Some reflections on Pentecost

April 30, 2005

Our recent meeting of the House of Bishops produced a remarkable convergence summed up in a Covenant Statement which has been seen by many as the fruit of the Spirit’s activity among us. What emerged is far more than words on a page but a fundamental disposition rooted and grounded in a force that transcended us all and brought us together in ways few could have imagined when we convened.

At a meeting in mid-April of the Executive Council we sought to discern how we might best respond to the primates’ request regarding our participation in the life of the Anglican Consultative Council.

As I left the conference center where the meeting was held, one of their staff told me she had felt the presence of the Spirit as council members worked and prayed together. I said that I agreed.

It is the function and ministry of the Holy Spirit to reconcile difference, not primarily on the level of opinion, but on the level of what scripture calls “the heart,” namely the deep core and center of the human person. This is the secret place where resides the love of God “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

How much better we in the church fare when we seek to discern the presence of the Spirit in one another at the level of the heart rather than playing out our differences at a level of argumentation. There are those within the body of Christ with whom I may profoundly disagree, yet at the same time I embrace them as brother or sister because we are able to meet at the level of the heart.

Through the agency of the Holy Spirit God’s creative activity continues in the world, and Christ continues to unfold his truth. Christ’s truth is not simply about religious truth but all truth, however mediated and in whatever way it is encountered. The Holy Spirit, whom Jesus in the Gospel of John calls the Spirit of truth, is always at work enlarging and deepening our vision and widening our embrace to encompass the many ways in which truth continues to unfold and challenge us.

Each of us structures our lives around what we perceive to be true. Such truth is severely limited by the forces that have shaped us and our context. One of the greatest gifts of being baptized into the risen body of Christ is that our several truths are brought together and refashioned by the Holy Spirit who works within us over time the deep truth of Christ. That deep truth is entered into largely as our perceptions of truth are challenged and stretched by the truth embodied in the other limbs and members of Christ’s body.

Because the Holy Spirit is sovereign and free it transcends all the limitations and can work in different ways within different cultures and different expressions of religion. Here I find it instructive that in the story of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles the Spirit enables those present to hear the good news each in their own language, each within the givenness of their own context and cultural reality. This ability of the Spirit to speak in different languages is a sign that difference and otherness are to be valued and affirmed.

The fact that truth is continuously unfolding is borne witness to by our increasing knowledge of the universe in which we live, and the mysteries of the human mind and body. Each year we learn new things, and unlearn some things that were once undisputed. Cigarette advertisements come to mind, and I vividly remember the image of the physician in the white coat extolling the benefits for our throats of cigarettes.

Centuries pass and we learn that the earth is not flat, that our planet is not the center of the solar system and that matter can be converted into energy. And wouldn’t the alchemists be amazed at our ability to do what they always wanted to do, namely change one element into another. Those ancients didn’t have the cyclotron.

This learning, and unlearning, I believe, is all part of what Jesus meant when he said “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Is it not possible that some of the disagreements within the life of the church are part of the Spirit’s unrelenting activity in leading us to new and deeper understandings of things we have previously regarded as fully known?

Though we may hear much these days about division in the life of the church, I am struck by the many instances in which the presence of forces that seek to divide have in fact moved us in the opposite direction and obliged us to seek a deeper place of mutual encounter. At this deeper place, the level of the heart, we together can experience being broken open in new ways by the power of the Spirit and the ever active reconciling love of Christ.