It’s the Spirit that we need these days. A lot of our usual guideposts and practices for connecting with God aren’t available during the quarantine. We’ve talked enough about the things we miss during social distancing, and I don’t need to rehash it. What Jesus is promising in today’s Gospel, though, is the spiritual presence of God after the physical presence of Jesus is over. The loss of Jesus’ company, of his bodily presence with his followers, is not the loss of God. There will be an Advocate, a helper, a Spirit of truth.
Spirit is not as beefy a word as they might have hoped for. In each of the ancient languages from which our Scriptures come, it means “breath, or wind”. Its poetry is undeniable, but likely the disciples were not pinning their hopes on poetry. People often feel that way about the Spirit. God moves subtly, soft as breath, folding the world into relationship like the wind curling autumn leaves into a momentary spiral. We get it in fits and bursts and not in the obvious, undeniable interventions we long for.
Jesus is not conjuring a third person of the Trinity here. No matter how in-spired he was, he is here referring to an already-ancient understanding of God as a hovering, windy presence, summoning order on the edge of chaos at the world’s beginning, and breathing life into dust to create life. The Spirit is God’s way of holding all of the creation in the hollow of God’s hand.
Jesus’ promise today is no compensation prize, then. It is the promise of a presence that cannot be stopped. The Spirit is far too slippery for anyone to nail down, much less arrest and crucify. It would have been the Spirit breathing life back into Jesus’ body on Easter. And the Spirit would move through authors in disparate communities in the decades after Easter, compelling them to write of God’s movement in Jesus. The Spirit moved through the church in the early years of imperial oppression, breathing on it like a flame kindled in tinder. And when the church was embraced by empire, the Spirit maintained an ornery presence, challenging institutional authority.
Our biblical vocabulary for the Spirit, in both Hebrew and Greek, is primarily feminine. Femininity, in classical philosophy, is more earthly, and less purely rational than masculinity, and so less privileged. If you think you hear relatively little about the Spirit, that might be part of it. Classical philosophy was confused in so many ways about the value of earthiness and of pure reason, and I don’t care to apologize for it there, but it’s also true that the Spirit didn’t follow the script written by the patriarchs. The Spirit can, as it would on the Pentecost, call forth divine wisdom from any person, regardless of their position in the church hierarchy. If you are trying to lead a well-organized global religion, the Spirit can cause a lot of trouble. The Spirit was disruptive long before disruption was a buzzword, breathing life into reformations, into subversive and beautiful faith that opened space for more and more people to realize God’s presence.
And the Spirit is personal. She speaks to you where you are, and speaks to me where I am. Just as God is one and yet three, the Spirit’s calling is to the whole creation and uniquely also to each of us. The Spirit is going to be with you no matter what career field or graduate program or internship you pick, because her movement is fluid and faithful. In fact, the Spirit seems to continually nudge us toward a sort of creativity, a co-creativity with God that suggests that there is no straight and narrow path to follow so much as a field of creative and compassionate engagement with the world.
The Spirit liberates people. It is often said that no matter what people do to you, they cannot control your thinking. The Spirit has spoken to people in prisons and enslavement, in oppression, and in the midst of unimaginable suffering. She is called a comforter. There is real freedom in the experience of God. To know that your present circumstances, whatever they may be, are not what define you, is liberating. And to know that the Holy Spirit moves through you can bring forth the courage to speak, and to speak again. It can also—and should always—bring forth the courage to listen to those who speak from circumstances that are not our own.
The Spirit moves us toward a beauty that is not explicitly defined so much as sketched in very broad outline. She moves us toward a mutual thriving, toward a belovedness felt by one an all, toward a harmony or contrast that disregards homogenous sameness in favor of a chorus of differences making something broader and deeper by listening to the Spirit and one another and responding from the depth of our being, from the depth of our love.
We are, then, not left orphaned. Not for a minute. Not in our bleakest loneliness, and not in our most numbing boredom. The Spirit is with us, and so then is the possibility of being part of something God today, right now. Circumstances change, and the canvas you paint on may shrink or grow, but you are called to paint nonetheless. You are called to seek the good, to practice mercy, and to embrace the beauty of creaturely life. That beauty is not always obvious. Life, even with the Spirit, is unclear and often painful. That sets us up to attend to remarkable resurrections each day, then, finding beauty amid the chaos, and brilliance in the doldrums.
Next week the story of Jesus’ life ends with his ascension to heaven. But the story of life is actually always beginning, each moment a tiny miracle sparked by the Spirit.