Genesis 1:1-2, Psalm 104:27,30
Have you ever been to a party, or a big public event, or even down in Pioneer Square, and someone is behaving very strangely, trying to get attention, sometimes pontificating about something? People nudge themselves away, sometimes whispering with a roll of the eyes: What’s HER story? What’s HIS story? The implication is clearly that the person does not fit in the normal, acceptable behaviors of society.
In a way, it’s a rather good question. What is her story? What is his story? What path has led this person to this place, to this particular activity, which seems so odd?
So, today, the second Sunday of our Pentecost Season, we explore this question: What is HER story? And I am referring in this case, to the Holy Spirit.
First, before yours minds get stuck in the loop of wondering about my vocabulary, I want to talk about the feminine pronoun. Why feminine? …We all know that God is not human, not bound by gender or sexuality, and yet is a person. But our language limits us to either gendered or impersonal pronouns. For centuries it has been proper form to address all beings as “him,” believing that to be inclusive of all. This is no longer true in our day and age. For the culture in which we live in southeast Portland, masculine forms of language do not feel inclusive. Inaccurate use of pronouns is now insulting to many, and excluding to many more.
At Mt. Tabor, we have identified ourselves as a bridge-building congregation – it is right there in print in our lobby. So we have a challenge before us. English usage is slowly changing in the grammar books; but it is changing much more rapidly in the ears of the younger generation who lives with us and shares space with us in this building. So, in order to build bridges, we find ourselves in the difficult position of changing our own vocabulary, so others will not feel excluded.
That said, the word “Spirit” in the original language gives us a clue as to gender. The Hebrew word for Spirit is “ruach,” and it is a feminine noun. The pronoun for ruach is “her, or she.” This is also true in the Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus when he was teaching. Language for Spirit was feminine for Jesus and his first followers.
When this Hebrew and Aramaic teaching was translated into Greek, they used the Greek word for spirit, “pneuma,” which is a neuter noun – neither masculine nor feminine. It’s proper pronoun is “it.” But since God is not an it, but a person, translators chose masculine pronouns. Then the Bible was translated into Latin where the word for spirit is “spiritus,” a masculine noun. When the text was into English, it was translated from Latin, so the masculine form remained, even though it would not be a correct translation from the original Hebrew or Aramaic. A mistake? Perhaps. But it fell within the standard English practice of seeing the masculine as inclusive of the feminine.
Current translations are going back to the more ancient texts to discover that the Spirit, and many of the metaphors for God in the Bible, are actually feminine and they are portraying that in the translations. This is a real boon to us in today’s society! We can be really thankful to scholars doing this work. Without them, we would have a book which seems to leave out at least half of the human race. Furthermore, we now, more clearly have a God – three in one – who includes the feminine.
When William Paul Young wrote, The Shack, this was what brought the greatest outcries of heresy – he envisioned God the Father, “Papa,” as a black woman! Holy Spirit was also a female presence. No matter how much this might be condemned by religious professionals, the book sales took off like wildfire! Clearly millions of people thirsted for this kind of image for God! Something they somehow always knew was the real thing!
So, what is her story? The Holy Spirit’s story? I don’t know about you, but I grew up with the teaching that the Holy Spirit was a New Testament phenomenon. The Spirit, so I was told, did not live with humans prior to Pentecost. The Spirit’s appearance was occasionally seen in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the prophets, but was completely absent for the 400 years prior to Jesus’ birth. The Spirit just showed up on occasion and did not live with humans. If you were not taught that, good for you! But just in case you did, I want to let you know that I am in the same boat!
And, nothing could be further from the truth! The Holy Spirit is everywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, beginning in the second verse of Genesis. God’s presence with the people was always through the Spirit, except in a few rare instances when God showed up incarnate (tipping God’s hand about Jesus).
So what is her story?
1. The Spirit was the agent of creation (Gen. 1:2; Job 26:13; Is. 32:15). God created through the movement and action of the Spirit. From the very beginning the Spirit was the action of God connecting with the tangible, earthly and physical realm. Young picks this up in The Shack, making Sarayu a gardener. From the beginning, her work was to turn the formless void into the Garden of Eden.
2. The Spirit gives life to humanity and the other creatures (Ps. 104:29, 30). In fact, when God breathed into the first human nostrils the breath of life (Gen. 2:7) the word for that breath is “ruach,” spirit. Spirit is life. As the Psalmist says, when God sends forth God’s Spirit, all living things are created, and the face of the earth is renewed. The Spirit is in the on-going work of creating life.
There is an old prayer of the church, from the Pentecost liturgy. I became familiar with it through Walk to Emmaus, a renewal ministry which began in the Methodist tradition, and had its roots in the Roman Catholic Cursillo. There are not many prayers addressed to God as Holy Spirit. This one is my prayer for Pentecost, and beyond. I have printed it on a bookmark, which you see in the bulletin this morning. I invite us to pray this prayer, as we wait for the Spirit to come again and renew our lives, our church, our city and our world. Paul talks about the creation waiting with eager longing for the children of God to be revealed. This is the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit.
3. Back to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit came upon certain judges, warriors, and prophets in a way that gave them extraordinary power: for example, the seventy elders who adjudicated with Moses (Numbers 11:17, 25-29), Joshua (Numbers 27:18), Samson (Judges 13:25; 14:6), and Saul (1 Sam. 10:9, 10).
Samson and Saul are interesting cases, indeed! These two were not particularly spiritual people. And the fact that the Holy Spirit came upon them at particular moments, didn’t change that. So, at times, when the Spirit came upon people, they became instruments of God’s power, but then some of them went back to the way they used to live – unspiritual and self-interested. Neither Saul nor Samson, were particularly admirable people. Not before or after they were chosen. Yet, God used them. Or check out the story of Balaam, when even a donkey was given voice by the Spirit! (Numbers 22ff.)
The Spirit took the initiative. The Spirit came, when the Spirit came. So it is completely consistent with the Hebrew teaching that Jesus should instruct his disciples to go back and wait.
4. The Spirit was the one who guided and taught God’s people. Unfortunately, when this is mentioned, the Bible usually says that the people were stubborn and refused to listen. Except for the prophets. The Spirit was the one through whom the prophets spoke, guided, taught, disciplined. David declared, “the Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and her word was on my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2). Likewise, Ezekiel reported that “the Spirit entered me when she spoke to me” (Ezek. 2:2).
The promise of the Hebrew prophets, of Jesus, of the disciples and New Testament writers is that God would abide as the Holy Spirit among people in a way that would eventually cause all of life to change (Ezek. 36:27). Jesus called it the coming of the kingdom of God – the time when the Spirit would speak and the people would listen, follow and delight in the presence of God.
The oft-overlooked part of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit has always come among humans. It is how God has been present from the moment of creation. And Spirit is how God continues to create God’s own people, and to grow in us a spirit of love – the character of our God. Living faithfully quite simply means to live in constant relationship with the Holy Spirit, to let the God-breath blow through us. Enter the place of prayer, the core of your being. Breathe. Wait. For the Spirit is your very breath.
Join me in the prayer to the Holy Spirit:
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth! Amen.