Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Pentecost for Everybody (The Holy Spirit Explained)

Early in my call to Arkansas, I walked the neighborhood around our church and met the neighbors. One morning I stepped into an organic paint store. The clerk was curious about Lutheranism. As a Pentecostal, she had visited a couple of Lutheran churches, but hadn't observed any of the dramatic manifestations of the Spirit typical in Pentecostal communities.

So she asked, "When the Spirit visits churches, does it look down and see that a church is Lutheran, and just pass over?"

Good question!

To be fair, not all Lutheran congregations are cut of the same cloth. There are "Luthercostal" and charismatic congregations. But they're the minority. Of the vast majority of ELCA congregations the old joke is true, The pastor told such a hilarious joke it was all the congregation could do not to laugh.

We associate Pentecost (and so Pentecostalism) with demonstrative forms of worship and audible speaking in tongues. Highly spiritual worship is emotional, passionate, and noisy. Lutheran worship tends to be more cerebral, liturgical, calm.


Let me offer an alternative construal of Pentecost (and just so also an alternative construal of Lutheranism). Pentecost is better understood as the continuing presence of Jesus Christ made manifest in the apostolic community. It is the Spirit of Christ who shows up at Pentecost. This Spirit is an extension of Christ, or perhaps one might say his new presence. But the Spirit, she is is also her own person, her own "thing," as it were (and yes, if the Spirit is Christ in community, then there may be some gender-bending going on).

The Spirit is both Christ and the community, and more than that, just like other kinds of spirit. Think, for example, of how you might say, "There's a good spirit at this church." Or, "We've got team spirit." Or "that group of toddlers sure is spirited!" The spirit of which we are speaking in such instances is both the community itself, grounded in the identity of the founder... and it is also more than that, its own hypostasis.

Pentecost and the Spirit are worth our consideration. But to get beyond some of our tired and flaccid notions of the Spirit, we need new perspective.

It might be worth hearing a recent account of how another religious tradition, Islam, thinks about the Holy Spirit. Amy Frykholm's interview with Zeti Zaropratik is an excellent start:

In your book you say that in Islam the “comforter” of John 14:16—who Christians understand to be the Holy Spirit—is interpreted to be Muhammad. Is there a place for the Holy Spirit in Islam? How is God’s continuous presence known? 
The Holy Spirit is mentioned several times in the Qur’an. The second chapter of the Qur’an, for example, says that God supported Jesus with the Holy Spirit. Muslim commentators are split on the meaning of Holy Spirit. Some have said that it refers to the angel Gabriel. A group of early Muslim scholars thought that when the Qur’an refers to the Holy Spirit, it means the gospel. In this reading, God supported Jesus with the power of the gospel. Thus the Qur’an and the gospel are “ruh Allah” or the spirit of God. 
Another group of early scholars understood it as the greatest divine name through which Jesus was able to bring the dead to life. Other interpretations have said it is “the pure spirit of God,” while still others have said that it is a feeling of the presence of God. The difference of opinion on the topic attests to its importance as one of the most powerful concepts in the Qur’an.
I'm actually not surprised that some Muslim commentators have interpreted the Holy Spirit as a reference to angels, because honestly much of what we ascribe to the power of the Spirit has also been in Christian theology ascribed to angelic powers. So to the presence of the Spirit, the breath of the Spirit in community, is in fact good news, that is, Gospel. The further definitions of the Spirit in Muslim theology (name of God, the feeling or presence of God, the pure Spirit of God) are quite definitely proximate to Christian understandings of the Spirit.

So a community is spiritual, and the Holy Spirit is present, inasmuch as it continues and exemplifies the presence of Christ. One aspect of the presence of the Spirit pentecostal churches in particular call us into is genuine emotional abandonment in the presence of the Father. My impression as a fascinated onlooker into that religious tradition is that pentecostalism (at least in some of its expressions) encourages "letting yourself go." 

Jesus clearly let himself go, frequently, in the presence of the Father, AND in the presence of the neighbor. Just off the top of my head, I can think of his whipping of the money-changers in the temple, taking off his robes to wash the disciples feet, weeping at the death of Lazarus, cries of despair from the cross, frequent laments about the hard-heartedness of his hearers, etc.

So Pentecost for everybody would at the very least include wild abandon... sometimes. The primary form of wild abandon, however, would be so freely letting ourselves go that Christ might be seen in and through us. 

I'm thinking here of Ephesians 1:11-14: "In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.  In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. "

Live for the praise of his glory.
Live for the praise of his glory.
Live for the praise of his glory.

That already sounds like Pentecost. 

Returning to Lutheranism, however, most of us raised in the liturgical traditions would remind those of the free churches there is a reason why memorization is called "learning by heart." When you memorize a prayer and repeat it, it has literally become a part of you. The repetition of such prayers is one kind of abandon.

Speaking in tongues is another. Both are equal in glory inasmuch as they are manifestations of living for the praise of his glory.

But it's in the living that we either do or don't get Pentecost for everybody. If the community doesn't look like Christ--that is, if it doesn't engage in spirited neighbor love birthed out of the freedom that comes from life in God--then it doesn't matter whether the community prays in tongues or in the traditional version of the Lord's Prayer.

Either or both as the spirit wills, but Pentecost for everybody looks like Jesus. Being spiritual means living the bodily life of Christ as a community. 

I asked some friends what they believed spirit to be, and they said: "Spirit is responsivity to the events of existence and context in relationship" (Kirsten Mebust), and spirit "means an enthusiastic embrace of task/event/play at hand." (Kyle Kellams). And one of my favorite theologians of the Spirit writes, "A community infused by the Spirit of God will display love, a free self-withdrawal and self-giving for the benefit of other creatures" (God the Spirit, Michael Welker).

I love the sense I get from all these quotes that spirit is exuberant giving in and openness to relatedness. That's Pentecost literally for everybody.

No comments:

Post a Comment