As we’re slowly moving towards Pentecost I’m troubled, encouraged and challenged by a specific thought. Do we understand the work of the Spirit? Asking the question more specifically: how do we understand the work of the Holy Spirit for today? And then even more geographically specific for me: what is the work of the Holy Spirit in South Africa today?
I grew up in a church tradition where, as someone else once said ‘the Holy Spirit was the orphan within the Trinity’. For me this meant that a few years into my Christ-journey I was introduced to the Spirit (if I could do sound effects Spirit would be accompanied with the wind in the background). My conservative theology was built on a rock-solid (or so I thought) foundation of how to refute those tongue-speaking Spirit-intoxicated Pentecostals. And then I became one of them. You can imagine how excited I was to discover new continents of the gifts of the Spirit. With this also came the disappointment of feeling conned by people of the likes of Benny Hinn and all the other cronies that have been chronicled in so much depth. Since then I’ve been in a constant struggle to keep the balance between being open to the Holy Spirit and not being duped into a Gnostic-Disney-spirituality.
This year I’m using the weeks building up to Pentecost to think/pray/read my way into the centre of this storm. This brings me to the thought I referred to.
In the New Testament we are confronted with three window openings into the Spirit’s activity in people’s lives, these people are the teenage girl Mary, the newly baptized Jesus and the freshly anointed disciples (and friends) in the book of Acts.
The first appearance of the Spirit in the New Testament is in Matthew when we read that Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18, 20). This sounds very nice when one reads it in the Bible but when we place it in the actual flesh-and-blood life of Mary it looks a bit different! The first act of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament is to inaugurate the seed from which Jesus would emerge. For Mary this meant shame and disgrace with her family and the community at large. The Spirit here serves to highlight Jesus even if it brings discomfort to the one who is implicated in the process. Here the Holy Spirit serves to initiate Jesus’ mission and as a result places Mary in between a rock and a hard place.
When Jesus was baptized, we read that they saw the “Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (4:16). This picture reminds me of those paintings where Jesus looks into the distance with a far-off expression, in the background a perfect white dove comes to nestle on His shoulder and sings a beautiful song. It’s all very esoteric. But before we can dose off into a goose-bump pietism Matthew tells us that the Dove led Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Once again the Spirit is associated with anything but comfort – and epitomizes – an agenda bigger than just a specific individual. Don’t get me wrong, I like the dove image but that’s not the only one we’re given in this introduction to the narrative. As an aside, when Mark recounts this, he uses a very strong word for the Spirit’s activity – he uses the word drove – it’s once again a missional word.
In Acts we are told that the Spirit would enable the disciples to become witnesses (martyrs) of Lord Jesus. The Spirit would empower them to take the message of Jesus’ Lordship into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the whole world. Not only is the geographical scope of this command startling, but also the implications for the crossing of ethnic, religious and race boundaries. When the Spirit was poured out on them they received tools that would transcend entrenched boundaries, for through language we can cross-over easier into the worlds of other.
Pentecost then is the beginning of an ecclesial narrative that unites the nations under the banner of Jesus. Raniero Cantalamessa notes that “The ‘new language’ is a sign and a manifestation of the ‘new heart’ that the Spirit has created in them. These men have broken the barrier of their language, symbol of all the barriers that divide human beings from one another – the barriers of race, culture, sex, class, wealth, and the like”(p13)
Now I know this is not the full story. There are several other windows offering different vistas. The Spirit is also the Comforter, and helps us to relate to Pappa. Yet it is undeniable that the Spirit is also missional.
NT Wright commented that,
“Let’s put it like this. The whole point about Pentecost was that the disciples, up till then hiding away in an upper room, were blown out on to the street by the rushing mighty wind to speak the truth of God in Christ in public, and to do so boldly and unashamed. If Pentecost is simply all about us having new private religious experiences, however exciting and dramatic, we are turning Christianity into a private hobby. The gospel of Jesus Christ is nothing if it’s not public truth, issuing a costly and dangerous challenge to the world’s conceptions of truth. The world of the first Christian centuries was full of competing and clashing cultures, religions and tongues, and the followers of Jesus discovered that the tongues of fire which rested on the apostles enabled them to address these different cultures with a fresh judging and healing word of truth. May it be so again in our day.”