Pentecost – the gift of the Spirit and its meanings

The resurrection Spirit dwells within us. This is the power from on high that Jesus had promised would come from the Father (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). Jesus had previously bestowed power to the 12 (Luke 9) and later the 70 (Luke 10), the same power that he had demonstrated in Nazareth (Luke 4).

The Spirit in Luke: As he writes Acts Luke says “the Holy Spirit came UPON them…” (Acts 1:8; 10:44; 11:15; 19:6). Indeed, scripture talks about being “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8; Acts 1:5; Acts 11:16) and baptism is an external image. A parallel metaphor used by Paul is to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14) and in Galatians he even links the two ideas – baptism and being clothed in Christ (Gal 3:27). The phrase “in Christ” appears over 90 times in the New Testament, primarily in Paul’s letters. So the Holy Spirit we can envision washing over us, covering us and saturating us as the waters of baptism – an all-consuming experience whether one is immersed or has the waters poured over. We can thus consider that the Spirit is BOTH on us and in us. These are not different realities but different viewpoints of the same reality. The phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit” is less about the ongoing presence of God’s Spirit within us than descriptive of a momentary experience of inspiration and empowerment to speak and act according to God’s direction. This, again, is a phrase unique to Luke in his gospel and acts (John Luke 1:15; Elizabeth Luke 1:41;Zechariah Luke 1:67; the disciples Acts 2:4; Peter Acts 4:8 NRS; Stephen Acts 7:55 NRS; Paul Acts 13:9 NRS).

The Spirit in Paul and beyond: Paul further says this to the church in Ephesus: 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19). And the New Testament also includes the notion of being “in the spirit” which again seems to be a reference to being overwhelmed by a sense of God’s immediate presence while in prayer, worship, or other spiritual discipline or experience (Paul Acts 19:21; believers pray Ephesians 6:18 & worship Philippians 3:3; John Revelation 1:10) Paul states clearly the connection when he says, “you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (Romans 8:9). Our faith tells us that this God dwelt fully in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-14; Colossians 1:19). And further that this God dwells in us through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2).

Notice the fluidity of these images – Christ dwelling in us, us dwelling in Christ. God’s fullness in us, us in God. The Spirit in us and on us, while we are in the Spirit. All of this, I conclude, demonstrates God’s refusal for us to codify or neatly systematize the divine and holy. Rather, we are invited into the complexity of this dynamic experience that is a convergence of multiple seemingly incongruous realities. It is, as has been said elsewhere, another example of the “already-not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Any box in which we attempt to contain God simply fails. And this failure is a gift of immeasurable grace – for who would want to worship a God containable by humanity? Rather, God is the all-consuming above, below, beside, before, behind, within, without, past, present, future, beginning and end of human experience. As temporal and flesh-bound creatures, we have a limited and finite experience of the limitless and infinite God.

The Spirit (Ruach) of God moved over the surface of the waters when God began to create. It was also the breath of life (ruach chayyim) which God breathed into Adam (Genesis 2:7) and into all the other living creatures (7:15). There is again a fluidity in our theological understanding between the Spirit/Breath of God and that life-giving spirit/breath from God given to humanity and all other living creatures. In Job, Elihu speaks of the breath and the spirit, and uses the two words interchangeably between that of God and that of man, and indicates that they are the source of wisdom, and that should God choose to withdraw them, we would cease to exist: 32:8 But truly it is the spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding….34: 14 If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, 15 all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.

The Spirit in All Creatures – So, we can comfortably say that all living creatures share the gift of a spirit/breath from God. This truth humbles us from triumphalism of misreading Psalm 8, or from misinterpreting God’s covenant as one of domination over, rather than a caretaking and stewarding dominion over our non-human fellow living creatures who share the God-given spirit/breath (ruach chayyim).

So, with that background, what is it that happens at Pentecost?

What does this giving of the Spirit mean that is distinct from all these other instances? Let me suggest at least a partial answer. The giving of the Spirit to the Church at Pentecost seems to have several simultaneous meanings.

A Continuation of the Ministry of Jesus – The Holy Spirit continues that empowering work for ministry demonstrated in the Gospels, particularly Luke 9 & 10, wherein Jesus commissions the 12 Apostles and then the 70 Disciples for evangelistic work that included healing and exorcism – i.e. a continuation of his work proclaimed in Luk 4 (quoting Isaiah 60) empowered by the Spirit of the Lord (i.e. the Holy Spirit) – 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Good news to those who lack sufficient resources to sustain life
Freedom to those who are bound
New vision to the blind
Freedom to the oppressed
The Jubilee Year – a reordering of the economic, social & political world

A New Relationality – An expression of God’s connection to humanity through a peculiar people – a work that began with Abraham and Sarah. This connection was for the purpose of blessing humanity – not for the primary purpose of blessing the chosen people. In order for the work of Jesus to continue, his presence needs to continue, but not through the physicality of his Nazarene body but through His Body, the Church. Therefore the Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism is the same Spirit that descended on the Church at Pentecost, creating and confirming the unique role of the church as the continuation of the incarnation – enabling both the divine presence WITH the church and the divine presence THROUGH the church IN the world.

A Renewing Force – Because this is the life-giving resurrection Spirit, the Spirit which raised Christ from the dead will also give NEW life to our bodies – i.e. not victory over the entropy common to natural things, but over the spiritual self-destructive narcissism unique to humans. So though “the outward self is perishing, the inward self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

A Down payment on Eternity – The Spirit is a “first installment, a down-payment” from God to us on the promise of everlasting life and the redemption of our whole self – body, mind, spirit & soul, and with us all of creation (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:14; Romans 8:19). As we are being made new (sanctified, re-born, re-created) in this life, a process which will see its fulfillment in the life to come, so too will all of this creation experience the same renewal – as John described in the received Revelation (21:1). The presence and work of the Holy Spirit is our assurance that God is not through with us and that the final consummation of all things means restoration and renewal with God dwelling here among us in fullness and glory.

Pentecost expresses God’s desire to be with us, to bless us and work with us to bless others.

We Are Beloved: It enables us to hear with Jesus the words of God at our baptism “You are my beloved child, with whom I am very pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

We Are Called: It enables us to say with Jesus the words from Isaiah 60: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me a proclaimer of Good news.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Kingdom Power: Pentecost is the initiating of the church, a continuation of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, for which we pray, and thus for which we work. It is our call to action in the world, among each other and among our neighbors – it is both our empowerment and our ordination to Christian Ministry.

Funeral Meditation for Teresa Neifert

(NOTE: Theresa Neifert died Monday morning, 5/14, at 12:55am. I am her pastor. She was and remains a real treasure and will be sorely missed by many of us. You can see her obit and leave messages here. You can read her CaringBridge chronicling her journey with cancer. Her son Joe and husband Jeff did such a nice job speaking about her during the funeral, and her family and friends will be far better at narrating her story, so I’ll leave that to them.)

Some of us are familiar with the notion that this earth is not our home, because we are a spirit trapped in a body, and that God’s ultimate plan is to free our spirits from a bodily form. This is not what either the old or new testaments say. The biblical witness, as we have heard in Revelation and in Paul’s writing, is that God’s consummation of all things will bring us restored bodies in the midst of a new heaven and new earth – we will, in the end, be incarnational beings. Incarnation is the ultimate expression of God’s creation of humanity, not some kind of secondary temporary compromise we are stuck living for a short while. This is why there was a resurrection. Without the centrality of our incarnation, there is no need for Jesus’ bodily resurrection – he could just conquer death as a spirit – no need for the cool resurrected body that is both similar and different from the old body. This tension between our bodily and spiritual experience is none-the-less real, and Paul talks at length about it in numerous places, including:

Philippians 1:
21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.

Paul regularly acknowledges the apparent tension we often feel between our internal and external experiences of the world, and in faith he goes further to identify a tension between desiring to be here among family and friends or in the kingdom of God in eternal bliss. This life is marked by blood, toil, sweat and tears – a phrase first uttered by the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. It can be a hard life, and yet it is also filled with good food, hearty laughter, natural beauty, rapturous physical intimacy, intellectual challenge – in a word, it is beautiful.

La Vita e Bella – Life is Beautiful – Do you remember that film from 1997? Do you remember Roberto Benigni at the Oscars? He practically floated off the stage he was so filled with joy. He seemed to be filled with some kind of energy from some other place – it was infectious – the kind of thing that still makes one smile 15 years later. That is how I think many of us experience our time with Theresa – she seemed to be channeling an energy from somewhere else – it is infectious, beautiful, challenging, hopeful, inspiring. That may be part of what made the last years so difficult for us – to see someone so filled with life and love struggling to stay and continue to be present with us and for us.

People live four different kinds of lives – the interior life of the intellect, the interior life of the emotions, the exterior life of objects, and the exterior life of relationships. My sense of Theresa is that her life was very externally focused, and leaned heavily toward relationships. She worked with her hands in a very tactile and intimate way – to have her wash your hair prior to a cut was to know that someone was praying for you. She loved to be surrounded by family and friends, and loved to feed them – Sunday afternoon meals are legendary.

The fact that she lived her life so much in the body, so much in her relationship with the physical world, may also be part of what made it so difficult to let go. Theresa’s experience of her own life and faith was such that she struggled knowing how to pray once she stopped praying for healing. What does one do? There is a whole terrible and wonderful discussion to be had about coming to terms with that reality – making a conscious decision to turn from prayers for living toward prayers for dying – without feeling like one is giving up or letting others down. I’d like to share part of what I told her last week when she’d come to that place.

Learning to die – Practice in releasing

Learning to die – Looking to the crucified Christ

I’ve only known her these last ten years, and the rest only as she’s told it to me, so most of her life is out of my reach. But I can confidently say several things about her life and faith.

Theresa was generous with her life – to her family, to friends, to clients at the salon, and even to strangers near and far. Many of you were involved in her efforts for the St. Bernard Project after hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans. From all I can tell, that was just the kind of person she was – nothing out of the ordinary, though certainly extraordinary in its effort and impact.

Theresa was vivacious – she was the kind of person other people wanted to be around and couldn’t help but like – because she wanted them around and liked them. Even in the last 48 hours of her life she was surrounded by family and friends and friends of family. She was joking and guiding and challenging and encouraging and teasing and loving. Saturday evening was a scene I’ll never forget, as she and her family drew together to boldly love one another and stare death down, fiercely proclaiming to themselves, each other, and the world that death would not separate or destroy them, that death would not get the victory.

Theresa was devoted – you knew who she loved, and she prioritized those relationships. That probably wasn’t always fun or easy, because if she loved someone she wanted the best for them and would challenge them to be their best, to hang in there, and to make difficult choices and go through tough times to overcome adversity and get to a better life.

Theresa was forgiving, she believed in second chances. How many of you in this room were given a second chance by her – or a third or fourth? Often times we take actions in our lives – we say or do something, make a decision – that we regret, but we think there’s no going back. We can’t unsay or undo those things, but the forgiveness we see in Jesus tells us – Theresa’s own faith and the way she related to us tells us – that we can be reconciled and restored, we can be forgiven, we can get another chance. With God we never run out of second chances. No matter what we’ve done, how many times, or for how long, God is always waiting right beside us to receive us back in love. It may be that the hardest part of all that is that we have trouble forgiving ourselves – I know Theresa did. She was ready to forgive others, but found it difficult to forgive herself for past mistakes and receive the grace and mercy she so freely offered to others – which God so freely offers to us.

People like to say, “Gone but not forgotten.” They put it on headstones, on car windows, on tattoos. But we shouldn’t be content just to remember, the way we remember the people from our school years. Remembering should not stay in our heads and hearts, but be incarnational – we should live it out in the world, in what we say and do, in the priorities we set and the values we live. Theresa has taught us many faith lessons, and all of them are incarnational – all of them mirror God’s love for the world which is tangible – it can be seen and heard and felt. As you remember, make a conscious decision to live your life differently because you knew her. Honor her life, her love, her legacy, by living it. Stay in relationship with her, hearing and feeling her guide you toward your better selves – toward being generous, vivacious, devoted, forgiving. By doing these things we honor her, and the God she loves.