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The Spirit is a source of unity

By 
  • May 14, 2015

Pentecost Sunday (Year B) May 24 (Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)

In every age and in every place, the Holy Spirit has been present, doing the work of God and advancing spiritual consciousness. One need but read Luke’s infancy narrative to realize that nearly all of the individuals mentioned in the run-up to the birth of Jesus were guided by and filled with the Spirit. 

We often hear the Spirit invoked or discussed, but usually as a theological doctrine or concept. It is clear in the New Testament readings, however, that for the first generation of Christians, the Spirit was a transforming and empowering personal experience. Luke concentrates on the communal aspect of the Spirit — its work in building human community that reflects divine principles. The descent of the Spirit at Pentecost immediately banished fear and doubt among the followers of Jesus. It was a source of unity, reconciliation and harmony of minds and hearts. The Spirit didn’t stop there for God’s community is without borders. The Spirit in Acts dragged the reluctant disciples kicking and screaming into the kingdom of God by challenging old ways of thinking. No longer were they to judge foods as unclean, but that prohibition also extended to classes of people.

God does not recognize human labels. The followers of Jesus were challenged to accept gentile converts as equals and to have table fellowship with them — a huge leap in spiritual awareness that we fail to appreciate. But the Spirit was just getting warmed up: they were to welcome those they were programmed to hate and exclude.

Cornelius the Roman centurion and his household were gifted with the Holy Spirit and welcomed into the household of God. The Holy Spirit has never been a friend of the status quo or a respecter of human opinions and prejudices, nor has it been the property of a select few. The Spirit is an active force with a mind and mission of its own — that is why despite words to the contrary, humans are nervous in its presence. How much the Spirit is needed in our own time! Particularism, group identity, conflict, suspicion, fear and the desire to label and exclude seem to have a grip on our world. Ego, arrogance and possessiveness are the enemies of the Spirit’s work. We fear God’s future so we circle the wagons and long for some non-existent idyllic time in the past. The future belongs to those who will trust the Spirit and allow themselves to be led.

One of the ways in which the Spirit creates community is by distributing spiritual gifts. There is one catch: they are not the property of the recipient and can only be used for the common good. The Spirit gives us an awareness of our interdependence and our unique and vital role in Christ’s body. When gifts are used for selfish ends or to inflate the ego — as they often are — the results can be called many things but not God’s work or God’s community.

John’s description of the gift of the Spirit is very different than that of Luke. It was a quiet and private affair and Jesus gave the Spirit personally, minus the tongues of flame and the sound effects. It was understood to be an act of new creation — just as God breathed over the chaotic deep at creation, so Jesus breathed over the brokenness and chaos of human lives. They were empowered to continue the work of Jesus, which was to reveal the true God to the world. The true God is light, in whom there is no darkness whatsoever, and love. Anything else is a projection of human fears and insecurities. The peace that Jesus gave them with this Spirit was not an earthly peace, but the peace that comes from the dissipation of fear and the experience of being loved absolutely and unconditionally. The Spirit given by Jesus removed fear, filled them with a God-given power, and sent them to begin the work of healing and reconciling a broken world.

The Spirit is not magic, and its work is far from finished. Too often it has been ignored, derailed or hijacked by human fear, selfishness or lust for power. The Spirit can only work effectively where it is welcomed. We can choose human control or a Spirit-guided life, but we cannot have both.

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