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The wind blows where it lists ...

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The North wind is dashing rain against my windows this Bank holiday weekend which also happens to be the Christian festival of Pentecost or Whitsun. My neighbours are all within closed doors - 8 degrees Celsius outside, no gardening, the cricket Test match is cancelled. So what to do? Perhaps just a rest from the turmoil of regular work and commuting and no doubt there is the glad acceptance of idleness, just to let the hours pass by without too much expenditure of energy.

On the other hand the Christian festival of Pentecost seems to be all about an overflowing of energy. In the poetical words of the Authorized version of John's gospel, 'The wind bloweth where it listeth ... so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.' In Israel's writers and thinkers there was always the understanding of God's spirit - literally, wind or breath - underpinning if not initiating what happened in the cosmos. So the wind of spirit is portrayed moving over what we would call the primaeval soup to create life; the craftsmen were inspired by the same spirit; the spirit of Yahweh was with you wherever you found yourself, here or in Sheol.

John's gospel enlarges on the spirit as the completion of the Son of man's work but it is also in John that we see the metaphorical portrayal of this breath of God - the signs in John are not the miracles of the other gospels. While John is considered today as basically historical in outline, Jesus' speeches in John are more often accepted as the meditations of the author on how to express the undoubted divinely human character and mission of Jesus.

It was left to the theologians of the 4th century to make the attempt to sort out where the divine could be found in these somewhat conflicting portraits of the work of God in Father, Son and Spirit. If today many people are not convinced of their conclusions that God is three persons or personae in one essence or 'substance' we are still left with the puzzle of where to find the real source of the divine which can be experienced among us in daily life.

Perhaps the quick answer is to accept that straight response of Jesus, in John's gospel, to the woman of Samaria at the well, that 'God is spirit.' So much throughout the centuries has been woven round mystical ideas of Spirit - presenting the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost as a miraculous gift of languages (today ennshrined in glossolalia), targeting confirmation candidates, enduing the churches of God with absolute divine authority to underwrite the dogmas of history - that it is inevitable that the truth of the divine has, as it were, been resolved again into the unintelligent, primaeval soup where life began on earth.

So if we can be content, for the moment, to accept God as spirit, much can be achieved, humanly speaking, at least for Christians. For the divine spirit is not something that we can keep to ourselves, as if 'having' it in our discipleship of Jesus we can exclude those who haven't got it. More positively, if God is spirit which he shares with all humankind then we as Christians can have the confidence to allow that spirit to lead us in ways of worship, and in our approaches to others, in love rather than in the continual doctrinaire ideas we have inherited of piety and ritual. As Johnston McKay said in a sermon on Radio 4,

... [piety and ritual] are the things that help you cope with a God who was constantly judging you, always keeping his eye on you, a God we have to be pleasing all the time, keeping on the right side of with the right religion and the right sacrifices and the right ritual. Otherwise we're guilty.

It was said by a certain abbess, some years ago, that some of the the traditional things that held her convent back from going forward had been swept away by the Spirit! If God is spirit then, in opening ourselves to that inspiring love, we shall indeed be seen to move mountains. It only remains for our individual and corporate imagination and desire to seek and to incarnate the truth in the walk which we are inspired to have with the divine, here and now.


© Aelred Arnesen

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