Note from CM: This week, on Monday through Wednesday, we are focusing on the meaning of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit. Last week, we spoke about the Ascension and presented it as the climax and culmination of the gospel of King Jesus. The Ascension was when Jesus was enthroned with God in the heavenly realms, and then Pentecost represents his first action as King. On this day he fulfilled his promise to send the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower his people. What was the significance of this act? What implications does this have for our lives as Christians today?
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Jesus Poured Out the Spirit — So What?
…the fruit of the Spirit is love…
• Galatians 5:22
In both Protestant and Catholic theology and devotion, there is a tendency to view the Holy Spirit solely as the Spirit of redemption. Its place is the church, and it gives men and women the assurance of the eternal blessedness of their souls. This redemptive Spirit is cut off both from bodily life and from the life of nature. It makes people turn away from ‘this world’ and hope for a better world beyond. They then seek and experience in the Spirit of Christ a power that is different from the divine energy of life, which according to the Old Testament ideas interpenetrates all the living.
• Jürgen Moltmann. The Spirit of Life
What does it look like when a person is filled with the Holy Spirit? What is the experience? Is it capable of being described? Assuming that, in some sense, it is “supernatural” — that is, something from God that breaks in upon us, and not merely some humanly produced experience, does it carry any marks that distinguish it as such?
Pentecostal and Charismatic groups have always thought so, and have insisted, in a variety of ways, on the unmistakable evidence of the Spirit’s blessing in certain signs and wonders — speaking in tongues, ecstatic experiences, dreams and visions, prophecies, healings, exorcisms, and so on. On quieter days, people in these groups expect God to “speak” to them, to answer prayers in discernible ways, to lead them to make decisions or solve problems in ways that reveal God’s wisdom in a way that could not be attributed to mere human wisdom. In worship, they expect definable “breakthroughs” with God through the Spirit, penetrating inner barriers and drawing them closer into an intimate relationship with the Lord. They expect the Spirit to “anoint” their leaders and preachers so that God’s Word will come forth in power to do supernatural works in people’s lives.
They point to the ministry of Jesus and to the book of Acts, and posit that the Spirit-empowered “miracles” described in those days are normative for the church in all ages. If the church had enough faith, the Spirit would shape the church today to look like it did back then. Miracles and wonders would be commonplace, the church would triumph in Jesus’ name, and soon the entire planet would be overwhelmed with the mighty works of God!
I am no cessationist, but I’ve never been convinced that the enthusiasts get it quite right. It feels to me like they are missing something central and vital to the discussion, just like the Corinthians did.
But they are not alone. Except for the cessationists, who want to limit the Spirit’s work to words we read off the pages of a book, most Christians I know have the particular idea that whatever the Spirit does and whatever the experience of being filled with the Spirit is like, it must be something distinctively different, something so out of the ordinary that it can only be explained by pointing to the sky and saying, “Only God could do this.”
I beg to differ. I think that misses the main point of what God is trying to do through this whole sending Jesus and sending the Spirit thing. You see…
- The real point, the ultimate goal, is new creation.
- The real point is people becoming fully human together in a world of justice and peace.
- The real point is people displaying the untarnished image of God once more and becoming faithful stewards of creation.
- The real point is people learning to love.
If that’s the point, then in my opinion much of the time the work of the Spirit is going to look more mundane than miraculous. If I am filled with the Spirit, I’m going to look like a kind, neighborly, responsible, generous, sacrificial, thoughtful human being. As Moltmann says, it will be about having a human vitality that participates fully in human life rather than a spirituality that is life-denying and separate from ordinary human experience.
That may not look a great deal different from my non-Christian neighbor, who is also a mature and caring person. But that’s exactly my point. The Spirit has not come so much to set me apart as a Christian, but to make me more engaged with and connected to the human race. And I must believe that, somehow, even though he or she does not recite the same Creed as I do on Sundays, that the Spirit is somehow also at work in and with my kindly neighbor.
Christians do not have a monopoly on God or on how to live as human beings. But Jesus has poured out the Spirit so that we might know God’s love in our hearts and share down-to-earth, practical acts of love with our fellow human beings, thus participating in the best aspects of what it means to be human, in anticipation of what’s to come.
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Photo by Birger Hoppe at Flickr. Creative Commons License