I grew up in a church named for the Holy Spirit. It was called “Holy Ghost” Catholic Church. You might think because of our name, we were maybe a little more Pentecostal than your average Catholic Church—we were in East Tennessee, after all, and other Christians who invoked the “Holy Ghost” spoke in tongues, said “amen” a lot during the preaching, and their services went on for hours. Up in the hills of Appalachia, some of them even handled snakes.
At Holy Ghost, we didn’t do any of that: Father Henkel, although a good pastor and lovely man, preached more or less the same sermon every Sunday, the choir sang the same anthem after communion, and our services lasted exactly 45 minutes. Even the service times were inscribed on the front of the church, in stone no less. And definitely there were no snakes.
Despite our name, I’m not sure we captured the “spirit” of the Holy Ghost, at least not as the Spirit appears in today’s first reading. The character of the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles is disruptive—there’s an uproar whenever the Spirit blows in. The Spirit is not the kind of presence that would encourage carving anything, even service times, in stone.
Today’s reading from Acts starts with disciples in an upper room, retired from public life, scared and still grieving, until they are overwhelmed by this new presence of the Holy Spirit. They are forced to speak out, and speak in tongues that are not their own. This Spirit disrupts their situation, not only the physical boundaries of their room, forcing them outside, but other, even more significant boundaries, boundaries of language and culture every bit as solid then as now. The Spirit insists on leaping over those differences and speaking to everyone. The Spirit even makes Peter—boundary-keeping Peter— her spokesman: If the Spirit gets her way, she’ll possess everybody: everyone will be a prophet, everyone will be a priest, just as the prophet Joel promised.
And this is just the first time the Spirit will do this: The Spirit is constantly speaking up as a character in the Acts of the Apostles, sending the apostles across every border, inspiring the Philip to baptize an Ethiopian eunuch, whose body, by the way it had been changed, excluded him from Judaism; the Spirit then “falls on” Gentiles in the house of Cornelius without the permission of those Jewish Christian apostles, and goes on to lead Paul all over the world to spread the good news. The Spirit of God respects no boundaries. In fact, the Spirit seems to be constantly erasing them.
Being disruptive is so much a part of the Spirit’s character, symbolized in that wind that blows where it wills and the fire that burns where it pleases, that I would hazard that disruptiveness is one of those sure signs of the Spirit’s presence. I remember the first time I experienced something like that in my first year of college: I went to the Catholic student center, where I met a religious sister. She seemed both cool and with it and a faithful Catholic, of course. So I asked her about how she accepted and understood the teaching that women couldn’t be ordained in the Roman Catholic church. She said, “I don’t. It’s sexist.”
I remember my moment of surprise, the feeling of having the set-in-stone religious certainty I had learned at Holy Ghost disrupted. It was initially uncomfortable, and yet it began a long journey of learning to think in new ways. I wonder what other habits of mind, or habits in relationships in our lives or our society that seem so set in stone might be ripe for the disrupting presence of the Holy Spirit, even it can be a little uncomfortable. I wonder how we might keep a lookout for our own moments of discomfort in such situations, and ask what the Spirit might be up to.
I’ve been thinking of all the disruptions we have been experiencing in our society this year, events like the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. I’ve been wondering if those painful, disruptive moments are also a signal from the Spirit? Are they signs of the Spirit’s presence? Is that grief and anger and frustration what the Spirit’s “groaning” looks like in creation? And if so, what is the Spirit calling us to do?
Last Monday I was in downtown Chicago with about 100 other clergy and laypeople from many denominations and religious traditions, who felt moved by the Spirit to disrupt the day and eventually traffic in the Loop. We were there because we wanted to disrupt the story many of our leaders have been telling that because we have money problems in our state and city it is somehow OK for us to abandon our duty to the poor and vulnerable, even though we live with great wealth all around us. And some of our members got arrested to make that point. Is that kind of disruption Spirit-inspired? Can that be what it means to be children of the Spirit?
Those are the kinds of questions that we must answer for ourselves, but I would like to propose that to be children of the Spirit, may sometimes mean being disruptive children, questioning the received wisdom, whether political or economic or religious, or even the ingrained habits or our families and relationships. It may mean daring to cross the boundaries that separate human beings from each other, the boundaries that inscribe injustice, that perpetuate racism, that keep people poor and vulnerable and oppressed. This Spirit of God may well push us into uncomfortable places, even encourage us to take risks.
All this takes discernment—that prayerful listening to the Spirit for what to do next. As we discern it may be helpful to remember that this disruptive presence of the Spirit is not destructive; it has a holy purpose: to open spaces for human flourishing, to make room for the reconciliation and liberation of the reign of God, the redemption not only of our bodies but the bodies of everyone, even the body of creation itself.
And that’s worth a little disruption.