How the Spirit Moves

Acts 16:9–15; John 14:23–29, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on May 22, 2022

among us, that there is an unseen river of divine guidance present and active in the world. Beneath the surface of thoughts and feelings, there is a flow of love, healing, and justice, a current of meaning and connection. And I notice that there are things that help me live in harmony with the Spirit—walking, journaling, silent prayer, conversation, music, the earth’s beauty, gardening, being near water. I can’t explain exactly how the Spirit guides me. I simply find that clarity emerges. I know it when it comes. And if there is no clarity, all I can do is wait for the uncertainty to resolve itself. What about you? Do you believe that the Spirit moves in the world? If so, how does the Spirit guide you? 

Today’s Gospel reading is another piece of the conversation Jesus has with his disciples the night before his death. The scene is the last supper. The table was cleared and the dirty dishes were piled high. Fear hung in the air. Judas had gone out to betray Jesus. And Jesus sought to reassure his disciples. After he was gone, he would remain with them. His death at the hands of empire would not be the end of their community. Jesus said: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Mother/Father God will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” In other words, Jesus and his followers were mutually and deeply connected to the Divine Source, to the Mother/Father God. They were at home in God’s love and in the community they shared with each other. And this belonging would endure even through the trauma of the cross.

The Spirit, Jesus explained, was the gift of God’s continuing presence. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Divine Source will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The Spirit is the line of communication between God and the world. The Spirit is the conductor of God’s energy to the world. The Spirit is the advocate and teacher who interprets the divine ways of speaking to the world and helps the world understand God’s desired creation.

I’ve begun reading a new book called After Jesus, Before Christianity. Three scholars have synthesized recent historical findings about the first two centuries after Jesus. Their title, After Jesus, Before Christianity, is really, really important. They argue that for these first 200 years, there was no religion called Christianity. There were multiple Jesus groups, which were tremendously diverse in their practices, beliefs, and ways of structuring themselves. As an orthodox version of Christianity began to emerge in the third century, it was no longer a movement that resisted Rome. The church became intricately woven together with empire. The heritage of an imperial Christianity is an ongoing problem for us and for the world. We need a paradigm shift. I believe this glimpse into our past can change how we inhabit our faith in the present. I’m fascinated by the possibility that these Jesus groups might provide models for being church today.

Amid their diversity, the authors find that these groups had some common characteristics. Above all, they resisted the Roman Empire. They also practiced gender bending and lived in chosen families. About gender bending, the authors write: 

Gender roles were fluid and flexible. Women, and a significant number of men, rejected both male dominance and female passivity. A wide swath of Jesus groups rejected marriage and traditional families. . . . Many men shifted toward acting more vulnerable and less domineering. Women cut their hair and dressed like men. These gendered activities and actions brokered new possibilities for identity among various Jesus peoples.

About chosen families, the authors say:

With traditional families increasingly broken and dispersed, a variety of Jesus groups started living in experimental family groups. These new family groups were voluntary; that is, they lived together increasingly outside of blood or married relationships. Whereas previously the primary relations for living arrangements were extended families of multiple generations . . . Jesus’ people associated daily with each other according to mutual support and affection. More and more “supper clubs” became crucial and core associations of daily life. Economic sharing provided ways that members of these groups bonded. (pp. 6–7)

I sense that the early Jesus groups were profoundly shaped by their attention to the movement of the Spirit. Steeped in the flow of divine guidance, they were free to let go of harmful norms around gender and family and adopt new ways of being community. I see this dynamic in our story from Acts. Paul’s vision of the man from Macedonia asking for help was a Spirit-led nudge that offered the companions clarity. They made a beeline for Philippi, a leading Roman colony. Paul and his companions seem to sense that their message is particularly needed in the stronghold of empire. The setting of their prayers on the Sabbath—beyond the city gates, outside the institution of the synagogue and beside the river, suggests that the Spirit moves in many ways, that the Spirit works in diverse people and cultures. As far as we know, Paul and his companions never met the man from Paul’s vision. Instead, they encountered Lydia, a gender-bending woman of unusual influence and independence. She was a businesswoman, a dealer in purple cloth. This is a telling detail. Purple was an expensive color, laboriously made, in those days, from a particular kind of snail. Purple was the color of nobility. So probably Lydia’s trade was lucrative and she was a wealthy person. She was the head of her own household. The Spirit moved her to listen to the message of Paul and his companions, and then to open her home to form a new chosen family. 

We are still in the season of Easter. And I hear in these ancient texts an affirmation of resurrection; that is, a promise that new life comes through our attention to the Spirit’s guidance. A dimension of resurrection is the courage to face our most difficult and painful realities. This week, I’ve been pondering white supremacy. I came across a piece of art by Jen White-Johnson that depicts the ordinary, unique, and beautiful faces of the people murdered in Buffalo last Saturday. Hikaru and Greg, will you show the slide? Aaron Salter, a security guard at the Tops Market, died trying to stop the shooter. Pearly Young ran a weekly food pantry. Ruth Whitfield had just finished visiting her husband, who lives in a nursing home near the store. Kat Massey was a member of the community group We Are Women Warriors. Heyward Patterson gave people rides to and from the grocery store. Celestine Chaney was a grandmother to six and had a great-grandchild. Roberta Drurywas often shopped for her adoptive brother and his family. Margus Morrison was the father of three children. Geraldine Talley lived in Buffalo. Andre Mackneil died on his son’s third birthday.[1]

Ruminating over this event and so many others like it, what I’ve been thinking is: violent, organized white supremacy is who we are as a nation. The oppression and murder of innocent people, generation after generation,is our true story, our embedded identity, the foundation on which our institutions were built. We should not be surprised when white men with hate-filled ideologies storm synagogues and temples, gay night clubs, schools, and grocery stores. We should expect that this evil will continue to accelerate and to gain political credibility until, we, as a nation, are finally able to tell the truth about who we are. An email this week from Valerie Kaur reminded me that we fight white supremacy not with hate but with love. These words of hers really struck me: 

The gunman cited “replacement theory” in his manifesto, a theory that nearly one in three Americans believe. Reach out to the colleagues, neighbors, relatives in your life who subscribe to this dangerous and racist belief. Open a channel for deep listening, share stories, stop the spread of misinformation. (Email newsletter, May 19, 2022)

In today’s passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus concludes his remarks about the gift of the Spirit with these well-known words: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” This passage is often read at memorial services, and certainly the peace Jesus describes gives us comfort as we face death. However, God’s peace, God’s shalom, is about much more. Shalom is God’s vision of health for all creation. And the Spirit guides us, in each moment, toward this shalom, toward a world that is more loving, more just and more whole. Through the story of Lydia and the words of Jesus to his fearful disciples, we see that shalom comes to creation through our attention to the Spirit. So, friends, I ask you again. Do you believe that the Spirit moves in the world? If so, how does the Spirit guide you? And what new life comes through your attention to the Spirit’s flow? Amen.