Monday, June 04, 2012

More Than We Think We Can Be

Sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost, March 27, 2012 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Ezekiel 37:1-11 

           In Australian aboriginal culture, there are many kinds of spirits that control what happen to people, some for good and some for ill.  My favorite is what our tour guide in the Northern Territory called “the cheeky spirit.”  Where something might happen to us and we say, “That’s how I know God has a sense of humor,” the aboriginal people say, “I was met by a cheeky spirit.”

            How do we know what kind of spirit the Holy Spirit is?  The answer is obvious, I suppose:  the Holy Spirit is “holy.”  The Holy Spirit is God.  But what does that mean in the realm of lived human experience?  How do we know when it is the Holy Spirit, and not a different spirit, cheeky or otherwise, that is working in our lives?

            In Ezekiel’s wonderful vision of the valley of dry bones, the turning point comes in verse nine:

Then he said to me, prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live.

            Bear with me as I use biblical words to get at some meaning here. Trust me, the payoff is great.

            When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, this verse used the word pneuma for breath.  The same word can also mean “spirit” or “wind.”  The “Holy Spirit” in Greek is the hagia pneuma.  But the translators used a different word for “breathe upon,” one not related to pneuma.

            The translator used a word that is found in the New Testament, in its original Greek, only one time, in John’s Gospel, 20:22, in the Easter story. After an initial encounter with Mary Magdalene, Jesus appears to all the disciples except Thomas.  He says to them, “Peace be with you,” and then the text says

When he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, receive the Holy Spirit.

            The word for “breathed on” is that one New Testament occurrence of the word used in the Septuagint translation of Ezekiel 37.  The word is enephusesen.  Now that is a word, like many Greek words, that does not translate into English very well and has some connotations that the English words “breathe on” or “breathe upon” cannot pick up.

            The heart of the word enephusesen is the word phusis, “nature,” or in its verbal form, “to become,” or “to grow.”  There actually is an English word that comes from this words:  “infuse.”

            And here is why you have endured my playing around with Greek words for a few moments:  When God’s Spirit is breathed into us it is nature itself which is infused into us.  The Holy Spirit causes growth, helps us become.

            So here is how you can tell the difference between the Holy Spirit and some other spirit, in the words of one of my favorite theologians, James Alison.

…there is a real difference between being possessed by a spirit, and being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and the difference is essentially that other spirits … displace people when they move them. If you’re possessed, you become less who you are: you are ‘taken out of yourself’, you are no longer rational, free, etc. You find yourself acting out … under the control of someone else. Whereas the point of the Holy Spirit is that unlike other spirits, it moves without displacing, so that it is ‘more you’ who is doing something, if you are doing something ‘in the Spirit’. It’s actually more rational, more logical, more emotionally healthy, and you are ‘more than who you thought you were’…[1]

            We are celebrating today God’s gift of his own Spirit, to infuse us with the power to become more than we think we are.  The Holy Spirit is God’s continuing creativity within us.  This is what we mean when we say the popular phrase, “God isn’t finished with me yet.”  Unlike a lot of popular sayings about God, this one happens to be true.

            We remain free human beings. It is always our choice to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our lives or not.  Sometimes that cooperation will require some sacrifice or some pain, because sometimes we need to shed things we have acquired that have distorted who God made us to be and wants to continue to make us to be.

            And sometimes the Holy Spirit can herself be a bit cheeky, because one of her tools is humor, which is sometimes required to snap us out wherever we are stuck.

            The good news today, my friends, and it is laugh out loud good news, is that God wants to be in on the ongoing shaping of our lives.  God wants us to be all we can be, because God has already had that vision of us and called it “good.”  May the Holy Spirit keep this child we are about to baptize, and all of us, on the journey to becoming more than we think we can be.

[1] James Alison, “How do we talk about the Spirit?” transcript of a talk given on May 13, 2007 at the London Centre for Spirituality and found on Alison’s website:

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