What is all of this about the Holy Spirit?
(Lectionary Starters)

First Sunday after Epiphany. Celebration of the baptism of our Lord. Year A
January 12, 2003
Acts 19:1-7
Jim Killen, a minister of the United Methodist Church, Beaumont, Texas

What is the Holy Spirit? What is that all about anyhow? Is that your question? The Apostle Paul found some people who were asking that same question.

Paul was traveling from city to city in the ancient world, preaching the gospel and starting churches. When he came to Ephesus, he was happily surprised to find that there was already a small group of believers there. They had been baptized and were trying to live a Christian life. To do that in the ancient world required a lot of commitment. But, as Paul got acquainted with them, he asked if they had received the Holy Spirit. They said they had never heard of the Holy Spirit.

Lots of modern Christians have something in common with them. Yes, they have heard of the Holy Spirit. Many repeat creeds that say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit”. But they have little understanding of what that means. Some are a little bit afraid of the Holy Spirit. They like their religion better without the Holy Spirit. But some, who really want to enter into the full experience of their faith, want to ask, “What is all of this about the Holy Spirit?” Is that your question? If it is, we are going to try to answer it today.

I. What is the Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit is not a what but a who? The Holy Spirit is God; alive, present, and at work among us and within us.

The first biblical reference to the Holy Spirit is in the story of the creation, in the second verse of the whole Bible. The text says that, before creation happened there was formless, dark chaos, like the deep waters of a churning sea and the Spirit of God hovered and moved upon the face of the deep. One version of the Bible (NRSV) says a wind from God moved over the face of the waters. That is a significant image of God, the Holy Spirit. The Bible often speaks of the Holy Spirit as God moving like a wind, invisible, but moving and powerful, interacting with all that it touches — and making a difference. That Spirit of God worked creatively to bring order out of the chaos and to call all things that are into being.

Another significant reference to the Holy Spirit is in the story of the Baptism of Jesus. (Mark 1:4-11) Mark tells us that, as Jesus was coming up out of the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven saying, ‘You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased'”. This tells us two things that we need to know. First, that Jesus lived a life shaped by a very special relationship with the living God. Second, that the things Jesus did — loving, healing, teaching, calling — are the kinds of things we can expect God, the Holy Spirit, to do.

The Holy Spirit should play a very important role in our lives. Becoming a Christian is entering into a relationship with someone else who is alive and always present. It is like a friendship that enriches and enables and shapes our lives. The Holy Spirit is the presence of the living God among us and within us.

II. What does the Christian Religion look like without the Holy Spirit?

It may look very familiar to many of us. It may have beliefs, perhaps beliefs about some distant God, or about the shape of reality, beliefs learned from the Bible or from the creeds. It may have rules for living, perhaps based on our memories of Jesus. It may have rituals, like baptism, that dramatize our beliefs and remind us of our rules.

But the action is all ours. Those people whom Paul met in Ephesus knew about repentance from sins. They knew about their moral responsibility. But they were all on their own.

That is not a bad religion. It gives us something to fall back on when our experience of our life shaping relationship with God has grown lethargic. (That sometimes happens to us all. It is like indigestion.)

But it is a mistake to choose to keep our religion on that level. Some are afraid that receiving the Holy Spirit is like being “possessed” by something you can’t control. Don’t worry about that. God always works to make us more free and responsible, not less. Of course, it can make religion more manageable to keep God at a distance. But it also takes much of the vitality out of it.

III. What does it mean to receive the Holy Spirit?

It means to welcome the living God into your life and to choose to let your life be shaped by your relationship with God. The beliefs, rules and rituals no longer play the same role in your life that they once might have. They guide you into relationship with God and help you understand. But it is your relationship with God that actually shapes your life. That makes your religion something that is alive.

The story in Acts says that the people who received the Holy Spirit spoke in tongues. That is one of the kinds of experiences that sometimes happens to make people know that God is there. Different people have different experiences. The really important difference God will make in your life is to teach you faith, hope, and love. (1 Corinthians 13)

And when you find yourself getting caught up in what God is doing in the world, when you get excited about being committed to God’s purpose for you and for the whole creation, your life may become a new kind of adventure.

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