The Age of the Spirit

Happy Birthday, church! Today is Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit coming to the early church. To me, it’s one of the most exciting days of the church year, right up there with Easter and Christmas. It’s a huge celebration, a party. There is much to be thankful for when we come to church on Pentecost. We come to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, the third person in our three person trinity. Christians believe in the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Holy Spirit are distinct, but also the same. They are completely different and absolutely all the same. Christians believe in one God, not three.  If that’s hard for you to grasp, I have good news: nobody understands the trinity. Even theologians whose job it is to understand the trinity don’t understand the trinity. We try to explain it with symbols like the fleur de lis or a shamrock, but we always fall into some sort of heresy when we try to explain it.  This week, in preparation for Pentecost I’ve been reading a wonderful book about the Holy Spirit called The Age of the Spirit by theologian Phyllis Tickle. The book takes me back to seminary a little bit with all of the history of Christian theology it contains. The book traces the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit throughout Christianity in the East and West and talks about some of the questions Christians have had about the Spirit and how we have resolved them (or not, sometimes!)  It’s fascinating stuff, and I strongly recommend it for anyone who is looking for some theological brain food.

It is through this book The Age of the Spirit that I became acquainted with a theologian named Joachim of Fiore (or, if you want to be fancy and use his Italian name it’s Gioacchino da Fiore). Joachim of Fiore lived from 1135 to 1202. Before I go any farther with this, can we pause to think about that fact for just a second? This person that I learned about this week died 814 years ago. Eight hundred and fourteen years ago. And yet, when you hear about his theory, it’s going to sound so modern to you… so unbelievable. His theory was this, that modern history could be thought of in three relative ages that correspond with the three persons of the Trinity, first the age of the Father, which he said characterized the Old Testament. Makes sense, right? The Old Testament is full of all of those wild stories about obedience to the law, and a strong sense of the majesty and holiness of a God who is wholly other. Second was the age of the Son, the age in which the New Testament was written and understood. The third age, the age of the Spirit, was the age in which was to come, an age in which Christians would relate to the Spirit most of all. Phyllis Tickle’s book references this and asks the question “What if we’re living in that age, right now?” What if the age of the spirit that Fiore was pointing to is the age in which the are living at this very moment. It makes sense, I think, that we would be living in the age of the Spirit. After all, as Tickle reminds us, there was a time when it was easy and normal for Christians to pray directly to Jesus Christ, but this doesn’t seem exactly right to us now. It seems as if the Holy Spirit is becoming the more relatable person of the Trinity these days. Does that make sense to you? It does to me, for sure. Of the three persons in the trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit, the Spirit feels the most accessible in this day and age. Even people who don’t easily recognize themselves as Christians identify with the Spirit and spirituality. Have you ever met someone who says they are “spiritual, but not religious?” A lot of times people who talk about being spiritual but not religious are actually invoking language and traditions about the Holy Spirit that go back thousands of years. Part of our job as Christians, I think, is to interpret the Holy Spirit and to remind people that that spirituality they claim is part of our tradition, that the Spirit they identify with is that same Spirit present all the way at the beginning of our story, literally. In the second verse of the bible, Genesis chapter 1 verse two we read that the “spirit was hovering over the waters.” The word for Spirit in Hebrew is ruach and it is the same word as breath.

What is it that this ruach has to say to us now, today? I think to understand our faith presently, we can gain a lot of insight by going all the way back to the early church and think about what life was like for those earliest Christians. At that time, Christians didn’t call themselves Christians, the believers were Jewish in every sense, sticking to Jewish laws and customs and also following Jesus, but it didn’t stay that way. Soon other believers, people who had nothing to do with Judaism and didn’t necessarily want to started following Jesus. Again I am quoting from the book the Age of the Spirit “It became apparent to all that the beloved community had a problem… Were these gentiles, these pagans, really Christians or merely lookalikes and wannabes? Every evidence of genuine belief was in their lives and in their conduct.” To decide if followers of Christ had to become Jewish before accepting Jesus, a conference called the Jerusalem Conference was held, the evidence of which shows up in the book of Galatians and the book of Acts. We know what the result is, or we wouldn’t be here today. The believers decided that no, one did not have to become Jewish to follow Christ. Thus is the beginning of what I see as a long, consistent history of Christianity’s tradition of welcome and inclusion and embracing outsiders. Yes, it is true that Christianity has spent a lot of time trying to decide who is “inside” and who is “outside” of the faith, but isn’t it also true that we have often discovered that this faith we proclaim is much broader and wider than we ever imagined? Christianity has spread and grown and thrived and lasted for thousands of years and has grown to include believers from all corners of the earth. This is certainly the work of the Spirit. On this Pentecost Sunday it might be good for us to meditate a little bit on what the Spirit has done over the past two thousand years and what the Spirit might be doing in this time and age. As I look at the world around us, I see the Spirit inviting us to continue to open our minds and our hearts and see how broad Christ’s message is. I believe the “spiritual but not religious” around us might just find that the Spirit they so know and love is not a new thing, but that same Spirit that was hovering over the deep in Genesis, and present at the baptism of Jesus, and like tongues of fire coming down on the people at Pentecost. People often talk about “new age” faith, but the Spirit is actually as old as the creation of the world.

Our scripture for today tells us “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” The Spirit delights and surprises. The Spirit shows up when we least expect it to. Our job is to listen for the Spirit and to not be surprised when it shows up in strange and unexpected places.

I have been surprised and delighted to see the Spirit showing up all over the place at Northwood  in ways that ring true to that verse “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”  I hear the sound of the Spirit as women gather, monthly, to work on Days for Girls kits to send all around the world. I don’t know where that is coming from or where it is going. I hear the Sound of the Spirit as I listen to our new Parish Associate, Krin, talk about his journey to ministry (it’s a great story that I hope you all get to hear sometime). I don’t know where our friendship with Krin has come from or where it is going. I hear the sound of the Spirit when I hear Owen talk about plans for a Choir Camp this summer or Jamie talk about what is happening with the youth. I don’t know where those things have come from or where they are going. Ministry to our community, ministry in Zambia. The Spirit is present. We hear its sound, but we can’t really control it, it blows where it pleases. Our job, then, is to be open to receiving it, to welcome it, and to follow where it leads. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all, Amen.