Not long ago a visiting scholar was asked here at Saint Mark’s if he considers the one God in whom we Christians profess our faith, to be the same God in whom Jews place their faith, and in whom Muslims place theirs. We three are, after all, commonly referred to as the three great monotheistic religions. Each tradition is eager to proclaim that there is one God and one God only, and that every other claim of divinity is born of idolatry, foolishness, or wickedness. And the stories of our faiths all intersect in significant and meaningful ways. Do we all believe in the same God?
It is not immediately apparent that there is a short or easy answer to this question. Held at another angle the question becomes yet more thorny. If the answer is anything other than “yes,” then what would we be saying about our friends and neighbors of other religious traditions? What would we be saying about God? We cannot claim that there is only one God, but that your God is not the same as mine, without the obvious implication that your God must be a false God if it’s not the same as mine. Is this what we wish to say? Is it what we believe? More to the point, is it true?
The Christian tradition approaches these questions from the long view, and begins (in the Hebrew scriptures) in the beginning. And from the very beginning, God has been invisible. No one was there to see the Spirit moving upon the face of the waters. Adam and Eve could hear the sound of God walking in the garden, but there is no report that they ever laid eyes on him. Noah took instructions from God, but neither did he look upon the person of God. Abraham was bound to God by an everlasting covenant, but never saw God face to face. Nor would Isaac, or Jacob, or any of the judges, kings, or prophets (major or minor) of Israel, not even David, or Solomon, not Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel.
Only Moses was allowed to behold God in person – and even he could not gaze at God’s face, “for man shall not see [God] and live” (Ex. 30:20). But, protected by the cleft of a rock, and covered by God’s hand, with the sound of God’s name in his ears, all the goodness, graciousness, and mercy of God passed before Moses, until God took away his hand, and allowed Moses to see his back as the Lord passed by.
Otherwise, God remains invisible.
And so God would remain for century after century, until, with a flurry of angels, God prepared himself for a revelation unlike any that he ever before allowed – face-to-face, person-to-person, eye-to-eye. Not only would God allow himself to be seen, he would allow himself to be held, bounced on knees, yelled at by his mother and the neighbors, teased by classmates, vexed by acne, prone to twisting his ankle, teary at the death of his friends, tender in his touch, gentle with children, vulnerable, inscrutable, demanding, and sometimes hungry and thirsty. For just a few of the thirty or so years of his life on earth – Behold the man; come and see him!
And then, as we heard ten days ago, God would become invisible again, as Jesus is taken up into heaven, leaving behind the promise of an invisible gift: the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Only twice, then, in all eternity has God been anything other than invisible. Once for a fleeting moment for the benefit of Moses, and then for a few years in Galillee and Jerusalem in the person of Jesus. Otherwise: invisible.
Two biblical sources account for the Holy Spirit’s arrival amongst God’s people, and both attest to the Spirit’s invisibility. St. Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that the Spirit arrives with the “sound like the rush of a violent wind.” And St. John reports that Jesus bequeaths the gift of the Spirit to the apostles by breathing on them. Whether the breath is soft and quiet or fast and loud, it is the same invisible breath: invisible then, and invisible now. How do you follow an invisible God?
More to the point this morning, can an invisible God provide what is needed at this moment in history, when again we must mourn and pray for friends and neighbors (this time in London) who have been victims of horrible violence. Or when as a society we publicly grant ourselves broad license to be as destructive as we want to be with this precious planet that God has entrusted to us? Can an invisible God – moving gently as a breath or violently as wind – lead us through times like these?
Mostly when I speak of the Holy Spirit’s power, the Holy Spirit’s presence, I speak in the abstract, which seems justifiable and appropriate (especially for something invisible). But abstract discussion of the living God and the power of his Spirit may leave us a little cold when we are confronted with difficult times, difficult questions. Will it help us merely to recall that once the Holy Spirit was given to apostles with a puff of breath and a rush of wind? Do we not need that same Spirit among us? Do we not seek the peace that Jesus promised with that breath? Do we not want that graceful moment of mutual understanding that dawned on those gathered at the first Pentecost who realized that although many languages were being spoken, “we hear, each of us, in our own native language,” which is to say that, different as we are, we understand each other? Abstract discussion about the implications of Pentecost will not do on a day such as today. What’s needed, I think, is a story.
Nearly twenty years ago on a journey with the Australian bishop I worked for, to a companion diocese in South Africa, my Australian colleagues and I found ourselves travelling to the remote villages of the Diocese of Umzimvubu in the bush regions of KwaZulu-Natal, where the local language is Xhosa, one of the marvelous African languages that uses clicks and pops.
We were visiting a small church, and I was driving a Toyota truck that had only two-wheel drive on some of the roughest roads I have ever driven. We came to a small creek that had to be crossed, which the Toyota handled easily, and on the other side of the creek a small group of the faithful waited for us, just down a gentle slope from their little church.
After brief introductions we presented the local lay leader, Gilbert, who was in charge of this little church (it had no priest of its own) with a cross we had brought, made of jarrah wood from Western Australia.
Gilbert and his company led us into the little church, which was built of concrete and had a corrugated tin roof, and uncovered rectangular openings for windows. We walked down a narrow aisle between two rows of simple wooden benches. The altar was raised on a single concrete step, and there was just enough room for us all to follow Gilbert and gather on that step facing the altar. I don’t recall that anything was said – no instruction or explanation – but I will, I hope, forever remember what happened next, standing by the altar of that simple cement church under it’s tin roof. Our African brothers and sisters began to sing.
I don’t actually know if they were singing in Xhosa or in Swahili, or maybe some other tongue, but at first the sound of their singing was lovely, strange, and unusual. But quickly we realized that the hymn our new friends were singing to us was more than a little familiar. And it occurred to us that although we could not understand the language they were singing in, nevertheless we knew the words.
Then we realized that if we knew the hymn, we could also join in singing it; and it so happened that it was a hymn (maybe the only one) whose refrain I can sing in more than one language, and in harmony too:
venite adoremus, Dominum.
And we sang and we sang and we sang that beautiful Christmas hymn in four-part harmony, in the dark, plain space, under the hot tin roof of a little concrete church in the African bush.
The hymn came to an end, and Gilbert said, “Let us pray.” And after a moment our hosts began to pray individually, simultaneously, extemporaneously, and fervently in rapidly pronounced Xhosa, clicking and popping, and rattling off their prayers. I have no idea what I or my friends did or said or prayed while this other prayer was going on – it hardly mattered, frankly.
I suppose there must have been a stillness that followed this short episode, all of which lasted hardly much more than six or seven minutes before we moved away from the altar and out of the church. And in that stillness, if you had tried to tell me that the Holy Spirit was not in our midst, I’d have laughed at you, so unmistakable was the presence of the living and invisible God and the power of his Holy Spirit in our midst.
My friends, our gathering here this morning has serious implications. It’s not so we can remember that first Pentecost and dream wistfully about what it would have been like. It’s not so that I can tell you of a far away happening years ago, and describe what it’s like to be in the midst of the presence of the Holy Spirit. No, the implications of our gathering are these: that we come together in love, we raise our voices in song, and we express our heartfelt prayers under the high, slate roof of this old church in the center of a great and complicated city. And we open our hearts, our lives, and our selves to the living presence of the invisible God who is here with us now. His breath is still breathing in and among us. That wind is still blowing in and among us. And the Spirit is here with us now!
I will leave it to the theologians to debate whether the God whose praises we sing can possibly be anything other than the same God who is earnestly and faithfully worshiped by Jews and by Muslims. For myself, I can only say with certainty that there is only one God, and he is invisible – human eyes having seen him only twice before in all eternity. And I thank God for that unparalleled revelation of God’s Son Jesus, who is himself the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), and of which we are the inheritors.
Century after century has passed since God showed himself in the person of his divine Son, and we must place our faith in the invisible God, whose Spirit moves unseen and often unheard among us. But we must never mistake his silent invisibility for his absence, as so many have done. God is here, in our midst, and his Spirit is no less powerful for being difficult to detect.
Breathe on us, breath of God, and fill us with life anew. Open our lips to sing your praises, and our ears to hear your Good News. Come to us, O Holy Spirit and lead us into all peace! Rush through us with power and with holiness. Ruffle us, renew us, restore us, revive us! Lift us up to a higher plain to see your more glorious purposes in the world. Draw us together with your love. Give us a song in four-part harmony sung in another’s tongue, and show us that we still know the words, and the tune, and the harmony, too! Descend to us, O Holy Spirit, be everywhere among us, make yourself known to us, open our mouths, and let us sing!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia