Acts 2:1-12, 37-39
May 15, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
A children’s Sunday School class was learning the Apostles’ Creed and three children had each been assigned a section to learn the previous week at home which they were to recite that week for the rest of the class. When it was time for their recitation, the first child stood and dutifully said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
The second child continued, “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son… ” and so forth, finally coming to the line, “and he will come to judge the living and the dead,” after which he too sat.
There was then a long and embarrassing silence, until finally one child piped up:
“Teacher,” she said, “the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here.”
There are many congregations who are like that Sunday School class. We can address our prayers to God and discuss Jesus at length but we are uneasily silent when it comes time to talking about the Holy Spirit. For some, our uneasiness is because we associate the Holy Spirit with Pentecostalism and its fervent emotional worship, with speaking in tongues, faith healings, and people swooning to the ground “slayed by the Spirit.” If you haven’t been raised in a Pentecostal tradition, such displays can be unsettling and we mainline Christians would rather stick with Jesus and God who are safe and somewhat more predictable. For others of us, the Holy Spirit may be tainted still with the spooky legacy of the phrase used by the old King James Version — the Holy Ghost — leaving us wanting to pull the bed covers over our heads when we get to that section of the creeds. The King James translation of “the Holy Ghost” makes this third person of the Trinity sound like Casper, a friendly yet disembodied apparition who floats through walls and sends chills up our spines if we get too close to it.
And then of course, there are those of us who don’t talk about the Holy Spirit just because the Holy Spirit seems redundant and unnecessary, the freebie that is thrown in when you buy God and Jesus. You don’t really need it — you’ve already got the Father and the Son — but hey, it’s free so you’ll take it.
So what is the Holy Spirit and why do we need it? Why can’t we just be binitarians instead of trinitarians and make do with God and Jesus? What does the Holy Spirit do for you that those two can’t?
Before I try to answer that question, I have to make the disclaimer that I am not the sort of minister who is a stickler for doctrine. I believe that doctrine is the church’s attempt to put into language experiences that are ultimately beyond language, and so all doctrine will necessarily be limited by the limitations of our minds. I think that doctrine should constantly be questioned and revised as our culture and understanding changes, just as all models are modified through testing and time. Moreover, while the church eventually became a church grounded upon certain doctrines, the Bible itself is not doctrinal: by that I mean that the Biblical writers weren’t interested in developing systematic models of metaphysical relationships. It was not until 300 years after the life of Jesus that the church began to take all of the Biblical testimony about God and Jesus and their experiences of the Spirit and tried to sort all of that into neat categories that made intellectual sense out of how all of these things interrelated existentially. In other words, I’m not going to stand here and tell you that you need to believe in the Holy Spirit because the Apostle’s Creed tells you you have to believe in the Holy Spirit or because the Council of Constantinople in 385 declared that all three persons of the Trinity were “consubstantial with each other.” Sure, the Holy Spirit is part of church doctrine but that’s not enough for me to accept it out of hand: I want to ask, “Why does the Holy Spirit even appear in our Bible? How is the experience of the Holy Spirit different from our experience of God and Jesus? Why should I even worry about whether I’ve got the Spirit or not?”
Having now audaciously swept aside centuries of church haggling over dogma as irrelevant, let me return to our reading in the book of Acts. Acts 2 says that God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the apostles at Pentecost and Peter promises the crowds that all Christians will likewise receive the gift of the Holy Spirit after their baptism. At that time, of course, remember that all baptisms were adult baptisms. They were performed after a person had learned about Jesus and converted to Christianity, so what the Bible was promising was that Christians who decide to trust in Jesus’ word and commit themselves to discipleship in his service will then receive the power of the Holy Spirit.
The first thing then that we learn about the Holy Spirit is that it is something that you receive from God and that this gift is related to your decision to serve Christ.
Now, just to confuse things, the book of Acts does mention a few people who experience the Holy Spirit first which leads them to request baptism after they’ve got the Spirit instead of the other way around. As I mentioned, the Bible isn’t worried about presenting a tidy theological system much to the frustration of those who want to write a formula for exactly how all of this works but even in these passages, the commitment to serve Christ and the gift of the Spirit are related to one another. You can’t walk around bathed in the Holy Spirit while refusing to serve Christ. The Holy Spirit isn’t there for your own personal use; God gives you the Spirit specifically so that you will be empowered in your life as a disciple.
The second thing we learn from the Bible, is that while the gift of the Spirit and your decision to serve Christ then are related to one another, they are not inextricable. Throughout the book of Acts, the apostles encounter people who have been converted to Christianity but who have yet to receive the Spirit. Baptism doesn’t automatically inject the Holy Spirit into your blood stream and you might not receive the Spirit for some time even if you have made a commitment to Christ. At the very beginning of the book of Acts, the disciples were gathering regularly in Jerusalem praying together and considering everything they had learned from Jesus. I am guessing at that time that they were already putting all of his teachings into practice: they were forgiving one another seven times seventy times, and praying for those who had persecuted them, and practicing mercy, and loving God and their neighbors. They had declared their faith in Christ and made a commitment to him with their lives, but they hadn’t yet received the Spirit. When the Spirit comes to them on Pentecost, the disciples’ faith moves from the general to the specific. The Spirit gives the apostles the ability to speak in foreign languages, it sends Philip to preach to the eunuch and then whisks him from there to Caesarea; it sends Peter to the house of Cornelius to receive Gentiles into the church; it selects seven men to distribute food to those in need while others go out and preach. The apostles all shared the same commitment to Christ but the Spirit gave each of them unique ways to express that commitment.
As Christians, we all serve under Christ and are all given the same training under him. The gospel I receive is the same gospel you receive. Just as Christ tells me to love my enemy, so too Christ tells you to love your enemy. Just as Christ tells me to share my possessions with others, so Christ tells you to share your possessions with others as well. I serve the same Christ that you serve and that my parents served and that Augustine served and that the apostle Paul served.
The Holy Spirit, however, is the one who gives us each our specific marching orders. It is the Holy Spirit who looks at your specific talents and passions and matches them up with the needs of Christ in the world, and then sends you forth to express your faith in a unique way. Your experience of the Spirit is not my experience of the Spirit and it is not the experience of your parents nor the experience of Augustine or even the experience of Paul. The Holy Spirit is the phrase that the Bible uses to describe the singular way in which God works through each of us to bring the gospel to bear on the world.
And when you receive that gift of the Spirit, when you find that unique way in which God can work through you in the world, it will be a Pentecost moment. It will be as if tongues of fire dance on your head. I am absolutely convinced that you can a disciple of Christ without the Holy Spirit and that living a life of kindness and compassion and mercy and right relationships is all that God requires, but God invites you to something deeper and more exciting, and yes, to a life that can be more challenging and maybe unnerving, but ultimately promises also to be more deeply satisfying. The difference between a generalized faith in Christ and a discipleship drenched in the Spirit is like the difference between watching a baseball game from the bleachers and pitching in the World Series. The difference between a generalized faith in Christ and a discipleship drenched in the Spirit is like the difference between sitting in the audience listening to the New York Philharmonic, and playing first violin. The difference between a generalized faith in Christ and a discipleship drenched in the Spirit is like the difference between taking a Spanish class at the University and going to Spain. It is the difference between watching a cooking show on TV and preparing a savory roast beef for your family; the difference between touring the art gallery and painting the Sistine Chapel, the difference between pedaling the exercise bike in your basement and cycling the Tour de France, the difference between walking up Jericho Hill and standing on the summit of Mount Everest.
God invites us to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and allow the Spirit to move through us and in us to use the unique person that each of us is to meet a need in the world in a way that only we can do. Our passions, skills, and commitment to Christ will burn with the fire of the Spirit and we will live out a Pentecost moment.