The meaning of Pentecost

Genesis 11:1-9
Acts 2:1-21

In the spring of 1963 the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had to ask the publishers for a copy of a book, because the demand was such that no other copy was available. The author was John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich, and the book was called Honest to God. A couple of years earlier the bishop had made the headlines by appearing in court to support of the publication of the D H Lawrence novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. At the time Honest to God was published, The Observer newspaper carried the headline, ‘Our image of God must go’. The present-day American evangelical leader, Rob Bell, says, ‘I can’t even tell you how much that book affected me.’ Like Robinson, Bell believes that we need new images of God, ones that speak of the Mystery of the Holy in the midst of everyday life.

Bishop Robinson was part of the demythologising movement, and he spoke of God as ‘the ground of our being.’ The truth is that Robinson did not say anything new or particularly radical. He was drawing from the rich and diverse tradition within Christianity, from biblical scholarship and theology. The trouble was, and is, that too much of our thinking and language within the Church uses a limited range of images of God which of limited help in understanding something so vast. Too much of our theology, liturgy, and hymns is about sin, punishment, ransom, and fear. Every one of our concepts of God is a human construct, and our understanding of God can be hemmed in by our concepts. We need to be spiritually open to new possibilities and insights. The Bible is overflowing with images of God, but we tend to focus on only a few.

Today is Pentecost, the day when the Spirit came. In the Acts of the Apostles we read the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples. There’s no doubt that this story of different languages, of wind, of flame, of people from every nation, was written as a response to the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis. In the Genesis story, humanity is fragmented into different language groups. In the New Testament story, humanity is brought together as one by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In a sermon, the apostle Peter describes this ‘event’ as the fulfilment of God’s dream.

In the book of Acts, the central character is the Spirit. The Spirit gives birth to the community at Pentecost and directs the community’s mission. It is the Spirit who is active in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, the apostle Paul, and the Roman centurion Cornelius; and it is the Spirit which directs Paul’s outreach beyond the Jews to the Gentile countries in Europe. The concept of God as Spirit has much to offer us in the search for more open and helpful images of God. The Spirit shows us an image of the Christian life that stresses relationship, intimacy, and belonging.

Traditionally, in Christian doctrine we tend to think of the Holy Spirit as being one aspect of God but, in the Bible, the Spirit is used more widely: in creation, the history of Israel, and the life of Jesus and the early church. The Spirit is God’s universal perspective, and signifies divine presence and activity in its widest reaches.

Spirit is the most comprehensive term for the Sacred. In Hebrew, the word for Spirit is ruach, which means the wind of the air and the breath within us. It captures the sense that God is all-encompassing: around us, stimulating us, and within us, giving us breath and life. God is the Spirit within us; God is the Spirit we encounter in others; God is the Spirit we meet in creation, in the sunrise, the song of the blackbird and the sound of the sea.

God as Spirit is found in other metaphors too. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, not least in the Psalms, God is said to be the ‘rock’ of our life. In this context, ‘rock’ does not mean a large boulder, but a cliff, a mountain, or a high place. God is known on the mountain top; it is a place of refuge and safety and it evokes images of peace, stillness and God’s nearness. When the psalmist says, ‘The LORD is my rock’, it means that in the midst of life, at home, work, in the countryside or city, God the high place, the place of safety and comfort, the place of stillness, is there with us, within us.

In the Bible, God as Spirit is portrayed as mother, the One who gives birth to creation and nurtures life. In Genesis, Isaiah, the Psalms, and Hosea, God is a mother caring for her children and comforting them. Added to this, one of the central qualities of God is compassion, the Hebrew root of which is ‘womb’. God is to be imagined as a mother giving birth to life and nurturing it and feeling for her children ‘as a mother feels for the children of her womb.’ Jesus used the word ‘Father’ when addressing God. If we read the word ‘Father’ alongside a strong of male domineering names, such as king, lord, and judge, the word ‘father’ can reinforce images of power, distance, and judgement but, on the lips of Jesus, ‘Father’ is ‘Abba’: daddy. This ‘Father’ is close at hand and gives good gifts to his children.

Another advantage is that it brings out the feminine side of the images of God. As well as the mothering aspects of God, ruach is a feminine noun in Hebrew. Also in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit of God which dwells with us, within us, is called Shekinah; and in Hebrew, the Shekinah is also female.

We need to be always watching out for our emphasis in describing God, always seeking new concepts, new revelation, about God. If we concentrate on God as Spirit, as the one who gives us life, nurtures us, is around us, stimulating us, within us giving us breath, the one we encounter in the soul of others, who is compassionate, intimate, relational and always at hand, what does that do for our faith and how we live?

In creation, God as Spirit is not relegated to the past, to a one-off event that set the ball rolling, but is the nonmaterial ground of all being, the life force that sustains all that is. Thinking more of God as Spirit, God is no longer the king, lord, or judge to be appeased or obeyed but is relational, within all, intimate, our lover.

Sin becomes separation from God, and repentance becomes a turning and returning to the one who gives us life. As we look at ourselves, one another, and our society and world, sin becomes a failure in compassion, a lack of sensitivity to ourselves, our fellow human beings and the earth itself. Rather than God being a distant being with whom we might spend eternity, the Spirit is God right here. Rather than God being the lawgiver and judge whose requirements must be met, and whose justice must be satisfied, God is the lover who yearns to be in relationship to us. Rather than sin and guilt being the central dynamic of the Christian life, the central dynamic becomes relationship – with God, the world, and each other. The Christian life is about turning towards, and entering into, relationship with the one who is already in relationship with us – with the one who gave us life, who has loved us from the beginning, and who loves us whether we know it or not, who journeys with us whether we know that or not.

The seventeenth century mystic, John Everarde, said that the Scriptures become truth for us, come alive for us, when the stories happen or take place inside us. To treat the Bible as mere history is to remain trapped in the letter, in the words themselves but, to be fulfilled in us, Scripture needs to be brought lived in our life and experience. Christ needs to be born in us, live his life in us and let his Spirit of truth dwell deep inside. The Pentecost story is a re-working of an Old Testament story, but it is not history: this Scripture will be fulfilled in you and me. It is an image of humanity living together, being at one, loving one another, with God at the centre.

Thinking of God as Spirit reminds us that God is near, intimate, and relational; and so this what our faith becomes. We live like Jesus – compelled by compassion to be in holistic relation with others, with our world and with ourselves. The Spirit is our life force, present in our consciousness. God dwells within us, is relational, and craves a deeper relationship with us, and through us to the God in others.

This is the meaning of Pentecost.

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