite so, and this is the first thing I`d like us to ponder. I think it helps to be aware that sometimes the language we use has two levels of meaning. So, statements about faith can on the one hand be quite legitimate and informational but at the same time in some contexts they can be used as part of an often unspoken, psychological and social game; a game which again, is really about boundaries; inclusion and exclusion. And there`s no better example or opportunity for this than when we start to speak about the events of Pentecost and the Gift of the Holy Spirit. This is a prime moment at which so many of us want to say: “What on earth are you talking about?”. In other words, “When you`re talking about Holy Spirit, what can we point to in our lived experience that will help us understand all this religious language?”
Well the first thing to say is that I stand by my remarks last week about `mystery`. Let`s just hold onto that notion and appreciate that in the Acts of the Apostles St. Luke is clearly falling over himself trying to convey something really quiet incredible. Secondly, let`s also remind ourselves that St. Paul, especially in his letters to the Church in Corinth, had to work quite hard to deal with a community of Christians who were clearly prone to playing these games of one-upmanship and trying to assert their spiritual pedigree on the basis of their understanding of the Holy Spirit. In other words, in the Church this is a very familiar game. And thirdly, let`s just reflect on how ironic it is that the central theme of Pentecost, where everyone gets to hear the good news of God`s Kingdom “in their own language” should become the opportunity for so much angst and miss- understanding.
So what`s going on? Well to begin with I think it helps to get a hold on what I`ve referred to in recent times as the `Big Picture` of God`s purposes. So, for some people the events at Pentecost are St Luke`s way of pointing us to the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis. The way in which everyone heard the Good News of God `in their own language` was, if you will a reversal of that moment in Genesis when as a result of humanity`s arrogance the Lord `confused` their languages.
At very least this event in the Book of Acts also points us to the Book of Genesis where we hear of the breath or wind of God hovering over creation and of God breathing life into Adam. I mean, whatever else we may want to say there is something here in this Pentecost story that is about God`s desire to re-make, to re-create his world. It`s very clear in that quotation from the Prophet Joel; that God`s concern is for `All Flesh`- not just the privileged or favoured few.
But then also, it helps to reflect on the promises given by Jesus. In John`s Gospel, for instance, he talks of the Gift of the Spirit as our advocate and guide; as a source of strength, inspiration and truth and the assurance that we are not orphaned or left to our own devices. In other words to say that we have received the Spirit says something about relationship. It`s the confirmation that we have been drawn into a deep closeness with Christ and the Father. St. Paul told the Church in Rome, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (Romans 8.14-16). So there`s something here about creation being put right and there`s something about a restored relationship. But let`s look at things from another angle. If you`re going to go away from here this morning saying, “I am a bearer of the Holy Spirit” what are you saying?
Firstly, you`re saying that `I believe in a God who Gives`. It is in the nature and character of God that he gives. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (John 3.16) and so on. And when we pray we are in the presence of one who desires to give, as the prayer has it “more than we can desire or deserve”. To believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe in the lavishness of God; most importantly in drawing us into his friendship.
Secondly we`re saying that what this God gives is for ALL. I want to emphasise those words from the Prophet Joel and that reading from Acts. The focus is on what`s called “All Flesh”; All whom the Lord calls to himself”. In other words the `aunt sally` that I want to knock down is the way in which so much religious language seems to forget this. Many of the divisions we see among Christians are because of this tendency to affirm our tribal and special status by adding little words to that title Christian. So we hear talk of `Born-again` Christian. `Committed` Christian and even….. `Spirit-filled` Christian. In other words we seem to think we can use the Holy Spirit to distinguish some elite category of Christian from the `hoi polloi`. Well just as the Las Vegas theatre announcer used to say “Elvis has left the building”, when a church gets like that you can be sure that the Holy Spirit is nowhere to be seen.
No, one of my favourite images from St. Paul is where he calls us `earthen vessels` or clay pots which contain a great treasure. This is how it really is. The gift of the Spirit is not to make us more religious or for the sprucing up of a spiritual elite. God`s concern is for the salvation and the recreation of ALL and importantly the presence of his Spirit is in no way confined to those who verbally acknowledge him. This is the great fault-line in the Book of Acts, where the church had to come to terms with God`s Spirit popping up in the most unlikely places and in the most unsuitable people. No, as we go our way we affirm that God Gives. What God gives is for ALL and thirdly, what God gives is for living. Part of the problem is that so much talk of the Holy Spirit has been hijacked by those who would focus on particular experiences and enthusiasm. I`m not going to quench that enthusiasm except to point out how naïve and frankly how obsessed with the sensual it often is. Again, there`s nothing new in this. In that letter to the Church in Corinth Paul doesn`t pull his punches when he says: “I may speak in the tongues of men or of angels but if I have no love I`m a noisy gong or a clanging symbol” (I Corinthians 13.1) Just think of what an irritating image a clanging symbol can be!
But instead of course Paul asks us to focus is on love. It`s not the experience of the Spirit that matters so much as its Fruit or what happens as a consequence of the presence of God in our life. In his letter to the Galatians Paul tells us very clearly what to look for: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control” (Galatians 5) “This”, he`s saying “is what it looks like when the Spirit is present”. This is God`s gift. This is what holiness looks like. Notice there`s nothing essentially religious about any of these words. No, it`s what a real human being look like. It`s a `kitchen sink, how am I relating to family, friends and people in the street` kind of thing`. As St. Irenaeus once said: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive”.
You see the Holy Spirit doesn`t remove you from the world but pitches you into it where these gifts are so deeply needed. It`s where, as Jesus said in that explosive little Gospel reading we heard this morning: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” In other words, as these gifts of Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control literally `well-up` you become a sign of God`s goodness in the world- not, again for your own sake but for the sake others. And just to keep your pride at bay, you won`t notice when it`s happening either. At the end of our worship each week we ask: “Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory”. Well this is what we have in mind. The call is to be so open and indwelt by God`s Spirit that the fruit become a reality. Can I invite you to begin each day with the ancient Christian prayer: `Come Holy Spirit`.