Our Old Friend

Our Old Friend

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. “ (Read the rest of Acts 2:1-21)

Reflecting on today (Pentecost), the theme that comes at me is a simple idea: the Holy Spirit is not just a power but a person. Sure, the most powerful kind of “person,” one of the three persons of God, but nonetheless personal. That means the Spirit isn’t something to be held in our hands, but it is someone. In light of Acts 2 we can wonder, what kind of someone? And what else does it mean for us?

How about, to start, the Spirit of God is someone without bounds, blowing in on this occasion like a wind that spreads among every person, and who knows every tongue. In the words of an NBA finals commentator who’s hopped up on a single player’s 12-0 run: “He’s EVERYWHERE!” (even though he’s not just a he). The fact that the Spirit seems to everywhere or nowhere, or somewhere only God knows where, all at once, isn’t one of the more personal parts of the Holy Spirit’s character. I think it’s why the Spirit seems aloof to some of us, or unpredictable. But imagine that your best friend could be 100 miles away in his/her own home town, going about normal business at work and with family, but also simultaneously be sitting at your side, acting the fool or supporting you or whatever it is you love about him/her, all the time. Or, imagine that your parents are perfect and perfectly loving, and even though you have 12 brothers and sisters, they are constantly available to you anytime and anywhere.

Pick your own such imaginary scenario and consider a time when you knew someone whose only flaw to you was that they went away, or were out of reach, or were unavailable, and this is a limit the Spirit doesn’t have. Realistically, you’re gonna have a hard time imagining someone whose presence you could tolerate if it were unlimited (ever try to go to summer camp with your best friend for two weeks as a kid?), so add in that it’s a person whose perfection knows no bounds. Someone who challenges you just the right amount, in the right way at the right time; someone who never lets things slide that shouldn’t; someone who always shoots you straight; but also someone who will comfort and console you like no other, and who will let you off the hook like no other in the healthiest possible way. We could go on. We’re talking about the same person we see in Jesus; it’s the person of the Spirit.

As we get closer to United Methodist moving day, June 27, when every Methodist preacher/family who is heading into a new appointment will relocate all in one day, it reminds of one of the ways my mom helped us kids cope with the new kid phase. She told us to remember that as we would walk through the halls of a new school, or sit down to eat in the cafeteria, or would be out exploring the new neighborhood and trying to find friends, God would be right at our side, even holding our hand if necessary. The limitless nature of the very personal Holy Spirit makes it possible.

That picture takes on deeper meaning for me today in light of the death of Robert Francis last week. Robert was a man in his 30s in our congregation who has persevered through aggressive melanoma for two+ years (a father of three boys, including infant Jacob). And since we claim that the Spirit is not limited to one location at one time, then the Holy Spirit is present in our worship, among us and within us, but also simultaneously present in Heaven among the Church Triumphant. That means it’s as if I and the church family hold the Spirit’s hand on one side, while Robert holds the other, and suddenly no time or space or even death can separate us. To me, this is the tie that binds. All because the Spirit is a “person” without limits.

Creatively independent
Another something to consider here is that the Spirit is like most people in another sense: it doesn’t desire to be controlled or enslaved or “used.” Part of the Holy Spirit’s limitlessness is that it isn’t something to be wielded like a tool or weapon, or even exactly like George Lucas’ “Force” (even though it’s awesome!). The Spirit isn’t only present when we conjure it, or when we pull it out of its holster. And, thank God, because that means the Spirit can do better, and be about better things, than we can ever conceive of.

Just take a look at the timing of Pentecost and the occasion in Acts 2. Most recently in the story, Jesus had stood before his followers with final words before flying off into the sky: go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The not-rich and uneducated and untraveled in their midst (i.e., nearly all of them) might’ve wondered where to begin. Do a Kickstarter campaign to fund the trip? Grab a group account for Rosetta Stone and start brushing up on your Cretan and Arabic? Mark off 12 different directions on the compass and just hit the trail? Before they had a chance to decide, just a few days later, there happened to be a time when Jews of every nation would be present in Jerusalem. One of the three great pilgrimage days of the Hebrews arrived, Pentecost or “Shavuot,” the 50th day after the Passover. And the Holy Spirit blessed them with a very timely gift — to speak the Gospel in the languages of all those present.

Only God, present indeed in the person of the Holy Ghost, could’ve done it. The Spirit was no power to be harnessed, but a person at work (even long in advance) to coordinate a mighty effort, and with great creativity. I imagine the Holy Spirit standing there after Pentecost like the A-team’s Hannibal, with its own version of a cigar clinched in its smile saying, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

But not overpowering
For all of that unlimited nature, and creativity, and power, the Spirit of God is surprisingly personal by not simply overwhelming us humans and our own will. Sometimes it even looks like a flaw of God’s that God won’t simply overtake our decisions and fix everything for us, or that the Spirit won’t just up and possess us completely and take choices out of our hands so we can stop screwing things up. But most of us probably appreciate that while the Spirit of God will do mighty things through us (and even in spite of us), it seems to only be through a form of cooperation, or almost teamwork.

Just look at the Acts 2 crowd. One would think that with this wild unleashing of the Spirit the people would’ve all hit their faces or been instant-Christians of sorts. The Spirit could’ve just stepped inside them and convicted them of the Gospel beyond a doubt, and *BOOM*, done. Instead, the disciples themselves seem surprised, there are some on-lookers who outright mock the event, and even those who hear and seem receptive to the experience only get as far as: “What does this mean?” Only when Peter and the disciples stand up to connect the dots, by speaking the truth in conjunction with Scripture, does the huge crowd believe, confess and repent. Here at the “birth” of the Church, it’s clear that the Spirit isn’t some mystical force that just overwhelms everyone’s will; it is a person of God, and a person who doesn’t work alone.

All in all, this Pentecost remember that so many years ago wasn’t a day when just some power was openly loosed on the world by God. It was a day when the world-at-large began getting to know a person of God that before some had seen only as vague and shadowy, or exclusive, or overwhelming. And as we get to know and continue getting to the God’s Spirit, may it be evident that we’re only getting in touch with Someone we’ve known all along in a way, and deeply. Let it be like remembering a friend long-forgotten, the best of friends, the perfect one. One without limit, ever and always. One who will outdo our expectations, eternally. And, One who desires to be chosen, and invites us into a holy cooperation, a communion.


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