What did Jesus intend when he blessed his disciples with the gift of the Spirit? “Receive the Holy Spirit.” What did he mean? Did they then “get the Spirit?”
Our North Carolina Synod needed a new director for one of our nursing homes. J.D. was identified and hired. He was not a Lutheran but he would be introduced at the next Synod assembly. He went to the next assembly on opening night. About 150 pastors in white vestments and red stoles formed the processional; three choirs were on the stage of the auditorium at Lenoir-Rhyne College. The Bishop preached at least 45 minutes. Half a dozen prospective pastors were ordained and then helped distribute bread and wine to about 1500 persons.
The night stretched on. and then various new staff members were introduced. It was, as Southerners talk, might nigh past 10 p.m. when the benediction was spoke. Next morning, several staff members of Lutheran homes had breakfast together.
We knew that J. D. belonged to a Pentecostal church. Someone asked what he thought of Lutheran worship. He said, “You Lutherans may not get the spirit often, but when you do, you won’t let him go.”
The real message of Pentecost is indeed that Lutherans and others won’t let’im go because the Spirit guides us into all truth. Most important, he tells us to give up our salvation anxiety. Our salvation has been achieved. Other Biblical imagery is similarly instructive, such as saying the Flood is over; the Red Sea has been crossed; we’re already in the Promised Land. We’ve seen the tongues as of fire on each other.
And in the biblical imagery of supreme importance and ultimate reality, the crucified son has overcome death with Resurrection and the Spirit assures us of God’s presence. The disciples’ experience on Easter Day, and again on the Day of Pentecost, shows God has completed his plan of salvation.
Starting with Adam and Eve, and continuing when Abraham was sent on his wandering way, God has worked to overcome a world of violence and death. In baptism he has adopted us, and he feeds his family on the heavenly bread.
In the upper room, Jesus gave us the sustenance to carry on. God’s plan is completed when Jesus tells his disciples in every age “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and with that gift comes the certainty of the forgiveness of sins.
The church was gathered with Jesus Christ in that upper room. The assurance of forgiveness, given solely because God loves us, is evidence of the presence of the Spirit. We live today wrapped in the love of God. Like a mother taking a wayward child into her arms, God gives us the promise of his presence into eternal life. He loves us because he is God. So do we have the Spirit? We certainly do because the presence of the Spirit is God’s gift to us, not something we stir up within ourselves.
All we can do is to re-enact the story of Adam and Eve, because life brings us to the Garden again and again. We need God’s forgiveness to keep on being his family. God made us his family through the life and work of Jesus Christ. He might have stayed in heaven and said, “I’ll send some kind of mental experience down to earth, and those who get it can believe in me. “I’ll put some kind of uncertain feeling in them, and when they get goose bumps, they’ll say, “Ah, we’ve got the Spirit.” That’s not the way God brought salvation to his fallen world.
Earlier in the upper room, Jesus said to his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” And the “me” doing the talking was a man some 33 years old who wanted his disciples to remember him, to reach across the abyss between heaven and earth, and be able to touch him in a concrete experience, not in some warm fuzzy vague and uncertain feeling.
If they wanted the Spirit’s presence in their midst or when they wished to express themselves as his family, he said (the night he was betrayed) they should break bread. He called it my body. They should share wine: “This is my blood.” That’s how he wants to be experienced and called to mind, in our simple act of bread and wine. When we affirm our baptism, when we exercise that lifelong process of asking what is the will of God, when we want to know whether God is with us, we have to ask, “Where is Jesus Christ present?”
And if anyone should ask me, “When were you born again?” I would say “When I was 8 weeks old on October 5, 1930 when I was baptized into St. John’s congregation in Cabarrus County.” “But do you have the Spirit?” What is being asked, of course, is whether we speak in an unknown tongue, or raise hands in worship, or have a new conversion experience from time to time, and get a shot of spiritual adrenaline frequently — as though these human-driven experiences prove the Spirit’s presence.
Or if someone asks, “When were you saved?” I would say, “When Jesus Christ died on a cross one Friday afternoon outside the city of Jerusalem.”
“But how do you know when Jesus is with you?” “Because that’s what he promised when he said to his disciples in every age, “This is my body, given for you.” Jesus delivered salvation to most of us when, too young to understand or remember, we were joined by baptism with his death. Some adults came later. Now because he is resurrected, heavenly resurrection awaits us all.
When the congregation in the upper room received the Spirit, they spoke in languages understood by all visitors to Jerusalem.
What did they say in all those different tongues? Was it like the experience of the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel?
No, it was a reversal of the Genesis story. The congregation in the upper room told the mighty acts of God so that individuals heard them speaking in their own language. What being filled with the Spirit meant for Jesus is told on every page of the Gospels in the stories of how he ministered to the sick, forgave sinners, touched the poor, and called men and women to be his disciples.
He told his disciples to make other disciples, to forgive sins, to baptize in his name, break bread together, to pray, to love each other. There is no tricky way to be filled with the Spirit. There is no goose-bumps way to know God’s presence.
But in the ordinary life of an average, standard congregation, Jesus lives. He comes to us in the word as his story is preached, prayed, read, sung, experienced in fellowship, spoken in the prayer life of a congregation, when we recall our baptism and break bread together. He comes. He lives.
Those first disciples were not on their knees, or holding up their hands or singing religious campfire songs or taking directions from a spiritual cheerleader.
They were afraid. Jesus was crucified. Were they next? We who are often deeply afraid, intensely in need of God, and troubled over our sins, we ourselves may also be filled with the presence and power of the living Jesus Christ.
We, his family, sinners but disciples all, have his Spirit. If somebody asks you, “Do you get the Spirit?” be ready to answer, “Yes, every time I renew my baptism, or pray, worship, read the Bible, or remember a verse, hum a hymn tune or listen to a biblical sermon.”
“How do you know you have the Spirit?”
“Because the crucified, resurrected Jesus Christ came to his disciples in the upper room and said he was giving them his Spirit.”
Therefore, based on the experiences related in the biblical story, I say to you that God wants you to have that same Spirit, and I know that you do because God loves you and God is in charge.