Acts 2:1-21 / Romans 8:14-17
When we cry, “Abba, Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
What does the Spirit do? This seems to be the most appropriate question to ask on the one Sunday in the year when all our attention is focussed on the work of the Spirit: Pentecost. What does the Spirit do? Something amazing! Something dramatic! Something that turns the world upside down! Not unnaturally we read Luke’s account of the first Pentecost Sunday. The disciples are gathered as they have been since Christ’s resurrection 50 days ago. They are waiting and praying as they have been instructed. When suddenly. . . .
The Spirit is present as a powerful wind – and as tongues of fire. This is the “baptism” which John the Baptist had promised Jesus would bring from the very start. The disciples find themselves speaking in languages that are not their own. A crowd is gathered. And to their astonishment the members of the crowd are enabled to understand what is being said about the wonderful deeds of God. There seems to be a double miracle being done by the Spirit here; The Spirit prompts the ecstatic speech of the disciples, and the Spirit makes possible its understanding by those who hear it. The first thing which the Spirit does is make possible the church’s proclamation and enables its reception.
If we paid attention only to Acts 2 for our understanding of what the Spirit does we would be left with the impression that what the Spirit does is the extraordinary, the astounding, the supernatural. It is true that over the long history of the church, the Spirit has been the most neglected of the persons of the Trinity; God the Father, God the Son, and oh yes God the Spirit. The Spirit almost as an afterthought. After all you can paint a picture of God the Father on the wall of your church, even if a picture of an old man in the sky with a beard now creates more problems than it solves. You can definitely have an image of the man Jesus, even most Methodist Churches have a picture of him. But the Spirit? How do you paint a picture of wind? Most cynically we might suggest that neglect has also been because the Spirit is God who cannot be managed by a human institution. The Spirit really does blow where it will. Parts of the Church who have tried to recover the importance of the Spirit though, have sometimes become so captivated by the picture of the Spirit’s work portrayed in Acts 2, that it has become the totality of the understanding and expectation of the work of the Spirit.
One of my early memories of Church was of a lady in the church I grew up in She became deeply frustrated by her Christian journey because she never experienced the gift of the Spirit as speaking in tongues, the ecstatic speech which the disciples experienced on the first Pentecost. It is true, and to be regretted, that that church almost certainly wasn’t encouraging that sort of thing. But it also seems a little sad that the picture painted in Acts 2 had become the only picture of real Christian faith she could accept. The Spirit doing something startling was made, in her mind, the test of authentic Christian believing. One part of the church longs exclusively for that sort of extraordinary manifestation of the Spirit’s work. Whereas another part of the church wants to run a mile from such things. There is no doubt that that amazing astounding picture of what the Spirit does should not be lost. Nor should we let our “reserve” about such things get in the way of the work of the Spirit. But the truth is, that picture, is only the tip, a very remarkable tip, of the iceberg of what the Spirit does. What does the Spirit do?
What we might not see, what is tremendously easy to overlook is the Spirit’s presence in the simplest most fundamental Christian act. What does the Spirit do? Well, for one thing the Spirit does the Lord’s prayer. Every time we say: “Our Father. . .” That is the work of the Spirit. Surely it is not an accident that the defining example Paul gives for what the Spirit does is:
When we cry, “Abba, Father!”
His choice of words is quite telling. He retains the Aramaic word “Abba” in his otherwise Greek sentence. The same Aramaic word that Luke and Matthew retain in their Greek gospels when reporting how Jesus taught his disciples to pray. It seems Paul is deliberately pointing to that prayer. The early church held onto that particular word, and did so because it contains something that is lost in translation. “Abba” is a little more than “Father” it is much closer to “Daddy.” Jesus’ prayer points to the intimacy between his followers and God which he brings about, an intimacy which Paul is directing our attention to as the work of the Spirit. It is the Spirit which enables us to speak those words. It is the Spirit that makes those word true when we say them. It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. That is what the Spirit does!
In Paul’s view, what we call Christianity and the work of the Spirit in us are identical. Being a Christian is, in Paul’s terminology, life in the Spirit. The Spirit, for Paul, is the all encompassing source of the new life which Christians experience. Paul’s favourite contrast is between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. And like the Spirit, Paul’s view of what he means when he says “flesh” is much more inclusive than we might think. What Paul says is that anything we do by and for ourselves leads to self-destruction. That is indeed those things that we might conventionally think of as being fleshy. But for Paul it also include things that might be thought of as good and useful and true in themselves. In his letter to the Romans Paul chief target is in fact the Law given by God through Moses. Religion for Paul is “fleshy” because it is self-justification. It is an attempt by human beings to stand before the Perfect Creator God and take credit for themselves. Which is a path, even when most sincerely and faithfully followed, is a path which is doomed to fail. The perfection necessary is unobtainable. And the life it creates is nothing short of slavery, no life at all. The only justification which we can have before God, the only righteous we can show is Jesus Christ and him Crucified. The only way which human beings can have a relationship with God is to trust the way in which God has made that relationship possible; Faith! That is the work of the Spirit
The spirit of our age would appear to be “autonomy.” That is that each human individual should rule themselves. It is true that this is a great improvement on being ruled by others! All the external forces that used control each individual and make them conform to a narrow set of social norms can be overcome. Freedom is what God intends for human beings. The trouble is that the spirit of this age (or any other age) does not and cannot give it. The great human paradox is that human freedom turns out to be another form of slavery. We rid ourselves of oppressive external controls, only to become captive to our own desires and those who would manipulate them who create a new set of external controls. Paul sees that faith in Christ does away with the Law but recognises the danger that goes with it. A danger which his friends may have fallen prey to:
We did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall into fear
Sometimes we can make Christianity seem like a chore. Indeed we are quite capable of making into a chore, turning Christianity into precisely the kind of religion which Paul is convinced Christ and the cross have abolished. We can make it into a religion of attempting to justify ourselves by what we can achieve, fearful of not doing church right. And fear is so often what drives us; fear of failure, Fear of losing what we value, what is precious to us, and of course fear of dying. Fear rather than faith can become the motivating factor in life inside the church as much as outside. And fear is exhausting and finally destructive. That is not what the Spirit does.
The other side of the human paradox is that becoming captivated by God is true freedom. Paul’s description is that the spirit of freedom is the Spirit of adoption. The work of the Spirit is to make us children of God. To give us the intimacy with God that enables us to speak the Lord’s prayer truthfully, and to enable us to witness to what God has done and is doing by Jesus and through his Spirit. The role of those extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, like a vision of flames, or speaking in tongues, or gathering and astounding a crowd, is to provide an assurance that this indeed is God’s doing in a way that is beyond putting into words. The work of the Spirit is to set us free as God is free, as the Spirit of adoption it make us children of God. And as children of God to provide us with both intimacy with God and to grow in us a family resemblance. Its role is to enable us to live lives not motivated by fear, but by faith, hope and love, and finally to give us a share in the infinite richness of God which is the inheritance of all God’s children. Something amazing! Something dramatic! Something that turns the world upside down! That is what the Spirit does.
When We Cry “Abba, Father!” by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0