Toorak Uniting Church

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The Democracy of the Spirit

Acts 2: 1 – 21
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
19 May 2013

 Pentecost paraklesis by stushie
Pentecost paraklesis by stushie

In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.

~Albert Schweitzer

Annie Dillard is an American author born in Pittsburgh in 1945. She won the Pulitzer Prize for literature for her non-fiction narrative titled, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which was published in 1974. It is an interesting book that chronicles her observations while living near Tinker Creek in Virginian’s Blue Ridge Mountains. What makes the book and the other dozen or so books she has written so compelling is that she observes in nature a remarkable beauty which is often mingled with terror. She doesn’t flinch from the notion that this is a cruel world, red in tooth and claw, and yet if we are to explore the wonder of life and the world in which we live we must know both the power of beauty and the fear of its awesomeness. She brings the same imaginative approach to her reflections on God and the sacred. The gentle breeze of the Spirit that caresses and consoles the afflicted is the same Spirit that brings the storm of disruption on the comfortable.

This view doesn’t always sit well with our modern views of a loving benevolent God who seems at times to tolerate even the intolerable. But when we are able to see that often the greatest disturbances in our lives reap the greatest rewards, then we begin to grasp that the power of the Spirit, even in these times of disruption, is always directed toward life and the birth of new life. That’s when we begin to grasp the heart of how to live and to live well in this world.

In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard applies this theory to Sunday morning church. She writes:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions [they find themselves in]. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

The First Christians:
Christianity, Christian faith was born because it was a good idea; it did not begin because it was a superior moral code; the first Christians weren’t brought to life through the intricacies of Greek and Hebrew philosophy. They were born of fire, wind and blood. The first Christians, if it is right to call them such, because in fact they saw themselves not as Christians, but as those of the Way, those first Christians were touched by a fire that lit their lives and by a violent storm that brought them into life:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

As Anne Dillard said, the waking God drew them out from where they could never return.

I have been in gatherings where people have been filled with the Spirit. Where they have spoken in tongues – glossolalia to use the technical term – and while I acknowledge that for many this may be an authentic experience, it is a pale shadow of the power one encounters when the waking god draws you out from where you can never return.

While this encounter with the power of the Spirit can happen within a church building, for me it has more often been in the natural world. I am reminded of John Muir’s statement Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. The democracy of the Spirit of Pentecost is that the Spirit is no longer captured or even trapped in one place or one time or for one group of people alone. If the resurrection is the Spirit of Jesus let loose in the world, then when and where that Spirit moves and stirs and dis-turbs is always unpredictable and not subject to our rules or objections.

Some years ago on a retreat in the Arizona desert I spent a day in solitary contemplation. It was part of a men’s retreat and I have spoken of it before because it had such a remarkable impact on my life. The day began as the sun rose over the distant mountain range and the breeze was warm and gentle. Stripped to the waist I enjoyed the sun, reflected on the text I was reading and contemplated the beauty of the barren landscape. A little after noon, a few clouds appeared on the horizon. Some welcome shade, I thought.

Within half an hour the clouds had darkened and were moving rapidly toward me. A storm was gathering behind the mountains. I felt fearful as I saw the first strikes of lightning hit the ground a few kilometres away. The storm got closer and closer and my fear increased. I was alone here and there was no shelter from the storm. Within the next 15 minutes I was soaked to the skin as the rain poured down, the thunder rumbled and the lightning struck – thank God it didn’t strike me. As quickly as the storm came it passed. I was soaked, but somehow exhilarated by the experience. The beauty and the terror seemed to come together in one moment and I felt more alive after this encounter than I did before it. The Spirit moves and stirs and disturbs, is always unpredictable and it is not subject to our rules, our whims or our objections.

Putting the Spirit back in the Box
Of course it didn’t take too long before the need to control that spirit and put it back in the box was pressed by religious leaders in the first century. The fear of the storm clouds was greater than the caressing of the gentle breeze. I like the way Rev Dawn Hutchings (a Lutheran pastor in Newmarket, a town north of Toronto in Ontario) puts it when the Spirit begins to move in unpredictable ways:

Boundaries are established. The religious practice that emerges strives for order and uniformity. Order is established and the faithful are encouraged to live within the rules. But in the Pentecost story the chaos and disorder is not created by humans but by God. The Pentecost story is about chaos and disorder; about God who is running amok. Boundaries are crossed. Taboos are broken. Suddenly, like the rush of the wind young people have visions and elders have dreams; dreams and visions that threaten the established order.

The Modern Movement of the Spirit:
Of course there is a great advantage in having order in our lives. Our lives need predictability, a sense of stability and harmony. But if that is all we have, if we have the shape and the form of say faith, or religion, or just form within our own lives with the animation of the spirit, then we know that we need some kind of fire to bring us to life.

I find Albert Schweitzer’s quote printed on the Order of Service helpful:

In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.

That’s part of the democratizing of the Spirit. When the Spirit came upon the first followers of Jesus, they became bearers of the Spirit for each other. They were then those who could rekindle the fullness of life in each other. It is no accident that Christians are formed into communities. You could say that there is no such thing as an individual Christian – well of course you can’t say that because there are. But it seems that the only way to keep the fire alive – to keep the breath of life vital and dynamic – is to allow the Spirit from time to time to disturb and unsettle us, both individually and as a community.

Tonight at our Ecumenical Pentecost Service you will hear this reading:

"Wind, wind. A reflection on the Spirit"
By William Loader (Adapted)

Wind, wind,
you come from nothingness and go to nothingness,
and when you are still,
there is nothing we see, nothing we hear,
and you surround us in our not seeing and not knowing.

Wild, wild wind,
you whip the seas, whirling great water spouts and fountains,
crashing the foamed edges of the shore,
sweeping the unsuspecting fisherman from the slippery rocks,
terrifying force, uncontrollable, beyond our power.

Wind, wind, wondrous wind,
hovering at the birth of creation,
whisking secretly among the wonders of new life,
bearing the seed, lifting high the heads of mighty trees,
swirling among the grasses, celebrating life.

Wind, wind, gentle wind,
wind of our breathing, our life, our hope,
renewing, refreshing,
sighing in our stress,
moaning in our pain,
still in our dying.

O wind, wind,
you breathed upon the clay and there was life,
you danced down to the forehead of a Galilean
and there was hope,
you shook the foundations of community
and there was Pentecost.

Come Holy Spirit Come.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

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