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The Holy Spirit as Breath, Oil, Dove and Fire


Acts 2:1-21           Joel 2:27-29         Luke 11:5-13


Some people crave money; others, fame; others, power. The desire for power, everyone knows, is greater than the desire for fame or for money. Power is a narcotic to which people become addicted even as their craving for it visits suffering upon those nearest and dearest them.

In the book of Acts we learn of Simon Magnus, a man who trafficked in occult power. Simon Magus noticed the unusual effectiveness of apostles like Peter. He concluded that he should have whatever power they had, for such power would magnify his manipulation of the occult. He approached Peter, flashed his money and attempted to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit from the apostle. Peter was outraged at his crassness and blasphemy. “Away with your and your money, thinking you can buy God’s gift with cash!” the text says with undisguised vehemence and disgust. The truth is, we can’t buy God’s gift with money. We can’t grab it and hoard it and then use it for whatever self-serving end we have in mind. We can’t co-opt God in our pursuit of power; we can’t harness his power to our schemes. We can, however, find ourselves infused with the unique power that is God’s Spirit. Pentecost is the festival of the Spirit, the acknowledgement of God’s singular effectiveness in and with his own people. Let’s think for the next few minutes of how God’s people before us, centuries before us, were moved to speak of the Spirit.


They spoke of the Spirit as breath. “Breath” in Hebrew denotes creativity. The breath of God that God breathes into his own people is that movement of God upon us and within us which enlivens our creativity and frees it for service in God’s kingdom. We mustn’t think of creativity here in the sense in which this overworked word is used every day: the creative person is the one with rare talent as writer or painter or composer or dancer. Where the Spirit is concerned, creativity has nothing to do with extraordinary artistic talent. The creativity of the Spirit, rather, is simply the freeing, the freeing up, the magnification and multiplied usefulness of any gift we have in order that this talent might now be sued for God’s purposes among those near and far.

One of my friends was employed as a chemist all his working life. Having become weary of the “grind,” he decided to retire early. At the conclusion of several of those twists and turns in the road of life that we can make sense of looking backward but can never see looking ahead, he ended up teaching mathematics to high school dropouts who were serving prison sentences. Until he began this work no one knew he could teach mathematics. He didn’t know this himself, for the simple reason that he had never taught anything. More important, no one (including himself) was aware that he could relate to convicts. (Not everyone can.) He looks upon his work with these sufferers (he has come to see them not merely as offenders but as men who have usually sustained extraordinary childhood wounds) as kingdom-service the likes of which he has never known in his life.

There’s something about Spirit-creativity we must take to heart. The Spirit, or breath, of God fosters and frees up such creativity as and only as we first decide to do something. I don’t think the best approach in congregational life is to draw up a list of talents in the congregation and then conclude that we can attempt only those things for which we have demonstrable talent. It’s just the opposite. Suffused with the gospel, our hearts pierced by the suffering around us that the gospel frees us to stop denying, we see what has to be done and therefore what we must do, since there’s no one else to do it. Then, as we resolve to do it, even in fear and trembling, the Spirit breathes upon us and whatever is needed always turns up. (By now we should have stopped saying “somehow turns up.”)

A year after I arrived in the Mississauga congregation I last served the congregation decided to assist a refugee family from Viet Nam . We discovered talents and gifts among us that we never guessed existed. We discovered that lifelong office workers could teach English to Asian people who had no familiarity with a western language. Whenever we decided something less dramatic – something as apparently mundane as making improvements to the physical plant or building a new sidewalk or rearranging plumbing – we turned up talent we should otherwise never have heard of.

Whenever we’ve wanted to do anything little or much out of the ordinary at worship here in Schomberg, we’ve found people here who can write, act, dance, arrange music, handle lighting, sing, blow, encourage the timid, and pray down God’s blessings. It’s never a congregation’s responsibility to sleuth out what it thinks people can do and then tell God that this is the range of his Spirit’s breath. It’s always our responsibility to discern what the king and his kingdom require, and resolve to do it. For only the, but certainly then, the Spirit will breathe life, vitality, creativity, as gifts come for that not even their possessors are aware of. The Spirit is breath.


Our Hebrew foreparents in faith also spoke of the Spirit as oil. Oil was used for anointing. Moses anointed Aaron. Samuel anointed David. Anointing was the sign of being equipped. The Spirit equips those whom the Spirit has appointed to a specific task. Such anointing is necessary just because our “doing” will have to last longer than ten minutes; it has to last past discouragement and setback.

The one bible verse that everyone can recite is from Psalm 23: “Thou anointest my head with oil.” We frequently overlook, however, the one thing that the psalmist wants us to remember: we are anointed precisely at that table which is prepared for us in the presence of our enemies. To be anointed with oil doesn’t mean we’ve been supplied with a cosmetic like suntan oil; it doesn’t even mean that we’ve been supplied with a safeguard like sunscreen. To be anointed with oil in the presence of one’s foes is to be nerved; it’s to be fortified; it’s to be comforted in the Renaissance English sense of “comfort.” In Renaissance English “comfort” is formed from two Latin words, con and fortis: “with strength.” Profoundly to be comforted isn’t to be pampered or even consoled. It’s to be strengthened. There’s an old tapestry of William the Conqueror hanging in an English museum. The artwork is titled, William Comforts His Soldiers. It depicts William himself standing behind his men with the point of his sword one millimetre away from their posteriors.

The old Molson’s Brewery advertisement said, “You’ve got to have heart, miles and miles of heart.” It’s true. We’ve got to have heart. But beer won’t give it to us. Oil will, specifically the oil of anointing, the Spirit, God’s effectual presence and power.

Our enemies are many. Often we are our own enemy, even our own worst enemy. For instance, we tell ourselves we’re past the immaturity of not needing to be congratulated for what we do; we tell ourselves we’re past being tempted to quit the project when it doesn’t go exactly our way; we tell ourselves we’re grown-ups now and therefore the indifference of others to what we hold dear and hold dear just because it’s true and right and good; the indifference here can’t chill us or deflect us or discourage us. We tell ourselves. We keep on telling ourselves in the attempt at nerving ourselves, but it doesn’t work. We need to be oiled.

We all have “those days,” days when we are tired out, done in, fed up, broken down. Out, in, up, down. On these days we say, “I’m getting it from all directions.” What next: capitulation? Quitting? vindictiveness? a shrivelled heart and a sour disposition? We can only fall on our face before God and plead for oiling.

The Good Shepherd who provides us (in his own way and his own time) with green pastures is also the Good Oiler who anoints us, nerves us, in the presence of everything that threatens to deflect us from the course we are to pursue until our life’s end.


Our Hebrew foreparents also spoke of the Spirit as dove. Romantics like us associate the dove with romance. Doves appear to be lovebirds who sit side-by-side and coo to each other, oblivious of everything else. In scripture, however, doves are something else. In scripture the dove is associated with the Holy Spirit coming upon someone at a specific time for a specific task, and associated as well with the sacrifice that faithful worshippers offer to God as the sign and seal and vehicle of their self-sacrifice, their self-renunciation. Where the Spirit is concerned, then, the dove speaks of God’s suffusing us with himself so as to summon from us that sacrifice which is nothing less than our self, given back to him who gave us our self in the first place and then gave himself, all of himself, for us.

Having been a parent of teenagers myself I appreciate the concern parents have to get their youngsters through the minefields of the teenage world; specifically to get them through school undrugged, unpregnant and unsavaged. I’m not making light of any of this. At the same time I’m aware that our efforts in this regard, doubled and redoubled and redoubled again, all the while rendering our youngster the focus of everything we parents have and are aspire after; our efforts here can get through the undrugged, unpregnant and unsavaged to be sure, but also render them narcissistic. In ensuring that our youngsters aren’t under-attended we can easily leave them with the impression that the world exists for them; nothing matters except them; no one is as important as they, and they can do no wrong even though others without end can do wrong to them.

While it’s important to get our young people through the minefield, such a victory is hollow if they emerge on the other side of it uncaring, uncompassionate, as unwilling as most in our society to sacrifice any comfort for the sake of the wounded people who have never known the silver spoon privilege of this congregation’s youth. What have we gained if, in keeping all the members of our smaller and larger family “on the rails” we render ourselves self-preoccupied, concerned only with our own ease? What will we have accomplished if we confirm each other as those who are decent, sophisticated, able to move around in drawing rooms and city hall receptions and political backrooms but don’t have in it us to share ourselves with people whose lives would be enriched immeasurably, if not transmogrified, by even the slightest, self-renouncing generosity?

In Jerusalem of old some people took a lamb to the temple service when they joined others in worship. Those who couldn’t afford a lamb took two doves. A week after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph took their son to the temple “to present him to the Lord,” the text tells us. (Luke 2:22) They were offering back to God the one who was dear to them above all else, their child. They took two doves with them. They sacrificed the doves at the same time as they offered back their child to God. In accord with Hebrew understanding, at the moment of the doves’ being slain, Mary and Joseph put their hand on the birds as a sign that they identified themselves with the life that was being offered up to God. At the same time, of course, that they identified themselves with the life in the doves that was being offered up to God, they were declaring that they would never do anything or be anything that impeded their son and his self-renunciation for the sake of others.

Surely we want nothing less for our children; surely we want nothing less for ourselves. Then the Spirit as dove must alight upon us as surely as the Spirit-dove alighted upon our Lord at the commencement of his public ministry.


Our Hebrew foreparents spoke of the Spirit as fire. Fire warms. Fire thaws cold hearts and limbers up cold hands. Fire brightens surroundings, enabling us to see what there is to be seen, even as fire brightens moods. (We know that fire brightens moods. For what other reason would people whose homes have central heating spend thousands of dollars on fireplaces?) As fire the Spirit must ignite us if we are to bring real warmth and brightness to people whose situations are colder, darker, bleaker than ours. And whatever we do on their behalf we must do cheerfully, or else our doing is an insult that begins by demeaning them and ends by having them resent us.

Most of you know me well, and therefore you know how concerned I am with the cerebral dimension of faith. I’m concerned – rightly concerned, I’m convinced – with having people understand the truth of God and the purpose of God and the way of God. Unless people understand something their deity is an idol, their worship is superstition, and their discipleship (so-called) is cult-following. At the same time, in the maturer years of my pulpit ministry, I’ve come to see as never before that while understanding is necessary it’s never sufficient. Correct understanding alone leaves people sitting in an armchair, and leaves them sitting their while regarding as inferior those whose understanding is less sophisticated. In addition to be brought to understand, people have to be warmed and brightened; they have to be lit. Then the fire of Pentecost has to ignite us as surely as it ignited disciples in a Jerusalem room two millennia ago and has continued to ignite men and women ever since.


Throughout my ministry I’ve found that church folk usually have a more-or-less adequate idea of Christmas (the saviour of the world was born,) of Good Friday (they know that Jesus died for us in some sense) and of Easter (resurrection is an even tin world-occurrence that can never be overturned.) When it comes to Pentecost, however, I’ve found that most church folk apprehend little, if anything. Then we must grasp the simple truth that the Holy Spirit is God’s effectual presence and power.

Today, on Pentecost Sunday, let’s think of the Spirit in terms of biblical symbols connected with the Spirit: breath, oil, dove, fire. For then we shall know that the Spirit is the effectual presence and power of God, whereby our gifts are made fruitful in his kingdom (breath;) we ourselves are anointed for service and nerved in the face of opposition (oil;) self-renouncing sacrifice is required of God’s people everywhere (dove;) and all of this is to warm and brighten others as we, “lit” already, are the occasion of his igniting others (fire.)


                                                                                               Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                  
 Pentecost 2004