I don’t know how it is with you, but ever since my more intentional Christian walk I have spent time with many people who have had varied experiences in Christian communities. Some from conservative main-line denominations and some with those on the more Pentecostal end. I have often been asked if and when I was “born again,” or “are you Spirit-filled?” Has this ever happened to you? And as an Episcopalian what did you say?
Well, as I have thought about this over the years, I realize this is a complicated question. Some of these folks may be asking-Does it mean-Are you a committed Christian? Or for others is it a test whether you speak in tongues and are part of their saved group? Or perhaps, for others, -have you totally surrendered yourself to God?
Keep those questions in mind as today we are reading scripture from chapter 9 of the Book of Acts. This is where the Holy Spirit is really moving around. In Acts the Holy Spirit came and changed the life of believers in many different ways. The early community of what was called The Way was filled by miracles and signs and strong community commitments to one another. But what we learn if we read this book is that there is not a consistent pattern that tells us exactly how, or even when the filling of the Holy Spirit happens to people. Some have a Holy Spirit experience and are converted on the spot. Some are God-fearing people to start with and then experience the Holy Spirit in their lives. As Jesus says in John 3, the Holy Spirit blows where it pleases. He adds that you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. It is interesting that we want to put a handle on the Holy Spirit, judge how it works, and assume to have great knowledge of it. There are hundreds of books and articles that declare -with certainty, how the Holy Spirit works. But as Jesus says, and the Book of Acts documents, the Spirit will fly around as it wishes.
In today’s reading from Acts 19 we find Paul coming to Ephesus. He finds some disciples of Jesus there. Hey they are already followers of Jesus. But he asks them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They say, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asks them -into what were you baptized? And they say they were baptized into John’s baptism. Paul tells them that John’s baptism was one of repentance-and to prepare for the one coming, that is Jesus. So they were then baptized in the name of Jesus and the Holy Spirit came upon them. So we have two baptisms, don’t we? One of Repentance and one of Jesus and the Holy Spirit
How does all of this make sense for your life? I assume that nearly all of you were baptized. Maybe you were like me and you were a little screaming bundle of love who was looking forward to the next dry diaper and the Holy Spirit was furthest thing from your mind. Or perhaps you were older and made the decision for baptism, with some knowledge that this baptism in the name of Jesus was infusing you with some spiritual qualities. And now, as older people, maybe we wonder how the Holy Spirit is actually working in our lives. Has it been “activated” and if so, how? This is a question I have asked myself over the years.
The way I see it, -and this is just me, an amateur theologian, so take it for what it is worth,- is that in baptism the Holy Spirit is implanted in us. Some call it the “in-dwelling” of the Spirit. And it then emerges in our life at God’s appointed time. We can encourage its coming forth through prayer, surrender, and reading scripture, but cannot control it. We can, as the people in Acts 19 did, go to the river with John-when we participate in the worship services and enter a time of repentance-and we need to do that as often as we can to clear out our lives. My father had a theory that if you were going to do something really bad, do it on a Saturday night since the next morning you could get forgiven quickly in church. Kind of crazy thinking, but I give him credit- he did believe in receiving forgiveness. So-repent as often as you can. But when it comes to the Holy Spirit-that calls for a certain kind of waiting.
Most of us would welcome a dramatic spiritual experience. We hear about and have possibly seen the Holy Spirit acting in miraculous ways in people’s lives. Paul was knocked to the ground (Acts 9) by the intervention of Jesus. The Ethiopian eunuch was immediately converted and baptized by just hearing Philip explain the prophet Isaiah (Acts 8). This book is filled with these events. So is life now. I met a guy named Tom when my wife Susan was starting a mission church in Wisconsin. He had been in prison for drugs and wore t-shirts with the cigarette pack rolled up the sleeve. You get the picture. He was kind of reluctantly dragged into the church, which met in a school cafeteria, by his young wife. One Saturday morning a group of us was out cleaning the side of a highway outside Waukesha which we had adopted as a church group. Tom showed up, unexpectantly. He said he was there because he was confused about something that happened to him the night before and wanted to ask me about it. He said, “I was in bed and woke up with my whole body tingling. Then I heard a voice that said, ‘Receive my peace.’ What should I make of this?” Well, as Jesus said, the Spirit blows where it pleases. I told him he was a lucky man.
These things happen. They did in the 1st century, and they do today. But I am convinced that the real evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit is not an “experience.” The real evidence is the spiritual fruit produced in our lives. You may not have had a mountain-top experience but the Holy Spirit may already be doing wonderful things through you. The Spirit does not always get sensational headlines. What are the fruits of this Spirit that has already been planted in your soul? It is found in your speech, your thankfulness, and your surrender to God’s will. It dwells in you, guides you, comforts you and sanctifies you-that is sets you apart from the craziness of the current state of the world. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is probably present in the woman flaying her arms in the air at a church gathering, speaking in tongues. But also present in the guy I saw from an Indiana church who goes to the grocery store and lets the Spirit guide him to shoppers where he pulls out a credit card and pays for their groceries. Or in a couple I met in Sedona at a hotel barbeque pit who were moving to Flagstaff to witness for Christ on just the Spirit’s nudging -all actions a bit out of our comfort zones. But the Holy Spirit also is working in the life of the quiet, conservative accountant or introvert type who is giving money to the food pantry, showing kindness to neighbors, reserving judgement on others, and quietly praying in his closet. You see, our personalities are delightfully different and God uses who we are to expand kingdom living. In this time of cultural and political divide and this new ‘tribalism’ we are, as followers of Jesus, citizens of another country. Sanctified—set apart. And on top of this, the Spirit is also hovering over in the person who, like those in our reading today, say, “we have not even heard there is a Holy Spirit.” Look what they got with laying on of hands in Jesus’ name!
Isn’t it kind of wonderful, and frightening in a way, how God uses the implanted Spirit and the name of Jesus to scramble our need to know everything, control everything. So, friends, pray, read scripture, be open, and most of all, know you are loved and been shown mercy -so you can pass that mercy and grace on-to friends and especially those you have trouble with, as they need it most. Yes, repent often-join John in that river, but when it comes to the Holy Spirit, wait and watch and also look at your life-the Spirit is perhaps doing wonderful things right now, or waiting to. Living open to the Holy Spirit does make for a better neighborhood, country, and world. Amen.