What You Don't Know about the Holy Spirit

Acts 2:1-21
June 12, 2011
Pentecost Sunday

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o”clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

You know, no matter how we try to explain the details of Christian faith, we face an unavoidable problem. The fact is that Christianity can be really confusing, especially for people who are new to it, or who aren't necessarily willing to dig down deep into its mysteries. And the Holy Spirit is part of that confusion.

Both Christians and non-Christians have struggled since the beginning with the Christian understanding of God, which is God as a Trinity. And because we’ve struggled with the Trinity, we’ve had a hard time understanding God as Holy Spirit. The Trinity is a paradox. It has a complex shell that, on the surface, seems to make no sense. But its core opens us to an amazing relationship with God. The problem is that its complex-seeming shell is hard for some people to crack.

What they don’t understand is that the concept of the Trinity was designed to help us form deep relationships with God. It’s based on the idea that God truly is one God. There aren’t three Gods. Nor is there one God with three parts. The Trinity expresses the idea that God is one God, but that we experience and form relationships with God through three distinct experiences of God.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have tried hard to represent this idea of Trinity, and it’s because of Calvin Presbyterian Church’s belief in the Trinity that we find a Trinity symbol in our church logo. It is the triangular symbol that reveals one figure with three tips. The idea is that we connect with God through those tips, yet God is always a whole no matter how we distinctly we experience each person of God.

We can experience and come to know God as Father and Creator, who is our source. This is God whom we experience as being in heaven, somewhat separate from us, but whom we also know loves us more deeply than we can fathom, and created us for something good.

We experience God in Christ. But this isn’t just Christ who lived 2000 years ago. This is Christ who the Bible says was “in the beginning,” and that he was “with God and in God, and all things came into being through him.” In other words, this is God who is the incarnation of God in the world. Christ is God whom we know in Jesus, but this is also God who is in the world, and in each of us. This is God we experience in our own hearts, in each other, in sunsets and mountaintops, and in Scripture.

We also experience and have a relationship with God who is everywhere, who permeates everything. This is God in the Holy Spirit. What I thought I'd do today, as we celebrate the coming of this Holy Spirit on the day of the Spirit, Pentecost, is to give a brief history of the Holy Spirit.

So where does the Holy Spirit first appear? The Spirit initially appears in the very first sentence of the Bible, where we read, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Actually, this is not quite an accurate translation of that sentence. One of the problems when we translate from Hebrew or Greek (the original languages of the Old and New Testaments) is that our language is designed differently from them. In English, if we come up with a new idea, we come up with a whole new word for it. That’s not the way Hebrew and Greek work. One word can have multiple meanings, depending on how it is used. And often the multiple meanings are intentional, conveying a richness of ideas at once. That’s the case in this passage. The Hebrew word for “wind,” or ru-ach, doesn’t just mean “wind.” It means “breath,” “life-force,” “breath of life,” and “Spirit.” This passage is saying that in the beginning God’s Spirit flowed across the water. The Spirit was already there, ready for Creation.

We find the Spirit mentioned a chapter later when we read, “Then the Lord God formed human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.” Again, that work, ru-ach, shows up. The translators translated it as “breath of life,” but it’s more accurate to say that God breathed God’s Spirit into the first human. In other words, the Holy Spirit isn’t just in the world, but the Spirit is in each of us, and since that Spirit is part of the Trinity, that Spirit in us is also Christ’s Spirit in each of us.

From these beginnings the Spirit appears constantly in the Bible. The Spirit speaks to Abraham, calling him to follow into the wilderness. It speaks to and rests on Moses. Then it appears to and rests on the elders and judges of Israel. And as the nation of Israel grows, the Spirit comes to the kings and prophets, guiding David and speaking to Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and more. Throughout Israel's history, God's Spirit rests on leaders, prophets, and even on the enemies of Israel. For example, the king and armies of Assyria and Babylon are seen as carrying out God’s will, with the Spirit, when they attack Israel for their lack of faith.

Then, in the early pages of the New Testament, the Holy Spirit enters Jesus in his baptism, and leads him out into the desert, where Jesus wrestles with his own human nature—a nature that would diminish the Spirit if it could, just as we often diminish the Spirit in our lives. It really wasn't until after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension that the world discovered the full force of the Holy Spirit. First, Jesus breathes the Spirit onto the disciples, giving them the Spirit’s wisdom and a deep and holy awareness of God all around them. Then, on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit comes into the early Christians, which is the experience we read about today. We’re told that the Spirit allows them to speak in all different languages, and that the flame of the Spirit rests on each of them.

That’s the history of the Spirit in the Bible, but Christianity doesn't just teach that the Holy Spirit was God at work in the world in biblical times. We believe that the Holy Spirit is completely available to each and every on of us today. We believe that in each and every one of us the Spirit is ready to come into our lives, if we want the Spirit in. The problem is that too often we modern Christians struggle with that idea. We’re not sure we want the Spirit to be that close. We’re a bit uncomfortable with God being that intimate. It’s somewhat easy to believe in God who is in heaven, looking down with smiling benevolence, but do we really want God to be as close to us as each breath? What if we open up to that Spirit and it challenges us to live a different life, to change in ways that call on us to give up things we hold dear?

The temptation of all Christians is to hold God at bay. In fact, many denominations slip into doing just that. That’s how both the Quaker and Pentecostal denominations started. They were both reactions to churches that were holding off the Spirit. The Quakers, during the 17th century, were so determined to become radically open to the Holy Spirit that they used to quake while they prayed—quaking because they were experiencing the Spirit. The Pentecostal faith started in 1903 at the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in direct response to the Christian churches of the time that had become so staid that they left no room for the Spirit. And many of these Pentecostals reported that they had an experience much like the Christians 2000 years earlier on the day of Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit isn’t just available for Quakers and Pentecostals. Right now you have the power to let the Spirit become a power in your life, but you have to choose—just like the early Christians chose. Being open to the Spirit doesn’t mean we have to quake or speak in different languages. Most people don’t have those kinds of spiritual experiences. Most of us who experience the Spirit experience the Spirit as a gentler, guiding, empowering, and coincidental/providential force.

I’ve experienced the Holy Spirit many, many times throughout my life because I've made a choice to be open to the Spirit. I experience God's Spirit working in me all the time, and often in really simple, unassuming ways. For instance, over the years I’ve noticed often that if I get overwhelmed and start running out of time during the week, the Spirit helps me. Many of you have learned that I have an open door policy. If you or anyone else shows up to my office during the week, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and talk with you. What that can mean is that sometimes I run out of time to get all that I need to get done. And during those weeks when I’m completely overwhelmed, I’ve been amazed at how people will call me up and cancel appointments with me, and not because I’ve asked them to. It’s as though the Spirit is looking out for me. I get calls from those with appointments telling me that they have to see a doctor and the only time was the same time as our appointment, or they have to pick up their kids, have to get a crucial task done, or something like that. The Spirit takes care of me.

I’m not alone in my experiences. Calvin Presbyterian Church has made the choice to become open to the Spirit, and I’ve seen time and again how this has led to God-incidences. I’ve mentioned over and over one of the biggest coincidences. Back in 1999, when we were in the middle of a capital campaign to renovate our sanctuary, start an endowment fund, and discern whether to build onto the church or not, one of the houses (what became Faith House) came up for sale. We were able to buy it outright because of the money we had gathered during the campaign. We had left the second year of the campaign undesignated, saying that we wanted to see what God had in store for us. Because we were in that second year, and had money from the campaign and from the sale of the church manse (a house the church had owned that the previous pastor had lived in), we were able to buy the house outright. The next year a second house (what has become Charity House) came up for sale, and we were able to buy it with the rest of the money we had on hand. Two years later, we were able to buy a third house (what has become Hope House) by taking out a mortgage paid for by the rental of Charity and Hope houses. Without all of those houses, we would never have been able to do our renovation and expansion four years ago. This is how the Spirit works with those who are ready and open to the Spirit.

The Spirit isn’t just available for pastors and churches. The Spirit wants to work in all of our lives, to help us wherever we are: at work, at home, with friends, with difficult and important tasks, in mission, and in ministry. It doesn’t matter where, the Spirit is here to be in our lives and make a difference.

What Christian faith and our passage teaches is that the Holy Spirit is available in all of our lives, but to let it work in us, we have to want it to work. We have to wait, be ready, and let the Spirit in. And there’s no magic way of doing it. All we have to do is to want the Spirit in our lives, to ask it to enter our lives, and to let it in.