Trinity

Fire!

Acts 2:1-21

What is this Holy Spirit, this flame igniting the birthday candle of the church?

Well, first I have to correct the question’s grammar. Sometimes we slip and say “what” or “it” when we talk about the Holy Spirit, but it’s more appropriate to say “who” or “he.”

The Holy Spirit is God, expressed in a way we can sense directly, and as we might expect, the experience is overwhelming and mysterious. The Holy Spirit is deeply personal, touching us in ways that are provocative and emotional.

Even though God is more than biologically male or female, we use the traditional pronoun “he” because it keeps us in that great, long-running scriptural metaphor of the husband wooing and pursuing his errant, adulterous bride. In the metaphor, God is the husband or groom and we of the church, men and women, are his bride. At Pentecost we see a deep spiritual ravishing, our souls exposed one to another and known in full.

The Holy Spirit transforms. The Spirit sounded like wind and looked like fire on the day of Pentecost. When wind and fire sweep over a place, everything is changed. When we think of natural disasters, the image is frightening. And yes, let’s go ahead and admit it—the idea of the Holy Spirit sweeping over us frightens us as much as the idea of being in the middle of a firestorm.

When we are transformed by God, we may do strange things. We don’t like the idea of seeming strange, of looking different to the world.

If we’re transformed, we may demonstrate a kind of enthusiasm and excitement people haven’t seen in us before. “Nuts!” people may say. “Drunk in the morning!”

We’re liable to find ourselves capable of doing things we did not imagine possible, and with that capability, we may find new demands upon us. Again, the possibility of sudden change is intimidating.

When the Spirit, recognizing our belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, gives us gifts, he doesn’t expect us to tuck them in the closet, however. We should get those gifts out and use them!

The ability to declare who Jesus is, the insight to discern and declare what truth is, the deep desire to help others—We should wear those gifts out! It’s okay to use them up. The Holy Spirit honors faithful use of our gifts by replenishing them.

And besides, left sitting in a closet of the soul, those gifts dry up and crumble. They become useless.

Speak the truth of who God is, of what God is doing through Jesus Christ. Engage with people you never saw yourself among before.

For example, if you’re called to go among youth or children, God will give you the words and actions you need. Or if you find yourself mixing with a crowd that used to frighten you, fear not—God will make you attractive and understandable to them.

The Spirit will not burn you as it sweeps over. The Spirit will refine you, for once you know Jesus Christ, you do have the potential to be holy. Let the Spirit touch you long enough, and you will shine like the purest gold.

The Holy Spirit is power. Sometimes as Christians, we talk about power as if it is a bad thing, as if wanting power is inherently evil. We’re thinking of worldly power when we criticize such pursuits. Seeking God’s power is a different matter entirely.

The latest Star Wars story comes out Friday. I remember seeing the very first Star Wars movie when I was 12, entranced by all those light sabers and this talk of “the Force.” These are not the droids you’re looking for. Oh, to be able to wave my hand and say, “This is not the student who forgot his homework.” And if I could just get my hands on a real lightsaber, swinging it with the power of the Force in me!

George Lucas based the Force on the impersonal energy of certain Asian religions, an energy that supposedly binds all things together, flowing through them. It took me a few years to figure this out, but the Holy Spirit is the real Force, one capable of touching us more deeply than Asian religions or George Lucas ever imagined.

Christians believe in a personal, loving God. His Holy Spirit is the personal, loving Force. When we are open to the Holy Spirit, God’s creative power goes to work in us. The Holy Spirit works in us so that we help accomplish God’s eternal will. Go into the world with power, you Jedi Knights of Christ.

This Holy Spirit marks a new era, one in which we now live. Properly attuned to him, we all are supposed to have a sense of the times, our dreams and visions revealing what is coming. What is coming? A remaking of all things, of course. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross triggered a new order to creation, visibly seen first in his resurrection.

Satan, wielding sin and death, used to be the power broker, but no more. With the Holy Spirit in us, we can tell Satan, “Be gone!” We move through time toward the full, visible return of Jesus Christ. His kingdom is present now, and we make it more present each day by declaring the kingdom to be real, living as if it has fully arrived.

Let us follow Peter’s exhortation. Let us call on the name of the Lord and be saved, and let us be sure all those around us have the same opportunity. The Spirit will sweep over us as a church once again, the fire will burn, and we will be comforted and strengthened for eternity.

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Permeable People

Jesus had followers throughout his ministry, and after witnessing part or all of his torture, death and resurrection, some continued to follow him in a mixed state of wonder and confusion over the miracle they were seeing.

These people were the hard-core believers. They still did not constitute a church, however, at least not in the proper sense of the word. Something was lacking, something Jesus had promised would come.

Pentecost Sunday marks the arrival of that something, which is, of course, the Holy Spirit. The life force had arrived; the church was born. And we are forced to consider our relationship with God in a whole new way.

God the Father is a revelation of God outside all things, over all things. God the Son, Jesus, is God voluntarily reducing himself to experience human flesh, standing before us, alongside us, in solidarity with us. Those both are wonderful revelations of the One True God.

God the Holy Spirit, however, is God working within us. And that is what makes this expression of God the most mysterious and sometimes the most frightening. God the Father and God the Son can be kept at arm’s length, treated as historical evidence of God’s existence. It’s possible to talk about those two revelations all day, even lifting up praise for them, and never really have to encounter them.

The Holy Spirit, however, is more intense than God in your face. He is God in your gut, eyeball to eyeball with your soul.

Not that God is rude. He will examine you from the inside out and challenge what he finds there, but only if you let him. He’ll even remake what he finds there, but again, only if you let him. And letting him in does require a willful act or two.

"Pentecost," Josef Ignaz Mildorfer, circa 1750, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Pentecost,” Josef Ignaz Mildorfer, circa 1750, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Look at the story of Pentecost, in Acts 2:1-21. In fact, go back just a little earlier, to Acts 1:13-14. What were the believers doing before the Spirit arrived? Well, they were doing the work of the church, even though they were not yet fully a church. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus told them to go into Jerusalem and wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Clearly, the followers didn’t see waiting as a passive activity. They prayed intently. They searched what we now think of as the Old Testament for evidence of how to organize, and they treated what they found there as truth.

In other words, they made themselves permeable people, ready to soak up the Spirit when he arrived, surrendering themselves fully to the work God wanted to do in them.

It was a mighty change. Any confusion or dull-mindedness about the resurrection vanished; 120 people were of one mind, declaring Jesus the Christ and the availability of salvation to all. Language was no barrier. Peter delivered one incredible sermon, so powerful that the church’s numbers on its first day swelled to more than 3,000 before the sun set.

Long before he went to the cross, Jesus said such incredible availability of the Spirit would happen. In John 7:37-39, Jesus invited those who believe in him to “drink,” and be filled in a way that “rivers of living water” will flow out of them. The author of this gospel made clear Jesus was referring to the work of the Spirit.

It is an image that stirs my soul. God has promised that if we let him in—if we drink him in by opening our mouths in prayer and our minds to God’s word—his Spirit will overwhelm us and then pour out on those around us.

God, help us with our impermeability. We stand in the flow of your Spirit, but so often we behave more like rocks than sponges, your Spirit flowing around us rather than through us.

Drive away fear of change, Lord. Make us certain that the new shape you give us as you cleanse us and fill us is more pleasing and joyous than what we were before.

And may we become your reservoirs of living water, Lord, available to all who need to know you. May we speak your truth and draw others to Jesus Christ. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.