Four years ago I was in a bad car accident. My body hurt all the time, for months. Muscle spasms, throbbing pain everywhere. I couldn’t think of anything but the pain.
I remember one Sunday, here at church, I asked for prayer, because I was overwhelmed, and after we all closed our eyes, and as whoever was up that week started praying through all of our requests, as we prayed, I felt on my back the touch of a hand, gentle and warm, a big hand, there for minute after minute. I didn’t peek behind me to see the person, but I think I know which one of you it was.
I didn’t get better right after that prayer. With the hand on my back didn’t come a miracle of healing, like at a Benny Hinn crusade, which I’ve been to, as a kid.
The pain didn’t go away in a flash of an instant. It took months of physical therapy and stretching and exercises. But with that hand on my back I felt the warmth of God. I felt the tenderness and comfort that comes with prayer, the comfort of knowing that someone is there with me, a steady hand, there for me.
Acts 8:17, “Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit happens with a touch, in the laying on of hands. In the story from Acts, when the people of Samaria want to receive the Holy Spirit, two disciples pray for them, resting their hands on their heads or shoulders, or on their back—an invitation of the Holy Spirit and also a declaration of solidarity, of being with them, together as part of the same church, the same body.
Spirituality isn’t something we do alone, by ourselves, in private. Instead life with the Holy Spirit is something we do together, in how we live together—how we reach out with our hands. The spirit has everything to do with our bodies, how our lives are drawn together in Christ, in the same body.
A phrase jumped out at me in our passage from Luke’s Gospel, the story of the baptism of Jesus. It says that—this is verse 22—it says that “the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form.” In bodily form. The Holy Spirit in bodily form—“soma,” in Greek, meaning human body, a living body as opposed to a corpse.
“The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form.” I have no idea what that would look like—there in the river Jordan, with John the Baptist dunking Jesus in the water, and then a body floats or glides down from the sky and rests on Jesus’ shoulder, or the Spirit puts a hand on his back.
One thing is clear: If we’re talking about the Holy Spirit, then we have to talk about the body, how the Spirit takes the form of a body.
Luke, as he writes about this scene with John and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, he reaches for metaphors, for images to describe the indescribable. Whatever bodily form was descending from the sky, he says, looked like a dove.
In the fourth century the African bishop, Augustine of Hippo, preached a sermon on this dove. “Cooing is characteristic of a dove,” he said, “doves coo in love.” “Let our love for one another be a cooing with God.”[i]
I like that—and not just because I like birds, which I do, although I prefer bluebirds. I like that image of this moment in the life of Jesus, that this baptism is what God’s love looks like—two people amidst a crowd of others, John and Jesus, one leading the other into the water, and with the touch of John’s hand on Jesus’ head, or his back, the Holy Spirit joins her body to theirs, cooing, a soft murmur, a gentle breath, saying, “You are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
If you want to know what God sounds like, if you want to know you’re in the presence of the Holy Spirit, just listen for the echo of that voice, saying, “You are my beloved, with you I am delighted.” That’s what you hear if you’re listening to God. All the other voices in our heads, all the other words from people around us—if they are saying anything other than, “you are beloved,” if they are saying anything else, those voices are not from God.
That’s what the story means when we put ourselves in the Jordan River with Jesus. That’s what we hear when we think of ourselves as the person getting baptism. We are invited to hear God call us beloved, to tell us that we are a delight.
But we are also in the place of John, with his hand on Jesus, on his head, on his back—John is the one who invites the Holy Spirit with his touch. We are like John, making space for people to know that they are beloved, to know that God loves them—to say it however we can, with whatever we have; to let someone know, to let each other know, to let strangers know, that they are beloved by God, that God delights in them.
In that sermon I mentioned earlier, from Augustine of Hippo, he goes on to say that sometimes the dove coos, and sometimes the dove moans—and that moaning is what we hear about when the apostle Paul says in Romans that the Holy Spirit groans with sighs, sighs too deep for words, groaning for a better world, longing for love to wash away all the violence, all the evil, the Holy Spirit as a dove groaning for a baptism, a baptism that washes away all that gets in the way of love.
I heard the sounds of this kind of love, of this kind of longing, last week at a protest for Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland, to protest that no one would be held responsible for their deaths. I heard the groaning of the Spirit when someone started reciting Langston Hughes’ poem, “Kids who die,” shouting out the lines from a megaphone, and as she got to the end of the poem, she lost her breath. She lost her balance, and someone jumped to her side to steady her as she doubled over, as she gasped and tried to finish the poem. “Maybe, now,” she continued with the poem, “Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you,” she cried into the megaphone, “But the day will come, When the marching feet of the masses will raise for you a living monument of love… and a song that reaches to the sky.”
Maybe that’s what the Holy Spirit looks like, Maybe that’s what the Spirit sounds like, in bodily form: a black mother calling out for a world where her children can live, where they can live without the threat of violence, this woman, crying through a megaphone for a world where, as Langston Hughes put it, a world where black hands and white hands and brown hands are clasped as one, where joy and laughter echo into the heavens, where doves sing of God’s love, cooing for all of us, saying to us, saying through us, “You are my child, you are my beloved, with you is my delight.”
[i] Augustine In His Own Words, ed. William Harmless (Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 257-258.