The Very Rev. John A. Simpson
The nineteenth-century thinker Frederick Denison Maurice said that he felt the coming hundred years would be a century of the Holy Spirit, and time has proved him right. Over the past 150 years, more thought has been given to the Holy Spirit than ever before: more books on the Spirit have been written; more Christians have interpreted and spoken of their experience in terms of the Spirit–not that Christians did not experience the spirit before–of course they did. It is just that over the past century and a half, many Christians have spoken of their experience in terms of the Spirit, whereas before they would have spoken of their experience in terms of God, or in terms of Jesus Christ. The ecumenical movement, which was such a feature of the twentieth century, grew out of this renewed concern with the Spirit, the Spirit as the Unifier. The Pentecostal churches, another development of the twentieth century, was a symptom of this trend. The contact there has been between Christians and the other world religions, the attempt to understand one another and, if possible, work together, which has been a feature of the last thirty to forty years–this has been a direct development of the renewed interest in the Spirit, this time, the Spirit seen as the revealer of truth, however and wherever it is expressed.
Yet, despite all this interest in the Holy Spirit, and recognition of the Spirit’s work and activity, Christians still find it difficult to talk of the Holy Spirit, and we should not be surprised, because ‘Spirit’ is intangible, and the activity of ‘Spirit’ can never be neatly pigeon-holed.
As Christians, we rightly talk a lot about Jesus Christ and emphasize his vital role in enabling us to meet and experience God. Whatever this means, it does not mean that before Jesus Christ lived, men and women could not meet and experience God in the fullest way, and that subsequent to his thirty years on earth, this has now been possible. God has been and always will be meetable and experienceable by men and women, in all the fullness of the love and forgiveness and goodwill that God has for the whole creation, and the Christian Bible makes this clear, just as the Christian Church ought to make it clear. What happened in the coming of Jesus Christ was that, whereas before people had glimpsed only dimly and partially the love and forgiveness and the goodwill of God, now in the life and work and teaching of Jesus, there was the complete disclosure that always and at all times God has been and is and will be loving, forgiving, full of goodwill toward all. This is clear now for all to see and none to mistake: the eternal, universal truth. But, if this is true of Jesus Christ and his work, it is also true of the Holy Spirit and Pentecost.
Today is Whitsunday, the Feast of Pentecost, when we think of that shattering event that the first Christians called the coming of the Holy Spirit. But, whatever else Pentecost stands for, it does not mean that a Spirit who previously had not been experienced or encountered, was now, as it were, given to the followers of Jesus. What happened at Pentecost was that for those first followers of Jesus, as a result of their experience of Jesus and as a result of their understanding of his teaching about the love and the forgiveness and the goodwill of God, as a result of their ten days’ retreat after the final appearance of Jesus–as a result of all this, everything fell into place, and they recognized clearly for the first time:
– that God in the Spirit is always at work wherever there emerges understanding among people, for that is what the breakdown of the language barrier at Pentecost means;
– that God in the Spirit is always at work wherever there is sacrificial support of people one for another, for that is what the primitive communism practiced by the first Christians means;
– that God in the Spirit is at work wherever men and women embark on the painful course of trying to discover their unity, for that is the meaning behind the common life of the disparate groups of the first Jerusalem Church;
– that God in the Spirit is at work wherever there is an overcoming of racial prejudice, for that is what lies behind the expansion of the Church out of a Jewish environment into a Gentile world;
– that God in the Spirit is always at work where men and women, whoever they are, are willing to die for what they hold to be true, for that is the meaning behind the first persecutions of the Christian Church;
– that God in the Spirit is always at work where there is recognition of the truths that others hold, whatever may be their background, for that is the meaning behind St. Paul’s appeal to the philosophers of Athens.
The recognition that when those things happen, it is God’s Spirit, was a shattering event for the first Christians, just as it can be a shattering event for us, if we are willing to open ourselves to the possibility.
In the list of situations of the Spirit at work, all of them were direct outworkings of love, forgiveness, goodwill–all the things that Jesus Christ had disclosed to the full. But, because they are outworkings, practical outworkings of love, forgiveness, goodwill, the list of situations cannot be an exclusive list. It is an indication of the type of thing that can occur. Here we come to the eternal, universal side: that wherever we find love, forgiveness, goodwill, there the Spirit can be recognized. Of course, the Spirit is not absent elsewhere, but where love, forgiveness and goodwill emerge, there the Spirit can be unmistakably recognized: in the attempts at understanding between classes, political parties, nations, religions, philosophies; in the pursuit of equality, sexual and racial; in the promotion of peace; in the genuine act of concern and charity; in the unselfish, sacrificial spread of Christian faith, which aims at including, not excluding people–and so one could go on.
The fact is that it is always difficult to talk about the Spirit, for the Spirit’s work, the Spirit’s activity, cannot be pigeon-holed. It cannot be neatly explained, only experienced. For the discovery of Pentecost was that the Holy Spirit is not some exclusive preserve of the holy or the religious; it is God at work among all people in all places, from the beginning to the end of time, urging and pressing God’s creation toward the embracing of divine love, divine forgiveness, divine goodwill.