It’s complicated. And powerful.
Think for a minute about all the ways in which we use the word spirit. I’m going to talk about the Holy Spirit in a minute, but the same language might apply to its other uses.
When someone is spirited, in high spirits or full of spirit, we mean they’re energetic, enthusiastic. Sometimes we say they’re on fire or they move like the wind. When we describe spirits in the supernatural sense, we mean something that’s ethereal or ghostly, something that’s there, but we can’t quite grasp it. We call certain kinds of alcohol spirits because of the manner in which they’re distilled – the vapour collected in the process is a “spirit” of the original material. And then there’s how we seem to use spirit and soul interchangeably. We shouldn’t, I guess – that has to do with how we’re attached to our soul, but our spirit is the energy and force that moves us. It’s complicated. It’s all complicated.
What’s true of all those things, though, is that spirit is not something you can hold in your hand. Ok, other than if it’s over ice in a glass. But you get my point: the spirit is something we can’t really see or touch, but we describe it’s energy and it’s power with elemental imagery. And that’s what I want to focus on for just a minute because this week, for many churches, includes Pentecost, the event we refer to as the birth of the church.
The story (Acts 2:1-21) begins fifty days after Easter (that’s what Pentecost means, “fifty”). The apostles are together and suddenly there’s a mighty wind and there’s tongues of flame above each of them and they start speaking in a variety of languages. People hear them and come to see and what they hear is the apostles speaking about God and Jesus in their – as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message – “mother tongue.” Famously, some think they’re drunk, but Peter explains that it’s the Spirit of God at work, revealing the Good News of Jesus.
From this moment, the story of Jesus spreads quickly and communities of followers are established in many places. This is why many people refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the church.
How is the spirit described? Wind and fire, elements of energy, power and motion. These elements have signalled God’s active presence before, even from the very beginning when “the Spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Gen. 1:2), the burning bush, the fiery cloud that signalled God’s presence on Sinai, the breath of God (“ruach” in hebrew scripture) that blew through the valley of dry bones and many other places, the dove alighting on Jesus at baptism, Jesus breathing on the disciples the spirit of peace – the list is long. And that’s not including the fiery passion of the prophets or the breath of life.
Water is another element that we associate with the spirit. It’s the essence of life, used for both purification and healing, also present in creation from the beginning. It, too, has power in motion and energy as it flows. Even in stillness, it has the power to give life.
So the Spirit is described in elemental terms with air, fire and water. But it’s also in the earth because it’s in us. We are, according to Genesis, made from the earth – that’s what “adam” means. But we are also filled with the breath of life, the water of creation and the fire of inspiration. That’s the power of the Spirit represented in this story.
And what did that power give the apostles? It gave them the ability to speak in the “mother tongue” of those around them. In other words, they were able to connect with them, to share with them a story that would reach as deeply into their hearts as it did the disciples’. It gave them the understanding that, in order to truly reach others, to share with them this amazing life-giving story, they couldn’t rely on what had meaning to themselves only. They needed to communicate with what was familiar to the one hearing the message, so familiar that it had the intimacy and depth of their own language, the language of their home. That’s how others would feel they believed in, and belonged with, the Good News.
Isn’t that really the basis of a faith community – a church – that we belong. Not just to the community, but to the story as well. Is that how we’re telling it?