Spirit: Strengthening, Standardizing, Sending
Acts 2:1-21 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 John 20:19-23
“…that one Holy Spirit was poured out for us all to drink” (1 Cor.12:13b)
I have spoken before of the memorial complex from which we often suffer as Christians. Religion is a bit like marriage in this way. It can fall away until it becomes little more than a celebration of anniversaries. All that we can manage is a pleasant historical mood. But there is no point in celebrating unless it is to make real again that event which began in the past, but which is still available for us to experience today. Perhaps we can do more than remember that we were happy once upon a time. Is Pentecost simply a subject for research or for giving sermons about at this time every year, or is it something which can happen again and again?
As Christians we celebrate Pentecost in order to commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the Church. However, too often we make the mistake of remembering Pentecost as a single event in history, a momentous event with a roaring wind and tongues of fire as it is described in the book of Acts, a story which was not included in our readings, but which most of you know well enough.
Most people don’t have mind-blowing religious experiences that fit the symbolism of the Acts reading. So instead, I am using John’s description of Jesus bestowing the gift of the Spirit upon his disciples, a story with which it is much easier to identify and understand as an event which is available to us to live and re-live.
What is this thing which is called the Holy Spirit? Is it something which one does not have and therefore must be received from outside by some process? How does one get it? What does it do?
First, let’s not get too troubled with language. We are dealing here with a mystery. We try to talk about it with the word “God” and we try to further describe the way God is experienced by the word “Holy Spirit.” But those are just words – ideas – to help us relate an experience.
In the Christian church we understand the notion of Holy Spirit as a part of this Mystery which we experience within us. One of the misconceptions generated by the Pentecost stories is that the Spirit was a new gift bestowed upon human beings. In the Bible, the first we hear of God’s Spirit is in the book of Genesis, right at the beginning. God’s Spirit moved over the waters of creation, and when he created Adam, he breathed his Spirit into him to give him life. So the Spirit of God is understood an essential part of the human being necessary for life.
In the Hebrew Scriptures there are many references to Spirit-filled people, so why the big deal about Pentecost. It is part of being human to have this experience of God indwelling, a resource which can be drawn upon to bring life and which leads us in the process of becoming what we were created to be. Unfortunately, most of us are not in touch with that resource within us, and so we have no idea of the enormous potential for life that is already part of us. We live life at a small percentage of its potential. If you can imagine people suddenly being awakened to this life force, perhaps you might then describe it with images like tongues of fire and roaring wind.
This is what Jesus did. In his life and even after his life, he and his teachings brought people into relationship with the part of themselves that was part of God, and the power flowed.
What does it do? Well, as John tells us, the disciples spent Easter hidden away behind locked doors in fear for their lives, afraid they would be the next ones hanging on a cross. In their need, Jesus helped them to find God’s Spirit within themselves.
We have our own hideaways where we cower with our fears, anxieties, griefs, and as long as they govern our lives, we can’t come out and live as we were created to live. Nor can we be the Church, the bearers of good news to the world. The church is not composed of saints, spiritual heroes and goodie-goodies. It is made up of very ordinary timid men and women who have met Jesus and have been helped to identify the source of God’s power within, and thus strengthened to face and overcome the aspects of life which have been limiting life. To his disciples, Jesus simply said, “Peace be with you,” a phrase as common to the people of his time as “Good day” is to us. And peace stilled the trembling souls in that room, filled them with joy and strengthened them for the task ahead.
In addition to providing strength, the Spirit standardises; that is, it sets a standard or a reference point. A standard is something by which other things are judged, the 9example of perfection to which we compare all else. The motto which accompanies most ads for Mercedes-Benz cars is “the standard by which all cars are judged.” Just as most of can’t afford a Mercedes-Benz, we probably aren’t living life to our full potential, either. Nevertheless, we can still aspire to own a Benz, and we can likewise aspire to a life which is more joyful, more peaceful, more open to others, more whole. The Spirit keeps pushing us to be more than we think we are capable of being. In doing so, it points to the man, Jesus, and his earthly ministry and says to us, “That is the way to go. Jesus of Nazareth is the standard by which to judge your beliefs and actions.
As well as strengthening and standardising, the Spirit sends. It sends us out on a mission to the world. This great resource we have is not some sensational Spiritual luxury, rather it is the means for a task. We may exercise the task in any of several ways: working for justice, healing, conveying love and forgiveness; but that task is the same one which occupied Jesus. His ministry is our ministry.
As the Spirit gives us immense resources, it also brings us great responsibilities: “If you forgive people’s sins,” says John’s gospel, ” they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” It is the all-embracing love and acceptance of God which we have been commissioned to live out in this world through the presence of the Spirit in our lives. If the love of God can be experienced by others through you and me, then they too can know forgiveness. They, too, may be helped to be put in touch with God’s Spirit within them. If that should happen in everyone’s life, then this world would be transformed. In recognising the role of the Holy Spirit in strengthening, standardising and sending, we see the climax of the relationship between God and humanity. We become the image of God in which we were created, bringing the good news of love and forgiveness to those around us. This climax of relationship is akin to a new life in which we become wholly and fully God’s, and at the same time, wholly and fully human. Today we celebrate Pentecost, but not just the celebration of some past event. It is Pentecost, and so is tomorrow and the next day and the next day. It is any day when you recognise the presence of God in your being and in your neighbour and you let that Spirit take over and pour its power into your life.