by Jason Derr
Pentecost is a joke.
It is the Christian churches – or, it is for those of us who follow the liturgical calendar – biggest inside joke. We name the start of Pentecost, the longest season of the church year, and then call it ordinary time. And for 13 weeks nothing happens – no more holidays, no more subversive happenings that mark out the sacred narrative of the Church.
For 13 weeks nothing happens. Pentecost keeps going like the energizer bunny. And that is the joke the church pulls, the wink-nod we give to each other. We mark the coming of the Holy Spirit and then we call it ‘ordinary time’.
Nothing after the coming of the Holy Spirit can be ordinary. If we were not so intent on our joke we would call it Infused Time or Saturated Time. Or Time Emmanuel – the time of God among us!
“The Holy Spirit is a gentleman.”
I heard this from the pulpit one Sunday, back in my teenage years when I was a conservative evangelical. He might knock you over, he might blow you down, but he will never violate you and never hurt you.
Of course the Holy Spirit is not a gentleman. The word for Spirit used in the New Testament is feminine; the Holy Spirit is a Lady. Like Wisdom before her Spirit is the place where God becomes Goddess, where God becomes feminine and sexual and seductive.
But the Lady – this She of God – is dangerous. In the book The Queer God the author Marcella Althaus-Reid argues that this She of God as part of the trinity turns the whole thing – the whole trinity – into a drag queen God, or a transgender God. If God is a Lady, and if my youthful Charismatic/non-denominational experiences are to be taken as valid then this Lady, this Holy Spirit, is a God who is lusty and bawdy and embodied.
The Spirit is a Lady.
If the Spirit is a lady then the whole tradition I grew up in gets flipped on its head.
At its heart mega-church (or mini-mega in my childhood church’s case), non-denominational charismatic Christianity is a middle class religion. It’s politics and value understandings are rooted in and reflective of the middle class experience. From the pulpit we heard the value of working hard to get ahead, of defined gender roles and the oncoming gay agenda. On a night shortly after Bill Clinton’s first election to the US Presidency my youth group prayed together that God would go back in time and change history so the godly candidate would win. That is middle class white Christianity.
But the life of the world after the coming of Spirit is a dangerous place. It is a place where order is disrupted by disorder. Where tongues becomes the chaos and protest we speak against powers that would dominate and define lives to their own agendas. The world after the Spirit comes is a world where you reencounter the God you called father and find her waiting with her arms open wide. Spirit saturated spaces are places that feel like drunken revelries, it’s like being called to the distant corners of the world without a safety net while your colleagues in the mission continue to argue with you over what it means to be part of this whole thing.
She is Lust, Life and Love. She is the power of seduction and sex. When God is male the power of God is penetrate and dominate. When God is She the power is to envelop, draw in and birth new things. Spirit is the power of passions enflamed, of secrets whispered, stolen glances and kisses. The Spirit as Eros does not drive the car, but sits in the back seat seducing us into new directions, new dangers, new possibilities and new loves.
This is a Spirit who is a Lady but is not ladylike. She is love but not lovely, not the way we want her to be. She does not play house but makes homes in strange lands. The trinity is made of outsiders –women, transgender, drag queens and the disabled Christ. How do we pray to a God who embodies all we fear about human persons?
A God who is She – or, taking the whole trinity into account, is actually s/he – is a God where the first are last and the last first. This is a God who calls us to the work of Holy Heresy. If God is she – if God comes among the least, in the unexpected and in the broken and damaged – then why do we put rules on faith? Why do we engage in debate if women and LGBT folk – both of whom are present in the trinity – can lead worship or be full members of the church?
Pentecost is a joke.
Pentecost is the best joke we have ever played on the world, this upside down approach to the ordinary. In Pentecost the world itself, the Spirit saturated world, is revealed as sacrament. The ordinary – ordinary time even – is extraordinary. Work-a-day lives are extraordinary. The lovers we take are extraordinary. The books we read, the people we pass on the bus and the sidewalk with its drug dealers and the mountain vista we hike are all extraordinary. They just are.
If Pentecost is going to be a time of ministry then we have to let people in on the joke. Ordinary time is God-Time. It is the world alive and steeped in God like a bag of tea in hot water. Everything that is, is God’s. And we belong to God.
The world has heard for so long of the beauty of Christmas – God entered the world to be with us. And the beauty of Easter – Christ, the Holy One of God, suffered injustice at the hands of political authorities but even death could not hold back Gods mission in the world.
Maybe they need to hear about Pentecost too. Maybe the world needs to hear they are extraordinary. Maybe the world needs to hear that life and creation and love is saturated with the Spirit and she is worth getting to know. And that getting to know her is scary because it means confronting yourself with yourself – all your limitations and prejudices. But in the end it’s all worth it because, after all, in the end if the experience of God has room for everything that scares us then it has room for me and for all the people I scare.
Jason Derr, M.A., is an independent scholar and theologian-in-affiliation with the Progressive Christian Alliance.