I must confess that I have always been envious of those who are able to acquire another language. I have always struggled to learn a second language.
As a child my parents enrolled me in private French lessons, but when French became available at school, it was like starting over again. Each year was the same. I struggled all year to learn a few basics, scrape by with a pass at the end of the school year, and then forget everything over the summer. I would start again from square one, once again, each Fall. I finally dropped both French and Latin in high school. In the first year of seminary, I enrolled in New Testament Greek. Early in the term the professor arranged for us all to take a language aptitude test. My years of struggling to learn another language all came together with that test. Finally everything made sense.
If you have taken the language aptitude test, you will know that it is based on learning a few simple elements of Kurdish. The idea is to see how quickly you can learn it and then answer some questions. A week or so after the test, I sat in the professor’s office to hear my results. He began by telling me he didn’t understand why I was having such difficulty learning Greek, as I had a perfect aptitude for foreign languages. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. Mumbled oh and said to me, James I see why you are having such difficulties. I was reading the score backwards. You have absolutely no aptitude to learn a second language
I don’t know exactly how that language aptitude test works, but after years of trying to learn French, Latin and then Greek, I didn’t need a test to tell me what I already knew. There is something about my brain that simply can’t absorb languages. I joke that even after thirty years in this country, I still don’t understand and can’t speak American. It has been explained to me countless times, what freshman, sophomore, junior and senior mean, but it needs to be explained to me again each time someone uses those phrases. And please don’t tell me you are a rising sophomore because that will just confuse me even more.
I Corinthians 12:3b-13
Today’s lessons present us with two very different accounts of how Jesus’ disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first account, recorded in the Gospel of John, takes place in the evening of the first day of the week; that is, on Easter day. The disciples are gathered in a house with its doors locked shut. The gospel writer tells us they are afraid and explains why: they are imagining that the same people who put Jesus to death might now come after them. Without warning, and apparently without knocking or using the door, Jesus appears in the room, standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he says. He then shows them his hands and his side, proving that he is the same Jesus they knew, still bearing the marks of his crucifixion. The disciples receive him gladly, and he responds by ordering them into the world, just as the Father had sent him into the world. Then, he breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Finally, along with the commission to go into the world and the gift of the Holy Spirit, he grants them power to forgive people’s sins, or to refuse them forgiveness.
It’s a gentle episode – emotional perhaps, but not terrifying; surprising, but not overwhelming. We can imagine Jesus greeting them in a calm, quiet voice to soothe their shock at his sudden appearance: “Peace be with you.” The Spirit comes to them in such a gentle way: Jesus simply breathes on them. The Hebrew word for “spirit” means “breath” or “wind.” Here it comes as a gentle breath.
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. —Collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
One of the graces of this season spent in quarantine has been the lectionary’s course of readings through St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The narrative is at once dense and frenetic, while also a source of great comfort. We read of disciples not so different from you and me. People who faced gargantuan challenges and struggled with the solid weight of human poverty, weakness, and finitude—of going to bed each night completely and helplessly ignorant of any of the possibilities that God might give with the sun’s rise. I can only fantasize about the tenor of the prayers that Jesus’ little community must have prayed in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.
We know the rest of the story, and perhaps that can tempt us to presumption. It is easy for us to overlook the yawning jaws of despair that likely followed at the heels of Jesus’ followers after his ascension, hungry for their fear. Tempting them to rely on themselves. Begging them to deny God’s faithfulness. Yes, we know the rest of the story, but even the gift of hindsight is just that, a gift. Yes, we know that in a week’s time God’s faithfulness—however providentially awkward—will be attested by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. A faithfulness, which will change the course of history. Yet I cannot help but wonder what the followers of Jesus must have made of God’s faithfulness during that strange, silent hinge between Ascension and Pentecost.
Preached at Order of the Holy Cross, West Park NY
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
John 14:8-17 (25-27)
I know that not many of you know me, but those of you who do, will perhaps remember that my undergraduate degree is in history. All my life I have been interested in history. There was even a time long ago when asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, my response was more likely to be a pioneer, than anything else. I remain fascinated by history and especially, for obvious reasons, by the history of the revival of monasticism within the Anglican tradition.
Reading the history of the monastic movement within Anglicanism is lots of fun, because you come across all kinds of people, some of them inspirational, like Father Huntington or Father Benson, and some of them just plain nuts, like Father Ignatius of Llanthony.
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Since the origins of Western drama in ancient Greece, playwrights have utilized the narrative convention of the unseen character. Through layers of references and descriptions established by the onstage characters, the offstage, unseen character begins to acquire a distinct identity and motivation within the mind of the audience. The absence of such a character works to advance the action of the plot as much as any of the characters present. The Wizard of Oz is the best example of this in popular film. If the unseen character does eventually appear onstage – as does the “great and powerful Oz” – it is after much anticipation, and the moment rarely unfolds as the audience has come to expect it will. Sometimes the unseen character dies, or departs, or simply never shows up. Samuel Becket’s play Waiting for Godot is a classic, twentieth century example. And sometimes, as in the plays of Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, the audience may be tempted to question whether the unseen character is a projection, a symbol of an onstage character’s unresolved longings: an unseen male child, a lost mother, or a beautiful, young stranger. These characters are like messengers from another world, or magnets whose energy holds together a visible outer life and an invisible, unconscious world.
Throughout the long story of salvation history, there are distinct moments when the Holy Spirit acts in the manner of an unseen character. The Spirit dances around the borders or surges as an undercurrent beneath the lives of women and men, palpably felt though never quite glimpsed directly: at times, a blazing fire on mountaintop or altar, whose power is just barely contained; at other times, an almost fluid substance invading a prophet from without; at still other times, a guiding light illumining the dreams or visions of a hero. Even in the synoptic gospels, the moments we might consider cameo appearances of the Spirit serve in the narrative much more like elements of Jesus’s inner experience, enriching and deepening our understanding of Jesus as one whose every intention and motivation are guided by the Spirit. It is in our reading from Acts of the Apostles that we seem to encounter the iconic, much-awaited stage direction of the Divine Playwright: “ENTER, from above, the HOLY SPIRIT.” But as in many dramas, this momentous, much-anticipated appearance onstage contains an unforeseen twist: as the first followers of Jesus are “clothed with power from on high” the Holy Spirit speaks not a climactic soliloquy, but in the speech of one-hundred-twenty actors speaking all at once, in all the languages of the known world. Offstage and onstage collapse as framing devices that no longer apply, if they ever had. The author of Acts sends a clear message: we are there among them. The Holy Spirit has come upon us, and is with us, and is in us. The whole world has changed. A new era has begun. By undergoing baptismal rebirth, the Spirit can be given by one believer to another, like the passing of a candle flame.
This gradual, transformative, and utterly significant shift in our relationship to the Holy Spirit, effected by the death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus, is delineated with the greatest power and subtlety in John’s gospel. Scholar Andrew Byers has dedicated significant attention to the Holy Spirit as a distinct character in John. For Byers, the Spirit is a significant “offstage” presence who emerges quite slowly and mysteriously as an “onstage character.”[i] The role of the Spirit in relation to the intimacy shared by the Father and the Son comes into focus as language applied to Jesus in John is re-applied to the Spirit. Jesus describes the Spirit as “another Advocate,” the Spirit of Truth, who is with and in the disciples, and is unacceptable to the world. The true work of the Spirit ultimately extends beyond the gospel narrative. The Holy Spirit cannot emerge in his own right as an agent and source of the disciple’s ongoing transformation in Christ until the primary onstage character of the gospel – Jesus – has made his exit in the flesh.
At our baptismal re-birth, the Holy Spirit catalyzes a process that the ancient church would come to call theosis. A single white cotton thread, when dipped in a cup of red dye will gradually absorb the dye and become red by osmosis. Likewise, we are called to enter into full participation in God’s inner life, whereby we undergo theosis: absorption by grace of what God is by God’s divine nature.[ii] We do not become God, but we become more and more like God – and more and more the full expression of who and what God has made us to be, in a dynamic, life-long process of synergy between our faithful praxis and God’s free and energizing self-gift. As we allow God to be God-in-us, the likeness of Christ is restored to us and suffuses our whole personhood. While this is not a linear progression, there are some basic movements described in Scripture and the writings of the saints.
Before we ever consciously embark on this adventure, the indwelling Holy Spirit already prays within us, preparing the ground for theosis. In the letter to the Romans, Paul writes:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.[iii]
The transforming Holy Spirit bestows deepening inner freedom as we engage the life of theosis in the Church. Again, Paul writes in the Second Letter to the Corinthians:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.[iv]
The empowering Holy Spirit frees us and sends us to receive each moment and circumstance of life as it is. The whole of life becomes an opportunity for ever-deepening theosis. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus counsels his disciples:
See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.[v]
As a high school actor I had the joy and privilege of becoming more fully myself by inhabiting the skin of a character onstage. Later in life, that experience was put to the test when I myself began teaching high school and was unexpectedly asked to direct student theater. The most gratifying and miraculous moments in a high school play are those in which an audience catches a glimpse of a young actor’s unselfconscious humanity: the embodied expression of her personhood taking shape behind and beneath the memorized lines and tentative gestures. Here and there, true feeling flashes forth and art takes flesh before our eyes. She has become the character because she is becoming herself.
The true miracle of our own becoming, our own theosis, becomes apparent by a similar process. The Holy Spirit, once an unseen character dancing around the borders or surging as an undercurrent in the life of God’s people, has been revealed in power and glory at Pentecost. Now it is the Holy Spirit who anticipates, with hints and guesses, the unseen character waiting in the wings of our own inner stage. That Spirit encourages us in sudden epiphanies and cherished dreams, in quiet moments of profound trust, in providential encounters with loved ones and wise guides, and in times of waiting, when the strength of our courage or faith may be put to the test. For the one who is ready, the Holy Spirit stands ready as an intimate, personal companion, a co-creator, and a collaborator in our sanctification. Of the person whose life is gathered in that state of readiness, Richard Meux Benson, our founder, writes, “The powers of the Holy Ghost are ready to co-operate with him, if he is ready to use them. The Holy Ghost waits, and is kept waiting by our unreadiness. If we are too fast or too slow we miss his presence; whereas if we are just doing the right thing at the proper time, we find him ready to meet us and work with us.”[vi]
Come, Holy Spirit, again and again, in the Pentecost of every moment, revealing the likeness of Christ within, and sending us to see Christ in all. Amen.
[i]See Andrew Byers’ extended treatment of the Holy Spirit in Chapter 11 of his Ecclesiology and Theosis in the Gospel of John, Cambridge University Press (2017).
[ii]For a unique and masterful exploration of theosis from an Anglican perspective, see A. M. Allchin’s Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition.
[iv]2 Corinthians 3:17-18.
[vi]Richard Meux Benson. Instructions on the Religious Life, Series III.
As we draw near the Feast of Pentecost it is a time for us to think deeply about the gifts of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost and what they mean for us as members of the Church.
Jesus in his discourse at the Last Supper promised that an Advocate would be given the disciples. He did not say much then. We know that in those words he was giving his disciples the promise of the Holy Spirit. Through their words it is given to us.
If you are hungry for good news this morning, you’ve come to the right place! Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, recalling the coming of the Holy Spirit in power upon the early Church and rejoicing in the power of that same Spirit’s presence in our lives today. There is so much good news here it’s hard to know where to begin!
Today is the Day of Pentecost. On this day the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of divine power, came to the disciples, and there was no mistaking it. For it was accompanied by an experience which pounded the senses. Divine power was invading them: an intense catastrophic experience. It sounded like the rush of a violent wind. Tongues, as of fire, rested on each one of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.
One of my favorite places in Chicago is the beautiful Buckingham Fountain. It sits on a large plaza between Lake Michigan and a spectacular wall of skyscrapers. A big wedding cake of a fountain, it’s sometimes called Chicago’s front door.
I grew up not too far from the Windy City. I remember Mayor Daly greeting Queen Elizabeth at the fountain in 1957. She had come down the St. Lawrence Seaway on the royal yacht all the way to Chicago. Flags and bands and rifles and national anthems and so on, ladies curtsying. The queen and the mayor were a study in contrasts. Fifty-four years ago Elizabeth looked and spoke very much the elegant young queen that she was. Mayor Daly looked and spoke very much, well, Mayor Daly—the jowly, rotund boss of a huge political machine. You could imagine him smoking cheap cigars (of course, we’re talking about the first Mayor Daly, not the more recent one).
“Pentecost continues! Pentecost is most fundamentally a continuing gift of the Spirit;”
So begins “A Pastoral letter to the Episcopal Church” (2 June 2010) [http://www.episcopalchurch.org/79425_122615_ENG_HTM.htm], issued this past week by Presiding Bishop and Primate Katharine Jefferts Schori.
“Pentecost is most fundamentally a continuing gift of the Spirit, rather than a limitation or quenching of that Spirit,” writes the Primate. Her letter comes in response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Pentecost letter to the Anglican Communion (28 May 2010) [http://www.episcopalchurch.org/79425_122553_ENG_HTM.htm] concerning current struggles within the Communion. Bishop Katharine expresses concern that the text of that letter “seems to equate its understanding of the Spirit’s outpouring,” as she puts it, “with a single understanding of gospel realities. Those who received the gift of the Spirit on that day all heard good news,” Jefferts Schori continues. “The crowd reported, ‘in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power’ [Acts 2:11].”