The Holy Spirit is weird. Let’s just acknowledge that right from the get-go. Christians are Trinitarian. That is, we worship one God, but we believe that God is a Trinity – three “persons,” one God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer; God, Christ, Spirit. And that’s great. But many of us, maybe even most of us are a lot more comfortable talking about who God is, the one we think of as Creator and Parent, and talking about Jesus, his teachings, and following as his disciples, than we are figuring out what this Holy Spirit thing is. In the weeks between the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, and when Jesus finally returns to God’s home, as we celebrated last week on Ascension Sunday, Jesus keeps talking about this Holy Spirit thing that’s supposed to come and help the disciples feel equipped and prepared to do the work of Jesus in the world. And I’m not sure exactly what the disciples were expecting to have happen, but if they’re anything like me, what I would be thinking is: I’d rather just have you, Jesus. If you’re trying to sell that you leaving isn’t so bad because we’re getting this Spirit-thing that you never quite describe the same way twice, I’d rather just have you, Jesus! Because this Holy Spirit thing just sounds weird.
The Holy Spirit is described as Comforter, Intercessor, Advocate, and Counselor. It is called the Paraclete, a Greek word which means “Called Alongside,” as in something called to kind of journey alongside us. In church history, the phrase, “Holy Ghost” has been used, and that’s just, well, spooky, right? The scriptures use images of Dove and Fire for the Holy Spirit. The word for Spirit in the scriptures is the same as wind or breath – so we can think of Holy Wind and Holy Breath instead of Holy Spirit. Recently I was talking with Don Schuessler about some liturgical resources that come from the Iona Community. That’s a Scottish-based ecumenical movement focusing in part on worship renewal. I used many of their materials this year on Palm/Passion Sunday. And their publishing arm is called Wild Goose. Don and I were talking about what that meant, and I didn’t know. But I’m also going to a worship conference this summer called the “Wild Goose Festival.” So finally I had to look up: Why Wild Goose? And it turns out – the Wild Goose is yet another symbol for the Holy Spirit. Apparently, in Celtic spirituality, the wild goose was often used as a symbol for the Holy Spirit because, like the wild goose, the Holy Spirit has a “tendency to disrupt and surprise” and “moves in our lives in an unexpected fashion.” (1) So, add wild goose to the list as we try to figure out this mystery we call the Holy Spirit.
I think of a 90s song from the Christian band “Newsboys” that I always loved, called “Spirit Thing.” The singer is trying to describe how the Holy Spirit works in his life, and finds it challenging. Some of the lyrics: “It’s an early warning sign, It keeps my life in line, But it’s so hard to define, Never mind. It’s just a spirit thing, It’s just a holy nudge, It’s like a circuit charge in the brain. It’s just a spirit thing, It’s here to guard my heart, It’s just a little hard to explain. It pushes when I quit, It smells a counterfeit, Sometimes it works a bit like a teleprompter. When it’s telepromting you, I pray you’ll let it through, And I’ll help you with the how, But for now, It’s just a spirit thing.” (2)
A holy nudge, prompting us to action. I like that. So, today, Pentecost Sunday, is the day we celebrate that, just as Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit showed up for the disciples in a big way. They’re in Jerusalem, because Jesus had told them to wait there to receive the spirit. And lots of other people are there too, to celebrate the festival of Pentecost, a harvest festival in Judaism, the Feast of Weeks. And suddenly, the sounds of a violent rushing wind fills the place where the disciples are, and something like tongues of fire appears to rest on the head of each disciple, and each disciple begins speaking in other languages that they apparently previously didn’t know, and all the people gathered for the festival can understand them. The experience is so weird, so unexpected and unexplainable that some in the crowd assume that what they’re seeing is the result of drunkenness. Drunken antics of people who have been partying too much. But at this accusation, Peter finally stands up with the disciples, and addresses everyone.
He tells the crowds that what they are witnessing is the work of the Holy Spirit. He quotes the prophet Joel, who talked about everybody receiving the Spirit, which would enable them to prophesy, to tell the truth in powerful ways about the work of God in the world. Joel says God’s spirit will be poured out on sons and daughters, young and old, slaves too – everyone receives the Spirit of God. And Peter, by quoting Joel, indicates that the pouring out of the Spirit is happening right then, fulfilled in the midst of all these people. And from here on out, the book of Acts picks up steam, and the disciples are relentlessly about the work of preaching about Jesus, and urging others to join their movement.
It’s a pretty big switch, when you think that just last Sunday, we were watching the disciples stare up at the sky, not knowing what to do with themselves, not sure what Jesus was doing, not sure what was happening next. They seemed unsure of themselves, unclear on their mission, anxious to be carrying out any mission without Jesus there to guide them. This Spirit-thing, whatever it is, Wild Goose or Holy Ghost, or Nudge from God – it seems to make a big impact.
I think it is pretty easy for us to relate to the disciples when they’re unsure and unclear and confused and sort of stuck in suspended animation, unable to act. I’ve been thinking this week about Imposter Syndrome. Have you ever heard of that before? Imposter Syndrome? Even if you haven’t heard of it, you’ve probably experienced it. “Imposter syndrome is a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” In other words, it’s a fear that we’ll be “found out” as not really qualified to do whatever it is we’re doing, whatever it is that people think we’re good at. Like we’re somehow pulling the wool over the eyes of everyone else who thinks we’ve got it together. “The term was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, when they found that despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, people with imposter syndrome remained convinced that they don’t deserve the success they have.” Folks struggling with imposter syndrome “call their success luck, good timing, and [dismiss it] as other’s believing they were better, more intelligent and more competent than they actually are.” (3)
Probably, many of you resonate with the description I just read. Most of us at one time or another feel like imposters. We feel unqualified. Unequipped. Unimpressive. We feel like we don’t really know what we’re doing, and eventually other people are going to figure us out. And like there is most definitely someone else who would be doing a better job at what we’re doing. They’d be really getting it right. And I think we feel like this when it comes to our faith lives too. Like we’re imposter disciples – pretending we know how to follow Jesus, but feeling on the inside like we have no idea what to do to please God, to be faithful, to live the good lives we know God means for us to live.
I was very young when I started pastoring my first church. And one day, I wasn’t a pastor, and the next day, I was. I had a lot to learn still, even though I’d been to seminary for years and completed all the requirements set forth for me. I felt a little bit like I was pretending to be a pastor, and hoping I would get it right, or close enough to right that no one would figure it out. But here’s the thing, friends. I’ve been a pastor now for 16 years. Some parts of ministry I feel really confident about. But sometimes, when I encounter a new situation in ministry, or when I’m trying to figure out what I should do to best follow God, or when I’m trying to figure out how to communicate the heart of the gospel in a way that will make people show up and listen and invest their lives in this Jesus-thing with me? Sometimes I still feel like I’m mostly pretending that I know what I’m doing! I know you struggle sometimes too. I know you wonder if you’re making the right choices. I know you wonder about how to really hear and respond to God’s voice. I know sometimes people seek advice from you about faith and God and you can’t figure out how you’ve fooled them into thinking you know enough to help them.
But, don’t lose heart! Because this Spirit thing? This Holy Ghost-Comforter-Paraclete-Wild Goose-Breath of God-Wind-Advocate-Nudge that comes in a blaze of fire or in the gentle glide of a dove? As confusing as it is, as hard as it is to describe what the Holy Spirit is, it is for you. What it is is the very Spirit of God, the heart of Jesus, the breath of God, dwelling in you. God is in you. And there is nothing fake about that. No part of that that’s not real. No part of your identity as a child of God that is an imposter in anyway.
Some of you are probably already familiar with this famous poem from writer Marianne Williamson, from her book A Return to Love. It’s called “Our Deepest Fear,” and I’ve been thinking about it as a sort of antithesis to those times we let Imposter Syndrome undermine our discipleship. She writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness That most frightens us. We ask ourselves Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small Does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking So that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, As children do. We were born to make manifest The glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; It’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, Our presence automatically liberates others.” (4)
To me, this is a bit of a Pentecost poem. “You are a child of God. We were born to make manifest The glory of God that is within us.” We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. That’s not about showing everyone how great we are. That’s about showing everyone who awesome God is, and letting God use us to do it. That’s about knowing that we don’t have to do it all on our own, because God’s very breath is within us. That’s about knowing that this Spirit-thing is within us, supporting our work for God, helping us to show God’s glory to the world.
On Pentecost, Peter and the disciples discovered the Spirit thing within them. And they stopped feeling like imposters, and started feeling inspired – which literally means being full of the Spirit. The gift of the Spirit? We’re not still waiting for it. We already have it. Even if we can’t quite describe it, it’s ours. We’re children of God, born to make manifest the glory of God in the world. By the power of the Spirit, let’s get to work. Amen.
(1) Kosloski, Philip, “How the wild goose became a symbol of vigilance and the Holy Spirit.” Aleteia. https://aleteia.org/2017/10/02/how-the-wild-goose-became-a-symbol-of-vigilance-and-the-holy-spirit/
(3) Dalla-Camina, Megan, “The Reality of Imposter Syndrome,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/real-women/201809/the-reality-imposter-syndrome.
(4) Williamson, Marianne, “Our Deepest Fear,” A Return to Love.