Living by the Word: Wildfire

By Killinger, John | The Christian Century, May 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

Living by the Word: Wildfire


Killinger, John, The Christian Century


Sunday, May 28 Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

Like a fire out of control, the Holy Spirit leapt from the Jews to the gentiles, amazing Peter and his fellow Christians from Jerusalem. The Spirit was wild, unpredictable, totally beyond human restraint.

Opinions vary about how important the Spirit was in Judaism before the Christian era. The Spirit had some connection to Sophia, the spirit of wisdom in the Old Testament, and to the creative aspect of God, as seen in Genesis 1 and sections of Ezekiel. The Spirit was also often related to prophetic utterance.

But in the early church the Spirit became the only explanation for the way the embers of the Jesus movement were miraculously fanned into a worldwide conflagration. And in the text from Acts, the Spirit is cited as the reason that movement easily surmounted racial barriers to ignite an incredible burst of enthusiasm among non-Jews.

The other texts are inadequate supporters, even tame by comparison:

"All the ends of the earth have seen / the victory of our God."

"This is the victory that conquers the woad, our faith."

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." As marvelous as each of these texts is, the image of the unrestrained Spirit is more dynamic, more exciting.

Ironically, the church was already in the process of quenching the Spirit, or if it wasn't, it soon would be. The Spirit is always most visible to us when we're beaten, broken and in despair; the Spirit is less visible and less important when we're winning, prosperous and in charge of the woad. The Spirit works well for movements but fares poorly in institutions.

Aside from his remarks in the fourth Gospel, which arguably were supplied by the theologians of the nascent church, Jesus didn't say a lot about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit descended on him at his baptism "like a dove" and led him into the wilderness to be tempted. Luke adds that he was "filled with the power of the Spirit" when he returned to Galilee, and that when he read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth he began with the passage that said, "The Spirit of the lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor" (Luke 4:14-18).

Yet, in the fourth Gospel, we are told that when Jesus joined the disciples in the upper room after the resurrection "he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'" (John 20:22), establishing a direct (and almost too obvious) connection between him and the amazing Power of the early church.

While we may believe in the Holy Spirit as a manifestation of God's presence in the woad, we sometimes wonder if the church's early theologians invented this connection as an explanation of the continuity between Jesus and themselves, and if this invention didn't in turn and inadvertently lead to orthodox formulations about the Trinity that belied the Spirit's reality, much as the Kinsey Report misleads readers about the real joy and meaning of sex. …

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