Pentecost Sermon GregJenks 2006
Pentecost, the fiftieth and final day of Easter, is traditionally observed as the festival of the Holy Spirit. It is simultaneously the culmination of our Easter celebrations, and also the starting line for the extended series of "green Sundays" that stretch before us as we complete a year of faith and service.
The Go-Between God
Way back in 1972 John V. Taylor published an influential book on the Holy Spirit, with the title The Go-Between God. The book was recently reissued in a series of classic theological titles, but perhaps the best praise comes from another scholar who had made the study of the Holy Spirit a special interest. James D.G. Dunn said of Taylor's work:
This is a good book, possibly a great book ... I was not able to read (it) quickly. I had to stop and think too much. All the way through were pertinent asides on matters of Christian concern and debate. A book which stimulates and provokes so much deserves to be widely read and long pondered.
Sadly my copy of Taylor's book seems to have been given away in one of the periodic purges as I reduced my expanding collection of books, but I know it has left a deep impression on my own thinking and action in the years since I first read it in theological college. Perhaps I shall have an opportunity to borrow a copy from the same library now that I am about to return to the Milton campus in my new ministry with Christian World Service?
As we reflect on the Holy Spirit this morning, I invite you to entertain the image of the "go-between God."
Our underlying concept of God often seems to be the God of the philosophers and theologians. The idea of God, the arguments from design, the uncaused cause, the perfection which must exist because it can be imagined, the source of morality and the ultimate destination of existence. The great idea of monotheism, and the insight we share with Jews and Muslims, invites us to imagine the depth dimension of existence. The philosopher and the theologian are dealing with the question of meaning.
For Christians that underlying concept of God is given a very specific expression in the person of Jesus. Jesus is for us the "human face of God" (to quote a title from another classic theological book, this time by Bishop John Robinson). Jesus is understood as the historical event in which the idea of God becomes an experience in real time, at a certain place and in a particular person. No longer just a fine idea, God becomes a human possibility and invites us to embrace the new humanity in which there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. We are long way from realising that divine idea about human potential, but the Christian tradition -- at its best -- has never lost sight of the need to create and sustain actual human communities where that kind of outcome might be possible.
Both these pathways into the mystery of God have had a major impact on the way we express our faith. Clear thinking about the ultimate questions of human existence is essential if we are to have a robust explanation for life and the faith we share. Eyes-wide-open research into the historical figure of Jesus can enrich our understanding of this sacred moment in which we can a glimpse of the sacred Other expressed in human form.
But these can also be sterile activities if they are treated as ends in and of themselves. Our best ideas about God and our best insights into the person of Jesus need to draw us into an engagement with the sacred reality we call "Spirit" -- the "go-between God."
In the Christian tradition, the Spirit is understood coming from the Father yet also as the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit moves over the face of the primeval waters in the creation poem of Genesis 1, and gives life to all flesh. The Spirit enfolds people and gifts them for activities of value to the community and the church. The Spirit is the Companion, the Advocate, the One who travels with us, speaking words of truth to us and expressing our deepest yearnings to God. All this and more is brought to mind with Taylor's delightful phrase, the "go-between God."
The God beyond all Boundaries
Engagement with the sacred reality we call Spirit will soon lead us into a much larger sense of God.
The "go-between God" is no house elf. We have not suddenly come into possession of our very own genie in a bottle, who will grant our wishes and relieve of us responsibility for our own futures.
Yes, engagement with the Spirit draws us into the mystery of God and into the character of Christ. The Spirit is indeed the "go-between" who enmeshes us in a web of love from which all reality emerges, but we also discover that the Spirit is that aspect of God which knows no boundaries and escapes all our formulae.
The Spirit can never be possessed by us.
No more than the sea is possessed by a fish.
Yet this elusive and open-ended dimension of the sacred is central to the major religious question of our time.
Despite all the heat generated by debates over human sexuality, women bishops and the authority of the Bible (to name just a few of the internal tensions within Christianity), there is a much more significant religious question running in contemporary Western society.
Is reality to be fully and best explained in purely materialistic terms?
Or -- as people of faith assert -- is there is some depth dimension to reality which includes but is greater than the materialistic explanation?
The reason for participating in church is not to preserve ancient music, and it is not to acquire fire insurance policies for the afterlife. We are not here to get all the answers, or to acquire some divine assistance for our personal success in life.
We are here because we are engaged with the depth dimension of life that we call "Spirit" -- the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit.
We have no delusions that this Spirit can be conjured up by our rituals and wishes, but we do have a sense that this sacred reality that draws us beyond ourselves is the same reality enfleshed in Jesus and the same reality imagined in our best ideas about the meaning of life.
The Land of the Holy Spirit
Even before its existence was confirmed by European explorers, Australia was thought to exist and had been given the name Terra Australis Del Spirito Santo -- the South Land of the Holy Spirit.
As Australians celebrating the festival of the Holy Spirit today that offers us another way to reflect on the significance of the Spirit.
- Can we imagine a time when this ancient land was ever without the presence of God's Spirit?
- Do we imagine that God arrived with the European explorers and settlers?
- Can we entertain the idea that this sacred reality we call Spirit was present with and known to the ancient peoples of this land long before the Europeans brought our Christian sects to these shores?
Yesterday afternoon I attended a service for Mabo Day at the Cathedral. A highlight of that service was the sermon, given by an Anglican Aboriginal priest, in which he affirmed the continuity of his Christianity with his people's ancient experience of God.
How would our regard for this land and its indigenous peoples be transformed if we took that idea to heart?
- Would we look for Australian images of the sacred?
- Would we appreciate the spirituality of the first Australians?
- Would we learn the "songlines" of the country that we traverse?
- Would we find better ways to create a society where wealth was common, and shared?
Spirit as Ground Water of Life
One of the compelling images used for Jesus in the Gospel of John is the well of living water. The ancient Christians whose experience of faith is preserved in that text, had found that Jesus was a source of endless spiritual refreshment. The water which Jesus offers is also identified with the Spirit:
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39 NRSV)
I find that an evocative way to think about Jesus and also about the Spirit.
Can you imagine the Spirit as the deep mystery of God lying unnoticed, and largely untapped, beneath our feet like the ancient water table of our dry continent?
For us, as Christians, Jesus is the well by which we access those sacred waters. We can draw deeply from the well of salvation, as Isaiah suggested so many centuries ago:
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,(Is 12:2-4 NRSV)
for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
And you will say in that day:
Give thanks to the LORD,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.â
Other peoples have drawn on those same ancient waters using other wells, but we sometimes have trouble admitting that.
We can accept it for the Jewish people, and perhaps also for our indigenous peoples. But we struggle with the idea that God's generosity and love encompasses all creation, including every culture and each individual.
We seem to think we are only the only fish in the ocean.
This Pentecost let's draw water from the wells of salvation, with confidence and joy. But let's not limit God's presence and God's generosity to our own tradition of faith.
The "go-between God" is also the boundary-defying God whose love knows no limits, and who invites us to reflect that same generosity in our engagement with those around us.
Â©2006 Greg Jenks