When I was little, one of the things that scared me most about church was the Holy Spirit.
I know, you’d think there would be other stuff, and there was: when I was a kid, church was a pretty stern and solemn place where you had to be on your best behaviour or else. I was never exactly sure what the “or else” was when I was really little, but I was pretty sure it involved fire and eternal darkness and pitchforks and scary things lurking behind every pillar in the church. Thank goodness churches today are so much more welcoming, warmer and friendlier places where fear has been replaced by love. They are, aren’t they?
But the Holy Spirit, that was a pretty scary concept for a little kid. (Didn’t help that we used to call it the Holy Ghost.) It can still be pretty scary, I think. The story of Pentecost is all about tongues of fire and mighty rushing winds coming down on peoples’ heads. Pretty exciting story, I’m sure, especially in the hands of Spielberg or J.J. Abrams. But pretty scary all the same. Fire and wind are often in the news, and it’s never good. If the Holy Spirit is the power of God at work in the world, I wondered when I was little, how come it sounds like it could hurt? A lot.
Pentecost, by the way, really just means fifty days after Easter. The Bible (Acts 2:1-6) tells of the disciples, after Jesus had left them, gathering for a festival – the Jewish harvest festival Shavuot (fifty days after Passover, commemorating Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai). There is a sound like a mighty rushing wind and there are tongues of flame and “they were filled with the Holy Spirit.” Because they then go out and share the story of Jesus with people, we usually understand this event to be the symbolic “birthday” of the church.
Like I said, as a child, I always thought this sounded like something that had to be done to you, that the Spirit – to use older language – had to “come upon you.” Brrr. Creepy.
But now I wonder if maybe all that blowing and burning wasn’t really just for show, a symbolic act to inspire us to action. Just like in John 20:22, when Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’” Sure the firey tongues and gusty winds are more impressive, but really they’re both ways of saying that God will give you the strength to do what you know in your heart is right.
Or perhaps a better way to describe that might be like a tool, a conductor connecting what’s “the image of God” already in us with God and each other, inspiring the love that’s already in our heart of hearts to become action. Maybe that’s what Jesus means when he tells the disciples that there will be “another Advocate … The Spirit of Truth.”
In other words, the Spirit isn’t something done to you, it’s already in you. From the beginning. Coming from God and returning to God, created in the image of God, coming closer to God in Jesus and inspired to live out love and grace in our lives. When we connect with God and each other, when we reach deep into what’s true in our hearts, the Spirit is the action of love lived out.
Maybe when we ask God to “send” the Spirit to us, it’s not about something new being added to us, but rather something within us being empowered. We don’t wait with expectation to receive, but we open ourselves to the gift that has already been given us. It’s about the spirit in us bonding with the spirit of God. We are one in the Spirit, with each other and with God. That’s love, lived from within our hearts and out into the world.
You had it in you all along.