Although the Christian church celebrates Pentecost 50 days after Easter each year, in all actuality we honor the gift of the Spirit’s presence all year round – even in what the lectionary refers to as “ordinary time.” The Spirit’s presence is one of scattering and togetherness.
The Book of Acts demonstrates these two sides of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit divides, causing people to go their separate ways for a greater cause; but the Spirit also fosters unity. The Spirit enables people to live into their particularities, that is, to live as the persons God made them to be, just as they are. The Spirit also inspires us to use our particularities, those things that make us us, for the sake of a common cause. The Spirit within each one of us prompts a common sense of shared responsibility, so that we live as Jesus did, considering everything a gift from God.
As a Baptist who is now entering Methodist life, I must say that I like how Methodists over the centuries have conceptualized the Holy Spirit. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, saw the Spirit’s work as empowering each believer in repentance, conversion, and sanctification. I am thankful for his notion of prevenient grace, which is the grace that goes before us prompted by the Spirit, so that we trust the Spirit’s goodness and promise in our own lives.
“What do we make of this Spirit, who emboldens and empowers and who scatters and gathers together?”
Wesley’s ideas on the Spirit empowered women and African Americans, whose theologies and preaching have historically been rejected by dominant society. In my Ph.D. work, I studied black women preachers from the 19th century. With little exception, all of the women I surveyed have some link to Methodist tradition. This occurred even as the Methodist church proper began to clamp down on women’s preaching as the church began to gain power and prestige.
Zilpha Elaw, born around 1793 in Pennsylvania, felt the Spirit’s prompting to preach and minister in a camp meeting, a revival-like event of her day. She traveled as far north as Maine, where she mentioned there were no black people, as far south as Virginia, and even went to England, preaching God’s goodness upon her life. She even preached to enslavers and enslaved black people, though it was dangerous for her to go to the South as a freed black woman.
Certainly, in Elaw’s life, the Spirit figures as a source of division and a source of unity. As she followed God’s calling in her life, she encountered and encouraged the unity and the family that only a church could provide. I’ve experienced that type of love – the love that comes in the form of casseroles, a well-needed hug or a prayer chain. It is a unifying love where our lives are centered around God for the good of one another and the world.
Naturally, because she contested the dominant common sense of her day, Zilpha Elaw also felt the sting of division. Not all were accepting of her particularities. Upon arriving in England, she was is asked by an anti-slavery society why she would bother in coming. They seemed incredulous that a black American woman thought she could, or should, be a missionary preacher to John Wesley’s homeland. She responded that the Spirit compelled her to preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to many, even the English.
“I have witnessed the pain caused by those who cannot see the Spirit’s ongoing work in LGBTQ Christians.”
What do we make of this Spirit, who emboldens and empowers and who scatters and gathers together? How do we discern how the Spirit works in our particularities for the sake of the larger mission? And what does it all mean for the wider church today?
Today I imagine the Spirit’s fire would fall down on LGBTQ folk, enabling them to speak to God’s testifying work in their lives and in their communities. As a cis straight woman, I have witnessed the pain caused by those who cannot see the Spirit’s ongoing work in LGBTQ Christians. I’ve seen ministry candidates wonder if they can faithfully continue the ordination process, knowing their congregations may not be open and affirming. I’ve seen them continue to go through the ordination process, knowing that if they were in a different church, or faced the wrong person, their credentials would be threatened. I’ve sat alongside students who have found acceptance in their seminary community, but not in their home faith community.
Some churches have chosen to publicly celebrate and uplift LGBTQ voices, and I’m grateful for that. These churches listened to the Spirit’s voice and understand the Spirit’s Pentecostal, freeing work does not end with Acts and the New Testament, but continues as an ongoing process of mission, sending and unity. I know they face uncertainty and opposition, like Elaw did when she followed the Spirit’s call. In uncertain and risky times, it’s tempting to ignore the Spirit because, after all, it’s easier to follow something we know rather than doing a new thing.
In this season when our congregations face anxiety and insecurity, I pray that we continue to listen to the Spirit’s freeing, life-giving voice, who already works through us, honoring our uniqueness and our gifts as we continue to follow the way of Christ. And I pray that as we discern and figure out where the Spirit is moving next, that we as individuals can use our gifts – our passions and resources – together for the sake of following Christ. For as surely as the Spirit sends us out to be the presence of Christ, the Spirit also draws us together as the body of Christ.