Who knows what to do with the Holy Spirit?
Mystery writer Dorothy Sayers once wrote a tongue-in-cheek catechism back in the 1940s, where she tried to imagine what typical members of the Church of England might answer if they were being honest. Here’s the part about the Holy Spirit: “Q: What does the Church think of God the Holy Ghost? A: I don’t know exactly. He was never seen or heard of till Whit-Sunday [Pentecost]. There is a sin against Him which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.”* Maybe you would have answered differently. But Sayers’s catechism reminds us that the church has never quite known what to do with the Holy Spirit.
That may not be such a bad thing. It may in fact be a good sign of the Spirit’s working when we don’t know what to do with—well, which pronoun shall we use: “it” or “him” or “her”? That’s part of what’s confusing. In Hebrew the word is feminine, in Greek it’s neuter, and in Latin it’s masculine.
I have a very dear friend who tends to startle people if they stand next to her when we say the Nicene Creed. She always says, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lady, the giver of life … With the Father and the Son she is worshipped and glorified. She has spoken through the Prophets.” Maybe that sounds like she’s just being trendy, but remember: thinking of the Spirit as female is the most ancient practice of all. The Spirit was a “Lady” before she became a “Lord,” and if hearing that about her throws you off a bit that could be another sign of the Spirit at work. Who’s to say? Who really knows what to do with the Holy Spirit?
Speaking of the Nicene Creed, did you know that the original Nicene council stayed completely away from the subject? The first part is pretty close to what we recite today, but when they get to what we call the third article all they say is “and in the Holy Spirit.” The End. Period. We’re told that they added the rest at another council that met 56 years later, but nobody felt like writing it down for still another 70 years. It’s almost as if they hoped the subject would go away. Maybe they were afraid they’d get into another fight, and of course they did eventually.
So even our earliest church councils shied away from saying too much about the Holy Spirit. And can you blame them? They had already started to notice that whenever people got too interested in the Spirit, things got out of control. They first noticed it on the day of Pentecost. One minute they’re sitting together, and then suddenly you have all these flaming Jewish Christians out in the streets chattering away so incoherently that they sound drunk. But all the Jews visiting from other countries hear stories of God’s working in their own languages. Hoards of them join up, and the movement has to open up to include all these new strangers.
Then later the Spirit sweeps through them again and the movement has to make room for Samaritans—people who almost practice the same faith and read almost the same Bible, but who just won’t conform to Jerusalem’s established patterns. Then it’s the eunuch from Ethiopia. His status is just as questionable, but the Spirit has spoken—these non-conforming worshippers of the God of Israel are just as welcome as the home-grown varieties.
And then one day Peter preaches to some Romans—people whose impure ways will always strike him as offensive—and they respond with the same drunk-sounding chattering that happened to Peter on that first Pentecost. His theology told him that couldn’t happen, but now the Spirit forces him to move beyond his theology and welcome a whole class of people who threaten his movement’s very identity. There’s just no controlling things when the Spirit gets our attention.
Now all of that sounds like loads of fun when you’re looking back after several centuries, and especially when you’re descended from people who got included. But it didn’t take the church long to realize that getting out of control isn’t always a good thing. In fact, it’s a great opportunity for power-hungry people to step in and manipulate things for their own self-serving ends. There were leaders like Indianapolis’s own Jim Jones back then too, and it wasn’t a bad idea to take precautions against them before they started serving the poisoned Kool-Aid.
So a few years later we have St. Paul trying to keep things from turning into total chaos. He never quite sorted everything out, because, of course, you can’t. This is the Spirit, after all. But he had this vision: the Spirit knocks things out of control, but only so community can happen. The Spirit makes each of us different, and then keeps us together. The Spirit opens our eyes to see the same mystery at work in people we just can’t comprehend. We may not like their theologies, or their politics, or their relationships, but there’s something we can’t quite figure out that makes them part of us and us part of them—like different parts of the same body. Except that’s really too tame. These are differences that don’t hold still. Even the togetherness we glimpse won’t hold still. The differences and the togetherness are both beyond our control. All we know is that they both have to be there—or it’s not really the Spirit.
Since Pentecost makes people think of Pentecostals, I can’t think of a better example of all this than the first time I ever saw anybody speak in tongues. Would you believe it was in an Episcopal church? I was in college. Though I had been reared to be open-minded, I had rebelled and become, of all things, a fairly rabid Southern Baptist (and by the way, Baptists, for all their revivalism, strongly disapprove of speaking in tongues). I had a friend, named Alan, who had come to faith through my church but who left us to join the Episcopal Church across the street. I thought that church was deader than a doornail, and full of idolatry, though I hadn’t really experienced it yet. I couldn’t understand what he saw in it.
One night he invited me across the street to, of all things, a charismatic prayer group that had started meeting there. The rector himself had not panicked when some of his members got caught up in that movement, even though it was utterly foreign to his own experience. Instead he made space for them, though he insisted on being present and celebrating the Eucharist with them. So I went there with Alan.
It was a strange evening, to say the least—a suspicious Baptist trying to make sense of charismatics and Episcopalians at the same time. But I actually found myself growing closer to both of them. And the most memorable moment of the evening happened during the Eucharist. These charismatics knew all the prayers from the ’28 Prayerbook by heart, and they said them together with an intensity that made the mystery of God’s presence a living reality. They received the bread and wine with expressions of pure delight. And I realized that every one of us belonged there that night, though I hadn’t figured out how that could be.
Afterwards, I never could think of charismatics or Episcopalians in the same way. There was an integrity to both sides of their worship that I had to honor, and if my Baptist theology didn’t make room for that, well, too bad. I knew I had seen the Spirit at work—and just look at where that finally got me! Honestly, though, I might not be here if I hadn’t gone there that night. The Spirit spoke.
Who really knows what to do with the Holy Spirit? We’ve been wondering for nearly 2,000 years, and we’ll probably keep wondering for as long as there’s anybody left to wonder. Maybe St. Paul was right. Maybe the best we can say is that the Spirit knocks things out of control, but only so community can happen. The Spirit makes each of us different, and then keeps us together. The Spirit opens our eyes to see the same mystery at work in people we just can’t comprehend. We’ll never know exactly what to do with that. We’re not supposed to. But we can trust that the Spirit still knows what to do with us. After all, she’s had lots of experience.
*Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949), p. 22.