When the Spirit Comes
Belmont UMC—May 26, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
This morning I want us think together about the work of the Holy Spirit.
When I was child we still referred to the Spirit as the Holy Ghost, and I found the notion of a holy ghost frightening. There was a dark storage area under the steps in the basement of our church and occasionally I’d go in there with my Dad to retrieve extra folding tables or chairs for pot luck suppers. The storage area was full of junk, like old rummage sale signs, discarded Vacation Bible School crafts and casserole dishes that had been left behind. In the corner was Pastor Jim’s famous rugged cross that he built and set in the middle of the chancel because he thought were too squeamish about suffering. As soon as he left our church, the Trustees took the cross down and put it in the storage room, replacing his rugged cross with a new, shiny brass one. As a child I thought the Holy Ghost must come out of that dark storage room at night and wander the halls of our church.
Somewhere along the way I came to understand the Spirit in a different way and the fear of the Spirit dissipated. But maybe there is something to be said for reclaiming, if not fear, then a healthy sense of respect and awe in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
There was a pastor who preached often at our church when I was kid. He was retired and would fill pulpits for pastors who were away on vacation. His name was John Kelly and he had Irish roots. His sermons were passionate and sometimes he would pound the pulpit and raise his voice. When he did he would slip into a distinct Irish brogue and I liked his voice and his passion. I remember one thing he said during those sermons. It was something like this, “I often hear people pray to be more like Jesus, without once considering the consequences. That can be a dangerous prayer and once you pray it you better prepared to duck.”
It’s possible that an equally dangerous and consequential prayer is found in these three words, “Come, Holy Spirit.” Allowing the Holy Spirit to come into our lives is powerful and transformative.
In the farewell discourses of Jesus from John 13 through John 17, Jesus prepares his disciples for his leaving. He promises them that they will not be left alone, but God will send the Spirit and he describes the work of the Holy Spirit to them. Much of what we believe about the Holy Spirit is found in these chapters of the Gospel of John.
The followers of the Way in Acts, sometimes called The Gospel of the Holy Spirit, dare to pray this provocative prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit!” Then they waited. We know that the Holy Spirit descended on them at Pentecost and the rest of Acts is one wild roller coaster ride.
We know from these texts that the Holy Spirit is the source of spiritual life within us. Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection and found them huddled together in fear. The first thing he did was frighten them a little more by showing up and then he said, “Peace be with you.’ and then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22-23) The word for breath, spirit, and life (pneuma) is used interchangeably in the Greek. He breathed on them. He gave them life.
In her description of Pentecost, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “They had sucked in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it. The Holy Spirit had entered into them the same way it had entered into Mary, the mother of Jesus, and for the same reason. It was time for God to be born again—not in one body this time but in a body of believers who would receive the breath of life from their Lord and pass it on, using their own bodies to distribute the gift.” (Home by Another Way, “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit” p. 144)
To pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!” is to pray that God will come into our lives and breathe new life into us and that life is the very life of God. Have you ever seen or participated in the resuscitation of someone whose life has gone out of them? It’s a powerful experience, isn’t it? The disciples are as good as dead spiritually. They are fearful, desperate, surrendered, and locked in a room. All their hopes and dreams have died and they have no sense of purpose and direction. Jesus breathes on them, resuscitates them, and sends them out into the world.
We come here on Sunday mornings for worship and we have one of the best choirs, one of the best music programs, in Methodism. I tell people that I come here for the music. Occasionally, one of us will preach a heartwarming and inspiring sermon. All this is good; all of this is a gift of God. But the choir cannot breathe new life into us. Nor can an inspiring sermon. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.
So we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!” but don’t pray the prayer if you are satisfied with your life, your deeply rutted and boring life, because the Spirit will give you new life and purpose. It won’t be boring anymore; it will be adventurous!
We know that when the Holy Spirit comes, the Spirit forms us into something called the church. The Spirit gives each of us gifts of ministry and service. Here is some of that diversity we keep talking about. As we look around the room this morning we can identify so many different gifts of the Spirit. I believe that we are gifted by the Spirit and called to use those gifts in service to the church.
What would the church look like where everyone identifies their gifts and sets out to use them in service? It would be pretty transformative, but it’s supposed to be the norm not the exception. I believe that God has provided all the gifts we need in this church for the work of the ministry.
We had a capital campaign in one church I served and we put together a steering committee. The only person we were missing was someone who could help with publicity—posters, brochures, newsletters, etc. This was in the days before computers so it required skills that no one had. A woman named Kay had started coming to the church. On the Sunday after we formed the Steering Committee, she came to me after worship and said, “I want to join the church next Sunday.” We talked for a bit. I asked her where she worked. She answered, “I’m responsible for all the publicity for the company where I work. I put together their monthly newsletters, all their brochures and such. If you ever need any help with anything like that, let me know.”
I’ve had numerous conversations over the last couple of months with persons who have dared to pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!” and are now discerning where God is calling them. We have a number of young adults in our church who are discerning a call to ministry, what that means and where God is leading them. That’s exciting!
When the Spirit comes, we will be able to identify the gift of God in our lives. We will be moved to offer those gifts to help form the church that helps transform the world. “Come, Holy Spirit!”
Our Gospel text today says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13)
The Holy Spirit leads us into an understanding of God and into a deeper relationship with God. We use words like spiritual nurture or spiritual formation to describe this work of the Spirit. John Wesley might have called this “sanctifying grace.” This work of the Spirit is ongoing. This work of the Spirit comes through the spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, study, meditation, worship, etc. It may be that we will be open to something new through the music or the sermon on Sunday mornings.
This work of the Spirit means that we are continually being awakened to new truths about God and about ourselves in relationship with God. The way I think about God now is very different than it was 20 years ago or 40 years ago.
The Gospel of John speaks of the Spirit as the Comforter or Counselor or Advocate. (John 14: 26) The Greek word there means “the one who is called along side of us.” I love that image of the Holy Spirit as God coming along side of us, walking with us, teaching us about God’s self, awakening us to new life, guiding our journey, and calling us to serve.
Let’s end today with a simple spiritual exercise. Let’s close our eyes and place our hands in front of us, maybe on our laps, palms up in a posture of receiving. Quietly and slowly breathe in and out. And as you do, imagine that those breaths are the very life God. Take a moment in silence.
Now, if you dare, say in a whisper, “Come, Holy Spirit!”