Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
A little boy asked, “Daddy, do you believe in ghosts?” His father answered, “No, son, there are no such things as ghosts.” “Me, too,” said the boy, “just the Father and the Son.” With that, the youngster rushed out, leaving the screen door to slam and his father’s mouth still open. A similar story comes from a pastor who was explaining to a precocious 2-year-old just what would happen at his baptism: “Then, as your father holds you, with your head above this bowl, I will dip my hand in and put some water on your head in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. “No ghosts,” interrupted the youngster, “I don’t like ghosts!”
The stories illustrate one of the biggest reasons why we usually hear “Holy Spirit” nowadays. The word “ghost” has almost solely ghoulish connotations in contemporary language. We do not read about the enthusiasm and “ghost” of an event or moment and the United Methodist Church did not choose the slogan “Catch The Ghost” for their church signs and bumper stickers. On a less amusing note, in many churches the Holy Spirit is Himself rarely mentioned. The name may be spoken in an invocation or at a Baptism, but the Spirit is relegated to a position (God please forgive the illustration) of low man on the totem pole.
Once a year, this coming Sunday as a matter of fact, the third Person of the Trinity is trotted out of His regular hiding place so that people can take a look at Him. Then He is hidden away again for another year. The reason for this de-emphasis may be a precaution against over enthusiasm or undue emotionalism or it may be a reaction to the dangers of what has been called the charismatic movement. Whatever the reason, any de-emphasis of the Holy Spirit’s role in our lives misses the point of what Jesus told His disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel lesson: “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”
I am certain that Jesus’ disciples could not have understood that it would be to their advantage that He go away. Even if our loved ones move far away for the best of reasons–service in Christ’s mission–it still hurts. Because we love them, we appreciate their commitment, but because we enjoy their company and will miss them, we cannot see advantages for us.
By going away Jesus teaches His disciples and us that we cannot nail Him down to any one place and time. Even though some people tried to literally do that, they did not succeed. Nor will we succeed if we try to contain Jesus in our organization, interpretation or possession. Every time people think they have some special hold on Jesus, He moves away. Like the disciples of old at His Ascension, we are left gazing into the mystery of the heavens.
I once heard a comparison of Christ’s presence to an heirloom that is handed down within a family from one generation to another. We can have it for years, use it, admire it, take care of it, but never fully possess it. It belongs to us only as much as it belongs to those before us and those who will come after us. Jesus’ presence is a gift to enjoy, to share, to put to good use, but never to own or possess, not completely.
What we do have is Christ’s parting gift of the Spirit. In the midst of our seeming loss of Jesus, the Holy Spirit reminds us of all that He said and did for us, and enables us to believe it. I have already mentioned the obvious disadvantages of being the ones left behind when a loved one leaves home for any reason, including death. I have often told bereaved friends that God has a wonderful way of transforming our memories. At first, every thought of the one we have lost is painful. After we have passed through the shock, anger and guilt that seem to be inevitably tied to grief, we come to a time when we accept our loss and realize fully what we do not have. Then, almost suddenly, the memories we do have become pleasant. Even the bad habits and idiosyncrasies of the person that once irritated and annoyed us now become sources of smiles and laughter.
Something even more wonderful happens when we come to accept the fact that Jesus will not be our bread King, our Knight in Shining Armor, our earthly King or even our earthly possession. It is when He goes away that the Spirit brings Him to our hearts as Savior and Lord. His death is no longer the vain, losing struggle of a political figure. It is the positive act on our behalf of the compassionate, gracious and all-loving God to bring forgiveness to each of us. His resurrection is not one man’s escape from the jaws of death, but God’s all-time victory over death for all of us! The Spirit roots out all our earthly wisdom and understanding. When we no longer have what we thought, the Spirit enables us to believe what Jesus taught.
In the Scriptures, the word “spirit” seldom stands alone. It is frequently followed by the pronoun “of” and another noun. Some references are not to the Holy Spirit at all, but to the spirit of this world, of destruction, of jealousy or fear. Far more often, we read about the Spirit of God or of the Lord, who gives us a spirit of truth, power, life, holiness, righteousness, wisdom, faith, gentleness, grace and more.
This Sunday, in many churches all over the world, confirmands will be blessed with the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge, of grace and prayer, of power and strength, of sanctification and fear of God. Those confirmands will have been instructed, however, that the gift of the Spirit is not like a gold bracelet with a name on it that is ours once and for all. It is more like a wedding ring–just one step toward a dynamic relationship that must be continually nurtured, enriched and enlivened if it is going to mature into something great and beautiful.
In contrast to the spirit of this world, which is centered on material things–dead and lifeless as they are–God’s Spirit enlivens and animates us. He enriches us, leads us, empowers us, purifies us and brings us lasting, profound joy.
An orchestra once performed in a professional baseball stadium. As a favor to a former student, a world-renowned conductor had agreed to direct a portion of the concert. The first part of the performance was something of a disaster. Due to a schedule foul-up, a slow-pitch softball game was being played just outside the stadium. Some people in the concert audience could see the action. Everyone could hear the blaring public address system and the loud cheering of the crowd.
Consequently, the soothing sounds of Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” were interspersed with “The next batter for Schultz’s Bar is shortstop Billy Wade,” followed by cheers of: “Give it a ride, Billy. Tear the cover off the ball!” The musicians were unnerved and made several errors. The local conductor was visibly struggling to maintain some control. The orchestra finally muddled through to the intermission, but many people wondered if the audience would return for the second part of the concert.
Apparently the fame of the Maestro brought them back. As he was introduced and mounted the podium to lead the Sibelius tone-poem, “Finlandia,” the stands were filled with anxious listeners. At that same moment, someone hit a home run at the softball game and the roar of loud cheers filled the stadium. The Maestro simply lowered his baton and waited for the noise to subside. Then, smiling at the orchestra, he raised it again and proceeded. His commanding presence pulled the individual musicians together into a focused fellowship. Something mysterious and wonderful took over the entire scene. The momentum of the classic increased. The orchestra outdid itself. The Maestro was in total control. As the great “Finlandia” reached its climax, members of the orchestra could hear him shouting, “Das ist der Geist! Das ist der Geist!” (That’s the spirit! That’s the spirit!)
When the number reached its vibrant conclusion, the people in the stands leaped to their feet with thundering applause. Some of them could see that the softball game had been momentarily interrupted as players stood listening to the majestic music. Now players and fans were also applauding.
Through the Spirit, the Master leads us. And when He is in control, no selfishness within and no interference from outside can deter the wonderful, majestic results He can bring about! Every year, we remember the spectacular events of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost–the rushing wind, the tongues of fire, the instantaneous ability in foreign languages and the opening of ears to hear. Is it any less spectacular that the same Spirit makes Himself available to us every time we participate in Word and Sacrament?
Is it not remarkable to the point of unbelievable that He can transform our lives with His gifts and fill them with the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? I do not believe that the seemingly spectacular events of that first Christian Pentecost can hold a tongue of fire to the wonders that He creates in the continuing Pentecost of those who fervently seek Him in the Means of Grace in a continuing, lifelong Pentecost!
The Spirit sends the ones He has recreated to take the Means of Grace to all those who have never heard the Good News about Jesus. The Holy Spirit gives birth to the church and He empowers the mission to spread the church throughout the world.