Peterhouse Sermon: June 4, 2006 (Pentecost)
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
- It is appropriate on this Pentecost Sunday to talk about the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. If you are anything like me, when you think of the Spirit, you might think of some vaguely positive but non-descript way of talking about God. The Spirit is sort of nice and benign and everwhere, and is mainly associated with feeling loved, with inspiring the Biblical writers, with beautiful sunsets, and, for at least some of you, with speaking in tongues. And it is true that the Spirit does nice things for us, as our readings today tell us: he is our ‘Comforter’ or ‘Helper.’ He ‘intercedes for us’ in prayer when we do not know how to pray as we ought. He creates unity and enables communication between Christians, as at the first Pentecost. These are all very nice things, and we are happy that the Spirit does them for us.
- But our passages today tell us that there is also what you could call a ‘darker side’ to the Spirit. Jesus tells us in the Gospel passage: ‘I will send [the Comforter] to you. And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment.’ Reprove? ‘Reprove’ is not a very happy word, nor is it very vague. It is troubling. Many other translations translate it ‘convict.’ An unsettling word. We do not wish to be convicted of anything. What comfort is there in conviction?
- The Romans passage, too, points to a less pleasant than usual view of the Spirit: ‘For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.’ We who have the Spirit ‘groan within ourselves.’ It is clear from the context that this ‘groaning’ is not a sort of longing or yearning so much as the response to a real feeling of pain. It is a metaphor from childbirth, a metaphor of pain. Jesus, in the same chapter from which our Gospel reading is taken, identifies this Spirit-related pain with birth pangs.
-What are we to make of this ‘dark side’ of the Spirit? What does it mean that the Holy Spirit convicts us, and makes us to feel ‘birth pangs’? In trying to answer this question, I was struck by a remarkable quotation from a man named Christoph Blumhardt, a 19th century German preacher, and a very wise man, about whom I happen to be writing my doctoral disseration.
- Blumhardt explains about this side of the Holy Spirit in the following way: ‘Although people do sometimes have a sense of peace with God, ...nevertheless, in a given situation it is not so much peace with God that is the true mark of the Holy Spirit at work, but birth pangs and a sense of deep unsettlement.’ [repeat quote] I think Blumhardt is right about this. It is worth exploring what he said a little bit.
- So let us ask ourselves, then: do we see any of these symptoms in ourselves? Do you feel unsettled by anything in your life this morning? Have you been taken out of your comfort zone in a profound way? For example, often people like my wife and me, who come to Cambridge to study from abroad, feel unsettled and out of our comfort zone for a long time here.
- Or are you perhaps anxious about exams you still have to take, or, about the results of exams you have already taken? Or perhaps a job or funding application you are waiting to hear about? Often, these types of things can make us feel deeply unsettled.
- So what about Blumhardt’s other ‘sign of the Spirit’; what about ‘birth pangs’? Let me ask: are you hurting right now for some reason? Last year, when Bonnie and I were engaged and across the world from each other, I felt very lonely. It hurt to be alone, so far from her. I think this loneliness was a ‘birth pang.’ Or maybe there is a different pain, the pain of not knowing what the future holds? A close friend here in Cambridge moved here to study with the expectation that his house back home would sell soon, and he and his family would be able to live off of that money. 9 months have passed now, and the house still hasn’t sold, and that uncertainty is very painful for him. That feeling, of helplessness in the face of the future, of being thwarted in our will and our desires, is also a ‘birth pang,’ I think.
- We all know of these pains: of feeling unsettled, of living in uncomfortable anticipation of some result, of not having as much power over the future as we would like. The curious thing about our passages today is not their testimony that such pain exists in our lives, but that it is associated quite directly in John and in Romans with the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. My father sometimes describes this curious correlation in paradoxical terms: talking about God, he calls it ‘the presence of His absence.’
- It would be nice, of course, if I could explain to you, neatly and theologically, this strange relationship Scripture identifies between the Holy Spirit and the more uncomfortable feelings in our lives. But such an explanation is difficult. Why? Well, God is good, and we have heard again and again that he loves us. Why then, would He cause us these pains, even if they are only really just ‘birth pangs’? It would make more sense, would it not, to think of God only as the deliverer from the pains and the uncomfortable feelings, rather than as their cause also? And Deliverer he is, I assure you! Jesus himself calls the Spirit the ‘Comforter’ or ‘Helper,’ depending on your translation.
- But our passages today tell us that God is more than just a Deliverer, or at least that his style of deliverance is not always as straightforward as we might wish. Sometimes, his Deliverance hurts. Sometimes, truly divine ‘comfort’ and divine ‘help’ are deeply unsettling, and in fact feel very much like the opposite of what we want.
- This, then, would be one possible explanation for why the Spirit is so profoundly present not only in the obviously good things, but also in the unsettling ‘birth pangs.’ It is not an exhaustive explanation—I am not sure an exhaustive one is possible—but it is perhaps the chief explanation.
- So let me say it again: Often the places where we are hurting and where we are unsettled are the places where we have come in contact with a deep disconnect between what we desire for ourselves, on the one hand, and our power to bring it about, on the other. It is painful to run up against the limits of our self-determination. We see this clearly when we are trying to prepare as best we can for an exam: we can work very hard, but in the end we do not know what the questions will be, or how exactly they will be marked. There is an element of lack of control here, try as we might, and it is awful. Similarly, we are faced with the limits of our power when we have completed an exam or a piece of work or job application, and we are stuck in the limbo of waiting to hear how we did. In these cases, we know what we want—to succeed, to be affirmed, to get the job—but we are past the point where we can effect the result, no matter how important the result is to us.
- It is here, at the painful, awkward limit of our self-determination, at the limit of our power to control our own lives, that we are told today that the Spirit of God is present. To put it even a bit more strongly, the Spirit is perhaps most powerfully present, at least sometimes, when we experience the explicit defeat of our self-determination, the failure of our own power to effect what we desire. For it is here, here more than anywhere else, that the salvation of God can begin to have meaning for us.
- That is why Jesus can tell us, just a few verses after our passage today, that our sorrow will be turned to joy, like a mother’s pain is forgotten in the joy of the birth of her child: he says, ‘a woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. And you now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you.’
- The salvation of God begins with ‘birth-pangs.’ So the Bible tells us. But let us rest assured also of God’s promise, through his Spirit, that his salvation will end in joy.