Our texts for this Pentecost Eucharist Sunday are all about the Holy Spirit, God who is with us in daily life. At the outset, let me personalize this by telling you that today is a poignant one for my wife and me, because it would be the 40th birthday of our daughter, Gwendolyn, had she not died instead at the age of 4 months. Her younger sisters, Naomi and Leonora, have flourished in the meantime, and many of you here have met them and their children, our grandchildren, one of whom, by no accident, is named Gwendolyn. But as you might imagine, I have groaned, to use Paul’s words, for 40 years to understand and internalize the eternal connection between us now and that brief life in 1966 and her young parents who knew joy and devastation so closely entwined. This special anniversary is the subtext for my reading the Pentecost texts this year.
The famous passage from Acts is about the actual Pentecost event. Jesus had recently been crucified, had been seen afterward by some in a resurrected state, and had then been observed by some to have left again, ascended into heaven. Left behind bereft and confused, many of his followers were gathered in a house, ostensibly to celebrate the Jewish festival of the Law of Moses but more likely just to mope about, caught up in their loss. After miraculously returning to them, Jesus had left them again. Suddenly in the house they heard and felt a violent wind. Tongues of fire appeared over the head of each of them. Then they began to speak in languages they had not previously known, but that were understood by the foreign visitors.
You recognize these symbols. The Greek and Hebrew words for “wind” also mean “spirit,” so that the people were filled with the rush of a violent spirit, the divine Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is also symbolized by fire. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is symbolized by people saying things they did not know they could say. Interpretation of the gospel is always a form of translation, saying in other words, perhaps in other languages, what the gospel is supposed to mean. But how do we know what the correct interpretation or translation is? Which is the Holy Spirit’s interpretation? Or to ask my personal question, how do I find the true gospel in my daughter’s short life?
John’s gospel, in our reading for today, says that, when Jesus ascends to eternal life in God, God will send the Holy Spirit to guide the disciples. Specifically, because the disciples are to function as the body of Christ, the Holy Spirit interprets for them the mind of Christ. Of course we have many witnesses to the mind of Christ, especially the scriptures and nearly two millennia of traditions of theological interpretation. And herein lies the trouble. How do we tell which of the many spirits that appeal to us is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit lies at the inward heart of our imagination by means of which we engage God and interpret the significance of Jesus Christ. But then all those other spirits also work within our imagination. Think of the questions that haunted my wife and me: had we done something to deserve our daughter’s death? Were our sins being punished? Was she blasted like the fig tree by an angry deity? These are all kinds of biblical questions.
St. Paul, in our Romans text, points out how inward and fundamental the Holy Spirit is. He says that the Spirit teaches us to pray by “sighs too deep for words.” Of course, he does not condemn ordinary praying in words. But real prayer, for him, is not like addressing another person, however much we usually think of it that way. Rather, real prayer is God in the form of the Holy Spirit praying within us. We do not so much pray to God as God prays us to life and strength with movements like sighs deep within our soul.
Now the problem of discerning the Holy Spirit is that all those other spirits also seem like movements from the depths of our souls. The spirit of greed and avarice, which so often disguises itself as the love of freedom, is a movement deep within the soul. The spirit of self-centeredness and narcissism, which also disguises itself as the love of freedom, is another movement deep within the soul. The spirit of fanaticism and excess, which disguises itself as ecstatic devotion to a cause, moves deep within the soul. The spirit of guilt and self-condemnation, which disguises itself as confession, moves deep within the soul. The fact we want something from the bottom of our heart does not necessarily mean that this passion is from the Holy Spirit. Yet all these false spirits, and others, have presented themselves as religiously compelling.
To say in principle how the Holy Spirit differs from all those other spirits is not difficult. The Holy Spirit is God working to complete the creation, which, as Paul says in our text, groans with the labor of coming to birth. The Holy Spirit works especially in human beings, Paul says, for whom the fullness of creation includes our redemption from the evil effects of sin. Therefore, the Holy Spirit works for a kind of wholeness of the individual self, a balance among the needs of people, and a harmony of people with the whole of creation. Those other spirits are serious matters because they all are legitimate fragments of the wholeness of life. Wanting things is the engine of life, but is a perverse spirit when it turns to avarice and greed. Tending to our own business is at the heart of responsibility, but becomes perverse when it leads to self-centeredness. Ecstatic experience, which shows us that ordinary life is a thin veneer covering over the wondrous and wild powers of God, can become the perversion that leads to the fanaticism that has made religion so often more evil than good. Guilt and self-condemnation are bottom-line requirements for confession, but become mistaken and off-target if not made sane and realistic by the blessings of forgiveness: our daughter did not die for our sins—a blasphemous idea—but from heart disease.
How do we tell which promptings of the Spirit lead to wholeness, balance, and harmony? In the long run, Paul says in Galatians 5, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” This is a fairly decisive set of criteria for outcomes of Christian living, because we all know of allegedly Christian cultures and theologies that give rise instead to resentment, bitterness, agitation, impatience, criticism, selfishness, capitulation to false gods, arrogance, and alienation from God and neighbor. Waiting for the long-run fruits of the Spirit is not always helpful in our need to discern the Holy Spirit in daily life, however. How would it help find the gospel in our daughter’s short life? Having lived with this question for forty years, the biblical number, by the way, I have three practical short-run suggestions.
First, in the short run it helps a very great deal to have a personal, imaginative relationship with Jesus. From what we know from scripture and from the multitudes of traditions of interpretation of Jesus, we can imagine Jesus with us in our circumstances, understanding what is going on, knowing the depths of our soul, our foul passions as well as noble ones, accompanying us in the worst moments of despair, sharing with us in the peak experiences, companioning us in the ordinary round of work and living. The gospel pictures of Jesus correct our attempts to imagine him as approving our weaknesses or going along with our foolish biases. They shame both our false-righteousness and our false-self-condemnation. How could anyone imagine Jesus letting us think our daughter’s death was our fault, or God’s punishment for our sins?
Second, because the Holy Spirit is the animation of Christ the Logos throughout all creation, its marks are unity and harmony everywhere. In matters of personal relations, even our enemies are to be loved as our brothers and sisters, no matter how much they stand for what we disapprove of or hurts us. In matters of history, all things are together in eternity because of the Holy Spirit, which means that our daughter’s brief life lives eternally in God, along with that of her young parents of forty years ago, as well as with all of us now, so much older and wiser. Whereas we have only photo albums, God’s eternity has all lives together. Nothing is lost in God’s eternity.
Third, the Spirit sighing within us gives us a glimpse of God’s perspective from which each part of creation is infinitely valuable and beautiful to the divine eye. This is an easy point when contemplating the glories of nature or the genius of art. To see the value in evil things, especially our own unrighteousness, is much harder—but that is what the whole drama of redemption is about. The sighs of the Holy Spirit taught me to see positively the infinite beauty in our daughter’s four months of life, and to give up dismay at their brevity. That we lost her is just the way God’s creation works. That we enjoyed her is the miracle of creation itself, and is why the Spirit has taught us to bless with infinite gratitude the Lord who gives and takes away. God prays us to life and strength with movements like sighs deep within our soul.
I invite you now to the table of the Eucharist with a sense that the Holy Spirit has harmonized this ritual meal into a larger process of spiritualizing the world. Please join in reverent awe at the Holy Spirit who, like a violent wind transforming all things, keeps Jesus in our midst, the whole creation in harmony, and the bliss of God’s glory in the corner of our eyes.