Today is someone’s birthday. That someone is the Church! What is a birthday? That’s the beginning of life outside the belly or egg, but not really THE beginning. Before you get “on the outside”, you already exist, act upon others, and others care for you. Yet, a birth defines the moment of starting your life “for real”. Maybe, because you first take a breath? Before, mom’s blood flowed through you and gave you oxygen, but now you get to do the job yourself. That’s probably why we say that the Church was born when God gave it the Spirit, since the word Spirit means breath (cf respiration).
What’s the Church birth date? We think of it as 50 days after Jesus came out of the tomb. Jesus was put on the cross when his friends were celebrating the time that God let their nation escape from Egypt, where they did forced work. The Spirit came on the next ancient holiday, when they were thanking God for the first fruit of their gardens, as they did every year. Before this, was the Spirit in each person, did people pray, and made friends? Yes to all. Yet, this was “the birth” – the first “breath” of the church. They even felt it as the strong wind and saw it as fire (scary!).
But what is a birthday without a gift? Like the fairy Godmother, and our own family and friends, God gave the Church a gift. His first gift – the first “fruit” that they were in fact just celebrating – was… that the people could understand each other, despite language differences. Do you sometimes get phone games or apps as gifts? On the Church birthday, it seemed as though God put a miraculous google translator app right into the people’s minds, as a gift. Don’t you wish we still had it? It’s difficult to learn languages!
A story in the Bible describes God making all languages different, so people couldn’t communicate; which they needed to because they were trying to build a tower high enough to climb up to him. They wanted to climb for reasons God didn’t like. But, on the Church birthday God said, “Please – do work together! Learn to understand each other! I want you to reach up to me. The tower you build is the Church, and its foundation is Jesus’ self-giving. In this, you have a great reason to want to be with me, and a new way to climb!” We still climb and build, and we DO still have the app of understanding in our hearts. But, it’s beyond words; in our kindness, empathy, noticing feelings, and self-giving.
The app IS the Spirit. But, the Spirit IS also God! Why use this special name, Holy Spirit? Who is God? God with the big G is the One who has been and will be forever, knows everything, and can do anything; unlike gods with the small g, of which there are many in various myths, legends, and religions, and all are too “small”. Also, most people feel that there’s more to life than meets the eye, but to some, this “more-ness” isn’t a being – only a reality, force, or connection. In the Church, we do believe in the greater reality and interconnection of all, but we also believe that this “more-ness” is a Being, as well as force and power. For this, we have many names: Father (i.e. parent), Jesus (save us), Christ ( dabbed with oil), Spirit (breath), Word, Wisdom, etc. None of these tell us exactly who God is, but mainly what s/he does for us.
All names come from faith; from trying to understand. But, the names, words, and pictures we use, in turn, shape our faith. What does the Spirit look like: fire, dove, woman? Feels like: breath, wind? Named as: Wisdom, Creator, Sanctifier? Whatever helps your understanding and still “works” based on what you’ve learned. None of these is who God really is, anyway; but, since understanding was the birthday gift of the Spirit to the Church, perhaps, it’s good for us to understand a bit of who God is, and who we are. For without an understanding, there’s no respect, let alone love; there’s no relationship.
And what is our relationship with God? It began when God made the world and gave it life, and it has no ending, as we will live with God forever. We know little about the beginning and the “no ending”, but we know more about the in-between. What’s that like? We talk and listen to God, receive care, guidance and insights. He may influence our actions and events. So to talk about the “here and now” of the relationship with God and each other, we tend to use the name Holy Spirit – the giver of understanding. With her help, we learn about God, even if we will never know it all. This knowledge makes us feel his love for us more strongly. With her help, we also put on each other’s shoes, and learn their languages of love. May we do our best to continue using this birthday gift for the Church – the built-in translator app of the heart! – as often as we can; so God’s peace, love, and knowledge fill the world through us. Amen.
For further thought:
1. The “descent of the Spirit” on the first followers of Jesus looked
like fire, sounded and reverberated through the house like strong
wind, felt like breath expanding their lungs, and made it seem that
everyone understood each other’s languages (whether the disciples
suddenly had the foreign words given them, or the translation happened
in the listeners’ minds). All of this happened on the day of the
Jewish Feast of the First Fruits. Do you understand this coincidence
as God’s intent or a literary device? And what would have been the
purpose of one vs. the other (in other words, what does it show?)
2. How do you imagine God as the Holy Spirit? Dove? Fire? Breath?
Force field? Wise lady? Something more abstract? Where does this image
come from, for you? What about the following:
“As she stepped back, Mack found himself involuntarily squinting in
her direction, as if doing so would allow his eyes to see her better.
But strangely, he still had a difficult time focusing on her; she
seemed almost to shimmer in the light and her hair blew in all
directions even though there was hardly a breeze. It was almost easier
to see her out of the corner of his eye than it was to look at her
(This from the novel “The Shack” – which to me is not a theological or
literary masterpiece by any stretch, but still commendable as an
imaginative and accessible attempt of stereotype-breaking)
3. Paul wrote about not “grieving the Holy Spirit.” If the Holy Spirit
is more of a ghost or force, then it’s harder to imagine how its
feelings might be hurt. Why do you think Paul says “grieve” rather
than “anger” the Spirit, what does it mean, and what might we be doing
that may affect her in this way? Does it help to think in these terms
to alleviate the incongruity between the Old Testament God of
vengeance, and New Testament God of “turning the other cheek”?
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