John 14.8-17 [25-27]
ON THE FIRST Whit Sunday, they asked: “What does this mean?” This Sunday, we shall hear the answer they were given: that what they were witnessing was the promised outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.
We shall note the response many of them made — their delight in each other’s company, their readiness to share their meals and everything else, their prayerfulness, their reckless generosity. Those were the days. Perhaps those would be the days, if ever we took our Christianity seriously.
On the first Whit Sunday, they asked a question. This Sunday, we come with a question of our own. It’s time to ask it — and Pentecost is the best day to ask it. “What is the relationship of the Spirit and the spiritual?” There is no question more important nor more urgent that the Christian Churches should be asking.
Over recent years, there has been an astonishing increase in the number of those claiming to have had significant spiritual experiences. For those who have had them, these experiences — of “something or someone beyond” — have been both utterly real and almost impossible to describe or explain. These years, during which so many have testified to a spiritual dimension to their lives, have been the years when church-going has continued its steep decline.
Something is going on. David Hay, who has made the phenomenon of spiritual awareness the subject of a lifetime’s research and reflection, has published a deeply perceptive book about what might be happening. Something There (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006) is not a commentary on our readings, but there could be no better companion to them.
Nor could there be a better guide than Dr Hay, as we press the question we are bound to ask at Pentecost. Can these “experiences of transcendence”, which many far from the Christian fold report, be accommodated within the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit?
Dr Hay’s sober and meticulously researched work contrasts markedly with the hysterical reaction of some Christian commentators to the reawakening to the spiritual so strikingly apparent in our times. Giles Fraser wrote recently of such spirituality as “an empty form of free-floating flatulence” (Comment, 30 March). Such is the language of those who fear they are losing control of a territory they thought was theirs.
That said, it might seem that St John agrees with Dr Fraser. Our Gospel reading apparently rules out absolutely any possibility of an accommodation between the Spirit and “the spiritual”. The contrast in the fourth Gospel between the disciples and “the world” is drawn sharply.
John’s Gospel comes from and speaks to a community that has already marked itself off from those outside its walls. “The Spirit of truth” is given to those who believe, and no one else can receive him. If so, the purported spiritual experience of the unbeliever, however else it may be understood, has nothing in common with the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit.
But trace the story in the Acts of the Apostles, and we may come to a different conclusion. What took place on the first Whit Sunday was the experience of those attached to a minority movement within first-century Judaism. The spokesman of that movement, one Simon Peter, claimed that what had happened was the fulfilment of the prophecy that “in the last days” God would pour out his spirit “on all flesh” — that is to say, on everyone.
In fact, it did not for one moment occur to Peter that this gift was really for everyone — for Gentiles as well as for Jews. It was only later, when he found himself at a meeting where “the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10.45), that he was forced to change his mind about the sphere of the Spirit’s activity.
We discover from the experience of the spiritual what are the boundaries of the Spirit’s activity, boundaries that will have to be constantly redrawn as our experience of the presence and activity of the Spirit of God is enlarged. We may well end up concluding that there are no boundaries at all.
So what is going on? No doubt — explore the stalls on the fringes of the Glastonbury Festival — much that is spooky and very silly, if not downright dangerous. But perhaps, at the same time, old wineskins of settled attitudes about the admissible and the inadmissible are being broken by the new wine of the work of God in unexpected ways.
Dr Hay concludes his great study of the powerful spiritual currents of our time, waves racing like an incoming tide across our secular sands, by voicing his conviction that God the Holy Spirit is already communicating with people, many of whom steer well clear of the institutional Church.
Do they need our Christian language, our Christian metaphors, and our Christian traditions? Are we really to believe that they are hopelessly adrift until they drop anchor with us? Dr Hay has his own answer to that question. Buy his book and find out what it is.
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
14All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”