Sunday, June 08, 2014

What Exactly Does the Holy Spirit Do?

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, today.]

Acts 2:1-21
Today brings us to the third great festival of the Church Year. There’s Christmas, then Easter, and now Pentecost.

Of course, Christmas and Easter get all the press. Churches are filled for celebrations of Jesus’ birth and His resurrection from the dead. But unless young people are being confirmed on Pentecost, as happens in many Lutheran congregations on this day, attendance is rarely higher on Pentecost Sunday than it is on most other Sundays of the spring or summer.

In the secular media, magazines and cable channels seem to always use Christmas and Easter as occasions for specials claiming that they’ve found “the real Jesus.” There’ll be no special Pentecost programming about "the real Holy Spirit" on CNN or the History Channel tonight.

Maybe that’s because the Holy Spirit, the One Whose coming fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead Pentecost celebrates, doesn’t really call attention to Himself.

He’s been called the “shy member of the Trinity,”--the third Person of the Three-in-One God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—Who seems always to be in the background.

Cartoonists may show God the Father as a white-bearded old man.

And Jesus has been the focal point of endless artistic renderings for the past two-thousand years.

Though the Scriptures insist that the Spirit has a personality—Jesus calls Him a Counselor, a Comforter, an Advocate, for example, and that He is equal to and co-eternal with God the Father and God the Son, it's been hard for artists, theologians, preachers, and Christians, generally, to find ways to portray Him.

The Holy Spirit is sometimes shown as a dove. That’s because Luke’s Gospel, for example, tells us that when Jesus was baptized, the Spirit came to Him in the bodily form of a dove, a bird that the ancient Jews thought was pure, without bile.

Sometimes the Spirit is shown as fire. This is appropriate, not only because in our lesson from Acts for today, the Holy Spirit rested on 120 praying followers of Jesus like tongues of fire, but also because of some properties that fire shares with the Holy Spirit. Fire enlightens, destroys, and purifies. The Spirit of God does all of these things, depending on our needs at the time.

And sometimes, the Spirit is seen as wind. This too, is appropriate. The word translated as spirit from the Old Testament Hebrew is ruach, a word that also means wind or breath. It’s God’s ruach—wind or spirit—that moves over the waters in Genesis to create the world. It’s also God’s ruach that God breathes into dust to make the first human being.

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word pneuma has the same multiple meanings as ruach. Pneuma can also mean wind, breath, or spirit. But the problem with trying to picture something like wind or breath is that, as Jesus told Nicodemus, you may hear the sound of it—and on the first Pentecost, the Spirit must have sounded like a freight train filling the house where the first disciples had been praying--but you can’t really see it. You can only see the evidence of it.

Maybe the Spirit’s shyness and His insusceptibility to being pictured are why we attach so little importance to Pentecost.

Maybe too, it’s easier to understand what Jesus does for us than it is to understand what the Spirit does for us. At Christmas, we easily understand that Jesus, God the Son, took on the burden of being human. At Easter, we understand that after dying on a cross for us, Christ rose to give life to all who turn from sin and follow Him.

But what exactly does the Holy Spirit do for us? A lot of things, really, if we will let Him do them for us.

If you want a good starting understanding of what the Holy Spirit does to and for believers, look at the Apostles' Creed, which Christians around the world agree is a faithful presentation of the basics of Christian faith. It used to be I misunderstood the Creed. I did get that it was divided into three sections or articles of faith. I understood that the first article talks about what God the Father does and that the second article about what Jesus, God the Son, does. But I got confused by the third article: I saw it as offering a perfunctory affirmation of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of a laundry list of things Christians also believe. But, in fact, everything listed in the third article are things that the Holy Spirit does. They include:
  • Creating the whole Church on earth
  • Creating communion among all forgiven believers in Christ
  • Giving the forgiveness Christ won on the cross to repentant believers in Christ
  • Resurrecting those with faith in Christ
  • Giving eternal life to Christians
Those are all works of the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, about whom we think so little.

And the Holy Spirit does much more than these things in the lives of believers. I want to talk about two things the Spirit does for us today, as seen in our first lesson, which comes from Acts 2.

First, the Holy Spirit gives us the courage to live past our fears. Before the events recounted in our lesson, 120 followers of Jesus had gathered in a room to, just as Jesus had ordered them to do, wait and pray for the power of God to come upon them.

When the Spirit came upon them “like the rush of a violent wind,” they did something they probably couldn’t have imagined doing moments before: They hit the hostile streets of Jerusalem, moving out among some of the very crowds who, just a few weeks before, had cried for Jesus’ death. They told anyone who would listen about God's mighty deeds and conveying the message that all who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved.

The Spirit gives courage to people who pray. Years ago, we met a woman who was the mother of three children. Once, there had been four. The oldest child died at the age of two. After that tragic death, the woman had taken solace in two things: being a super-mom to her second child, another girl, and in using God as a lucky charm. When she wasn’t doting on her daughter, watching her like a hawk, she was immersed in church activities, intent on warding off anything bad that might happen to the child. One day, the woman turned her head for an instant and when she turned back, the little girl was gone. The mother looked everywhere. When she finally found her, the little one was at the bottom of their pool. She had been there for some time. Terrified, the woman, who had been sent to a waiting area once her child had been transported to a hospital emergency room, screamed out to God. Then, panting between her shrieks of terror, she heard, in her mind, a message that must have come from the Holy Spirit: “You shall have no other gods before Me.”

From the Holy Spirit, Who, Jesus says, convicts us of our sin and convinces us that Christ can forgive our sin and lead us down better paths, this woman learned that her “faith” had really been superstition, a ploy to be in control of a world not in our control. She had been worshiping her child. She needed to let go, letting God be God and letting both her daughter and her be children of God. Miraculously, the child survived. But, whether the daughter had survived or not, from the Holy Spirit, the mother knew that God had given her the courage to live past her fears. The Holy Spirit does that for us.

The Holy Spirit also gives us a reason for living. Often, elderly people will ask me, “Why hasn’t God taken me yet? What am I still doing here?”

Sadly, these questions often come from people who have been hard workers their entire lives but who are no longer able to do the things they formerly could.

And young people, tired of the seeming futility of their lives often ask me the same question. I try to remind these Christians that they (and all of us) are human beings, not human doings.

They (and we) have value not because of what we do, but because of who we are.

When we stand before the judgment seat of God in eternity, God won’t ask us, “How much money did you make? How many points did you score? How often did you clean your house, stay late on the job?” God won't even ask us, "Did you leave a happy and fulfilling life?"

Instead, God will ask, “Were you a believer in the Lord Jesus? Were you a repentant sinner? Were you a grateful disciple?”

All baptized Christians are given the gift of the Holy Spirit Who reminds us that by grace, God accepts us we are and helps us to move toward becoming who we were made to be and by that same grace, God gives us a reason for living no matter what our abilities.

The first followers of Christ must have wondered after Jesus ascended into heaven why they were still around. In Jesus, they’d glimpsed eternity and they wanted to be with Him. But here they were, stuck on a planet filled with people who would rather worship themselves, or possessions, or power, or prominence, rather than the God Who made them and died and rose for them. They were stuck living a life in which they would have to struggle and possibly suffer. They were stuck too, in their imperfections, still susceptible to sin.

But when the Holy Spirit came, He gave Jesus’ praying followers a reason for living this as fully as they could. In short, the Holy Spirit game them a vocation.

All followers of Jesus have the same vocation, whatever jobs they do, even if they can no longer do a scrap of work.

A village in southern Italy learned this in the waning days of World War 2. The German soldiers who had occupied their community after re-installing Benito Mussolini as the Fascist dictator of Italy, retreated in the face of the Allied military forces.

But as the Germans fell back, their artillery shattered a statue of Christ that had once stood in the village square. The local priest told the men of the village to search for the arms, legs, and head of the statue of Christ. In the meantime, the women would prepare a village feast.

At dusk, in despair, the men approached the priest. “Father,” one of them said, “we have tried to put the statue back together. But there are no hands for Jesus. They are in pieces.”

“Children,” the priest replied, “don’t you realize? You are His hands?”

You are the hands of Christ.

That is your vocation.

That is your reason for living.

And, as was true of the first followers of Christ, the Holy Spirit will give you the capacity to fulfill your vocation, to be Christ’s hands.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t get a lot of attention. Maybe He doesn’t want it.

He’s like the quiet saint content with a ministry of praying for others, or of giving an anonymous offering so that a child can go to a mission trip, or buying a devotional book for someone struggling with hurts in their lives, or of carting the food offerings to the local food bank.

The Spirit takes a backseat in the Trinity, content with supporting Jesus as He speaks to us, content with supporting us as we call out to Jesus, follow Him, and share Him with others. The Spirit never calls attention to Himself.

But He showers believers in Christ with gifts, including the courage to live past our fears and a reason for living, a vocation of pointing others to Christ, serving them in Jesus’ Name and inviting others to follow Christ, a vocation that lasts our whole lives.

Today, I want to tell you something you've probably not heard very often: Happy Pentecost!

May you keep in prayerful contact with the Holy Spirit so that you will have the courage to live past your fears and have a reason for living life--to be the hands of Christ, witnesses for Christ--every day of your life. Amen

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