Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
"Spirituality" or Holy Spirit?
First Presbyterian Church, Henderson, NC
“SPIRITUALITY” OR HOLY SPIRIT?
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge The Day of Pentecost 2007
I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring, says the Lord. (Isaiah 44:3)
Many years ago when our family was going through some bad times, a friend of mine wrote me a long, encouraging letter. It was such an exceptionally good letter that I have kept it all these years. There was just one thing in it that struck a discordant note. She knew I would come through the ordeal, she wrote, “because of your spirituality.” I think it may have been the first time that the word “spirituality” really came to my attention. I knew there was something wrong with it, but I wasn’t sure what.
Today is Pentecost. It’s a good day to talk about the difference between “spirituality” and the Holy Spirit of God, the Third Person of the blessed Trinity whose feast day this is.
If you’re like me, you find that the Holy Spirit is a much harder reality to grasp than God the Father or God the Son. The Creator we know; Jesus Christ we know. But the Holy Spirit seems more elusive. Jesus himself suggested this when he said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Pretty spooky, huh? The mainline churches have always been suspicious of the Pentecostal churches, for good reasons in some cases, but we have to admit this: the Pentecostals have us beaten hands down when it comes to understanding the power of the Holy Spirit of God. “Spirituality” doesn’t even come close.
Last week I undertook a study of all the Old Testament references to the Holy Spirit. Here’s what I found. I found verbs. Every time the Spirit of God is mentioned in the Old Testament it’s connected to all kinds of active, powerful verbs. We read in the books of Judges and Samuel many times that the Spirit of God “came mightily” upon a person. It didn’t just come; it came “mightily.” Ezekiel says that “the Spirit entered into me and set me upon my feet.” This Spirit is a mover. When the Spirit shows up, things happen. As you probably know, the word for “spirit” in Hebrew (ruach) also means “breath” or “wind.” But this isn’t just any old breath. This is the power that brought the creation itself into being out of nothing (creation ex nihilo). The first mention of the Spirit of God is in the first chapter of Genesis. Here’s the familiar translation from the King James:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
But it can also be translated this way: a mighty wind from God swept over the waters (NRSV alternate). “Swept over” is more forceful than “moved.” The Spirit is “mightily” active to create the world “in the beginning.” I hope it isn’t necessary to say that this is metaphorical truth, not literal truth. The point is this: however the world came into being, God did it. Here’s what Isaiah says: “Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread forth the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it…” (Isaiah 42:5).
Psalm 104, the glorious creation Psalm, says this:
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures….
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created;
and your renew the face of the ground.
I think it is right to say that the Spirit of God, the breath or wind of God, is the energy of God. This energy, this power, gives life to all things. God is not waiting around for us to develop our spirituality or our so-called “human potential.” He is the one with the life-giving potency. He is at work “mightily” whether we are ready or not. He is bringing things into being that did not exist before, things that are not dependent on us or created by us. Sometimes the Spirit does things that most of us don’t even recognize until they have been accomplished. Think for instance of the Civil Rights movement of forty years ago. Most white Southerners, including myself I am sorry to say, watched the whole thing take place and either ignored it or opposed it. Today, virtually all Christians would agree that it was a great movement of God’s Holy Spirit. The black churches knew that all along.
I have been working with the prophet Isaiah for several months. It’s an incredibly wonderful book in every way. Isaiah has a great deal to say about the spirit of God. Listen to this passage from chapter 32 (the prophet is writing in a time of trouble):
Beat upon your breasts for the [loss of the] pleasant fields, for the [disappearance of the] fruitful vine, for the soil of my people growing up in thorns and briers; yea, for all the joyous houses in the joyful city [have vanished]. For…the populous city will be deserted...until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field….Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness will abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust for ever. My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.
the key verb: the Spirit will be poured out from on high. The subject of
the verb is God. The passage doesn’t say a thing about what human beings are
going to do; it says that God is going to pour out his Spirit on his people even
though they clearly do not deserve it. The passage speaks of effects and
results; these are not the results and effects of human activity, but the blessings
of the Spirit. The part about the populous city being deserted might have
reminded you about the misfortunes of downtown
thing to notice in all of Isaiah’s passages about the work of the Spirit of God
is that God’s power alone is able to make restoration possible. We human beings
cannot do this by ourselves. There is no true justice, righteousness, or peace
unless it is given by God. All of us who have safe beds to sleep in should be
thanking God every hour of the day. The “quiet resting places” that God
promises are not our due; we are not entitled to them; they are his gift, the
outpouring of his Spirit. While we are resting or shirking or slacking, his
Spirit is on the move. “Behold, he that keepeth
Listen to the verbs in the passage from Isaiah 44:
this, O Jacob my servant,
All of this activity is the Lord’s. He will do these things and it will be accomplished by the outpouring of the Spirit. And all of it is in the context of some of the most magnificent and most lofty pictures of God that we have in Scripture. The promise of the outpouring of the Spirit is set into this context:
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. (Isaiah 44:6)
Isaiah’s prophecy is from beginning to end a hymn of praise to the awesome power of God who by his Spirit brings to light the pretense and impotence of all other so-called gods.
Now as you know, most of the Biblical material about the Holy Spirit is in the New Testament, especially the book of Acts, the letters of Paul and the writings of John. The reason that we’ve been looking at the Old Testament is to show that the Holy Spirit is not something that suddenly appeared at Pentecost. It was there and powerful from the beginning—“in the beginning.” Why is this important?
When I was here last year, Bill Barnett asked me a question that interested me. He pointed out that I talked about God a lot, more than I talked about Jesus, and he asked me if this was deliberate on my part. I have been thinking about that ever since. I was thrilled a few weeks ago when I came across just what I was looking for, a passage in something I was reading about John Calvin. (I have the impression that a lot of Presbyterians are embarrassed by Calvin and don’t want to claim him. If that’s true, it’s a big mistake.) It’s well known that Calvin’s great theological system characteristically refers to “God.” However, and this is the point I want to make, when Calvin speaks of God he does not typically mean just God the Father, or if you prefer, God the Creator. He means God in Three Persons.
This is one of the most important things that I can bring you today. Most of the talk about God that floats around in the American atmosphere is vague and shapeless, or, worse, wrapped in the American flag. The word “God” without a context can mean almost anything to anyone. Most often “God” is a projected image of what we want, what we wish for, what we think we need. Christopher Hitchens is right about that God: that God is not great. But the God whom Calvin glorified in his superb writings is not projected out of our religious longings. The human imagination is a remarkable thing, but it could not have come up with the idea of One God in Three Persons—let alone the second Person “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” I really would like to hear the enemies of Christianity grapple seriously with that challenge, but they hardly ever do.
Whatever mistakes I make about the Blessed Trinity today, Dr. Brand can straighten out next week on Trinity Sunday. Our church calendar gives us these two Sundays back to back so we can concentrate on this most amazing doctrine. What is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is the active power of God going out from God’s self. Specifically, it’s going out from God as the energy created by the dynamic relationship of love between the other two Persons, “proceeding from the Father and the Son” as the Nicene Creed says.
is the Holy Spirit at work in the Church and world today? Jerry Falwell seemed
to be certain that the Spirit was galvanizing the anti-abortion movement. Well,
Falwell had his causes, that’s for sure. As in the days of the civil rights
movement, many Christian people seem to find themselves on opposite sides on
the great issues, and the truth emerges later, to the shame of those who took
the wrong side. The Civil War is the classic example. I have just come from the
cemetery in Franklin,
our own time the Spirit of God guided the Christians of Poland and Eastern
Europe when the Cold War ended, and the largely nonviolent resistance which
brought down the apartheid regime in
Just pondering, but today in the pulpits around the land there are significant challenges occurring. Each of us must discern the signs of the times and make a decision. Not to make a decision is to make one. Whither blows the Spirit of God? What about global warming? A few months ago, the megachurch pastors Rick Warren and Bill Hybels signed a call to action on climate change. The media took note; many observers thought it might be a major turning point in American church life. What about the use of torture? Did you know that the National Association of Evangelicals has unanimously come out against it? This is not just a turning point, this is a seismic shift. Something’s going on. If the mainlines can get over their distaste for the evangelicals, we are going to see something happening in American Christianity that we haven’t seen for a long time.
Now. Maybe there are a lot of you here who are not up for all this world-historical geo-political stuff. Maybe you had a hard time just getting out of bed this morning. Maybe your marriage is on the rocks. Maybe someone you love is gravely ill. Maybe you are worried about your future. Maybe you are tired of the role you feel you have to play in order to measure up to somebody else’s expectations. Maybe your faith is exhausted. Here’s a message for you today.
You are not saved by your spirituality or by your anything else. You are and you will be saved by God. The Holy Spirit of God is your friend. The Holy Spirit is the love of God reaching out for you when you are too depressed, or too angry, or too tired to reach out. The Holy Spirit is the power of God to set you on your feet when you feel you cannot stand up. Forget your own spirituality. We are talking about God today, the force that created the universe yet comes to you personally and intimately with an everlasting and unconditional love whether you believe it or not.
Listen to these words of Paul in Romans 8 (this section of Romans is all about the Holy Spirit):
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, [even though we] have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for… the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words…. because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We do not know how to pray! That’s God’s verdict on our “spirituality.” Even though we look pretty good outwardly, we “groan inwardly” and our prayers are pathetic. But the Holy Spirit prays for us and in us and with us! The energy of the love of the Father and the Son is with you when you pray, even if all you can say is “help!” Isn’t that absolutely wonderful? The Holy Spirit intercedes for us because that is the will of God, to abide with us and in us and to give us strength when we have no strength, faith when we have no faith, hope when we have no hope.
I close with the last words of King David recorded in the first book of Samuel. May these inadequate words from this inadequate messenger be nevertheless for you today the Word of God according to the power of the Spirit.
Now these are the last words of David:
“The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me,
his word is upon my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken….
he dawns on [us] like the morning light,
like the sun shining forth upon a cloudless morning.
(I Samuel 23:1-4)
And all of it is the work of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May this be his Word for us today. AMEN.
 By the way, the Second Person, or Word, of God is present and powerful at the beginning too, as we read in John’s Gospel and in Hebrews.
Discerning the Spirit is one of the responsibilities of the Christian community. The apostle John writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits [discern the spirits] to see whether they are of God…”(I John 4:1).
 The splendid new public library in Henderson may be just such an example.
 By “Isaiah” I mean the whole book of Isaiah, including “Second” and “Third” Isaiah. Recent scholarship has emphasized the unity of the book despite its multiple authorship and different settings.
 Hitchens’ book, God Is Not Great, was making quite a splash at this time.
 In order to grapple seriously with it, the atheist challenger would have to spend a lot of time reading Trinitarian doctrine, especially the Church Fathers, and few, if any, would be willing to do that.
 The filioque (“and the Son”) clause is omitted by the Eastern Orthodox Church and has become quite a bone of contention between Eastern and Western Churches. The Western argument hinges on the danger of detaching the Third Person from the Son. If the Spirit proceeds only from the Father, then the “scandal of particularity” (the Second Person incarnate and crucified under Pontius Pilate) is lost, with a corresponding lack of emphasis on political ethics, and certainly the history of the Eastern Churches would seem to bear this out. I admire the Eastern liturgy and traditions, but there has been no Reformation and no civil rights movement, or anything like it, in the Eastern Churches.
 The Reverend Jerry Falwell had died a few days before this sermon was preached.
this sermon is being written, the Archbishop of Canterbury was pondering his
option of disinviting the Anglican archbishop of