Receive the Holy Spirit
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Pentecost/8th June 2003
© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Several years ago, I applied for an administrative position at Princeton Theological Seminary and was invited to Princeton for an interview. I didn’t get the job, which, in retrospect was a good thing. The seminary was looking for a director of admissions, someone who would be willing to travel around the country searching for the best students to attend Princeton. As an alum, I have a great passion for the seminary and would give anything to serve Christ by serving Princeton. In fact, I wanted to go to Princeton Seminary before I felt called to ministry. (How sick is that?) In the interview they told me that Princeton was searching for a particular kind of student - they were looking for students who were teachable. You see, over the last decade Princeton Seminary has had influx of very rigid, theologically conservative, non-Presbyterian students who were coming to the campus with an attitude that they had nothing to learn about theology, biblical studies, the Christian life, or themselves, for that matter. They came with closed minds, possessing an intellectual and spiritual arrogance that was troubling, unwilling to do critical thinking, the kind of thinking required at the graduate level and essential to the ministry of the church. Any seminary needs students that are teachable.
The church is not unlike the seminary in that the church needs people who are teachable. More correctly, God needs people who are teachable. Nothing could be more detrimental to the work of Christ than to have people in the church who think they know it all and have nothing left to learn. Long ago, I learned that if I’m really a Christian (I’m not talking about being a minister, I’m talking about being a Christian) this means that I must be a disciple of Jesus Christ. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ means that he is the teacher – rabbi – and I must be the student, which means that as a student, I must be willing to be formed and reformed by the teacher. I must be teachable.
To be teachable means to have an open mind in order to learn new things. But it also involves the difficult process of unlearning things in order to grasp the truth. It means you have to give up old patterns of behaving, destructive patterns of thinking, faulty ways of configuring the world and yourself. When I took my relationship with Christ seriously - as an adult in my twenties – it meant that I had to move in two directions, almost simultaneously. First, I had to open my heart and my mind to God. It was a movement up and out, because what I was searching for could not be found within me. And then I had to go deep within myself, deep into the dark recesses of my subconscious, where I didn’t want to go, in order to understand the drives and defenses of my ego that didn’t want to learn the things I was learning - the truth that following Christ is difficult and that it requires sacrifice.
It was only then, in this teacher-student relationship, that I discovered that to be a Christian is a dynamic, exciting, life-giving experience! I discovered that being a Christian does not mean simply reading the Bible and learning about Jesus, but encountering him face-to-face in the here and now. Following Jesus is more than just trying to live out his teachings and being a good person, upholding the so-called Golden Rule. Following Jesus is more than just trying to craft a life with the same kinds of values that Jesus upheld. In fact, most remarkably, I discovered that being a Christian has little to do with ethics, that is, of trying to live the good life or being socially adjusted and well-behaved (as if Jesus cares about that!), all of which usually translates into living a safe life (Jesus never called anyone to be safe!). Instead, to be a Christian means to embark on a journey; it is a risky adventure with Christ, who takes us into the meaning of life itself. It is risky, because the way of Christ inevitably leads through the suffering of the cross. But, as we know, the cross is not the last word of suffering. Maybe we should hear Jesus’ call to his disciples, “Come, follow me,” less a demand (as in, “You must follow me or else!”) than an invitation. Maybe we can imagine Jesus reaching out his hand and saying to us, full of grace and love, “Come, follow me and I will show you the way to true life. Come, my child, take my hand and join me on this great adventure; there’s so much I have to show you and teach you; there’s so much for you to learn and discover; there’s so much for you to do."
This aspect of the Christian life is wonderfully expressed here in John 16. “I have yet many things to say to you. . . .” (I love this!) “I have yet many things to say to you,” Jesus said to his disciples before he died, “but you cannot bear them now.” Who will teach us what we need to know? “When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all the truth.” (And it is she in the Greek. The Greek word for spirit is feminine.) When? When you’re ready for it. “I have yet many things to say to you,” but you’re not ready for them yet. When you’re ready, you will know what you need to know. You don’t learn everything right away. You don’t learn how to play the piano or the violin overnight. Right? It takes time, you grow and learn and develop over time. The same is true with life in Christ. Do you see here the teacher-student relationship at work? The teacher is the Holy Spirit and we are the students. Which means, if we want to learn from the Spirit, we need to be teachable. Far too many people keep Jesus locked away in the Bible, forgetting that his resurrected presence is fast at work in the world. Far too many people keep God locked away in the Bible, as if after the last book of the Bible was completed (around 120 A.D.), God didn’t have anything left to say or do. But the Holy Spirit wants us to know that God is still speaking to us through Christ - that’s my point, that’s the point of Pentecost. The revelation continues, which means we have to be teachable. We can’t be yelling back like the crowd in Acts, “They are drunk on cheap wine.” They were not teachable, they were not open to the new thing that God was doing in their midst.
Truth be told, no one has ever exhausted the significance and meaning of Jesus Christ. Almost two thousand years later, the Holy Spirit is still teaching us what it means to be a disciple. To be his disciple means that we must be continually open to discovering who he is and, more importantly, what he is trying to teach us, show us, accomplish through us. This is the work of the Holy Spirit as Counselor or Advocate, the one who has come and continually teaches us the truth of God through Christ, who through Christ leads us into all truth.
When I was growing up, I didn’t hear much about the Holy Spirit. There was plenty of talk about God and Jesus, but very little of the Holy Spirit. Later, as an adult, I learned to pray, “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” “Come, Creator Spirit,” and everything changed. I have come to know in my life that it’s the Spirit who brings power and passion and movement and excitement into the Christian life. It was the Spirit who led me up and out toward God, even as the Spirit brought me deep into myself and messed up my life – the Spirit messed up my life, turning me upside down and inside out, rearranging my life and opening me up to the grace and love of Christ. It’s the Spirit of Christ who brings change to our lives and even - miracle of miracles – brings about change in the church. Maybe that’s why I never heard about the Spirit - She’s potentially too radical and unpredictable. Yet, it’s the Spirit who enlivens a church. It’s the Spirit who makes the church.
Let me pass on some good advice from the preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor. She says, “If you don’t want anything to change in your life, then for heaven’s sake don’t pray the prayer, ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’” Or at least don’t mean it! If you don’t want to learn anything new, if you don’t want to be teachable, then never pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.” “But,” she writes, “if you’re the type of person who likes to stand out on the porch when there is a thunder storm moving through so you can feel the power that is pushing the trees round, then you are probably a good candidate for the Holy Spirit prayer.” I couldn’t agree more. I used to sit on our porch as a child in New Jersey and watch with enthralled delight as intense summer thunderstorms approached from the West: the anticipation, the power, the movement, the intensity, the wind, the electricity filling the air. That’s what life is like in Christ!
Growing up I was told that Pentecost was the birthday of the church and it is. In my home church we had a birthday cake every year on Pentecost. But in many ways, Pentecost is more like a commencement. So this week, I asked Pam Brown to call the bakery and change the message on the sheet cake we have in fellowship hall. Instead of “Happy Birthday,” it reads, “Blessed Commencement.” It’s your commencement, church, people of God - you have heard the gospel, the Holy Spirit has been unleashed in all its power and love in the world, She’s moving in your life - now go! Go with the flow of the Spirit! Get on with the work of Christ:
Get out of the church and make a difference in the world – change the world through the power of the Spirit!
See William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), pp. 226-228.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1999), pp. 145-146.