Beyond Abstraction

I've been away on leave for several days, so will share a reflection I published in our church's Prayer Diary for Pentecost week:

One autumn, when I had been a Christ follower for about five years, the story of Pentecost came to have new meaning. In my family church, the Pentecost tradition was honoured with hymns about wind and fire, and heavenly doves. But this rather abstract language didn’t really connect with the living Lord I had come to love and serve. I knew the Acts 2 story of course, but somehow I had consigned it to the basket of ‘things that happened when Jesus was around’, that don’t happen now. Like blind people being healed and demons being cast out, the idea of believers speaking boldly in a language they had never learned, and of thousands coming to faith in one day, seemed to belong in the Bible, but not in my life.

In the Christian group at my university, I started to hear another perspective. Preachers and teachers explained Jesus’ promise that you will receive power (Acts 1: 8) and I started to understand how God’s enlivening power is available to Christians today. I discovered, from John’s gospel, how the Spirit was Jesus’ gift of another ‘like himself’ to carry on his work of teaching, guiding and ministering to others, after he had physically left this earth. I got excited about the idea that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead could bring new life and power to my faith. One night in the Lady Chapel of St. Paul’s, Symonds Street, I asked that I might be filled to overflowing with the Spirit – be drenched with God’s love and power in a new and exciting way.
I don’t know what I expected from that prayer. Others had fallen, shaken, laughed or cried. I just felt peaceful, and my wise cell-group leader reminded me of God’s promise in Luke 11 – that “our heavenly Father gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” I received that promise by faith - and went on with my life with a renewed assurance. In a way, nothing was different, but looking back later I saw that changes – emotional, social, spiritual - had indeed taken place. Most important of all, I now grasped the connection between Jesus and the Spirit. The Holy Spirit was no longer an ‘it’ – he was Jesus, risen from the dead and present in my life 2000 years later.

Sadly, the years that followed were marked by a vigorous and sometimes vitriolic debate about this “move of the Spirit”. Some claimed that a second blessing, accompanied by speaking in tongues, was needed to complete the salvation offered in Jesus Christ. I took a deeper and broader view, although I did come to use a spiritual “prayer language.” My reading of Acts showed me that the paths to personal experience of God’s energy and enthusiasm are not defined or predictable. The common factor for receiving the Spirit was not the right preacher or the right prayer, but an attitude of openness, and a hunger for more of Jesus. God blesses us not just once, but regularly and in myriad ways, when we invite him to fill and use us.

These days, I hope no follower of Jesus has to wait five years to learn about the Spirit. We teach about him to seekers and new Christians, as well as older folk who, like me, have not realised that Being Filled with the Spirit is part of the Normal Christian Life. A one-off dramatic experience is not compulsory, though that is certainly the case for some; Life in the Spirit is an ongoing dynamic relationship that even the disciples experienced time and time again. When people ask about the Spirit, I often share the notion that being filled is not so much the idea of a cup that is full, but more like a sail that is filled, moment by moment. Just as the wind fills a sail and propels a yacht, so the Spirit can fill our lives, and energise and motivate us in God’s direction. Being filled with the Spirit is being controlled by the Spirit, and giving God space to propel us in love and ministry. So it’s not about a Life in the Spirit seminar in 1979, a Bill Subritzky meeting in 1989, or an Alpha Retreat in 1999. It’s a dynamic every-day relationship. Its the same Spirit that raised Jesus, bringing his real presence among us here and now and for ever. “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift.”

To Chew Over: How do you experience the Spirit controlling and propelling you in everyday life? How do you respond to the notion that he is the Spirit of Jesus, risen and enduringly present in the world?

Lord, Holy Spirit,

You blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks,
Inside and outside the fences,
You blow where you wish to blow.

Lord, Holy Spirit,

You are the sun who shines on the little plant,
You warm him gently, you give him life,
You raise him up to become a tree with many leaves.

Lord, Holy Spirit,

You are as a mother eagle with her young,
Holding them in peace under your feathers.
On the highest mountain you have built your nest,
Above the valley, above the storms of the world,
Where no hunter ever comes.

Lord, Holy Spirit,

You are the bright cloud in whom we hide,
In whom we know already that the battle has been won.
You bring us to our Brother Jesus
To rest our heads upon his shoulder.

Lord, Holy Spirit,

You are the kind fire who does not cease to burn,
Consuming us with flames of love and peace,
Driving us out like sparks to set the world on fire.

Lord, Holy Spirit,

In the love of friends you are building a new house,
Heaven is with us when you are with us.
You are singing your song in the hearts of the poor.
Guide us, wound us, heal us. Bring us to the Father.

James K Baxter.