Today is Pentecost, which according to some is the second-most important Sunday in the Christian year (after Easter). But in a lot of churches, it just feels a lot like any other Sunday.
That’s too bad, and a lot of us are working on it. But the lack of enthusiasm for Pentecost is actually pretty understandable, isn’t it?
This occasion exists to celebrate two things: the birth of the church, and the day that the Holy Spirit changed His MO. Prior to Pentecost, the Spirit’s involvement in humanity was sporadic and task-oriented: He came and indwelled certain individuals for finite periods of time, in order to help them accomplish a specific job, and then departed from them when the assignment was accomplished. On Pentecost, He came and set up permanent residence in the hearts of all believers!
As Pastor Stephen Hambidge put it in today’s sermon at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, the Spirit went from specific involvement in the world to being poured out indiscriminately among believers.
This new normal, ushered in 50 days after Easter Sunday, is definitely worth a few thousand hallelujahs and amens, wouldn’t you say? But unfortunately, our experience doesn’t really line up with this reality, does it?
I’m a committed, passionate Christian, and I can see the results of God’s handiwork in my life. I’ve definitely sensed the presence of the Spirit, and even heard His voice (speaking directly to the ears of my heart) a few times, but those Goosebumply, pulse-quickening, tear-filled experiences are the exception, not the rule.
It mostly feels like the Spirit shows up in my life at specific times for specific purposes – just like the Bible says He did before Pentecost – not that He’s a constant companion who indwells me 24-7.
And I think that’s pretty common among believers. If you don’t believe me, ask the Apostle Paul:
‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.’ – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Members of the Corinthian church apparently had trouble perceiving and remembering that the Spirit indwelled them, too – otherwise, Paul wouldn’t have had to remind them in this passage. So, clearly, awareness of the presence of the Spirit can be somewhat elusive.
And that can make the change ushered in by the first Christian Pentecost seem pretty theoretical. And it’s hard to make a big deal about something that sounds like it should be life-changing, but feels pretty theoretical. Hence the lackluster response to Pentecost Sunday, among many Christians.
What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit?
Can you be filled by Him and not know it?
Can you be filled by Him and not act like it?
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On a related note, when I think about the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, my thoughts often also take me to John 20:19-23. This passage picks up on the evening of Easter Sunday, when the disciples are hiding in a locked room for fear of the Jewish leaders. Jesus appears to them, tells them to settle down, it’s really Him…
‘And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”‘
This was 50 days before Pentecost, so presumably, this was one of those specific, short-term visits of the Holy Spirit. But it’s still worth some examination:
As I’ve said before, John 20:22 is a reference to, or maybe a re-enactment of, the creation of humanity documented in Genesis 2:
‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’ – Genesis 2:7
I say ‘re-enactment’ because, as we explored in the second part of this series, the Hebrew, Greek and Latin words for ‘breath’ also meant ‘spirit’. That means when God breathed his holy breath on Adam, it was in some sense (if not every sense), the Holy Spirit that Adam received at the dawn of humanity.
And if that’s the case, I wonder if what was actually going on in John 20:22 wasn’t a delivery, of something new, but a revelation of someOne Who’d been inside the disciples, all along. And maybe the events described in Acts 2:1-4 functioned more like an activation of the already-present Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers than His arrival.
I don’t know if these speculations change anything for you – or if they change anything for me, for that matter. But I like to ponder questions like these as I try to put myself in iconic biblical stories like this one.
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But back to our original questions: if it doesn’t feel like anything changed at Pentecost (assuming we have the slightest idea of what ‘it’ felt like before Pentecost), does that mean nothing actually changed?
If that’s what you’re wondering right now, I have a word from God for you here:
The fact that believers don’t always ‘feel’ the presence of the Holy Spirit is not evidence of His absence. The presence of the Spirit is, by definition, a spiritual reality. And while we are spiritual beings, we are also physical beings, during our temporal lives on Earth.
And it’s much easier for us to connect with the physical than the spiritual, isn’t it?
We see, hear, smell, taste and touch with our bodies, and we think and feel with our minds, so it’s not difficult to understand how spiritual input into our psyche gets overshadowed.
One way to put it is that the volume on our physical existence is much louder right now than the volume on our spiritual existence.
But, Baldy, shouldn’t the arrival of the Holy Spirit in our hearts (which we’re told happens during baptism – functioning like our own, private Pentecost) automatically turn up our spiritual volume, so we can be aware of His presence?
Well, I can’t speak to the word should – that’s a bit above my pay grade. But I can say that in my experience, that’s not what does happen. It takes time and practice for most of us to figure out how to let God turn up our spiritual volume.
In my case, it’s in the act of choosing to believe that I am, in fact, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and choosing to live into that reality to the best of my ability, that I begin (or continue) the process of increasingly experiencing it as reality.
And if you’re wondering what it means to live like that’s true, don’t worry. God thought of that, and He provided many verses to guide us in that effort. Here are two that I’ve found very helpful:
‘He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.’ – Micah 6:8
‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.’ – Galatians 5:22-23
Not rocket science, to be sure. But choosing to bear the fruit of the Spirit in our lives helps us to make room in our lives for the Spirit to bear fruit.
Really, Baldy? In order to experience the presence of the Spirit in your life, you need to live like the Spirit is already present in your life, and then you’ll be able to perceive Him more? Sounds a lot like a self-fulfilling prophecy in the making to me. Next you’re going to play the ‘if you could sense Him all the time, you wouldn’t need faith’ card again.
You’re right. I am.
I think maybe this fits into the topsy-turvy, counter-intuitive, upside-down logic Jesus was so fond of that declares that ‘the last will be first and the first will be last‘, and ‘The death of the Saviour at the hands of the people He came to save is what saves those people’.
But let’s say the naysayers’ viewpoint is right. What if the ‘presence of the Spirit’ I think I’m experiencing when I obey Micah 6:8 or Galatians 5:22-23 is just the warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction that comes from being part of the solution to what’s wrong with the world for a change, instead of part of the problem?
If that’s a delusion, I think I prefer it to reality.
And who’s to say that the warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction that comes from being part of the solution to what’s wrong with the world for a change, instead of part of the problem, isn’t one of the ways the Spirit chooses to manifest Himself in our lives.
Or as St. Dumbledore put it in his letter to the Deathly Hallows, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
I double-dog dare you to try living like a temple of the Holy Spirit for a while, and find out for yourself.
Peace be with you.