Last Sunday we thought about the Ascension, this week we move to Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, the day the Holy Spirit was given to the early disciples. They are in Jerusalem, waiting as Jesus had instructed them. The account of the Holy Spirit descending on the waiting church is only in Acts. For the Gospel we go back to John, to that time when Jesus was preparing to leave His disciples and face the cross.
The story in Acts is dramatic and colorful. One of my favorite pictures of the event is in a Roman Catholic shrine in England. It is a mosaic and pictures Mary and the 12 Apostles, with tongues of flame, of course. The first time I saw it it reminded me that this was a universal gift, that there would, likely, have been people whose names we do not know waiting with the Apostles.
Whoever was in the room we know that the transformation they underwent was amazing. Outwardly they found themselves able to speak in every language – a reversal, of course, of the Tower of Babel story. In that story human beings tried to build a tower up to heaven and their punishment was to be given different languages so that they could not work together in such a way again. Here it is not human beings climbing up to heaven but God descending onto humanity. God gives understanding and universality to the gift.
This, of course, is vital to Luke’s message – this story of Jesus, this Gospel, is not to be limited to those who speak the local tongue, Aramaic, nor those who speak the lingua franca of Greek nor, even to those who speak the language of the Empire, Latin. All people, no matter who they are or where they come from are invited to receive this same story and this same gift.
If we go back to the Gospel we will see Jesus beginning to flesh out what this coming gift will mean to the disciples. If you remember the older version of the Bible you may wonder where the word “comforter” has gone – this version uses advocate. Advocate, in modern use of language, is a better translation of the Greek parakletos, which is a term for one who pleads for another in court. Advocate, from a root meaning to cry out towards, gives this idea of the Holy Spirit as one who speaks on our behalf, who defends us and pleads for us.
If we go back to the word comforter and try to look at where it came from, we find something very different from our idea of comfort. It means “with strength” – so a comforter is one who brings strength. This makes sense in some of the ways we still use the word but we have softened it in our modern usage to a rather emotionally soothing concept.
The Spirit brings not just advocacy and strength but, according to Paul in Galatians, a set of gifts.
“….love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” he says are the fruits of the Spirit. But what do these actually mean. Again we have tended to soften them into a rather mushy collection of things which involve staying quiet and being passive. But this cannot be true, because if the Holy Spirit continues the work of Jesus, if the Holy Spirit is one with Jesus – or as has been suggested, is the glue in the Trinity, we cannot just water the message of Jesus down into a sort of comfortable and passive assignation.
Robert Greenleaf came up with the idea of Servant Leadership in the 1960s and 70s. Servant leadership is often mistakenly taken to mean simply going along with what other people want in order not to cause and conflict. But Jesus version of servanthood does not fit this model.
Greenleaf’s own theory does not fit this model either. For whilst Greenleaf certainly says this:
“The servant-leader is servant first……The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“
Marks of servant leadership include persuasion, foresight and building community. I use this example to say clearly that following Jesus, living a life in the Spirit is not a quiet option. Comfort is about living with strength, not avoiding conflict at the expense of watering down the Gospel.
Forbearance, kindness, goodness are not easy options because they come, not from walking away from difficult situations, but by walking into them, knowing that we are equipped by the Spirit for the journey. Knowing that we will be taught to live and act in a way which is consistent with the God who we serve, if only we will listen.
So, whilst we are called to follow Jesus into servanthood. Whilst we are called to wash the feet of our fellow travelers and tend to the needs of those around us we are not called to become some sort of sanctified doormat. Jesus dying on the cross was not an act of someone who could not do anything else. It was not an act of disempowerment, but was an act of ultimate power, but power acted out in a way which those around Him would never recognize.
Thus with the gifts of the Spirit. We have to examine them for what they might mean. What does it mean to be kind with the yearning and pleading of the Holy Spirit? What does it mean to be kind with strength? Where does that mean we have to stand in patience and goodness – who are we in all of that?
The Spirit comes, not to even out the nascent Church into a vaguely enthusiastic mush but to set each of those disciples on fire with love for Jesus and for each other. People on fire are rarely amenable to simply allowing life to happen, to passive engagement. What does it mean to be on fire, to live into the fruits of the Spirit as active participants in the Life of the Spirit? What does it mean to live Christian lives with strength and to know that God, in the person of the Spirit, is always watching and breathing in us?