“Come, Holy Spirit, pour out of the depths of the Trinity a ray of Your Light—that Light which enlightens our minds and, at the same time, strengthens our wills to pursue the Light.”
These are the opening words of Fr. Thomas Keating’s “Prayer to the Holy Spirit.” Keating is a Trappist monk. He has been bringing centering prayer into contemplative vernacular since his freshman year at Yale University in 1940. Keating is interested in prayer so he can be in tune with the Holy Spirit. The Gospel of John (3:8) talks about the Spirit blowing where it chooses. People can hear the sound but cannot see it. Instead, we experience the Spirit.
Sitting on the porch as a summer storm gathers the courage to begin, I see the trees bend and leaves dance; I hear a rushing sound. I am aware of the wind, but cannot see it. The Holy Spirit can manifest itself this way today. Recently, a friend described a new situation. He was convinced that God’s spirit was involved as each piece fell into place. He said to me, “This has just been so sudden!”
I replied, “So was Pentecost.”
The Bible portrays the Holy Spirit pouring down upon people in Acts 2, on the Day of Pentecost. Karl Barth points out that the Spirit guarantees people what we cannot guarantee ourselves—that is, our participation in revelation.
When God speaks, people are involved. Communication requires a speaker and a listener, but for true communication, it cannot move in one direction; it goes back and forth. A one directional conversation rarely goes well. Likewise, with God, humanity listens, but God listens too. The Spirit pouring down at Pentecost points to this involvement.
Tongues of fire might have lit above each person, but Peter addressed crowd, not God directly. Peter was God’s mouthpiece. Similarly, we can contribute to God’s work today. When we take Acts 2 as normative for our faith journey, the Holy Spirit guarantees our part in revelation. God is at work, continuing the creative process, and humanity can participate.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit provides instruction and guidance that humanity could not provide for itself. In Genesis 11:1-9, humanity had one language, but the Lord confused the language because of our hubris, we will build a tower to heaven. We remember this story of the Tower of Babel. Pentecost is a dramatic reversal of the separation of languages at Babel. Instead of keeping people apart, the Spirit brings people together.
Paul Tillich writes, “Pentecost is the creation of a faith which was threatened and almost destroyed by the crucifixion of him who was supposed to be the bearer of the New Being.” The Apostle Paul describes this ‘new being’ as our call to emulate Christ. Out of the ashes of the crucifixion fires, Pentecost fashions a unifying faith. The event brings people together, and each one hears the gospel story in familiar words—their own language.
The uneducated, early followers’ sudden linguistic transformation is a powerful testimony to the work of the Spirit. However, with fear and persecution, the ‘they’ of Acts 2:1 was a small number. Public proclamation could have led to a Roman round-up and a public execution of a dozen or so seditionists, just as easily as it could have led to thousands of new converts. At this point, the situation could have gone either way. The Holy Spirit does something that humans will could not accomplish on their own. Instead of wiping out this Jesus-movement, the gathering grows and the fledgling church takes hold. Saving the fledgling faith is, perhaps, the greater miracle in the story. As of 2010, 2.2 billion people, out of 6.9 billion people on the planet, identify themselves as Christian. What a miracle, indeed!
In the shadow of Pentecost, with the fire still burning in their hearts, the Christ-followers institute a special kind of love. This development falls outside the initial Pentecost reading at the beginning in Acts. At the end of Acts 2 (vv. 43-47), the human response to the Holy Spirit is “love which expresses itself immediately in mutual service, especially toward those who are in need, including strangers who have joined the original group” (Tillich, ST, vol. 3, p. 151). After the emotional experience of hearing multiple languages and the powerful testimony of Jesus’ love, both the new and original Christ-followers together seek to live out their faith. They seek to model the kind of love Jesus showed for those who are in need and strangers.
The Holy Spirit continues to move today, and people can participate in God’s continuing revelation. It also empowers human speech. Barth writes, “… the Spirit is the great and only possibility in virtue of which [people] can speak of Christ in such a way that what they say is witness and that God’s revelation in Christ thus achieves new actuality through it” (Barth, Dogmatics, vol. 31, p. 416). We can speak, but we can only speak of Christ as witnesses when our speech is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Christians stand together today because of the miracle of Pentecost. Because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, people can gather in God’s name, join revelation, receive divine instruction and guidance, and speak meaningfully about Christ. The Holy Spirit prompts us to hear God’s call to a greater love than we could imagine on our own.
The love inspired by the Holy Spirit is mutual and favors those who are in need and strangers. When we show love, patience, and share our material possessions with family and close friends, we do nothing extraordinary. But, when we utter Fr. Keating’s prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit,” we enter into an extraordinary relationship. First, this relationship is with God. Second, it is with fellow believers. Third, it is with fellow humanity.
The Holy Spirit prods us into a loving relationship with God, fellow believers, and other human beings. The multitude of languages testifies to the last aspect of this divine relationship. If it were exclusive, there would have been no need for every language. Instead, there is no pause between the original Apostles and transmitting the gospel to the whole world.
What does the Holy Spirit mean for us today? How would it speak to our church? Would it inspire our work life? Hobbies? Interpersonal relationships? Politics? These are difficult questions. Part of Baptist polity is our ability to go before God, with fear and trembling, and to seek the Holy Spirit’s assistance. This is the priesthood of all believers. To me, this is the Holy Spirit active today, leading each one of us to be ‘new beings’ in Christ. Amen.