Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost?

[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/06-12-11.MP3]The Holy Ghost has been replaced by the Holy Spirit. Oh, there are remnants of that dear old spook in some of our traditional liturgies: the Doxology’s “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”…or the Apostle’s Creed’s “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church”…But for the most part, our Trinitarian theology has become the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Why is that?

Well, if you’re looking for a theological answer, or something that would give credence to the notion that change is something that happens only to irritate us, then I’m afraid I have to disappoint. The answer has more to do with language.

We English speakers might have been more comfortable at Pentecost than we think; English is a mutt language. When it comes to categorizing English, it’s a Germanic language. Our grammar looks a lot like the grammar of the Germans, the Dutch, the Swedes. And our simpler words tend to come from the Germans: “hand” is “hand”; “hat” is “hut”; “foot” is füß”.

But we have also adapted and adopted words from just about every language under the sun. “Rodeo” comes from Spanish; “pajamas” comes from Urdu; “velcro” comes from French; “Chattahoochee” comes from the Muskogean.

And the question about Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit reflects our special breeding, and how our language simply changes over the years. “Ghost” is from German, “geist”. “Spirit” is from Latin, “spiritus”. And both are equally accurate translations of what the Greek says in the New Testament: “pneuma”.

The difference is this: when the Doxology and the Gloria Patri and the Apostle’s Creed were being translated into English, our use of language was very different. The word “spirit” was used to describe those things that haunt graveyards and visit Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas time. “Ghost”, at that same time, meant something far more civilized and elegant.

Over the centuries, the meaning has flipped. For us, a “ghost” is Caspar; it’s what Charlie Brown dressed up as for Halloween; it’s what Scooby and Shaggy ran from; it’s what Haley Joel Osment saw in The Sixth Sense. And “spirit” means something akin to the vital source within us, our soul, our essence.

So in short, in the 21st century, to refer to God as “ghost” seems like an insult; “spirit” works much better.

And that’s all we have time for on The Writer’s Almanac today. Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

But maybe there is something more to this than just linguistic nuance. Maybe it says something about who we are as a people of God.

The ghost is something that haunts us; we often talk about the “ghosts” or even “demons” from our past that surprise and spook us from time to time. And the spirit, well, we live in a world where more and more people talk about themselves as “spiritual but not religious”; spirit is something that’s hard to pin down, define, contain. And the disciples, on that ancient Pentecost day, found themselves wrestling with both.

Ten days ago, Jesus ascended into heaven, leaving them back on Earth at the Mount of Olives to figure it out. Not knowing what to do, they went back to that upper room. It was where they last shared a meal with Jesus before his betrayal. It was where they hid after the crucifixion fearing for their lives. It was also the place where Jesus burst in, daring Thomas to touch his hands and sides. It was what they knew; it was comfortable.

And then suddenly, as they pray and seek comfort, everything changes. They are driven from their seats as a violent wind bursts in and tongues of fire appear on their heads. They are forced out into the streets, where this chaos and confusion of multiple languages and inexplicable comprehension takes over. At a moment’s notice, there is no more hiding out; their faith becomes a matter of public knowledge, and Peter finds himself in a place we never would have imagined after his denial of Christ; he becomes the first Christian street preacher. And as a result, we learn, hundreds are welcomed into this new community of faith.

As we read this story again today, I wonder if Pentecost is all about the disciples’ journey from “ghost” to “spirit”…They were in the upper room, haunted by what that place had meant. And they also had no idea what to do next. Jesus had become the ghost; they were waiting on him to make a move so that they would know how to react.

But then everything is suddenly in motion. They cannot sit still. What was once a quiet scene of contemplation becomes almost impossible to understand, as these country bumpkin Galileans suddenly have a working knowledge of every language under heaven. Spirit takes over where ghost once held the day.

Following Christ is no longer about being haunted by what came before; it is now about being moved into what’s coming next.

Could we say the same thing about the church in 2011?

This past week, I heard a speaker give a presentation on the topic “Things I couldn’t tell you if I was your pastor.” It was one of the most jarring, challenging, honest conversations I’ve heard about church in a long time. And as I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder if the purpose of it was to move us from a people of the Holy Ghost, haunted by the church of years past, to a people of the Holy Spirit, unsure – and yet excited – about what’s to come. And I want to share with you just three of the things he said.

The first was “There is more to living a Christian life than just being a good church member.” We all know this, of course; when Sunday worship is over, that’s when the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Being a Christian isn’t something we can do for only an hour a week. But there’s more to it than that: in the church, he said, our “pews are filled with people who are committed to their church, but not their faith.” And we in the pastorate end up perpetuating that by confusing the two. We convince ourselves that discipleship can only happen within the physical bounds of the church, that we are most Christian when we usher or sing in the choir.

The truth is that our work within a congregation is a part of our faith. It should not be separate from it, but neither should it be the totality of it. Discipleship is a 24-7 job. That doesn’t mean that we become obnoxious evangelists, incapable of having a benign conversation at work without mentioning Jesus. But it does mean that being Christian infuses everything we do and every relationship we have. It influences how we behave in the checkout line and what we do in traffic and how we raise our kids and love our spouses and spend our time.

There is more to living a Christian life than just being a good church member.

The second piece is this: “Church is not supposed to be comfortable.” We have used the word “challenge” here at OPC from time to time – yes, God meets us where we are, and in our brokenness and moments of heartache, there is comfort. At the same time, the calling of faith nudges us. It takes us from where we are on our journeys and moves us on down the road. It challenges us, because we don’t have all the answers.

Annie Dillard, the American writer, talks about the life-changing power of the gospel this way:

“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? It is madness to wear…velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Church is not supposed to be comfortable.

And finally, he dropped this little challenging nugget: “We need a whole new way of doing church.” He spoke of a mission trip he took to Jamaica. The group went up into theBlue Mountains, where they visited a church in middle of the rainforest. They were welcomed and had a wonderful worship service together. Afterwards, the pastor took them on a tour of the church. He pointed out their pipe organ, which the colonial missionaries had brought over at great expense. “We don’t use it at all these days,” the pastor said. “It’s just too hard to keep it in tune.”

Those early European missionaries could not imagine church without a pipe organ. But to build a pipe organ, an instrument which is sensitive to every nuance of weather, in the rainforest? That is nothing short of madness. The world of Atlanta in 2011 is as different from the world of Atlanta in 1980 as the Jamaican rainforest was from colonial Europe.

We need a whole new way of doing church.

There were other points in the talk, and even out of the three I mentioned, there is enough to spend weeks and months in discussion; perhaps we will do just that in the years to come. But at the very least, I want you to be left with this thought: how much time and energy and resource do we spend as a church on the worship of ghosts, trying to recreate something that once was in a world that was very different, or struggling to make sense of the things that haunt us? And how much do we spend making room for the Spirit, moving us into unknown places and unknown ministries?

The truth is that, here at OPC, we do a little bit of both. But on this Pentecost day, let’s get out those crash helmets. It’s time to move!