Our scripture reading tells the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit. It occurs on the first day of the Jewish festival of Shavuot. It’s a harvest festival that also celebrates the giving of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, the basic teaching of Judaism.
Shavuot is also known as Pentecost because it comes on the 50th day after the first day of Passover. Christians celebrate Pentecost 50 days after Easter. So, for Jews this year, Pentecost was May 16. For Christians, it’s today.
I’m not going to elaborate on it much more than that this morning. Instead, over today and next Sunday, I want to explore some dimensions of what it means for us to even talk about the Holy Spirit’s presence with us and within us.
I want to begin this morning with a simple exercise. I would like you to do whatever you need to do to concentrate. You may close your eyes, look down at your hands, look up at the ceiling, do whatever you need to do to clear your mind for some heavy duty thinking. Now I want you to think a purely spiritual thought.
By purely spiritual, I mean that it has no physical or material connection. This thought may not refer to any person, place or thing, past, present or future. It must be purely spiritual. Understand? I will give you 30 seconds. In that time, think one purely spiritual thought. Begin now.
Time is up, thank you. Now I have a question, though I ask you not to answer it verbally or with a gesture. Were you able to think a purely spiritual thought? If you think you did, I want to suggest that either your thought was not purely spiritual but actually included some material aspect, or you are perhaps the first person ever to have had such a thought. So if you think you did, you’d better write it down now before you forget it and it’s lost to history.
Fact is, you cannot think a purely spiritual thought. It is not possible for embodied creatures such as ourselves to think such a thought.
Not that we don’t try. We commonly make this crazy distinction between what is physical and what is spiritual. My point is that there is no difference. Everything is spiritual. Nothing is purely material, without a spiritual component. Nothing is purely spiritual, without a physical component. Everything is spiritual.
Rob Bell has an hourlong presentation by that title. It’s very different from what you are about to hear. I did not steal the title from him, and I doubt that he stole it from me, though I’ve talked about it occasionally for more than 20 years.
Various dictionaries define it various ways, but in general they all describe “spiritual” as something that is incorporeal – that is, it has no corpus, no body, no physical existence. By its very definition, the spiritual is not the physical.
This strict duality divides not only the spiritual and the physical but other realms as well. It begins as spirit versus matter. It becomes sacred versus secular. Then it’s religion versus science. And so it goes. When you split things apart this way, putting the spiritual in one box and the physical in another, bad things inevitably happen.
Pioneering psychotherapist Carl Jung once said that most psychoses he saw were spiritually based. Some people today sneer when they hear stories of Jesus casting out demons from people. They say: “We know better today. It’s all psychology.” No, it’s not. Mind and spirit and body are linked in ways that we are only beginning to understand.
A few years ago, Gus Speth, a Yale University forestry expert, said: “I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
Global warming isn’t just a physical problem. It’s also a spiritual problem. The two realms interact because, in fact, they are a single realm. Because everything is spiritual. All our problems today – social and political and cultural and environmental and economic – at base, they’re all spiritual problems.
We want to separate the realms because we want to keep God out of certain areas. We want to keep questions of right and wrong out of certain areas. We want to do things our own way, God be damned.
Let’s take a closer look at the sacred versus secular divide. The idea is that some things are spiritual and sacred. These things belong to God. Everything else is physical and secular. God doesn’t care much for them. Didn’t Jesus say, “Give to God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”?
So if God gets the spiritual part and Caesar gets the material part, how does that work out? What’s included in the spiritual? Praying, going to church, reading your Bible, maybe working at the Food Pantry and in other ministries. What percentage of your time is that? Five percent, maybe 10 percent tops?
That means Caesar’s got all the rest. Working, sleeping, eating – all that stuff you do every day just to get by – that’s all material, isn’t it? That’s all physical. That’s all secular. You don’t need God for that, do you? And God can just keep God’s nose out of those things.
See what we’ve done? We have effectively removed God from the world. We have evicted God from our daily lives. And we wonder why the world is so screwed up.
People who work in the church – pastors and priests and nuns and the like – they all have spiritual vocations. They work for God, as it were. Everybody else works in the secular world. They work for Caesar. They work by different rules. They can cheat and get away with it because God’s not looking, right?
But what if you’re an accountant or a truck driver or a farmer or whatever, and you want to follow Christ in your everyday life? Forget about it. Your everyday life is secular. You’d better leave God out of it, or you might lose your job.
Need I tell you that all of this nonsense is unbiblical and unchristian?
It is true that God and the world are separate. We do not believe in pantheism, the notion that God and the world are somehow one. But we do believe that God cares very much for what happens in the world and God is active in working for God’s will in the world. When we pray, we bridge the spiritual and the physical. We ask God not only for spiritual blessings but for physical blessings as well – health, well-being, a new car, winning the lottery.
Do you have a concordance at home? A concordance is a book or a computer program that that allows you to search for how words are used in the Bible. If you have a concordance, look up the word “spiritual” in the Old Testament. You should not find a single use of the word because Hebrew lacks a word for spiritual. Hebrew has no word for spiritual because the way the ancient Hebrews saw things, everything is spiritual.
Turn to the New Testament, and you’ll find many uses of the word spiritual in the writings of Saint Paul. That’s because for Paul just about everything is spiritual. When Paul uses the word, he means “animated by God’s Spirit” or “inspired by God’s Spirit.”
A moment ago I said you “should not find” a single use of the word “spiritual” in the Old Testament. But in a couple of translations, you will find the word used, improperly, to translate a word that would be better translated as “animated” or “inspired.”
What does the word “inspire” mean? It means to take in, or breathe in, and be animated by the Spirit. In fact, all human and animal life is animated by the breath of God. Everything that breathes is inspired by God.
Fundamentalists often defend their erroneous doctrine of verbal inspiration by citing 2 Timothy 3:16. It says, “All scripture is inspired,” or “All scripture is God-breathed.” Big deal. According to scripture, all living creatures are inspired; all living creatures are God-breathed. In this regard (and probably only in this regard), scripture enjoys no distinction from a cat or a dog. God moves and breathes in all living creatures.
Genesis 2:7 says that when God breathed life into the first human, he became a living being, or a living soul. We often misunderstand the word “soul.” It is not an incorporeal thing to be distinguished from our material bodies. It’s not something that is eternal that escapes and lives on when your body dies. In biblical usage, your soul is the whole you, body and spirit, material and spiritual.
The idea that spirit and body can be distinguished and separated comes from the Greek philosopher Plato. The idea is not biblical. Your soul is you – all of you, body, mind and spirit. When we Christians speak of resurrection, we mean that you will be raised in a new form of soul. In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul calls this “a spiritual body.” Try imagining that, if you can. Whatever it is, in some ways it must be similar to the body Jesus has after his Resurrection.
It all comes back to and is tied up with not only the Resurrection of Jesus but the very incarnation of Jesus. God becomes incarnated in Jesus. That is, God takes on a body in Jesus. That may be the ultimate proof that everything is spiritual. In Jesus, human and divine are bridged. In some way we cannot understand, human and divine become one.
In the garden before he is arrested, Jesus prays that his followers may become one just as he and his Father are one, “I in them and you in me” so that the world will know that Jesus is of God and we are of Jesus (John 17: 22-23).
In short, we are to become the new incarnation of Jesus. Here’s how Teresa of Avila put it 400 years ago.
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
We cannot see the way Christ sees or touch the way Christ touches unless Christ lives in us. And how does Christ live in us? Through the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, our Advocate, our Comforter, our Counselor, our Helper.
Some believers insist on seeing certain physical manifestations of the Spirit: speaking in tongues or speaking in other languages, as the apostles did on that first Pentecost. Others think of the nine gifts of the Spirit, or Fruit of the Spirit, as described in Galatians chapter 5. The change in us and the effect on us don’t have to be showy. They does have to be powerful and real.
A spiritual life is a life lived in Christ. It’s a life inspired by the Spirit, animated by the Spirit, made alive by the Spirit. A spiritual life is one in which the realms of spiritual and physical are not separated but are lived as one, as we are one with Christ and one with our Heavenly Father. No aspect of our lives is excluded. Everything is spiritual, and as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:32, everything is for God’s glory. I think that is a perfectly marvelous idea! That’s why everything is spiritual. Because everything is from and for God’s glory!
This message was delivered May 23, 2021 at Egerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.