Thinking Anew – Change and the Holy Spirit
On the day of Pentecost, reinstating the past is not an option for the church or indeed the world. Photograph: iStock
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said that “there is no past we can bring back by longing for it. There is only an eternal now that builds and creates out of the past something new and better.”
We all know that we cannot revisit or reclaim the past and yet we sometimes talk and even live as if we could.
We contrast the “failures” of the present time with an idealised memory of “the good old days” when life was so much better and the sun shone all summer.
There are signs of such thinking in current political trends. In America, for instance, the winning slogan in the last presidential election was “make America great again”. In other words, the American people wanted to reclaim something from the past that they believe they had lost. The troubling thing is that buried deep in that mindset were things much better left behind such as racism and bigotry.
Tomorrow’s reading from the book of Acts reminds us that nostalgia is no new thing. It gives an account of the dramatic events that took place on what is known as the day of Pentecost when God is shown to be active in the world guiding and directing events.
Just before that in the previous chapter we are told that Jesus was asked a very revealing question by the disciples ,“Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” It shows that those closest to Jesus had a longing to get back to what they believed to be “the good old days” as seen from a political, religious and cultural perspective. They were not only looking back they were also looking inward; they sought a future defined by their ambitions and desires and probably even their prejudices. They wanted something that was not on offer – control.
In Paths in Spirituality, Prof John MacQuarrie explains the role of the Holy Spirit. “From the beginning, the spirit of God has been understood as God in the midst of men, God present and active in the world, God in his closeness to others as a dynamic reality shaping the lives and histories of men. The spirit is not something other than God, but God in that manner of the divine being in which he comes closest, dwells with us, acts upon us.”
On the day of Pentecost reinstating the past is not an option for the church or indeed the world; God is in control and will set the agenda for the future. The reading indicates the scale of change involved as God touches the lives of women and men of every nation: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” This new world order repudiates sectarianism and racism, the dominance of the rich and powerful; it asserts the dignity and worth of “every child of every nation”.
The modern church has grown exceptionally good at minimising the role of the Holy Spirit because it is uncomfortable with change.
If we downplay the Spirit’s presence then it is we who decide what it means to be church, who gets to be part of God’s kingdom, and what role we play in it.
That allows us to ask a question like that asked by the disciples of Jesus: “Lord when will you be arranging the affairs of the church and world in ways that suit us?” That way nobody is upset and that’s the way we like it.
But the Spirit of God cannot be set aside like that because he/she is much closer to and more active in all of us, religious and non-religious, recognised or unrecognised, than we could ever imagine, as these words from a hymn suggest: “And every virtue we possess and every victory won; and every thought of holiness is his alone.”