Conspiring with God

When you think of all the things the disciples of Jesus saw and experienced in their three or so years with him—exorcisms, healings, calming of storms, raising people from the dead, and then his own crucifixion and resurrection—it’s a wonder they didn’t become unhinged.  Maybe they did a little.  I think it’s safe to say that conspiring with Jesus had fundamentally changed their understanding of reality.  They had seen things.

The Book of Acts tells us that Jesus stayed with his disciples for another 40 days after his resurrection, teaching them about the kingdom of God. He told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for “the promise of the Father.”  “John baptized with water,” he said, “but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  And was while he was saying all this “he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.”  I wonder if they had any clue what was going to happen next.  Things were about to get even stranger.

On the sixth day of Sivan, seven weeks and one day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the day of Shavuot, which the Hellenized Jews call Pentekosta, the streets of Jerusalem were filled with people from every tribe and nation, from the far reaches of the empire and beyond, some even from Cush, Iberia and Ethiopia, from Scythia and the Parthian Empire.  Jews and proselytes, curious gentiles and ambitious traders had come from everywhere to be in the Holy City for the festival of the first fruits of spring and to remember when God gave the Torah to Moses.  

The followers of Jesus were there, too.  They had stayed all together in one place, in one room, waiting as Jesus had instructed—waiting for a signal, praying for something to happen.  Suddenly the house was filled with a sound like a hurricane.  It filled the house and drove them to their feet while something that looked like tongues of fire danced between them until a flame seemed to alight on the head of each one of them.  They felt a presence swell up inside them and knew it was the Holy Spirit. 

They poured out into the street where they began to speak to the crowd in languages they had never learned, the Spirit speaking through them, proclaiming the love and grace of God as it had been made known to them in Jesus the Christ.  They spoke of God’s works of power through Jesus, his feeding of multitudes, his healings, his teaching.  They spoke of how he welcomed strangers and touched lepers.  They spoke of how he challenged the self-righteous and embraced the neglected.

On the day of Shavuot, the Festival of Harvest which was also called Pentekosta, the day on which Moses had been give the Law, the Holy Spirit began to spread the good news of the Reign of God through Jesus, the Christ, across the empire of Caesar and beyond.  That day, that Pentecost, was the birthday of the church.  We sometimes think of it as the day that the Holy Spirit entered the story, but the Spirit had been part of the story from before the beginning.

When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove.  That’s why the Spirit is usually depicted as a dove.  In Celtic Christianity, though, the Spirit is often portrayed as a wild goose.  

When you think about a dove, you think of something graceful and gentle and sweet.  It’s easy to ignore a dove.  Their cooing is soft and quiet.  It can lull you to sleep.  A wild goose, on the other hand, is a different bird altogether.  Geese are loud and intrusive.  They can be downright aggressive.  A goose will wake you right up.  There is no complacency with a wild goose.  If a goose wants you to move, it will find a way to move you.  A wild goose isn’t safe or tame, and neither is the Holy Spirit.  If the Spirit wants you to move, she will find a way to move you.  

The Holy Spirit is sometimes depicted as fire.  The Apostles experienced tongues of fire filling the room then resting on them.  The prophet Jeremiah said that when he tried to be silent the unspoken word of God, inspired by the Spirit, “is like a fire shut up in my bones.”  John the Baptist had told people, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  In 2 Timothy 1:6-7 we read, “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you … for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  

The Spirit is sometimes understood as wind or breath.  The Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, also means breath or wind.  It’s the same with the Greek word for Spirit, pneuma; it also means wind or breath.  In the Genesis story of creation, it is the ruach of God—the breath of God or wind of God—the Spirit that hovers over the waters, bringing order out of chaos.  When the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of a valley full of dead and dry bones, it was the ruach breath of God that filled those bones with life.  In the Gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus surprised the disciples in the locked room where they are hiding then breathed on them—pneuma­­­­—and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  

The Spirit inspires us to envision God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven, and energizes us to work to make that transformation a reality.  The Spirit inspires our imaginations,  she gives us visions and dreams of the better world that God is calling us to build.  Our word “inspire” comes from the Latin word spirare, to breathe.  We breathe in the Holy Spirit, acknowledging that the life and power of God are in the very air we breathe.  We breathe in and call it inspiration.  When we die, we expire—ex (out of) spirare (breath)—we give up our breath, our spirit.  And in all of this, in all our life of faith, we are called to conspire with God. Conspire, con-spirare—to breathe with.  The Holy Spirit invites us to breathe as one with God, to change our understanding of reality, to learn to see the world through God’s eyes and love the world with God’s heart, to bless the world with God’s presence flowing through us.

It is by the Holy Spirit that we can say that Christ is in us and that we are in Christ.   It is the Holy Spirit who opens our hearts and opens our eyes to the presence of Christ in, with, and under everything.  It is the Holy Spirit who guides us to the future that God has envisioned for all of us.

When we conspire with God, the Spirit takes root in our lives to produce the fruit that builds and sustains community.  Love inspires us to invite and welcome others, to create a place of safety and comfort for them.  Goodness makes us trustworthy and moves us to treat others well.  Peace creates openness so that we can know each other more deeply.  Faithfulness ensures that we are deeply loyal to God and the Spirit’s calling.  Gentleness shows that we care for God’s creation, that we will treat each other, and animals, and creation, itself, with care and respect.  Joy keeps us from sinking into cynicism or bitterness.  It keeps our hope alive and flourishing.  Joy is a testimony to the presence of God within us and to our participation in the life of God.  Kindness, shows that we understand that we are all of the same kind—created in the likeness and image of God and that sometimes we all need a little help, some understanding, grace, and love.  Patience is the inspired virtue that shows that we understand that we are each learning and growing at a different pace and that life is teaching us different lessons.  Self-Control means that, with the Spirit’s help, I keep a rein on both my appetites and my temper.  It means I keep track of how well I’m doing at bringing love, goodness, peace, faithfulness, gentleness, joy, kindness, and patience—the fruit of the Spirit[1]—into the world around me.

We say sometimes—I’ve said it myself—that the church needs a new Pentecost, another outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  I think what we really need, though, is to revisit the ways that the Spirit is still alive and moving in our midst, and to open ourselves more fully to the wind and the fire.  We’ve been happy with the quiet cooing of the dove.  It has sustained us and calmed our anxieties.  I think, though, that it’s time to wake up the wild goose.  It’s time to rekindle the fire.

Symeon the New Theologian, writing in the late 10th or early 11th century said, “When you light a flame from a flame, it is the same flame that you receive.”  We’ve received that flame of the Spirit down through the centuries as it passed from one to another of us in our baptism.  That flame goes all the way back to the Apostles.  It’s the same flame that danced on their heads on that day of Shavuot so long ago.  It has been waiting to dance on our heads and in our hearts.  She[2] has been waiting to change our understanding of reality.  She has been waiting for us to conspire with God.


[1] Galatians 5:22

[2] I know that some object to using the feminine pronoun to identify the Holy Spirit, however, there is a long tradition of this which is rooted in both the original languages of the Bible and in theology.  In Genesis 1:27 we read that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God, “male and female he created them.”  The Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, is a feminine word.  Another name for the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament is Wisdom—Sophia—another feminine name and word.  Then there is the Shekinah of God, another term for the Presence or Spirit of God which falls upon or rests upon the prophets and others.  Shekinah is not only a feminine word, but has always been understood to be a feminine aspect of God.  Pneuma the Greek word for Spirit, is gender neutral. 

image credit: ©2013, Hilary Ann Golden

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