Spirit, Spiritual, Spirited
Acts 2: 1-21, 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13
June 8, 2014
I recently read the book, “Babel No More: The search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners.” The writer set out to find hyperpolyglots. A polyglot is someone who speaks several languages. Add the prefix “hyper” to this and you get the extreme end of language learners. People who learn 6, 11, 20, maybe even over 50(?) languages. The writer begins by looking for historical evidence about how many languages the almost mythical 19th century Italian cardinal Joseph Mezzofant spoke. Rumor has it that he spoke 72 languages. That he could be in a room of 8 people with 8 languages and flip back and forth talking to all of them—if true a notable, a startling, linguistic stunt.
While on his search for evidence of long gone masters of language he also is looking for living examples and mines the work of brain researchers, linguists, and historians to answer the questions of if people can learn this many languages and if so how?
It turns out that while hyperpolyglots may have particularly strong memories this hardware aligns with an above average zeal for learning languages—in short, hard work. One man keeps detailed catalogues of hours spent on each language. He lives an almost monastic life of focus on his study. Another, a woman who works at the World Bank, constantly listens to recordings and audio language learning tools when she is doing anything the doesn’t require much thought—like running.
At Pentecost the Spirit comes in power—languages flow—this is not the hard slog of vocabulary cards (even that Italian cardinal Mezzofanti used them) and bungled sentences. This is not the lurching attempts at greetings and then questions and then directions. The languages flow.
How did we, however, get to this point of linguistic fireworks? What came before?
We get to Pentecost after Easter—after the crucifixion which was after Jesus’ 3 years of ministry. Pentecost is after Jesus appeared to the disciples walking along the road to Emmaus and after the disciples hide out but Jesus enters though the door is locked. Pentecost is after the ascension. After Jesus ascends—vanishes from their midst—the disciples are told to go and wait in Jerusalem to await the Spirit.
But what or who is the Spirit? How will the Spirit come? It says that the Spirit came and then things get wild. People spoke in the language of a long list of listeners and then Peter preaches of among other things the apocalyptic images which include the old, young, and slaves prophesying, the moon turning to blood, the sun dark, and smoky mists.
But still—who or what is the Spirit? It seems that we typically hear about the Spirit in scripture through particular actions—or promises of future actions and not in descriptions of character or metaphysics.
In Matthew the inaugural act of Jesus ministry is Jesus standing up in the Temple to do the scripture reading of the day. Whereas we have scriptures picked out ahead of time Jesus chooses his own passage to read. He chooses a passage from Isaiah which begins, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”
“to preach good news to the poor…release from captivity to the prisoners.”
Another instance of the Spirit early in Jesus’ ministry is at his baptism in the Jordan River. After Jesus was baptized by John the Baptizer we read that the “Spirit descended as if in the form of a dove.” And then led Jesus out into the desert.
So as is the Spirit’s custom we witness the action of the Spirit– the Spirit came in power—they were filled with the Holy Spirit. While talk of the Spirit in Bible is fairly common—and as such we likely feel that we have a reasonable understanding of the Spirit–are we really all that clear on who or what the Spirit is? The disciples, after all, were aware of the spirit of the Lord coming on prophets and they were, however, as we read in Acts, “amazed and perplexed” when confronted by the coming of the Spirit.
Later on, Paul one of the early theologians of the church begins to work expanding and adding detail to this work of the Spirit.
In the 1 Corinthians 12:3-13 we see the implications of the coming of the Spirit in the formation of the body of Christ—the early church.
3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
This description and this coming of the Spirit are effectively—again—the manifestation of the Spirit in very tangible acts—in our bodies, lives, and particularly in our corporate body. Verse 7 reads, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”. It is in this infilling that we made spiritual and spirited. That is, we come to be defined by the Spirit in our lives.
Spiritual is, however, a somewhat slippery term. In the same way that the Spirit shows up in specific ways, so too does being “spiritual” take on a certain form.
While drawing the line between the Spirit and being spiritual may be useful it does open up an interesting question or two regarding the well talked about trend of the rise of the “nones” or the “spiritual but not religious” in relation to the downward trends in traditional church attendance.
The two basic questions that these raises for me are—what does “spiritual but not religious” mean? And how does the church relate to this trend and these people?
To say one is “spiritual” typically indicates that one is not solely wrapped up in the “material.” I imagine most, if not all of us, don’t set the bar for proven “being spiritual” at the ability for impromptu Arabic or Parthian as seen in Acts 2. While it would be risky, and probably blatantly untrue, to paint all spiritual but not religious persons as the same for the same reasons, I imagine that my basic defining of spiritual would work for them as well. Namely, that the person believes that there is more to the world than materiality but that they don’t equate being spiritual with mind boggling linguistic shows or other flashy abilities. So this crowd is spiritual but for some reason or set of reasons no longer identifies with traditional religion as they understand it
While we could spend a great deal of time trying to define and understand this trend and individuals within this description our more critical task is deciding how we respond as a church and as individuals. If a growing portion of our population claims the moniker of “nones” or “spiritual but not religious” how do we go out and minister to these?
The church does not do what it should do when it immediately dismisses such claims as illigitimate. The church, also, does not do what it should do when it leaves their, or our, presumptions unchallenged.
I have heard some church folk dismiss this phenomenon as merely an narcissistic consumer mentality and others seek to accept this as the new landscape—in which we are left to endless adapt to match where culture is. The Spirit, the Gospel, however, transforms us.
At Pentecost—the showing up of the Spirit—the community and the individuals are rocked by an event that simultaneously demolishes the community as it was and rebuilds it. It transforms the Jesus-denying Peter to the bold– Jesus-proclaimer.
Peter moved beyond a spiritual acknowledging of Jesus to a spirited proclaimer of Jesus.
This week was our monthly Capitol Area Anabaptist Network lunch at the Mennonite Central Committee office down the street. During this time we eat and talk and then engage in lectio divina, a practice of reading and reflecting on a passage of scripture. Our passage was the Acts 2 section we read today. One of the participants, a summer intern at a local Mennonite church who grew up in an urban context, described the first time he saw a tomato on its plant. He had only ever seen them in the grocery store. The tomato amazed and perplexed him. And during our time of reflection this image and memory of the experience kept coming back to him. He spoke to the plant existing and bearing fruit—how this in some way is a picture of the Spirit bearing fruit in our lives. We don’t quite understand it but it happens. Chris was amazed and perplexed at the tomato coming from this plant.
May we be amazed and perplexed as we witness the work of the Spirit in our lives, in our Body.
Like Chris may we see and be amazed at the manifestation of the deeds of the Spirit among us.
May we like Peter, being so filled, be Spirited proclaimers of Jesus.
Go—being filled with the Spirit—Spiritual and Spirited.