Have you received the Holy Spirit? What an uncomfortable question for a bunch of Presbyterian Christians! What does it even mean? We could debate that all day. For many, the idea of receiving the Holy Spirit is more about a feeling or an emotional response to the God expressed through Christian faith. For others the gift of the Holy Spirit is more like God’s stamp of approval. Sometimes it seems to me that we have created some kind of spectrum of Christian experience between those two poles.
On one end you’ve got the Pentecostals and Congregationalists that seem to have a physical response to the metaphysical reality of God’s active presence. In saying that I’m reminded of my step-brother’s experience of going to church with a friend and being confused by a member that got up and just ran laps around the sanctuary the whole time. Say what you will. The Spirit was moving that man!
Then you have the United Methodists and the idea of being “strangely warmed” by the holy spirit and moved to act compassionately for those who are most often neglected. And as you keep moving down the line, before you get to the Episcopals and Roman Catholics, you get Presbyterians – so called the “frozen chosen” because, although we believe in salvation, we expect things to be done decently and in order. Not only that, we tend to have more PhDs per capita. We tend to have more people in higher levels of management, architects, engineers, and teachers. We like to think of ourselves as thoughtful Christians, but sometimes we forget to be “feeling” Christians.
Some time ago, the Rev. Grady Nutt, a humorist of sorts, described our part in the larger church this way. He told a story about an old country baptism in a stream presided over by a young minister. Unfortunately, that young minister was not aware of the direction of the current, and he baptized a man downstream. As it happened, a large chunk of moss became lodged in the young follower’s nose. That man left, took his family and two others with him to form a Presbyterian church – which in its Greek form means “old moss up the nose”.
Of course Presbyterian actually means “elder” and refers to the fact that we look and listen for God’s active presence, and we elect elders to guide us and encourage us along the way. This does not mean that they are the ones who do everything. It means that they are the ones who are responsible to hold us accountable to the word of God. That is essentially what it means to be a Presbyterian Christian. We elect elders to guide us in fidelity to our understanding of God’s active presence. Of course, when you tack (USA) onto the Presbyterian Church it means that we are connected to others through this belief that God guides us through our relationships. God shows up in the fellowship hall and in the regional Presbytery meeting. God is even active and present in all of our denominational politics and in spite of our bureaucracy.
Of course, most of you aren’t here for any of that. Even the majority of our longest-term members did not start out Presbyterian. People marry into this faith or they come by way of compromise, but mostly we have come together because God has met us here. God has called us. God has claimed us, and we have claimed one another. That, friends, is what it looks like to receive the Holy Spirit.
I don’t mean to say that just because we like each other it obviously makes God happy. I mean that because we love each other – in spite of our differences – and because we come here seeking redemption and practicing forgiveness, we can expect God to be active and present in our midst.
And God is active and present in our decently ordered lives and in the chaos that surrounds us and breaks in from time to time. And that’s OK, because it is God’s character to make order out of chaos. Yet, if God is God, then God must be the author or at least the permission giver of chaos, too. In the creation story, we find out less about how God created and more about who God is as the Creator. And from the beginning, the Holy Spirit is the force of God’s creative action that is ongoing. God’s actions can be as de-stabilizing as they are restorative, as destructive as they are creative. The question is not about the possibility of God’s active presence. The question is whether or not we are willing to subject ourselves to it.
Have you received the Holy Spirit? It is God’s gift to you. Have you opened your heart, have you opened your mind, have you given your very self to the one who holds you like a mother, encourages you like a father, who would even suffer death for you like a brother? Most days I think I have. Some days I act like it is up to me to fix the problems, or to order my world, or to secretly feel good about feeling like the world is on my shoulders or fighting against me.
And even on those days, God is still active and present. Even on those days, we belong to God. Even in the face of anger and hatred and violence, we belong to God. I don’t think we can say that enough. In fact, I would like you to turn to someone right now and say to them, “You are a beloved child of God.”
Hear that as the voice of God, and now hear God say this, “With you, I am well pleased.” You see, essentially, the Holy Spirit is not something we have so much as a description of the way in which God has us. God is not some genie that can be uncorked or held at bay. To ask someone if they have received the Holy Spirit is essentially to ask if they are aware of the fact that we are immersed in God’s love and mercy every moment of every day!
Regardless of our beliefs, our respectful disagreements, and even our deeply held and shared values, it is in God’s active presence that we live and move and have our being. And that’s important – because sometimes it’s pretty cold out there. A friend of mine reminded me of that in a recent response to the question, “What’s on your mind?” when she wrote:
“What’s on my mind? I’m thinking about worship tomorrow, when we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, and what it means to belong to God… I'm thinking about grieving families in Paris and around the world, and how sad it is that violence seems to be the only way to prompt significant conversations. It's been another cold, cold day, and I think about all those people in this county who are homeless or in decidedly sub-standard housing. And I think about all my friends who have lost – or are on the verge of losing – loved ones, and how much I hate cancer, and Alzheimers, and estrangement... and, once again, I find myself grateful for the sovereignty of God, who holds this old world in much, much better hands than any of us could…”
As we move forward as a people of God – as we go through our days as disciples of Jesus – we can hardly do anything without expecting God to be involved. That doesn’t mean that we sit around and wait for God to fix things. As it has been said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.”
It is for us instead to realize that we are a part of something so much bigger. Every little thing we do is a part of a greater reality that is – in essence – life giving. As we move forward into the coming year, our “Ruling Elders” will be encouraging us to participate in expressing the life giving, creative presence of the One who creates, redeems and sustains all that is while also moving us to what we may become. Have we received the gift of the Holy Spirit?
Oh yeah, baby! But be advised that the first place the Holy Spirit took Jesus was into the wilderness. And even there, the presence of God sustained him. And so it will be with us in the days that are to come. Amen. Amen. And again I say, Amen.