Outside the Limits
Acts 2.4 They were all filled with
the Holy Spirit.
the ages humankind has tried to capture God. In the Christian world, the
most famous attempts to contain the divine are the creeds - patterns of
words which to this day are claimed by some to reflect essential truths
A central truth of Pentecost is that God cannot
be a possession. Whatever walls we build, whatever boundaries we set,
whatever rules we make, God is always outside our imposed limits.
Theologians and others attempt to imprison God in
concepts about the "Holy Spirit". That's what the author of Acts did when
he described the event which Pentecost commemorates. The history of the
event is uncertain because Luke interprets what really happened in terms
of theology derived from the Book of Numbers (11.24-30) and elsewhere in
The Israelites in the Numbers tale have recently
received the new Law. They are about to set out again from Mount Sinai on
their journey towards the promised land. Moses complains to God, as he did
very frequently, "Why have you given me the responsibility for all these
people? They keep whining and asking for meat." In response, God tells him
to choose seventy leaders. God then takes some of the spirit originally
given to Moses and gives it to them. The account continues, "When the
spirit came on them, they began to shout like prophets ..."
The spirit, Luke is saying as he interprets
whatever really happened on Pentecost day, is God's gift to the new
Israel. A new law of love has come through Jesus. The new people of God
are venturing out towards a new city of God which will one day be founded
by the risen Lord.
Meanwhile, their leaders have been selected and
the ecstasy of Pentecost is the sign that God is with them - that they
have received God's spirit, just as in the old times when God inspired the
seventy Hebrew leaders.
The idea that specially selected humans are
inspired has persisted in the Christian Church ever since. Mechanisms and
ceremonies have been created by which a selected few officially receive
the spirit. From that has in turn sprung a multitude of elaborate
ecclesiastical structures designed to perpetuate the idea.
Some may find this way of putting the matter
offensive. But perhaps that's because the situation has here been framed
in contemporary terms. Perhaps it's closer to the truth than can easily be
Whatever the case, the word "spirit" refers not to some sort of ghost
or non-material power but to that in life which cannot be captured or
The Hebrew and Greek words used in the Bible for spirit mean something
like "wind" or "breeze". Just as the winds of our world blow on all
peoples, on just and unjust alike, on rich and poor, on wise and foolish
alike, so also does God move amongst us all. A breeze which is confined or
a wind which is contained ceases to be a breeze or a wind. Attempt to
capture God in structures or formulas or words or metaphors - and God
immediately ceases to be God.
Another way of putting this is to say that the "Good News" is that life
cannot be extinguished. To say this is to imply that change is normal and
natural, since life requires constant change. Life cannot be frozen. If,
as Paul claimed, death has been conquered, then life and change have
The only time we can truly say that something - a person, or an idea
or an organisation - is dead, is when it has ceased to change. Just as
planet earth would quickly die if the weather didn't change, if the
breezes and hurricanes were to stand still, so also will humanity die if
we attempt to bottle up change. Life is the purpose of the universe. When
change ceases, life ends and the universe dies.
So Pentecost isn't only or even primarily about miraculous happenings
or speaking in tongues. It's about our Creator and the nature of the
creation. The gift of the spirit conveys to us that life is in constant
flux, that the universe of which we're part has heights and depths beyond
anything we can imagine. Conversely, we are warned against those who claim
to possess absolute truth, a final answer, a definitive way to live. God
as spirit, who underlies everything in some mysterious way, will always
bypass limits. Our God is outside the limits.
These are large and dramatic claims. They have equally large and
dramatic consequences and implications. When they are brought down to
earth, their practical effects are great beyond description. For if each
one of us attempts to embrace life - and therefore to embrace change - in
a constant and enduring manner, many of our priorities must also change.
Do we seek security? Only death is safe. Do we claim absolute truth? New
questions will always arise to be answered. Do we hang on to power?
Revolution will come. Is money our priority? We will be robbed of it. Are
we pillars of society? Jesus died outside the city walls on a rubbish
heap. Have we received the Holy Spirit? God comes and goes.