Prof. Morna D. Hooker
‘How do you see the Holy Spirit of God?’
That question forms the opening line of a poem written by Stevie Smith.
‘How do you see the Holy Spirit of God?
I see him as the holy spirit of good. But I do not think we should talk about spirits. I think we should call good, good.
But it is a beautiful idea, is it not?
And productive of good? . . . Yes, it is a beautiful idea, one of the most Beautiful ideas Christianity has ever had,
. . . A beautiful fairy story.’
I first came across that poem when it was printed, about 50 years ago, in the pages of the Guardian. Why it was there I cannot now remember, and these days I cannot imagine any newspaper publishing it. Stevie Smith may have been puzzled by the idea of God’s Holy Spirit, but the readers of the Guardian today might well look blank at the very notion of the Holy Spirit – or, even worse, the Holy Ghost.
Today, on Whitsunday, we heard one version of the story to which Stevie Smith was alluding, and which she described as ‘a beautiful fairy story’. A fairy story is indeed nothing more than a ‘beautiful idea’, having no basis in history, for as we all know, they take place ‘once upon a time’. So what of Luke’s account of the disciples experiencing the coming of the Holy Spirit? Was it, as Stevie Smith said, a ‘fairy story’? Or is it an account of something that was really experienced by Jesus’ first followers on the first Whitsunday? And if so, what was it all about?
Well, according to Luke, ‘there came from the sky what sounded like a strong, driving wind, a noise which filled the whole house where they were sitting’. What was significant about this wind? To answer that question, we need to go back to the Greek word for ‘spirit’ – pneuma – or even further back, to the Hebrew word ruah. Both words are ambiguous; they can mean not only ‘spirit’, but ‘wind’, and ‘breath’. Think back to the opening words of Genesis; in the beginning, we are told, ‘the earth was a vast waste’. In the translation we use here in chapel, we then read that ‘the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water’. Another translation speaks of ‘a wind from God’ sweeping ‘over the face of the waters’. There’s a parallel idea, though the vocabulary is different, in the next chapter, where we hear how God made a man out of dust, and breathed life into his nostrils. You may be inclined to dismiss these accounts as more ‘fairy stories’, but think what they’re trying to tell us. The Spirit of God is seen in the creative force which formed the universe, and in the breath of life which distinguish men and women from the molecules from which they are formed. And this Spirit, declares Luke, suddenly came on the disciples in a new way, and more or less bowled them over.
Pneuma means spirit, wind, breath, but it signifies power. Think of pneumatic drills. ‘The sound filled the house’ said Luke, and no wonder! We’re talking about a creative force – and a force that can be as destructive as it is creative – a force that will certainly have knocked them for six. We’re talking about the power of God himself.
You have, I hope, a copy before you of a picture of a stained glass window in Ely Cathedral, a window which is meant to portray what happened on the first Whitsunday. It is, you will agree, a glorious splash of colour – but that is about all that can be said for it, for it gets every detail of Luke’s story wrong. Where are the signs of the strong wind that rushed through the house? Surely the disciples’ hair should be all awry? But no, they all look as if they have just emerged from the hairdresser’s, with not a single hair astray.
Well, maybe it’s difficult to portray a violent wind, unless you have some trees bent over in the background, but fire should surely have been easier. ‘Flames like tongues of fire . . . rested on each one’, says Luke. If you look carefully at the picture you will indeed see tiny blobs on each head, though I can’t really decide whether they look like the tiny flames you get from birthday cake candles or giant raindrops. Luke, I think, intends us to think of a dramatic experience – a fire that rages without consuming, but which transforms the disciples. I certainly don’t get the impression from the picture that the flames filled the room – or, indeed, had any effect whatever, for these are almost invisible.
Why should the disciples experience God’s Spirit as a fire? Think of another significant story in the Old Testament – the story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush. Moses, feeding his sheep in the wilderness, saw a fire blazing in the bush – but the bush remained intact. Like the wind, the fire was a symbol of the presence – and the power – of God. Wind and fire are both forces of nature which, untamed, can destroy; but both can be used creatively and constructively. No wonder that the disciples, aware of the presence of God in a new way, should feel it like the presence of fire.
One of the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah, spoke of ‘a raging fire in my bones’. He was referring to the fact that God had given him a message to give to his people, and he was on fire until he delivered it. That’s the kind of thing that Luke has in mind, I think, because the next thing he tells us is that ‘the Spirit gave them power of utterance’, and they all began to speak in tongues.
Now normally when we hear of people talking in tongues we think of them speaking gibberish. That was certainly the way that Paul understood it. Though he refers to the ability to speak in tongues as a spiritual gift, he doesn’t seem to be very impressed by it. What’s the good of speaking in tongues, he asked, if nobody understands what you’re saying? That won’t help the community. You need someone to interpret what you’re saying.
Luke seems to be thinking of something very different, for what he tells us is that the disciples began to speak in other languages, and people who spoke those languages and who heard them speak understood what they were saying. And what they were saying was, of course, the story of Jesus, of his death and resurrection, and of God’s promise to be with all who responded to this message. In other words, what Luke is describing is more like what we might call ‘preaching’, but with an instantaneous translation system built in! A bit more of the fairy story, you ask? Or is it perhaps Luke’s way of saying that at Whitsun the disciples were empowered to embark on a mission to the nations, so that, in time, everyone heard the good news?
For our first reading this evening, we heard the story of the tower of Babel.
It tells how men and women grew too big for their boots, and decided to build a tower that would reach into heaven, so they began to build a kind of prototype of the shard. They didn’t get very far, however, for God apparently objected to his territory being invaded, and he knocked their tower down, like a pile of children’s bricks. Worse still, he ‘made a babble of their language’. Whereas before, they had all spoken the same language, they now spoke a great variety, and could no longer understand each other. And of course, when they could no longer understand each other, they started fighting one another and killing one another.
Luke’s story is intentionally the very opposite of this old fable. The Spirit of God unites people. They hear others speaking, and understand. So though Luke and Paul understand the gift of tongues in different ways, they certainly agree about the significance of the gift of the Spirit. The one Spirit of God brings men and women together. Paul has a lot to say about this. The one Spirit unites men and women into one body. The Spirit brings believers different gifts, not for their own sake, but for the sake of others. And the greatest gift of all is the gift of love, because that binds them together. Babel scattered men and women and divided them from each other. The Spirit of God brings them together.
And you will notice that once again the stained glass window gets it wrong.
The disciples’ mouths are firmly shut – they are not saying anything to anybody in any language. They are making no attempt to spread the good news – instead, they are gathered together in a kind of holy huddle, looking, either at one another, or vacantly into the middle distance.
If you are observant, you will have noted that the College is today flying a flag. I am tempted to suggest that the Head Porter ordered it to be flown to mark the fact that today is my birthday, but that of course is not the explanation – no, it is because today is Whitsunday, and Whitsunday is often described as the birthday of the Church – the day when the Church began. So today is a day of celebration! According to the University statutes, today is a scarlet day, which means that all doctors should be wearing scarlet. The chaplain and I decided to compromise, and wear hoods. But that’s not because we wish to vaunt our learning but because we want to celebrate: to celebrate the message of Whitsun. A fairy story? No! Because fairy stories are simply beautiful stories about what might have happened, once upon a time. But this is a story of how men and women were fired to go out to preach – and live – the gospel story. It’s a story, not simply about the past, but about what is still true today. Today is definitely a day to have a party, a day to celebrate. For the message of Whitsun is that God is with us, bringing us life, empowering us, and uniting us with others in love.