Sixth Sunday of Easter
There is a glory that breathes life back
in a corpse and brings strangers together
as friends. Call that one back who fills
the held-out robe of a thornbush with
flowers, who clears muddied minds, who
gives a two-day-old infant wisdom beyond
anyone’s learning. “What baby?” you ask.
There is a fountain, a passion circulating.
I’m not saying this well, because I’m too
much in the scatterbrain sweetness. Listen
anyway. It must be said. There are eyes
that see into eternity. A presence beyond
the power and magic of shamans. Let that
in. Sink to the floor, full prostration.
– Rumi (“Scatterbrain Sweetness” in The Soul of Rumi, Barks, Coleman, ed.)
Growing up in my small-town Midwestern church, we were, on the whole, conservative in our speech about the Holy Spirit. Being committed to the practice of baptism, we immersed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but baptisms are the only memories I have where the Spirit was spoken of among our church people, let alone invited as a presence into our worship or shared life together.
It’s not that we didn’t believe in the Spirit, though it is true that I came up in a Protestant tradition whose founders were nervous about the language of “Trinity,” since the term never appears in scripture. Rather, we were a certain kind of modest, hard-working people who seemed to get along on our own pretty well, with lives of ordinary predictability. If the Spirit was there, he was in the background working, and out of our sight and our concern, like the way breathing becomes second nature.
Maybe we were shy about showings of the Spirit in the more charismatic churches nearby, perhaps even a little fearful of what could happen if the Holy Spirit got a hold of us. I had more than one charismatic friend as a child, who told me stories of their worship, and so I was raised with a chronic fear of someday being overtaken by the Spirit and accidentally speaking in tongues.
Times have changed, as have I. I’m no longer afraid to speak in tongues, and a lot more willing to speak of the Spirit on more occasions than baptism. But it’s also true that sometimes, it’s easy for me to still relegate the Spirit to the background of our lives together, the gospel, and even my understanding of myself, taking the work of the Spirit for granted like fresh air and my body’s ability to breathe. I suspect I may not be alone in this.
But this week’s gospel text underscores the work of the Spirit in our lives with God and one another. Instead of lurking quietly behind the scenes, the Spirit is foregrounded as a gift to the disciples, a way for Jesus’ presence to be with them always. Jesus draws our attention to what is our breathing as the church, the person who makes possible our lives together.
The supper has ended, feet are washed, the betrayer identified, and Jesus begins to speak to his disciples words of comfort and assurance, words of preparation for what they don’t fully know to expect as he moves toward the cross. And it is at this point in John’s gospel that Jesus first promises the Holy Spirit as a gift of his ongoing presence.
Thus far in John’s narrative, the Spirit has appeared as a character in the story and the subject of Jesus’ teaching. During his baptism, the Spirit descends as a dove, marking him to John the Baptist as the son of God. In Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus in chapter 3, we learn that it is not only possible, but crucial, to be born not only of water but of the Spirit, for this is how we may enter the Kingdom of God. In chapter 7, we learn the Spirit as not yet been given, because Jesus has not been glorified.
And then here, in Jesus’ last words to his disciples, the Spirit is promised and Jesus expands on the implications of such a gift. In the gospel for this week and in the following chapters, we learn that the Spirit abides with and within forever; is a teacher; is one who works on the memory, reminding of what Jesus has said; is an advocate with the Father, a comforter, a helper; testifies on Jesus’ behalf; proceeds from the Father; guides into all truth; and is a mediator of words from the Father declaring what will come.
Not only is the Spirit all these things, but Jesus makes it clear in our gospel reading this week that the gift of the presence and work of the Spirit will augment the relationships between the disciples and the Godhead. When the Spirit comes, everyone is connected. As it has been, it remains, that Jesus is in the Father, and the Father is in Jesus. With the Spirit, the disciples will be in Jesus and Jesus in the disciples. The Spirit is with the disciples and will be within the disciples.
What has been a relationship of association between students and a teacher will be transformed into webs of mutual indwelling, and human beings are invited into the community and relations of the Godhead. Where once humankind was separated from the Divine after the fall in the garden, human beings will now have access to the close fellowship with God that our first parents once had. The Spirit is gifted to us as a particular kind of epistemology, our way of knowing God, one another, and the world.
As the church, what should our response be? Here, I find Rumi’s words deeply instructive. The Spirit comes to us as a gift, enabling deeper, fuller life and communion, making possible a world of experiences and realities beyond what was formerly ours. As Rumi says, “Let that in,” or in the words of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection, when he breathes on them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)
To receive means to abide together in devotion to one another and God, to lean into this power in reliance, and allow ourselves to be moved in and through, conduits of the presence of God. But perhaps as part of that act of receiving, we might also be moved to gratitude, wonder, and even awe. Here again, Rumi offers an appropriate response: “Sink to the ground, full prostration.” Worship, honor, bowing low as an expression of praise where praise is due. We are no longer strangers, but friends; no longer orphans, but chosen children; no longer individuals, but knitted together as one body, taken up into the body of God in Jesus by the Spirit. What other experience is appropriate, but adoration? Sink to the ground, full prostration.
May we as the church know the Holy Spirit as that glory that breathes life into us, with gratitude and adoration. May we have the courage to let the Spirit of God move in and through us in communion together and empowerment for the work of the kingdom, making us ever more a faithful Christian witness of the gospel in the world. And may we let the Spirit in, worship with wonder and awe, and sink to the ground, full prostration. Amen.