The Spirit Is Here
The Day of Pentecost; June 9, 2019
Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-17
Well, that was exciting: tongues of fire, the sound of the rush of a violent wind, people speaking in unknown languages. People can get really hyped on things that are flashy and give that sort of adrenaline rush. We Christians pretty regularly pray, "Come, Holy Spirit," but how do we know if the Spirit is here? It's typical to look for emotional clues: the adrenaline rush of Pentecost, or the peace of people in fellowship, koinonia. But notice the effect of the Holy Spirit's presence on the crowd that listened to Peter's sermon: "Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, 'Brothers, what should we do?' Peter said to them, 'Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 2:37-28).
So the emotional clue that the Holy Spirit was present was "they were cut to the heart." Luke goes on to tell us that about 3,000 of them were baptized. They didn't get tongues of fire and a rush of a violent wind; they apparently didn't speak in strange languages or have a great adrenaline rush. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (v. 42). Ho-hum. Sorry, those of you who want excitement. Bible study, food together, communion and prayer: that was the cycle of their life by the work of the Holy Spirit.
A lot of years ago I was part of a group appointed by the Presbytery of Cincinnati to look into a church that was conflicted. My apologies to those of you who have heard this story before; it bears repeating. This particular church had run off its pastor and lost a lot of members as a result; those who remained were upset, angry, and somewhat sure of their own righteousness. Some leaders of the Presbytery were convinced the church needed to be closed down; leaders of the church were convinced the Presbytery needed to go away and leave them alone. They really resented our intrusion, but cooperated.
We asked one of the Presbytery's leaders why the church should be closed; he said, "Because the Holy Spirit isn't there anymore." We asked him how he knew that; he said it was because he felt so bad every time he went there. We asked the leaders of the church what was so good about their church; they said, "The Holy Spirit is here." We asked them how they knew that; they said it was because they felt so good being together. We concluded right away that feelings were not a reliable sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
So we studied the Bible; we asked ourselves what the Bible says about the presence of the Holy Spirit. I won't go into the details this morning, but we measured the life of that church by what the Bible says about signs of the Spirit's presence. We concluded that the Holy Spirit was indeed present, but was having a hard time getting through to some of them.
By the measures that the Bible gives, the Holy Spirit is here. We're not speaking in tongues; the only wind we're feeling is the fans struggling against the heat while we wait for work on our new air conditioning. But we study the Bible – not enough, but we do it – and we have fellowship – not deep enough, but it's there. We have communion – not as frequently as we should, be we do it – and we pray – and there's always room for improvement there too. The Spirit is here. You don't need an adrenaline rush or a good feeling or to be cut to the heart; you just need to pay attention to what the Bible says about the Spirit's presence.
One of the stories about Ruth Cook that sticks in my head and that I didn't talk about at her funeral on Monday is when one of the sons asked her a question. "Mom, what does this phrase mean?" And it was one of those things that parents would rather not have to talk about. Anyway, Ruth responded with a clear, factual answer. She didn't downplay it, didn't chide him for asking such a thing, nor get overly dramatic. She responded with simple truth.
Jesus calls the Holy Spirit "the Spirit of truth" (John 14:17) and promises that the Spirit of truth will abide in us and among us. The reason the crowd was "cut to the heart" by Peter's sermon is that he told the truth about Jesus and about what the religious and political authorities had done to Jesus, and the significance of it all. He wasn't overly dramatic nor did he sugar-coat it; he simply told the truth.
Healthy relationships depend on being able to speak the truth. Can you heal a hurt if you do not acknowledge it? Can you celebrate a victory if you deny the problem that it solved? Can you move forward together if your life is a lie? That said, truth can be used as a weapon, and it goes beyond the bounds I set for myself this morning to detail the ways you and I can use "telling the truth" as a tool to hurt someone. Just let that caution be acknowledged and, keeping it in mind, let us agree that truth is essential to healthy relationships.
And so the Holy Spirit is present when the truths of our relationship with God are spoken, when the truths of our life together as the people of God are spoken. Not invoked as a weapon, not downplayed, not overly dramatic, but clear and factual. We know the presence of the Holy Spirit not so much by how we happen to feel at any given time as by the realities of our life before God and our life together: devotion to the Apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
By every biblical measure I can think of, the Spirit is here.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master