Come, Holy Spirit: God In Us

Scripture: Mark 1:9-13; Galatians 5:22-23; John 3:1-8

There’s a page I follow on Facebook – it’s called Unvirtuous Abbey,[1] and it’s a good place for theologically sound yet slightly irreverent Christian humor. One of the things that the people who run this page have done is a series of “Actual photos of the Holy Spirit,” using bird pictures, because one way the Holy Spirit is depicted in the Bible is as a bird, a dove.

For example:

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit on Her way to comfort someone in need.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit carrying your burdens for a little while so you can rest.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit telling you not to give up even though She knows it’s really hard right now.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit standing in solidarity with your pandemic hairstyle and fashion.

Some of them are a little harder hitting:

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit wondering why you just said that.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit saying, ‘Oh no you didn’t’ when you just did.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit. She’s on Her way. You know what you did.

You might remember that last week, we talked about the Holy Spirit as parakletos, our comforter, encourager, and advocate, who I called God For Us. And the Holy Spirit is all of these things. But it’s not the Holy Spirit’s only job to comfort us and affirm us. That sounds nice, to some extent, but also ultimately lacking. Just like a good friend who is always there to listen but you know is also going to tell you the truth, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to be God For Us but also to work in us to challenge, transform, and renew us.

At the beginning of this service we heard the passage from Mark’s Gospel where the Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism (like a dove), and then – did you catch what happens after that? We read that immediately the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Not gently led him into the wilderness, which is what Matthew and Luke say, but drove him there. The Spirit is driving Jesus into this place where it’s going to be really hard for a while and he’s going to be spiritually prepared for his ministry and all that lies before him. It’s not so warm and fuzzy, but it is, presumably, something Jesus needs to do – something he might not choose to do on his own.

John doesn’t tell us about Jesus in the wilderness – probably from John’s perspective, Jesus is born prepared. But John does tell us a story about a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to see Jesus under the cover of night. He seems to know there is something special about Jesus, and he wants to be able to figure it out, to try to put his finger on what it is. He says no one can do the things Jesus does unless they are from God.  And even though Nicodemus hasn’t really asked, Jesus tells him that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above – or, depending on your translation, born anew or born again.

Nicodemus says, “How is that possible?” and Jesus says to him, “Truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” In other words, this is of course not a physical rebirth, but a spiritual one, one in which the Spirit herself is at work and that is affirmed and ritualized in our baptism.

Some of us may think of spiritual rebirth as like a gentle, meditative, finding-enlightenment kind of process, but I’m going to tell you that if that’s the kind of process we’re talking about, I don’t think “birth” is a good image. You know what’s not a gentle, meditative process? Birth. Birth is, in fact, not only hard and painful but dangerous, both for the one giving it and the one being birthed. AND it’s also the only way for new life to emerge. I see no reason for being born of the Spirit to be different. Not an easy or comfortable process, but a life-giving one.

Sometimes that might mean keeping our mouths shut when we really want to say something – or finding the courage to speak up when we might have remained silent.

Sometimes it might mean going through the pain of giving up on a toxic relationship in order to move forward, or letting go of a long-held grudge and moving toward reconciliation.

Sometimes it might mean repenting, and beginning to walk down a more faithful path.

Some of you may have seen the actor Hank Azaria in the news last month. Hank Azaria was the voice of the character Apu on The Simpsons for thirty years. He’s white, and Apu was the Indian shopkeeper rife formulated largely on racial stereotypes. It was the kind of thing that not many white people thought twice about in the era when The Simpsons was first popular.

In 2017 the Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary called “The Problem with Apu,” where he talked about the harm that was done through the depiction of this character with his fake accent and stereotypes. Kondabolu had grown up watching The Simpsons, but he was also aware of the effect Apu had on him and how others saw him.

Azaria said that when he first heard about this documentary, he felt “hurt and defensive.” After all, he hadn’t set out to hurt anyone, and it was comedy, right, and maybe the people who were offended were just “17 hipsters in a microbrewery in Brooklyn.”

So Azaria didn’t stop being the voice of Apu. Not right away. But what he did do was start to learn. He talked to Indian people. He learned more about racism. He read. He educated himself and sought opportunities for others to help educate him. And, after several years of doing this work, he stopped voicing Apu, and he started working with an anti-racism group to help educate others. In April, he publicly apologized for the role he played in perpetuating these stereotypes.[2]

I don’t want to make too much of a hero of a white person who realized that he was participating in something racist. Obviously Hari Kondabolu is important to this story, too, and all the other people who helped Azaria understand the harm that had been done.  But I do think there’s a lot we can learn from Hank Azaria, when it comes to racism and beyond. Because it would have been easy to dismiss people who were offended by something he had invested a good part of his career in, to call them snowflakes, to feel like they were attacking his life’s work or even his identity. But instead he recognized his own defensiveness, and went down that hard, uncomfortable path of learning and repentance. And while I have no idea how Azaria would characterize his own spiritual life, I would call that spiritual growth, and that is the kind of work that the Holy Spirit can do in us  – if we let her, and if we work with her.

Paul tells us in Galatians what new life in the Spirit is supposed to look like: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the qualities that are born of that process. Not all of them may come naturally to us, certainly not all the time, but all of them are part of the Spirit’s work to reform and reshape and rebirth us into the image of God who is Love.

And in the end, this idea of the Holy Spirit working in us isn’t so different from the Holy Spirit as our helper, encourager, and advocate. In all of it, God is for us. All of it is grace – whether it’s the kind that wraps us in a warm hug or drives us into the wilderness.

As the write Anne Lamott likes to say, “God loves you just the way you are, and God loves you too much to let you stay that way.” Thanks be to God for new life, and for the one who brings that new life into being.


[1] https://www.facebook.com/UnvirtuousAbbey

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2021/04/13/hank-azaria-apology-apu-simpsons/

Come, Holy Spirit: God For Us

Scripture: John 14:16-17

When I was a kid, growing up in church, I learned how to pray to God – Our Father who art in heaven – who I learned to picture somewhere along the way as an old white man with long white hair. To be fair, I’m not sure that my church actually presented me with that image directly; that’s one of those things that it’s easy to pick up along the way, even though it’s wrong. I also learned, though, that this God was the one who had made the world and everything in it, that God was love, that this God had sent Jesus to earth to teach us and to die for our sins.

When I was a kid growing up in church, I learned the stories of Jesus, and for this I give special credit to Mrs. Allender, my Sunday School teacher, and to Mrs. Lau, who always gave the children’s sermon. I knew that Jesus healed people who were sick and forgave people’s sins. I knew that he called fishermen to fish for people, and that he calmed storms and told stories and multiplied loaves of bread, and of course I knew that he died on a cross and rose again.

I could tell you about God, our Father, and I could tell you about God’s Son Jesus, and, if you had asked me, as a kid growing up in church, about the Holy Spirit, I could have told you that yes, there was definitely one of those too. I was the kind of kid who paid attention in church, so maybe I could have sung you a line of one hymn or another: Praise the Spirit, Holy Spirit, Alleluia; God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.

And if you had asked me any more than that, I would have been a little harder pressed to answer.

My sense is that I am not alone in that. There are some Christian traditions that talk a lot about the Holy Spirit, but mainline Protestant traditions do not really tend to be among them. We talk about God, by whom we usually mean God the Father, the first person of the Trinity; and we talk about Jesus; and when it comes to the Holy Spirit we’re often left in this place of yes, we know there is one of those, too, but what exactly we mean by that is kind of up in the air.

And, actually, you can hardly blame us, because the Holy Spirit has been a bit of a head-scratcher for Christians almost since the beginning. Listen to this first version of the Nicene Creed adopted in 325 CE:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.

Later, at the Council of Constantinople in 381, some stuff was added to the end there, to kind of fill things out a little. In this later version of the creed we say that that Holy Spirit is the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. And still, I suspect there’s room for us to say more about just who and what the Holy Spirit really is.

In a few weeks it will be Pentecost, the one Sunday of the year when we do reliably pay attention to the Holy Spirit in mainline Protestant churches, and so in these weeks leading up to Pentecost, we’re going to be talking about just that.

In the Scripture passage we read today, Jesus is in the middle of his farewell speech to his disciples, just before his arrest. He tells them to love one another; he tells them that they will do works even greater than his and he tells them to keep his commandments. And he tells them he is leaving, but that someone else will come to be with them forever.

The word Jesus uses for this new arrival is parakletos, a Greek word that doesn’t just have one good English translation. In the KJV it’s Comforter, in the NRSV it’s Advocate, in the CEB Companion; the World English Bible uses Counselor. We can think of this parakletos as all of these things. The one whose arrival Jesus promises is one who helps, who encourages, who appeals on our behalf. Later in his speech (14:26), Jesus makes it clear that this parakletos is in fact the Holy Spirit – who has not been absent from Scripture up until this point, but will now be present with Jesus’ followers in a new way.

These images take us in some different directions: a friend who wraps us in a comforting hug is different from a lawyer who is literally our advocate or counsel in court, and that’s different from being a high-profile person who advocates for a good cause.  But what all of these senses of the world parakletos have in common is that this is someone who is for us: someone who helps us, strengthens us, guides us in the direction of truth, someone who is on our side. If (at Christmas, especially) we talk about Jesus as “God with us,” maybe then we can talk about the Holy Spirit as God For Us.

Paul fills out this image a little more for us in his letter to the Romans. There in chapter 8 he describes the Spirit not only as the one who gives us assurance of our status as God’s children, but who also prays for us when we don’t have the words. And I don’t know about you, but there are a lot of times that I don’t have the words. I think of when my dad was fighting cancer, and all I wanted, of course, was for him to be well; but at some point it became clear that he wasn’t going to be well in the way that I wanted, and how, anyway, could I claim to know what was good or what he needed. It meant a lot to me during that time to have friends and others who could pray for me when I didn’t really know what to say, and it made a difference too to know that God understood: that all my jumbled emotions were getting translated somehow to the one who I needed to hear them. That, Paul tells us, is the work of the Spirit: God For Us.

I don’t actually mean to talk about Jesus as God With Us and the Spirit as God For Us as if it’s as simple and divisible as that. Here in John Jesus is clear that this is another parakletos who comes to be with the disciples in the way the Jesus has been during his life but won’t be after his death. The Spirit, as Jesus says later in his speech, will both teach the disciples and remind them of all that Jesus has already taught them. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so Jesus and the Spirit are one: Jesus has been and will continue to be God For Us, and the Spirit is and will be God With Us.

Sometimes I do have to stop and wonder what it really means to follow Jesus when Jesus isn’t physically here in front of me. How can I follow someone I can’t see? I may know what Jesus said a long time ago, but how do I know what he would say and think about certain things today? What about when all those things mean doubt gets the better of me?

Well, this is the work of the Holy Spirit: to help us discern what Jesus’ words from so long ago mean for us today; to help us know what following Jesus means in our lives now; to strengthen us when times get tough and stand beside us when we face resistance from ourselves or the world around us along the way. The Holy Spirit makes God the Father and Jesus the Son in heaven real to us here and now.

This coming week, I hope you will have the chance to experience and reflect on how God is present in your life and in the world as the Holy Spirit with us and for us.

We may not understand who or what the Holy Spirit exactly is, and that’s OK. It’s not as important to fully understand as it is to be able to recognize her work in and around us. And when all the theology of it is jumbled in our mind, and we don’t always know the right words to use, we still have a God who knows our joy and our pain, who helps us and teaches us and guides us and strengthens us: a God who in everything is for us.