Luke describes her as the sound of a violent wind. Paul says she intercedes for us where words fail. John depicts her as an advocate, or lawyer. I call her a ‘her,’ Luther called her a ‘he,’ and the Greek is neuter. Who is the Holy Spirit? For that matter, what is spirit? We use that word, but what are we talking about? The twentieth Century Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner described the spirit as the potential for God. Contemporary theologian Heidi Russell takes that idea of potential or possibility and describes it in physics terms. She notes that contemporary physics has shown us that all stuff is both wave and particle. Matter is stuff that’s slowed way down, but even dense solids in a Northwest Indiana winter are moving on an atomic level. And energy, like light, is material enough that a black hole can capture it. Everything has wave and particle function. Similarly, Russell argues, everyone has body and spirit function. For us to be fully human means we have a body—actuality, particularity, location—and that we have a spirit—potential for God, openness to what God may do next. The Holy Spirit is God opening possibilities to us. She is the one who shows us where we are and how we got there—she reveals the particulars that led to and make up this moment—and she opens us to God’s future—she shows what we could possibly be in God.
Luke narrates this in our First Reading. We fixate on the mighty wind, but that’s just the Spirit’s grand entrance. We truly see the Spirit at work when Peter speaks. He uses the words of the Prophet Joel—part of Peter’s Hebrew faith tradition—to explain how Jesus—one of Peter’s friends—did amazing things before being crucified in a perversion of justice—part of Peter’s recent life—and thus brought this group of people—Peter’s people—to be in this place—Peter’s holy city—at this time—a Hebrew festival. All of those particulars have led to this particular, and now there is potential for God and God is calling everyone to see it. Being Christian means being fully in the world now and open to God’s possibilities—acknowledging how we got where we are, and being open to what might happen next.
Acknowledging how we got here. John uses the image of Advocate, here, telling us that the Holy Spirit comes to press charges against the world. She has three charges: you didn’t believe in Jesus even though he is God; you convicted and executed Jesus, who was a righteous man, so your whole grasp on justice is a little iffy; and, by killing Jesus you convicted yourselves as murderers. Another way to say this is that the world ignored the possibilities Jesus offered, eliminated Jesus who had been explaining how we got where we are and in eliminating him denied him possibilities, and thus proved we don’t like God opening new possibilities.
We build systems that deny potential, that preclude possibility. I watched in tearful disgust as this played out once again last week in the Holy Land. One element urged unarmed protestors to charge barriers, another element murdered protestors, and nothing much changed. The occupation denies all the people of the Holy Land the potential for God. Israeli or Palestinian, it doesn’t matter. When George Heider returned from his most recent visit to the Holy Land I asked him how it went and he said, “fifty years of occupation have corroded the bodies of the Palestinians and the souls of the Israelis.”
Occupier and occupied both are denied humanity in this arrangement. The West Bank is shot through with walls and checkpoints and illegal settlements. Gaza is an open-air prison. Israel controls the water and electricity and gives those only a few hours a day. There aren’t a whole lot of options for people living in these conditions. And hate groups like Hamas, who want nothing but dead Jews, have little difficulty finding people willing to kill them. There is little potential. And there is little potential for the occupiers. Occupying takes a lot of effort. Holding people down is all-consuming. It’s like riding a tiger: it doesn’t want you on its back, but you don’t dare let go because it’s a tiger and it can eat you if you fall off. Shouldn’t have gotten on the thing in the first place, but that’s a moot point. Getting you off the tiger will be tricky, but it can be done. The Spirit opens that as a possibility.
Luke narrates this with the story of everyone hearing and understanding. I grew up thinking of Acts 2 as people speaking in tongues; Luke emphasizes hearing and understanding just as much as speaking. The Holy Spirit makes the people able to understand what brought them here. It’s a partner story to the famous Tower of Babel, in which people are rendered unable to understand.
We didn’t read that story today but it’s worth a closer look. Genesis 11 tells us that the people of Babel built a city with a big tower. Babel, or in Hebrew “Bav-el,” is what we call in English Babylon. In the Old Testament, Babylonians are the worst people on the face of the earth. They conquer, murder, pillage, have a violent religion and challenge God at every turn. In the story, they say to themselves, “Let’s build a city and a tower and make a name for ourselves.” It’s all showing off. They build an imposing structure to embody how imposing they are on the world. And they flat out say, “We have to make this big city and big beautiful tower or else we’ll be scattered. Other people will get us.” So, they build it. And God says, “Ooh, a big tower! Let me take a look. I’m busy holding a bunch of galaxies together but I can look at your big tower. I’ll just get my magnifying glass and come all the way down there and get a good look at it. Aww, isn’t that cute! And you’re doing so well at making other people’s lives miserable! And this is all the opposite of what we called you to do. We brought you—descendants of Noah—here to follow us—God—and you’ve chosen to intimidate everyone and eliminate their possibilities with your city and its tower. We’re gonna have to make it so no one can understand you.” And that’s what God does. God confuses their understanding. They stop listening to each other. God wanted the people united following God, but they were united resisting God. They feared being scattered by others and that’s why they did this, but God scattered them anyway.
And from that, God went back to work. The next story in Genesis is how God came to one of those scattered people, Abram, and built the community God wanted, a community of faith in God and love of neighbor. God opened possibility from Abram. First steps were small: go to the promised land, have a couple kids. That’s all Abe lives to see. But from Isaac come Esau and Jacob; from Jacob, twelve sons; from twelve sons, twelve tribes; from twelve tribes, the nation of the Exodus; and so on. Possibilities open. God follows the same story in Acts. Mighty Rome builds and empire, and leaders of the Jewish subject peoples work with them to deny possibilities. They decide they have to kill Jesus because they’re afraid of the possibilities he is showing people. God says, “Ooh, you’ve built a cross for my son! Let me look. I was busy with these parallel dimensions, but let me get my magnifying glass and come all the way down there. Wow. That’s impressive. And, also, horrible. But your empire will fall. And in the meantime, I will take some unemployed fishermen, some tax collectors, some prostitutes, and some women who knew Jesus, and I’ll open possibilities for them. It’ll start small, about 120 people. But on Pentecost, 3,000 will hear and understand them. The word will spread through Jerusalem, then all of Palestine, then to every corner of the world where people tread.
And that is our hope wherever people deny the possibility for God, wherever people build their big barrier or their big tower or their big cross and deny someone else the fullness of life in God. For those denied possibility because of occupation, the Spirit comes making liberation possible for occupier and occupied alike. For those denied possibility because of society stigmatizing them, the Spirit comes enlightening the world and teaching us to embrace others. For those denied possibility because of illness, the Spirit comes offering a community of wholeness. For those denied possibility because of death, the Spirit comes promising us life in the resurrection. The Spirit comes telling us how we got to this point. (The story isn’t always pretty. But if anyone can give us ears to hear it is the Holy Spirit.) And then the Holy Spirit shows what we could be.