‘Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me…’
During lockdown, our social lives have had to adapt and evolve somewhat. For some of us, this has meant socially distanced group exercise in a communal garden. For others, it’s meant street get-togethers with bingo, music and the odd police visit! For still others, it’s seen friends meeting online for games evenings, synchronized film viewing and a multitude of quizzes. Since the lockdown was initiated, each week I take part in two online quizzes with friends across Wales and England alongside other occasional ones – but the least said about my family’s shambolic one, the better! Well, in case you’ve missed out on such excitement, or are missing the quizzes that both churches seem to enjoy at guilds and post park perambulation, I thought we could have a bit of a quiz today. No mobile phones or googling allowed…that includes you Bethan!
Okay…question 1 – which New Testament book describes the events of Pentecost? Got your answer?
If you put Acts (of the Apostles) give yourself a mark. I’ll give a half mark for the gospel according to John as he gives an alternative explanation of when and how the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Question 2 – when the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, they appeared to speak in the native languages of at least fifteen identified nations or regions. How many of these can you name? Tough one this…but if you’ve ever had to read this passage up front, it might stick in your mind.
Okay, how have you done? According to Luke then, present were ‘Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs’ (Acts 9-11a). You can have a point for each one you named.
Question 3 – who is the first person in the Bible who was filled with the Spirit? Have a think. Got your answer? Okay.
Anyone put Peter? Mary, perhaps? Well, they were both there at that first Pentecost but they weren’t first to be filled with God’s Spirit. How about earlier in the gospel – maybe Elizabeth or John the Baptist? Well, again, good answers but too late on.
Anyone go for the Hebrew Testament? Joseph, Samson, David? Well…yes, we’re told the Spirit of the Lord was indeed with them but that might well have been for a particular time and action. We’re not told that they were filled with the Holy Spirit, I’m afraid, so no marks there.
How about Bezalel? What d’you mean ‘who?’! Bezalel, the great craftsman? Yeah…he’s not particularly famous, to be fair, but he was the craftsman in charge of building the arc of the covenant and we’re told in Exodus 31:1-4 –
Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in Hebrew, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.
Now, I reckon that would be a University Challenge question! But I will also give you a point if you put Adam – the first human. You see, it can be argued that when God breathed Adam into life, God’s Spirit was breathed into him, and that the same applies to us all – that God’s Spirit dwells both within us and around us, the lifeforce of all creation. There is much scriptural support for this view – from John’s deliberate echoing of the Genesis account in his portrayal of the Spirit’s fresh arrival to passages like Psalm 104:29-30 which, talking about human beings, declares, ‘when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created’. It’s an intriguing thought, isn’t it? That every human being, perhaps even every living creature, contains within it the Spirit of God.
Anyway, where were we on the quiz? How are you doing? Mixed bag? Okay, let’s end with an easy one then. I mentioned Elizabeth earlier so…question 4 – let’s go for…what is the family connection between her and Mary? What was their family relationship?
Did you put cousins? Well, yeah, up until this week, I would have done too! But I’ve been looking at the texts, consulting with commentators whose knowledge of Biblical Greek is far greater than mine (not hard!) and, although the King James version of The Bible names them as cousins, the scholarly consensus is that the text is more ambiguous, calling them ‘relatives’. Luke is the only gospel writer who mentions their kinship at all and he doesn’t actually specify that they – or Jesus and John the Baptist – were cousins.
This is one of the reasons that I love The Bible. It is so rich, multi-layered and full of puzzles that even after reading it off and on for four decades, I’m still only just learning what it actually says and exploring what that might mean. I think that’s hugely exciting. In other words, whether your quiz score is in double figures or the wrong kind of Pointless, it matters not for there is always more to discover about God and ourselves within the pages of our scriptures and outside of them too. And perhaps that’s particularly true when it comes to the work of the Spirit for our understanding of the Spirit’s origin, nature and work has been the cause of more confusion and conflict, divisions and heresies than any other doctrinal issue through the centuries. Today the Church might be more obsessed with gender and sexuality debates but the first significant split of the Church, the Great Schism of 1054, alongside many subsequent ones, was all about the Holy Spirit…which might come as no surprise to us as our scriptures can be somewhat elusive about the issue.
Today, of course, we’ve not got the time to do an extensive study of the many diverse portrayals of God’s Spirit in The Bible (cue a communal sigh of relief!). Instead, we’re going to stay with Mary and Elizabeth, however they were related, for alongside being Pentecost, today is the Feast of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth and as this won’t coincide with Pentecost again until 2093, I thought it would be interesting to see what their pregnant encounter might reveal about the Holy Spirit. So, listen up, for you never know when the next quiz will appear!
Reading: Luke 1:39 – 56
So, did you pick up on Elizabeth being filled with the Holy Spirit there? We’re told that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped for joy in her womb. Now, full confession here – I’ve never been pregnant, so I’m ignorant about how one could distinguish between a child leaping for joy in the womb and a bout of morning sickness but seeing as we were told earlier in the chapter that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit before his birth, I’m guessing it was a unique experience. In either case, in the action of John and the words of Elizabeth, it’s clear to see that an indwelling of the Holy Spirit is closely linked with joy – a motif we see repeated in the life of Jesus (Luke 10:21) and the early church (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
Isn’t that fantastic – that God’s Spirit is a joy-giving one? In some ways, it’s obvious, of course – if you experience or acknowledge the presence of the God of extravagant love and radical grace within your life, you will be full of joy. Perhaps that’s why, in the Roman Catholic Church, one of the criteria that’s used for making people saints is that they produce joy around them – that they overflow with joy, a fruit of God’s Spirit. Remember that joy doesn’t mean a state or permanent happiness and a fixed grin. Rather, in my favoured explanation of it by the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen – ‘Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away’.
I wonder whether we have held on to that joy throughout the challenges of lockdown and the daily slings and arrows we otherwise face in our lives. I wonder whether we need to ask God for more of the Spirit – for more joy, for a deeper acceptance that we are unconditionally loved as we are. I wonder if that’s the message we need to share with our community – and the wider world – at this tough time.
Of course, we’re not simply called to utter words of love to those in need but to partner with God in addressing the causes of suffering. God’s kingdom is one of joy and justice and the Spirit encourages us in this, as we see in the reading.
In response to Elizabeth’s Spirit-filled joy in welcoming Mary and the unborn Jesus, Mary praises God with the words of the Magnificat – the song of praise which declares that God delights and deals in justice; that God lifts up the lowly and brings down the arrogant; blesses the poor and scatters the powerful; the starving are invited to a banquet whilst the callous rich go hungry. Once again, the connection between God’s Spirit and justice is affirmed time and time again in the life of Jesus – perhaps most clearly in Luke 4 where his radical manifesto opens with his pronouncement that ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed be to bring good news to the poor’.
The Spirit of God is a Spirit of justice. I wonder how we are responding to this Spirit today. I wonder whether we need to ask God for more of the Spirit – for the passion to call out the corrupt and hypocritical; for the energy to campaign for peace and equality; for the wisdom to know when to listen and when to make our voices heard. I wonder how we might continue to publicly make known God’s demand for, and delight, in justice in these socially restricted times.
So…a Spirit of Joy; a Spirit of Justice; and finally, a Spirit of Jolts and Japes. Yes, I might be stretching my fondness for alliteration a bit far here but God’s Spirit is a surprising and often mischievous one. Just look at what’s going on with Mary, Elizabeth and their unborn sons. The scene is brilliantly bonkers! The coming of the Messiah who will redeem Israel and transform the world is anticipated and proclaimed, not by angels or emperors, high priests or holy men but by two marginalized, pregnant women – one young, poor and unwed, the other far beyond the age to conceive! The Holy Spirit flows, a baby leaps in the womb, blessings are shared, and a song of revolution is heard!
As Luke reiterates in the traditional Pentecost reading, the Spirit pays no heed to status or convention…rather She blows them all away for the Spirt is poured out on all flesh – ‘the young and old, male and female, slave and free’ (Acts2:17-18). She is wildly inclusive, unpredictable and shocking. Through the Spirit, God’s song of love for creation can be seen and shared through each and every person – the under 5s and over 70s; the workers on the frontline and those shielding at home; the refuse collector, delivery driver and shelf stacker. Through the Spirit, anyone can be bearers of God’s good news; through the Spirit, everyone can play a part in God’s brave new world.
I wonder how the Spirit is working through us during lockdown. I wonder whether we need to ask God for more of the Spirit – for more energy, insight and encouragement in our faith-living today. I wonder how we might keep a look out for God’s Spirit at work amongst the more surprising people and places.
So, after online quizzes and street parties, leaping babies and Church divisions, what can we say about the Spirit this Pentecost morning?
Well, let’s start with joy, justice, jolts and japes.
If quizzed on any of these, I would gladly ask for more.
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. Amen.