January 8, 2012

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” Well into the Book of Acts and the story of the early Christian Church, the Apostle Paul passed through a particular region and came to the city of Ephesus, where he found some disciples. Paul asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” And they replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

It’s probably a reasonable assumption to expect that there is no one here today who has not heard that there is a Holy Spirit. Some of you may be intimately acquainted with the Spirit, having experienced its working in your lives. Perhaps it was a nudge you felt pushing you to do something for God’s mission. Maybe it was a peace that you experienced despite the fear and stress associated with a crisis in your life. Or perhaps you knew that the Holy Spirit was surrounding you when you simply had the sense that God was near and that you were not alone.

We have an advantage, compared to the first small group of Christians in Ephesus, and that advantage is that someone has already come to tell us about the Spirit. We have the witness of our parents and grandparents in the faith. We have the testimony of the apostles and the church throughout the centuries. We have the Scriptures, including the New Testament writings, that pass along the convictions of the earliest Christians.

We can read about how they experienced God’s abiding presence, not only in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but through an intangible presence that remained with them even after Jesus had died and been raised up to heaven. They experienced this Spirit of God both as a comfort and encouragement, and as one who filled them and equipped them to be instruments of God’s work in the world – proclaiming the Gospel and sharing God’s love with all whom they met.

But when Paul first stopped by the city of Ephesus, the group of twelve disciples there had not even heard of the Holy Spirit yet. They knew that God was doing a new thing in their time. They had received the baptism of repentance that John the Baptist had been offering, and they had probably repented of their sin and turned their lives towards the goal of following Jesus and his teachings.

We can imagine that they were probably very excited about the new life that they had begun. But they were probably also pretty worried about whether they would be able to live up to God’s expectations. Jesus’ way of life was not an easy one to follow, and they may not have been too sure that they could pull it off.

Until Paul got to their city, no one had told them that they weren’t alone. No one had told them that they would have help along the way in their new Christian lives. No one had told them that God was not only present in Jesus Christ, when Jesus walked around in the world preaching, and teaching, and healing… and God was not only present as a heavenly Father above them… but God was actually present in their lives, in their bodies, in their relationships, and all around them.

Over the next several centuries, as the church grew and became established, the Scriptures were written, collected, and edited. The doctrines of the church were put into words and eventually agreed-upon creeds or statements of faith. And I don’t think you could become a Christian today without first having learned about and professed your faith in God the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This past Fall, the Sunday morning bible study group decided to explore the Holy Spirit together. We didn’t find a study book or resource to guide us, so we simply delved into the Scriptures themselves looking for the many references to the Holy Spirit and seeing what we could learn about this mysterious and powerful presence in the lives of God’s people throughout history.

This morning’s readings provide some great samples from the passages that we discovered together, and they emphasize the fact that the Holy Spirit was present from the very beginning, was made manifest in the life of Christ, and continued to inspire and animate God’s people even after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

And today is not an exceptional Sunday. You can’t hang around the church community for very long without noticing the readings about the promised Holy Spirit, without hearing prayers for the Spirit’s help and encouragement in our lives, without joining in words such as these from Living Faith:
“The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life,
the Renewer and Helper of God’s people.
By the Spirit, God is present in the world,
the source of all goodness and justice.
By the Spirit, God convinces the world of sin
and testifies to the truth of Christ.
By the Spirit, Christ is with his church.”

When we welcome a new little one into our church family, or when a teen or an adult comes to profess their faith and be baptized, we are clear about what we believe is happening. It’s the Holy Spirit who is at work in the Sacrament of Baptism. And we pray:

“Almighty God;
by the power of your Holy Spirit,
by the sign of this water,
you cleanse from sin through the death of Jesus Christ,
those who receive this sacrament;
you raise them to new life through his resurrection,
and you graft them into his body, the church.
Pour out your Spirit upon these your children,
that they may have power to do your will
and continue forever as servants of Christ
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit
be all honour and glory, now and forever.”

But I wonder… if Paul or someone were to come through Saskatoon today and meet the little group of disciples that meets for worship and service and fellowship in this place… if Paul were to come by and ask us straight up, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” how would we respond? How do we know that we received the Spirit? How do we know that the Spirit is actually within us?

Some might claim that they felt the Spirit’s presence at their baptism. I’ve been heard to say something like that when I reflect on my baptism as a teenager… that I felt the warmth of the Spirit around me, that I had a sense of being surrounded and filled with the Spirit of God.

But others might say that they know that the Spirit is in their lives because they trust in the statements and doctrines of the church. The church teaches that the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us in our baptism, that the Spirit fills and equips the people of God to be the Body of Christ in the world, and many of us may place our trust in that authority.

Of course, as Christians in the Reformed Tradition, we place a great deal of emphasis on the ultimate authority of the Scriptures. And the Bible is full of the assurance that God’s Spirit is promised and given as a gift to God’s people. We might easily rely on that promise and proclaim that yes, indeed, we did receive the Holy Spirit when we were baptized.

At times, the Spirit has been compared to the wind. And rightly so, because both the Greek word for Spirit (pneuma) and the Hebrew word for Spirit (ruach) can be translated appropriately as spirit, breath, or wind – that amazing force or power of God that brings life to the world.

The wind, of course, cannot be seen. But the wind is powerful, and the effects of the wind can be seen and heard and experienced. Indeed, the effects of the wind are often very difficult to ignore. And the same is true for the Holy Spirit of God.

I’m reminded of that when I think of the first day of Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection. I wonder how the various disciples that were present described the experience they shared of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. Someone said it was like a great wind sweeping through the room and tongues of fire landing on the disciples. Someone else might have said that they suddenly felt filled up with courage and boldness to engage in God’s mission. And another would have described it as an uneasy feeling that would not subside until they got out of that house and starting telling the people about Jesus.

But we know that the Spirit was poured out on the gathered disciples that day because we see the effects of the Spirit in their lives. They began to preach the Gospel. They reached out beyond boundaries of language and culture, and told the Good News that changed the lives of many and turned their hearts towards God.

In his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul makes it clear that the Holy Spirit can be seen in the lives of God’s people. There is a way to know if they received the Holy Spirit, or at least to know if they are living BY the Spirit, allowing the Spirit to guide and direct their lives. And that evidence is the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I attended a funeral yesterday. It was a celebration of the life of a Saskatoon woman who died way too young at the age of 40. I knew Sheryl from having served with her on the Leadership and Program Committee for Camp Christopher where I appreciated her cheerfulness, her helpfulnesss, and her kindness. And I learned a great deal more about her life yesterday as I listened to the tributes and remembrances of her family and friends.

They didn’t spend time at the service talking about what Sheryl believed, or the fact that she was baptized, and there wasn’t a big focus on reassuring us all that she would be heading towards heaven to be with God. But I left the service with a deep sense of the Spirit of God in her life.

I don’t know if she had any “spiritual” experiences, and I doubt that she ever spoke in tongues, but the fruit of the Spirit was evident in her life. The people who came in contact with her could attest to the fact that her life brought love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control into their lives. And so I have no doubt that she was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she was letting that Spirit guide her life, because that Spirit was producing good fruit.

It caused me to reflect, as funeral services often do, what might be said about me if my life were to suddenly come to an end. I wonder if you’ve thought about that too at times. In what ways is my life, my time, my energy being directed by the Spirit such that it produces kindness or generosity? It what ways am I allowing the Spirit to guide me to share love, and express joy, and cultivate peace?

Perhaps there is an area or two that is challenging for you… generosity that is stifled by fear, patience that is tried by difficult circumstances, or faithfulness that is undermined by experiences of being betrayed. But the fact that we do not yet produce all this fruit perfectly does not indicate that the Spirit has left us, or that we never had the Spirit of God within us. It simply means that the Spirit has some work left to accomplish within us, and we need to make space in our lives for the transformation that God is preparing for us.

I believe that whether we know it or not, we have all been blessed with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives. And no, we don’t have to prove it, or account for it, or give any evidence to demonstrate it. But we do need to make space in our lives for the Spirit to guide us – to let the fruit grow and bless the world.

Consider the various fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Which one can you simply celebrate as a gift that is already manifest in your life? Which one do you need to make space for, or to cultivate? Don’t expect them all to grow as easily and quickly as the others. But remember that their growth does not come from your determination or your strength, but by the Holy Spirit’s activity in and through you.

When the end of your life does come, and your friends and family and church community share stories of the difference that you made in the world and in their lives, it won’t be because you are awesome. It won’t be because you are the best person in the world. It will be because of the gift of God’s Holy Spirit that filled you, and equipped you, and worked through you to produce wonderful fruit. Thanks be to God.