Gifts of the Spirit (The Day of Pentecost)
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Every year, seven Sundays after Easter, we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, which descended on the day of Pentecost in a powerful and strange way on the first disciples. And this story from Acts is a great story (unless you have to pronounce all the names!) But still, it’s filled with lots of details about the gifts of the Holy Spirit that most of us probably have never experienced.
After all, whenever I’ve thought about experiencing the gift of God’s Spirit in my life, or in the lives of others, I have never:
- Seen tongues of fire appear on anybody’s head;
- Heard the rush of wind right before receiving some kind of ecstatic experience;
- Been able to simply speak English and have people who don’t speak English understand what I’m saying
And so it’s easy to read stories like these and think that the gift of the Holy Spirit is something weird, unusual and which mostly happens in the lives of other people.
But what is the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives really about? Throughout the Bible, the presence of God’s Spirit (the very life breath of God) is experienced in a variety of different ways by many different people. And often, even the biblical writers don’t want to restrict the ways in which people might experience this gift.
So, for example, Isaiah describes the gifts of the Spirt as: wisdom and understanding; counsel and might; knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:2)
St. Paul describes the “fruits of the Spirit” as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22)
And since the gift of the Holy Spirit can’t be described in just one way, it seems to me that, from today’s readings, there are three big picture gifts of the Spirit that were given to both the folks in the Bible, and which are given to us as well.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of Today:
- Our Gospel reading is part of what we call the “farewell discourse” – it’s the final words Jesus says to his disciples before he’s arrested and crucified. The disciples know something bad is coming, and they’re distraught and preoccupied with how the future will turn out. It’s at this point that Jesus tells them that he has many other things they need to know, but that they “cannot bear them now.” Yet, the Holy Spirit will make those things known to them at the proper time. That means, among other things, that the disciples are free to live in this moment right now – a moment when they still literally have Jesus in their midst. The gift of the Spirit is the gift of being able to appreciate the blessings of today (and to focus on the challenges of today) instead of having to worry about tomorrow …
- And often, when life is too much for us to “bear”, we most need the gift of today – the ability to live in the moment. I am terrible at this…! (My ability to think through future possibilities has often been great for personal and professional planning…) But I also recognize that sometimes, when I get too wrapped up in what’s coming, and how I might deal with the many permutations of what might be – I not only can’t focus on the tasks I need to do right now; I also can’t appreciate the beauty and blessings that God is giving me in this moment, even if that moment is also filled with stress and anxiety … And the gift of the Holy Spirit in your life, and in mine, is intended to help us live in, and appreciate, the “today” that God is giving us…
The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of Tomorrow:
- In the Acts story, we often get hung up on the wind and the fire and the (probably only one time) ability to speak in ways that everybody understood. But the big picture take-away from that day for the first disciples was that if God could do something that they couldn’t even have imagined yesterday, then God would be with them tomorrow, and the next day, giving them strength and abilities that they couldn’t even imagine today. Knowing that God would be with them tomorrow, even when they didn’t know what tomorrow would look like, empowered them to keep moving forward …
- Sometimes for us, when things get too hard for us to “bear”, it’s hard to even imagine tomorrow. It’s hard to believe that we’ll have the ability and strength to meet unknown challenges. It’s sometimes even hard to envision any future at all. For us, too, the gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of knowing one thing – God will be working with us tomorrow and the next day as well. God will be there with us, helping us to live into a new future, even if we can’t imagine what that future looks like…
The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of Hope in the face of the unbearable:
- Ezekiel’s vision is a great story from the Old Testament! But it was delivered to people from Judah who had lost all hope – they were in exile in Bablyon. Their city and their culture had been destroyed. About 200 years earlier, the Assyrians had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, carried people off into exile, and now nobody knew what happened to them. They were gone. They were like the dry, forgotten bones in the valley. The people of Judah in exile had seen this movie before and they knew how it ended. It was over. There was no hope. They couldn’t carry on. Ezekiel doesn’t promise them that it will all be over soon, or even that life will get easy. But he does promise them that God has a future for them – even if it seems as unlikely now as dry bones living again…
- And often for us, the most important gift of the Holy Spirit is the promise of hope for our futures, even and especially when life makes things so bad or so chaotic that it feels like we can’t “bear” it right now; and the hope that we have is not that somehow we’ll get smarter, stronger or more emotionally able to handle things – the hope is that God will help us do what we just can’t do ourselves; it’s the very life breath of God that makes the dry bones live, not the ability of the bones to get their act together; and as Luther reminds us in the Catechism, to believe in the Holy Spirit is to rely on the fact that the same breath of God which breathed life into me at the beginning of my life, is the same breath that sustains me each day, and will even breathe life into me again after my own death …
In the end, the gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s own gift of himself in our lives. And that’s a gift that keeps on giving, even when we can’t image the hows, whens or whys.
But no matter how or when or why God does what God does, we can be certain that God is always giving us the gift of today. God is always promising us the gift of tomorrow. And God is always working in and around us to give us hope and strength, even and especially when we feel like we have too much to bear.