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Pentecost (Whit Sunday)

27 May 2022

5 June, Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.26-36, 37b (CW = vv.24-34 BCP and NRSV); Romans 8.14-17; John 14.8-17 [25-27]

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THE Holy Spirit is the hardest of the three Persons of the blessed Trinity to understand from a human point of view. We all know what fathers and sons are. That will not be the whole truth of the Father and the Son, but it is a start. Paradoxically, the Holy Spirit is the easiest of the three Persons to experience and recognise. Even people who are actively hostile to the faith sometimes experience the Spirit’s touch or presence.

The Acts 2 reading is an indispensable part of every year’s Pentecost celebration. It is also the blueprint for subsequent manifestations of the Spirit. But that does set the bar very high. If speaking fluently in unfamiliar languages is the key, very few of us will claim that the Spirit has descended on us.

We need not worry, though, that our experiences are somehow faulty, or inadequate. The wind blows where it will (John 3.8). If we have been baptised, the Spirit is with us. Or confirmed? The Spirit is with us. Or ordained? The Spirit is with us.

The Spirit is our Advocate (counsel for the defence) because the part played by the Spirit is to present us to God — not as we are, but as we want, and will, and long to be. Advocates serve the interests of their client: it is not their job to decide innocence or guilt, only to set out the best case that can be made for whatever we have done, or failed to do. When we come before the judgement seat, we will not stand alone. Our Advocate will stand beside us.

Scripture sets this vision of the Spirit’s workings alongside one that is very different. Next to the legal or forensic, we find the social and familial. In Romans 8, Paul sets out for the first time his thesis that Christians are God’s sons by adoption. If sons can inherit, but daughters cannot, then we ought to stick with the “exclusive language” translation: “sons”. But the puzzle of adoption needs to be tackled first.

Some people think of adoption as a second-class version of relationship. Genetics may have played a part in privileging biological over environmental factors in the shaping of a human family. The Bible is a great help here; for one of its overarching themes intersects with this biological perspective. We are not the first people of faith to see ourselves as sons “by adoption”. The children of Israel are the original adoptive family of God, and the message that true family consists of those who keep faith with one another, and abide with one another, is carried through into the prophets, as well.

The same logic — that we can choose to be family, or not family — underpins every marriage. The law forbids its being a blood connection; it must depend instead on “mutual society, help, and comfort” (BCP 1662). We could sum up this fundamental of divine-human relationships as “family is as family does”: our behaviour, not our bloodlines, makes us family.

When Peter stands up to explain the Pentecost miracle, he does so in a way that underlines the importance of family. Though he does not (yet) take Paul’s line on including all people within the covenant, he emphasises that the Holy Spirit smooths out the hierarchy of traditional family boundaries. Sons and daughters will prophesy; so, too, will male and female slaves (my emphasis).

This Christian identity as a “family of faith” goes back beyond even the New Testament, as Romans 8.15 reveals. The word abba was valued and preserved by those first followers of the Way, because they knew that it was a word used by Jesus himself when he was talking to his heavenly Father (see Mark 14.36; Galatians 4.6). It marks a decisive step forward for the followers of Jesus into their new religious identity; for it has no parallel in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. There, God is the Father of his holy nation as a whole rather than as individuals.

Abba is a word that we do well to use sparingly; for repeating a word spoken by Jesus is freighted with significance: do we truly, fully, believe that God is our Father, and do we behave as his true children? It highlights the breathtaking honour that worship bestows on us, of praying, in every Anglican service, the words that Jesus himself commanded and taught us: “Our Father . . .”.

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