All of today’s readings are about the Holy Spirit (Judges 6:25-40, Acts 2: 27-47, John 1:1-18).
In an earlier reading, Gideon, the young and unimportant son of Joash, a local leader, while at work is called by God. God tells him that he will save Israel from the marauding Midianites. Gideon answers, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The least of the least. Yet Gideon does not jump up and say, “Let’s go!” He questions God, and asks for signs, and proof that it is indeed God and not some troublesome spirit. Discernment is the correct choice. So that when God orders him again, Gideon is ready.
This is a call to reform. The first order of business is to cleanse the people by pulling down foreign altars, and only sacrificing to the Lord. Those foreign rituals had been legitimate for a long time for Israel as well as others, and the feminine aspect of God, in fact, God’s wife, Asherah, was the poor man’s religion. Levitical law was pretty highfalutin for a shepherd with a sick flock, a farmer in a drought, a woman having a difficult pregnancy or none at all. Even homes commonly had little shrines to Asherah, as archeology has shown. But it was time to turn to God alone. Gideon does pull down his father’s altar to Baal (which means Lord), and cuts down the Asherah pole, which he burns along with a sacrificial bull from his father’s herd. At night. Because he is afraid. The Spirit of the Lord intervenes and Joash concedes. Subsequently Gideon goes on to collect an army, convinced of the Lord’s will through signs which Gideon asks for, and they set off to redeem Israel. It is the Spirit of the Lord, as we know it, who speaks. Jesus was present, as he was always part of the Trinity, but not yet incarnate. The voice of God, even those angelic messengers, all are ways for the Spirit to communicate God’s will, and to call prophets and judges to lead the people to accomplish that which God has purposed
The reading from Acts is all about the Spirit. Chapter 2 of Acts begins on the the day of Pentecost. And those who were not believers are dumbfounded by the sight of all those of the Body who are suddenly changed, filled with something that makes them luminous, that unites them in ways of mutual understanding that is beyond reason. And so Peter tells the crowd that they must repent and be baptized, forgiven of their sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit will come to them, too. We are told that those who devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles, fellowship, breaking of bread, and here we mean both supper and the Lord’s supper as first practiced, and prayer. We are told about their joy, their charity, and how they enacted this gift. It is both interesting and important to note that, like Gideon, the emphasis is on action in the world. We don’t hear anything about theology, except what was taught through the narrative of Jesus’ incarnate life and teaching. And we don’t hear much about the inner life, the love and awe which the Spirit brings. All of these are gifts of the Spirit, but going out into the world and helping those in need, sharing everything as a community, and praising God come before anything else.
We are very drawn into the realities of infection these days. A nasty and little understood virus that lived comfortably in deep caves not bothering bats too much until human interference and greed disturbed them and their flying hosts. And the enculturated attitudes of racism also have spread through our society like an infection. The witness of the Spirit also spreads. And it often must fight off those viral demons of illness and injustice.
The first chapter of the Gospel according to John continues, and begins, and ends the arc of Salvation history. It is all there. The Word, begotten, not made, before whom there was nothing. The Word as God that breathed, dreamed, imagined, created all things from the starry heavens to us, poor creatures that dare to call ourselves sapiens. His life is the light of the world, and neither the darkness of the void nor the darkness of sin and death can overcome it. In those five verses is something beyond even the law and the prophets, but the mystery of love made incarnate. And then enter from the wilderness the prophet, the new Elijah, a wild man dressed, if you can call it dressed, in skins, belted on. What is it with the belt? To hold his garment closed for decency? Many of us these days aren’t even wearing belts, favoring yoga pants and other unstructured garments as we shelter at home. Or when worn, just to tidy up a suit and keep the shirt tucked in. But the belt meant much more. To be girded was to be encircled. Loins were girded as a way to describe sucking up courage. That belt was a way to hold in truth, focus. In 1 Peter 1:13 we read, “Therefore gird up the loins of your mind” as a way to hang on to faith and hope in God. And in Luke 12:35-37, “Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master.” In the Roman army the belt was an essential part of their armor, used to hang their sword and water flask and whatever else needed on the march. John’s belt held meaning. He was girded in truth, this wild man shouting warmings, even curses at the vipers and hypocrites. And yet he was not the Messiah. He didn’t baptize with the Spirit. He only purified the repentant with water and a prayer of blessing. But he knew about the one who would come with the Spirit. And the baptism of Jesus, reluctantly given by cousin John to one whom he recognized as his better, was the vehicle by which God the Father descended on Jesus in the Jordan River like a dove, revealing the Spirit in him, and declaring Jesus to be his Son.
That Spirit was given to us at baptism and reaffirmed in confirmation, especially useful for those baptized as infants. Baptism and the Eucharist, the two great Dominical Sacraments, and Scripture, are all we need to know, given the grace of God. If we have ears to hear. As did Gideon’s father who quickly forgave and embraced his son’s action. As did the Israelites who heard Peter preach at Pentecost. How do we hear the Spirit? Sometimes God doesn’t wait for us to pray, to ask for help, for discernment, and he hits us over the head with his presence. In fact, I suspect God never waits for us. When we have sinned, not the killing, robbing, and all the rest, just too preoccupied to hear the Spirit which envelops us in love and protection always. That is, when we hear, or feel, the Spirit. That uncomfortable feeling. That lack of peace. When we do hear the Spirit and obey the will of God, that is the peace which passes all understanding, even in the midst of danger or grief, but a deep knowing the presence of God. Still, hearing the Spirit and obeying God’s will often take some practice. Prayer. Any kind of prayer. For some, trying to force contemplative prayer, kind of Christian Zen, if it is not your way, won’t work. And it being popular currently doesn’t make it better than just reading, deeply reading, the psalms or collects in the Book of Common Prayer and let the narrative wander through the imagination of our hearts, and touch and conform our own life experience to his. However we do it, and with a trusted spiritual teacher is best, it is a discipline and practice no different than the hours practicing a musical instrument or martial art or sport. And the way to start is to start. Haltingly, if need be. Trust the Spirit who is already waiting for you. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She is a postulant in the Episcopal religious order The Sisters of St. Gregory. She lives with her cats, books, and garden. Soli Deo Gloria.