When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Keeping In Step With the Spirit
When I was in the third grade I would come home from school everyday and watch my favorite program on our old black and white TV, “Wagon Train.” I still remember the character I most wanted to be: the scout, Flint McCullough.
The white people in the wagon train often had contact with indigenous peoples of the American Western plains. I don’t remember many specifics now – probably what they called them and how they thought of them would horrify me, but that’s another subject.
Anyway, what I do remember about the native Americans was something that gave me my first experience of religion-envy. There was this scene in which an old Navajo man, wearing, of course long hair with a single feather in it, stood alone beside a river, looked up at an eagle circling high overhead, and, raising his arms, prayed to the great Spirit. It was pure Hollywood, but nevertheless managed to display a kernel of truth about their religious perspective.
Now to me, as a third grade boy, this looked like a super-cool way to be religious. It certainly was vastly superior to our way: putting on uncomfortable clothing that you were not allowed to get dirty in (which they were still making us kids do in those days), staying inside on a beautiful Sunday morning, and sitting in a chair listening to adults talk for long periods of time. “Give me the prayer to the spirit of the eagle by the river any day,” I thought. Religion envy.
Everything Unsettled Since
There are so many things that have changed since those days of the mid 1960’s that it is almost like remembering another world. None of us would imagine making a third grader put on a little suit and tie to go to Sunday School in anymore. The world of the 1960’s is gone.
The ’60’s and ’70’s were an unsettling time. We went through massive changes in this country. The world looks different to us all now, after Viet Nam, after Woodstock, after Watergate, after the changes brought about by the civil rights movement, the women’s movement.
We continue to live in unsettling times. The digital revolution has left anyone over 30 years old feeling like an immigrant to a new country needing to learn a new language and adapt to a whole new lifestyle. We are all caught up in it. By the way, did you make sure your phone would not ring in church? See?
The Unsettling Spirit
But perhaps making us unsettled is precisely what the Spirit does. Think of the Pentecost story we read from Acts today. Peter starts preaching and suddenly the settled categories of language and ethnicity fall away. Everyone hears with understanding. It is as if the story of the separation of languages at the tower of Babel has just been reversed. Can humanity function as a unity now? How unsettling is that?!
Numerous people have been writing about these unsettling days of change that we are watching unfold from our front row seats. Some of them are calling this a new “Age of the Spirit” (e.g. Phyllis Tickle and Jon Sweeney). Clearly something is happening in Christianity. One Thousand years after the schism that divided Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Christianity, and five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, and it appears the Spirit is doing something new, and we are here to witness it. Could this be a new “Age of the Spirit?”
Living in the Age of the Spirit
I love the way the NIV translates Galatians 5:16. “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” There are two short phrases here and both are powerful. The first is simply this: “Since we live by the Spirit” – what could this possibly mean? Nearly everything that has to do with our faith, according to Paul is Spirit-involved. Our whole lives are lived “by the Spirit.”
The Spirit of God, the Spirit of the risen Christ (both mean the same) is powerfully present, always, like the oxygen in our bloodstreams. Like breath, the Spirit is both inside us and external to us. Every aspect of the Christian life involves the Spirit at work invisibly but powerfully, every moment.
And the second phrase, “let us keep in step with the Spirit” is a compelling call. It demands that we ask ourselves: where is the Spirit going? How can we “keep in step” unless we discern the movement of the Spirit; unless we sense the Spirit’s direction? Perhaps this call to “keep in step with the Spirit” requires attending more intentionally to what the Spirit is doing these days.
So what is the Spirit up to? There is no question that the main event, on the first Pentecost, is being repeated. Again, in these days, just as then, categories of division are falling left and right. Just as the language and ethnicity categories were transcended by the Spirit at Pentecost, so now other categories are coming down that used to divide people.
The Spirit has unsettled us, for the good. When I was in third grade I would never have dreamed of stepping inside the church of one of my Roman Catholic friends. But now, look at how those old denominational walls have crumbled. Pope Francis just met in Jerusalem with Bartholomew, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. They would like to convene a meeting of their two branches of Christianity in Nicaea in 2025. Could the healing of that old schism initiated seventeen hundred years ago at Nicaea in the year 325 be possible?
Clearly, the direction of the Spirit we are trying to keep in step with is discernible. Just as at Pentecost, so today: the movement of the Spirit is always toward the elimination of barriers. Whether they are barriers of language, ethnicity, race, tradition or gender, the Spirit-direction is always towards greater unity.
This too is what Peter preached as fulfillment of Joel’s ancient prophecy. The Spirit would come upon “all flesh” breaking gender barriers as both “sons and daughters prophesy” and “men and women” would equally experience the outpouring. Age barriers fall, as both old and young men “dream dreams” of a better future. Even the iron-clad categories of slave and free would be transcended by the Spirit. The direction is consistently toward greater unity; the transcending of categories and overcoming division.
On a Personal Level Too
This is why, on a personal level, as we read in Galatians, the life lived “in the Spirit,” according to Paul, is such a self-de-centered life. It is an other-oriented life that the Spirit makes possible. Instead of self-seeking and a sense of personal entitlement, the Sprit-led person uses her freedom, not for self-indulgence, but to serve.
The Spirit-led person, Paul says, is the one who personally embraces Jesus’ summary of the whole Old Testament Torah, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The person led by the Spirit, in contrast to the hedonist who lives for personal pleasure and self-fulfillment, rather lives a life of other-directed fruitfulness: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
This is the person who has received Jesus’ Spirit-breath, as John’s gospel shows, and is therefore able to “forgive the sins of others” instead of needing to “retain” them out of bitterness or vengeance.
This is the opposite of the “us” vs. “them” life. This life in the Spirit is the life of openness to other-ness. A life not put-off or disgusted by differences. The Spirit-led life is a life willing to be led into the unsettled conditions of radical hospitality.
It was, once, unsettling to be open to the idea that the Spirit is working in a larger world than merely my Christian denomination. But we have moved past that, thankfully. The more deeply unsettling question is, can we see the work of the Spirit in other faiths as well?
Did that Navajo man at the river with the feather really sense the Spirit of the living God in the flight of that eagle? Can it be said by that man as well, what Paul said in Athens, “in him [God] we live and move and have our being.” If so, it is because God’s Spirit is at work.
[Theologically minded people may wish to ask Calvin: is it really possible to categorize God’s grace into “common” and “special” as if it came in two flavors?]
So the question for each of us, on this Pentecost Sunday is, if we live by the Spirit and want to keep in step with the Spirit, is how is the Spirit at work? How is the Spirit working in my life?
What is the Spirit leading me to be and to become in the days I am given to live?
What part of the self needs de-centering so that I can more fully “live by the Spirit” today?
Where is the spiritual work of forgiving the sins of others being blocked by my desire to retain them?
Where is my sense of entitlement keeping me from loving my neighbor as myself?
What are the spiritual gifts God has given me that should be put to work in serving the church, the community, and the world?
God is doing something new and different, and we are here to witness it, in our generation. I believe this is indeed a new “Age of the Spirit.”
It is unsettling and strange in many ways, but as a God-thing, let us trust, and not fear it.
Let us believe that the promise is coming true, even in our own short lives, and that the Spirit is guiding us, and will guide us into God’s future.