Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Holy Spirit

Conspire With the Spirit

In the Name of the God who breathed us into life, breathes through us, and will return our breath to us at the resurrection. Amen.

In beginning, when beginning, at origin… Our story begins with a word that takes us to the dawn of time. In beginning of what would become the world, God created, God crafted, the world with a power that breathes through us still. I translate it this way in Womanist Midrash:

Genesis 1:1 In beginning, He, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was formless and shapeless and darkness covered the face of the deep, while She, the Spirit of God pulsed over the face of the waters. [my trans, Womanist Midrash, 19]

In the first phrase, In beginning, He, God created—just two words in Hebrew  בראשית ברא, God is grammatically masculine, which doesn’t necessarily mean that God is male, but does give us the masculine language we use so often in the church. In beginning the work of creation, God created the heavens and the earth, which in a world that only knew one planet that they thought was the center of creation, that didn’t know the word “planet” or that the stars were planets and other worlds—in that world “the heavens and the earth” meant everything in creation, even what they never could have imagined beyond the stars.

The world that God created was formless and shapeless and bathed in life giving darkness. In the scriptures from Exodus to Deuteronomy, from Psalms to Samuel, from Kings to Chronicles, darkness is the holy abode of God. (Ex 20:21; Deut 4:11; 5:23; 2 Sam 22:12; Ps 18:12; 1 Kgs 8:12; 2 Chr 6:1; Isa 45:3) It is in shadow that the Holy Spirit wraps the Virgin Mary, “over-shadowing” her and the holy life in the holy darkness of her womb. And there in the life-giving darkness before the dawn of creation, She, the Spirit of God, pulsed over the waters like the wings of a butterfly. The God we meet in Genesis teaches us there is nothing to fear in the darkness, for that is where God spins her web of life. Indeed the scriptures teach “the light and the dark are alike to thee.” (Psalm 139:12) And in that life-giving darkness:

She, the Spirit of God, She-who-is-also-God, at the dawn of creation fluttered over the nest of her creation at the same time as He, the more familiar expression of divinity, created all. They, Two-in-One, are the first articulations, self-articulations, of God in (and the God of) the Scriptures. God is female and male, and when God gets around to creating creatures in the divine image, they will be female and male, as God is. [WM, 19]

Genesis 1 marks the beginning of our world if not the beginning of all things, the beginning of Israel’s story, and the beginning of our scriptures. It is God’s resume and self-introduction. The God we meet in Genesis is more than we could have imagined and has spawned a whole industry of interpreters, theologians, and biblical scholars who spend a lot of time on basic math: God is One; there is God and the Spirit of God in this passage. How many is that?

If you want a classic explanation of the Trinity, call Father Andrew, or just wait until Trinity Sunday (also known as Heresy Sunday for the many folk failing at holy arithmetic). Today I don’t want to distinguish God from the Holy Spirit, I want to talk about the Holy Spirit as the manifestation of God that is active in our world, speaking it into life, breathing through it and through us. The Spirit of God is the Breath of God, a mighty wind moving through the world, stirring up holy trouble, fanning the flames of holy passion. When was the last time you got into holy trouble? When was the last time you were caught in the grip of a holy passion?

The Spirit of God unites our lessons from Genesis and Mark. In Mark she bears witness to her beloved son, Jesus, and is promised to those who are baptized. The gender of God gets really interesting when you thing about the Incarnation—the Holy Spirit who spoke life into the womb of the Blessed Virgin is also feminine. No man will be able to claim Jesus as his son; he is more the Son of Woman than the Son of Man. And the same Holy Spirit who spoke creation with “Let there be…” and crafted a holy child, with a word that was not heard, that God, that Spirit is the inheritance of the baptized. This is our God and she loves us dearly, to life, to and through death, back to life.

In Mark 1, the Virgin’s son was baptized, his baptism a visible sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit that enveloped him and also envelops us at our baptism. The same Holy Spirit who pulsed over the waters of creation fluttered visibly from heaven to earth to claim Jesus as her child. In our baptisms she claimed us as well. We have the same Holy Spirit as Jesus. We walk through this world animated by the breath of the living God. The troubles of the world are many and great but no match for the God who fills us and breathes in and through us. The image of God claiming Jesus in baptism is for us, so that we might have an image of ourselves forever in the embrace of God and know that there are no limits for what God can do through us.

In Acts 19, the promise of the Holy Spirit appears to have been hindered by an inadequate baptism, the baptism of John rather than the baptism of Jesus. When the group was properly instructed and baptized in the name of Jesus, the Spirit poured out on the little band with dramatic evidence. (A cynical or uncharitable reading might see Paul being presented similarly to Jesus and John—right down to the twelve disciples—to establish his credibility.) This is an important story but let us not get stuck there, policing other people’s baptisms and executions of the sacraments.

In these three texts the Spirit is powerful beyond measure, and at the same time, tenderly loving and immanently present. We are never alone. God is always with us. God’s Spirit has been present in and on the world since the dawn of creation and has never left. The fires of the Spirit will burn even higher at Pentecost but she has always been here, loving us, claiming us, empowering us.

The power of God’s spirit is on full display in Psalm 29; the power of words whispered in a holy wind. God’s thundering voice unites Psalm 29 with Mark 1. The voice that shook the world in the psalm is the voice that splits the heavens in Mark. In the psalm God’s voice is the orchestra of creation: rumbling thunder, crashing waves and the crackle of lightning and fire. The power of that voice can peel the leaves and bark off the trees and shatter them into splinters. And God uses that voice to speak to us of her love.

What shall we do with the power that God has breathed into us? How shall we use our words? The world is hungry for God-breathed holy words. How do you tell the story of God’s love? To whom are you telling the story of God’s love? When was the last time you conspired with God? To conspire is to breathe together. When was the last time you returned your God-given breath to its source to breathe with God in the holy kiss that is prayer?

The season of Epiphany is a season of revelation, illumination, and discovery. I invite you to discover the power of the Holy Spirit in your life. Let her speak life-giving words through your words. Feel her in your every breath, for God’s voice still speaks in wind and water and her Spirit still bathes the baptized. Listen for her whispers on the winds. Amen.

1 Epiphany 2018

Gen 1:1–5; Ps 29:0–11; Acts 19:1–7; Mark 1:4–11

She is God

Annunciation Tryptich by the late Robert Moore of the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas where it hangs in Philadelphia PA.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! For fifty days the Jewish and Gentile Christians of the early church told the stories of Jesus, his life, his death and his life-from-death over and over. Jesus was raised from the dead as he said he would be. I imagine everyone knew someone who had seen him, touched him, broken bread with him. They kept telling the story to those who knew and loved him, and to those who knew him not. The story was just too good not to share.

Here in our fifty days of Easter, many of us have lost track of the days. Some have forgotten that it is still Easter. Perhaps we should mark the days. In Judaism you count the forty-nine days from Passover to Shavuoth, the Festival of Weeks, and mark them with special prayers and meditations. That fiftieth day, called Pentecost was a huge festival with pilgrims coming from all over to observe the holy day. This year, this first year of the newly born church, was going to be different, so different that the day of Pentecost would become a holy day for Christians.

While some in the church were counting the days to Pentecost because they were still, like Paul, Jews, others were waiting. Jesus made some promises before his death and now that he had risen from the dead there could be no doubt that his word was true. Our gospel takes us to one of those promises, back before Jesus’s arrest, back before his agony in Gethsemane, to the Last Supper after Judas had gone to betray him. There John’s gospel has Jesus make a farewell speech.

In it Jesus says, If you love me, keep my commandments. In the gospel of John, Jesus only gives us one commandment. Just before his farewell he says: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (Jn 13:34) Shortly after he repeats it: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 15:12) And Jesus says repeatedly before and after: If you love me, you will keep my commandments… You are my friends if you do what I command you… I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (Jn 14:15; 15:14, 17)

That’s all Jesus asks of us, that we love one another. What could be simpler? Jesus calls us to love. Well, if you know the church, you know we made it complicated. But Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows his flock so he knew we cannot even love faithfully and consistently—without preconditions and caveats—on our own, so Jesus promised that we would not have to try to love or do anything else in our own strength. The Spirit of God who is with us, who was already with the disciples, would now be with them—and us—in a whole new way. The gospel says the Spirit is with us already but now will be in us, a deep and intimate bond that can never be broken.

This Spirit is the Spirit of God; She is God. She is the fullness of God without limits, the Font of Creation, the Fire of Sinai, Water in the Wilderness. She is the one who hears the cries of the battered, abandoned and betrayed, and she is the one who guides and accompanies, saves, heals, and delivers. And, she is the one who folded her majesty into the womb of the Ever-Blessed Virgin and brought forth a life that could not be extinguished by death.

It is she who is with us, with us and in us. And yes, She. Jesus spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, and in those languages the Spirit is only “she.” Translated from my Hebrew New Testament our gospel says: This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees her nor knows her. You know her, because she abides with you, and she will be in you. This is what Jesus said. Grammatically it was impossible for him to say it any other way.

In the Greek of the gospels, the Spirit has no gender. A more literal translation of the text would be: This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees it nor knows it. You know it, because it abides with you, and it will be in you. There is no masculine pronoun for the Spirit in Greek. It is simply not there.

So consider that in neither of the biblical languages is God’s Spirit ever male. A couple of hundred years after the gospels were written, literally centuries later, they were translated into Latin which used male pronouns for the Spirit of God. And since Latin became the language of the church we—well, not me—the church uses male pronouns as in the creed and most of its liturgy and wrote them into the scriptures.

Some might say it doesn’t matter. Any pronoun will do because God is beyond gender. And she is, but we are not, not yet, though we may be on our way. I want to suggest that it does matter and that how we see and describe God has everything to do with how and whether we love one another as Jesus commanded. It matters that we can see God in us and us in God, which is the point of the incarnation. God became human, to be like us, to be with us, to live as us, to love us to and through death, as Jesus commanded us to love each other.

As long as we do not see each other as fully the image God we cannot love each other as Jesus commanded us to love. And the measure for whether we truly see each other as the image of God is whether we can conceive of God in each other’s image. If your God cannot be female, feminine, or femme because that is too weak, unfit for power and leadership then your love for God and humanity is constrained by your love for masculinity and male power. And anything you love more than God is an idol.

Sometimes it is hard to see the image of God in others or even ourselves because the church has deified whiteness, even to the point of largely rejecting the historical Palestinian Jewish Jesus, for pale imitations. Can you see yourself in the images of God: on the walls, in the windows, and in the words of liturgy? What about in the Bread? It has been important to me that the body of Christ I proclaim is at least, sometimes, brown like me.

The insistence that God is male and only male in spite of all of the places scripture paints a broader and more nuanced picture served and serves to buttress patriarchal power and baptize it as the natural order and God’s will. In Deuteronomy God is the father who creates and the rock who gives birth. (Dt 32:6; 18) In Job God is the one whose womb birthed the seas and the frost and the ice and, God is the father of the rain and dew. (Jb 38:8; 28-29)

God’s womb is the source of her love for us. Over and over again the scriptures proclaim God’s love using a verb that means both the womb and the love that springs from it. The love that Jesus commands of us is an extension of that love. God is Love. We who love God love each other with the love of God within us. And in that love there can be no hierarchy, no domination, no bias, no privilege.

Any system of domination that subjugates one group of humans to another is not love. The love that Jesus calls us to is incompatible with patriarchy and sexism, just as it is incompatible with racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

We are in difficult days as a nation and around the world. The shouting we hear in the streets and on the news is not hallelujah. Not everyone is counting the days until Jewish or Christian Pentecost. Many are counting down to the next tweet, scandal or tweet about a scandal. Even in this we are commanded to love. It is here that we see love is not weak, does not condone or cooperate with evil. Love speaks truth, unwanted, unwelcome truth. Love holds accountable. Love resists injustice at any cost. And when necessary, love leads to death that others may live.