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].”
Today is St. Bede’s day. Bede was given as a child oblate to his monastery in about 678 or so at the ripe age of seven. He led a quiet monastic life, devoting himself to praying the office, studying the scriptures and writing. Bede is best known as the author of “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” a history of the English Church and people up to the year 729.
I’ve been reading another English ecclesiastical history lately, the just-published “Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch. McCullough gives Bede a lot of credit for the existence of the English as a distinct nationality. Bede, in the early 8th century, was writing at a time when Britain was emerging from an incoherent condition of tribes and small kingdoms. By the 10th century England was a coherent unit with a single monarchy—and a distinct national identity. The ideology of a unified kingdom of England, according to McCullough, “was fuelled by the way in which Bede had depicted a single race called the English.” [McCullough p339] The way Bede told the story of the emerging English Church helped greatly to solidify the notion of a coherent English national identity. In the telling of things that were old, he helped create something new—bringing out treasures old and new as the parable puts it.
I love cities. They can be so full of life and excitement: but they can also be suffocating, claustrophobic. I was once staying with my brother Michael in a small apartment in the middle of Manchester, England, one August weekend. It was hot and oppressive. So we took off into the country, the lovely Peak District, which is a bit like the hills of Vermont. We climbed for hours up to the top of one of the highest hills called Kinder Scout. We were exhausted, but wonderfully exhilarated. We drank in the air in great thirsty gulps and as we breathed we felt intoxicated by the fresh air and the amazing views…and we started leaping around and shouting and screaming with sheer delight. A couple of hikers below us looked up and I think they probably thought we were drunk.
Today is the Day of Pentecost. On this day the gift of divine power came down upon the disciples, and there was no mistaking it, for it was accompanied by an experience which pounded their senses. Divine power was invading them. An intense catastrophic experience; a rushing wind, tongues of fire; a power beyond human lives invading human lives. Tongues like fire rested on each of them and they then began to speak in other languages. It must have been an extraordinary scene, the disciples as amazed as everyone else. Perhaps they were leaping around in their ecstatic state. No wondered some scoffed and said, “They are filled with new wine!” (Acts 2:13)
Acts 2:1-21/1 Cor. 12:3b-13/John 7:37-39
A few chapters back Jesus tells a woman at a well about water that he would give that would become a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” You’ll never be thirsty if you drink this water. Here he goes further: not only will we not be thirsty if we drink this water, but out of our own hearts will flow rivers of living water!