1 Cor 12:3b-13
or John 7:37-39
by Ian Souter, Methodist minister, Bath (England)
(referring to Acts 2 and John 7)
“What a politician does in their private life is their own affair and has nothing to do with their public life.” We hear this so often when a government minister has been found out doing something that is not of the highest moral standard. It’s a good get-out clause. And it has a point – we all slip up, all fail to live to the standards we claim to hold and it’s not particularly surprising that our leaders, under great pressure, give in to temptations.
But this public/private divide is a real problem when you think about it. Do we actually have a line down the middle of our brains that divides these two spheres? Do we have a split personality that lives by one rule in the public sphere and another in the private? So if a politician lies in their private life are they going to suddenly become a beacon of truth in public? If their main motivation in life is unbridled financial gain are they suddenly going to lay aside all self-interest when dealing with public business.
We are whole people and there isn’t this divide down the middle. But we do tend, when we look at people, to ‘put asunder’ what ‘God has joined together’. We see a businessman or a mother or artist or brother as if these parts of their lives were separate. But these roles interact and through each area of life runs the personality of the person and we can’t shake that off. People who know us in more than one sphere of life recognise the common themes that are there. The gentleness of a father will be reflected in his approach to the people he meets at work; the sheer joy that a woman takes in her children will be seen in her artistic work.
We do put on an image that meets the demands of the moment and we stop being ourselves but in the end the real ‘me’ breaks through.
But if this integrity of being is true of human beings, how much more is it the case with God. God is constant; God is reliable; God is truly One. It is us that sometimes divide him up when we think about God.
On this Pentecost Sunday the Spirit is at the centre of our thinking but when we think about the Spirit we often compartmentalise Him.
When the Spirit makes his first appearance in Genesis 1 we see Him as the force of the wind moving on the face of unformed creation and bringing life. But when we turn to the writings of, say, St Paul the emphasis is on the impact on humanity, empowering believers but also growing the nature of God within us in those amazing fruits of the Spirit. When we hear the story of Pentecost all the emphasis is on the transformation of the disciples and the crowds but where is the connection with the Spirit in creation? This is one Spirit.
The Spirit at work in the first moments of creation is the same Spirit with the same attributes that we see at work in the believers on the day of Pentecost. If we could only re-integrate our understanding of the Spirit then we would see more clearly how he seeks to work in creation and how he calls us too to work in our care of this planet.
So let’s look at Pentecost. The disciples are gathered in prayer, waiting for God to act when the Spirit comes upon them in power. This is reminiscent of the Spirit moving in the wind on the face of creation but working instead on the face of these disciples. And they begin to speak in tongues. The Spirit is being allowed to do his work in their lives. We can debate forever the nature of what happened, but we can be in no doubt of the impact.
A crowd of men and women drawn from varied language groups suddenly find that together they are hearing the good news of God’s love in Jesus. And this crowd from all those wonderfully complicated place-names suddenly find that the barriers are down and they are one. As has been said so often, the divisions that arose at the Tower of Babel are suddenly reversed and a divided humanity becomes a united humanity. And that oneness continues. As the story unfolds through Acts 2 we find that 3000 people, presumably drawn from this wide area are one in Christ and the oneness is then expressed in the way that the community live together.
The Spirit’s first work is to mend the disunity of the human race. He comes and joins their hands across those barriers that divided them. The nature of the Spirit of Love is to break down barriers. When He moved on the face of the waters he was bringing into birth a universe that was whole, joined together by the bonds of His love.
Yet we have so often broken those bonds with nature and failed to see how we truly relate to the creation in which God has placed us. We have seen ourselves as distinct from nature, we have seen the creation as something to be exploited and the results have been catastrophic. Our experience of climate change, plastic waste in our oceans, extinction of species upon species and the destruction of ecological systems arises so often because we have not seen our place in a united creation. Yes we are different, but still we are one with all that has been made by God.
We need today another Pentecost. We need the Spirit to come and show us that we are one with all that God in his tender love and care has made. The psalmists saw creation itself praising God and we need to let the Spirit enable us to join in that universal song of praise, not lording it over and exploiting creation but joining with that chorus of celebration of God. The Spirit is the Spirit of unity who can heal not just the broken family of humanity but bring the whole creation to unity.
Yet the Spirit’s doesn’t simply bring people back together again or simply bring us back into a closer relationship with the whole of creation.
As the crowd on the day of Pentecost experience the preaching of the apostles empowered by the Spirit, what is it that they hear? Very simply they hear ‘the wonders of God’. Jesus promised that the Spirit would lead us deeper into truth. The disciples would see more of God and know more of what he is doing.
On the day of Pentecost the wonders of God related mostly to the death and resurrection of Jesus; but the Spirit is consistent, he constantly reveals the wonders of God. And that includes the wonders that we see around us in creation. These are the wonders that tells us, as we look at the enormity of space or discover the amazing migratory flights of a 20gram bird, that our God is an amazing creative being.
And as the creation helps us to see the Creator more clearly, so as we discover the Creator we then see the creation in new ways. During the period of lockdown that we have experienced in the last weeks one of the things that many people have become aware of is the amazing creation on their doorstep and sometimes how vulnerable it is. They have seen the wonders of God although often they haven’t named God as responsible. The revealing Spirit enables us to look and to see the Creator through his wonders in nature but then He reveals to us the fragility and the needs of world. The Spirit let’s us see afresh what God has made.
But the Spirit doesn’t end his work there. I am daring to go beyond the end of the passage from Acts to that description of the life of the early Church in verses 42-47. It tells us that the disciples found favour with the people around because they had been transformed. Their relationships, their worldview, their compassion were revolutionary and this was the work of the Spirit. This is the first sign of what Paul would later describe as the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is the character of God being lived out in us.
Now again, as we put together what we have often divided, we see that the Spirit who moved on the face of the waters at creation was the Spirit who lives these same fruits. The principles that underlie the creation are those same virtues of love, joy., peace and all the rest. When we handle the creation in any other way we run up against the design of the universe. If we cannot look at the creation with joy, then we have lost touch with the creator, if we do not handle the creation with love and gentleness we run against the ways of the creator Spirit, when we cannot live at peace with all around us, if we sow turmoil in creation, we are denying the work of the Spirit.
These fruits of the Spirit are not just about how we relate to one another but how we relate to the creation into which the creator Spirit has placed these attributes at their heart.
Pentecost is about the one Spirit, breaking barriers, declaring God’s wonders and showing us the basis on which all that has been made is built.
But we cannot end there. What about the Gospel reading? Jesus stands in the Temple and offers living water – and John tells us this water is the Spirit – not just by a cupful but as a living flowing sourcespring that flows and flows into us to refresh us. But not just that Jesus says the water of the Spirit will flow from within us. The Spirit flows from those who receive him out into the creation. So much of our despair about the possibility of turning round the destruction of the creation comes because we see only our own weakness and inadequacy for the task. But the message of Jesus is that the Spirit who on Day 1 moved on the face of the waters of creation now flows into and out of our life empowering us to make a difference. The future of the creation depends on those who have accepted the invitation of Jesus to receive the Spirit being empowered by that same Spirit to work in his power to turn around the destructive direction that we humans have taken and to restore it. Nothing less than a group of Spirit-filled people living the life of the Creator Spirit can transform our environmental crisis.
Part of a Roman Catholic Prayer may sum this up – “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit … and You shall renew the face of the earth.”
Let’s pray this prayer at Pentecost and ask for the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts to overflowing so that we may be at one with his creation, that we may see the wonders of God in it and that we may live by those fruits of the Spirit that reflect the whole nature of the God who created the universe and no longer work against him. Come Holy Spirit.
by Ian Souter, Bath (GB)