About ten years ago I started reading the novels of Patrick O’Brien. If you are familiar with his work, you know he writes about the captain of a sailing ship in the early 1800s. He writes about the ship as if you already know what a mizzen, a fighting top, or fo’c’sle is. Now I have done a little sailing in my time, in small boats, but his books sent me to the Internet so I could know what he was writing about when he says the foresail ripped, and slung around the top, tearing the stay, and pulling the bowsprit.
But the thing that really impressed me when I read his accounts of sailing ships in the 19th century was how much work and knowledge it takes to run one. Every one of the crew has responsibilities, and if they don’t carry them out to a T, the ship will be one heckuva mess. It won’t go anywhere, and will just circle around in the harbor. Many of the men on the boats have been working on ships since they were children.
On the other hand, the men can work all they want, they can do everything perfectly, but if there is no wind, the ship will move. Oh they can row it, and sometimes they did have to row boats out of a harbor, but wind was what they needed if they wanted to sail the bounding seas. A ship could be making its way to the New World, making excellent time, but if the wind died, they were dead in the water.
When I think of the mission of the church, I think of sailing ships. There is a lot to do. Running a food bank, a Wednesday Night Live program, Jazz Vespers, or a housing program is as complicated as getting a sailing ship from one place to another. People have to know what they are doing, and there is a lot of work to do. But without the Holy Spirit, we have no wind in our sails, and eventually find ourselves dead in the water.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. If you remember when I preached on this in Lent, I said that the King James Version of the Bible uses the words “Holy Ghost,” but the reason they do is because back then English was much more dependent on German for its vocabulary. The German word for Spirit is geist, and they refer to the Holy Spirit as the Heilige Geist, whereas the Latin is Spiritum Sanctum, and over time the English word Ghost become used more for creatures like Caspar, while the word Spirit began to refer more and more to God’s Spirit, or the spirit of people.
The Holy Spirit is found all over the Bible, not just the New Testament. In the Old Testament, at the beginning of Creation, the Spirit hovered over the waters, and was said to come upon prophets and kings throughout the Bible.
In the New Testament, we see the work of the Spirit from beginning to end. In the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, we read that Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, and at the end of the Gospels, promises the Spirit to his disciples. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” he tells them. Meaning the Holy Spirit will be the wind in their sails as they do ministry and establish the church. The last few verses of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, says, “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
That is God’s final promise to us in the Bible, that the Spirit will call us to the waters of life.
And in between Genesis and Revelation there is a wealth of material on the Holy Spirit, and how the Holy Spirit works in humanity. Paul writes of the gifts of the Spirit, which include wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, healing the sick, miraculous acts, proclamation, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. He also talks about the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If you want to know if the Holy Spirit is at work in a church, look for these things, not the size of their building, or the number of people they get into the pew every week. If you want to know whether God is at work in a person, or a ministry, look at these things: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.If those things are absent, then so is the Spirit.
I have heard and preached sermons on Pentecost
I have heard and preached sermons on Pentecost where it was asked, “If the Holy Spirit were absent from your church, what would you miss?”
Imagine a world where we lost all our knowledge of music. We had not instruments, we did not know what singing is, even things like drumbeats were unknown to us. And imagine that we found a treasure trove of music scores that survived whatever caused us to lose the knowledge of music. On the back of the our musical appreciate list is a small part of the score to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral Symphony. Look at it. Can you make heads or tails of it? Some of you can, but for those of you who cannot read music, these are all just squiggles on a page. If you had the whole score, you could discern patterns and repetitions. You might even appreciate the order of the marks on the page. But you would know nothing of Beethoven’s Sixth.
A spiritual life without the Holy Spirit is something like that. It is like notes on a page without any appreciation of what the music those notes represent is really like. I have met pastor in my time, and fortunately not many of them, for whom preaching was an exercise in motivational speaking, or a source of entertainment, or even just something they had to do every Sunday morning. They had little understanding of the Spirit behind it. Sometimes some of my sermons may come off that way. Because you cannot control the Holy Spirit.
No Three Point Program
I wish I could give you a three point program on how to get the Holy Spirit into your life, or into the life of this church. I wish I could give you some kind of formula on how to pull the Holy Spirit into you. But it doesn’t work that way.
When I was still in graduate school, I was a part of a singles group in a church. It was a great group, full of people who I would say were spirit-filled people. Our program was going strong, and the leaders of the group decided we would plan a weekend retreat for the group. We found a place to hold the retreat, and we put down a deposit for a weekend we had chosen. Everything was going great. The church supported us, and the group was excited about the retreat.
Then the leadership team got together to plan the program for the retreat; to choose a topic, and a speaker. And that is where it all fell apart. We could not agree on a topic. We could not agree on a speaker. Our meeting was not contentious. It was just frustratingly unproductive. We. Were. Stuck.
So we ended up doing something that surprised everyone, including ourselves. We decided to cancel the retreat. We paid the deposit for the camp back to the church out of our own pockets, which was a pretty big sacrifice for us. We realizes that, for reasons we could not understand, the Holy Spirit was not with us.
So we waited. About six months later, at one of our planning sessions, someone brought us the idea of the retreat again. We all kind of groaned inside, or at least I did, but the conversation went incredibly well. Ideas flowed easily, and before we knew it, we had all agreed on a topic, as well as a speaker. We put another deposit back on the camp. We announced it to the group, and every bunk in the camp was full. The speaker was all we hoped for, and the retreat was, by all accounts, a smashing success.
What changed? The presence of the Holy Spirit. Our first, failed planning session was like trying to row a canoe upstream a terribly swift river. The second time it was like flowing down the same river. It took none of our energy. We depended on the energy of the spirit. We had not done anything wrong the first time. But the spirit was not in it. The second time we felt the Holy Spirit guiding us.
The same can be said of ministries here. Many have flowed as easily as canoeing downstream. Others have been a struggle.
Now that is not to say we should not work hard at everything we do. Remember the sailing ship I talked about earlier? But it does mean that when God is in it, when the Spirit is present, we can feel the difference in our work. You still have to paddle when you go down stream. But the paddling is a lot easier!
There Are Three Things
That said, there are three things we can do to make sure we are working with the Spirit. The first is to pray. If we are not praying about the ministries we are engaged in, from our music program to our social outreaches, we are going to find it hard slogging. Prayer will ease the way. Prayer invites in the Holy Spirit, it makes a place for the Spirit to work.
We can wait. God’s timing is not always our timing. Sometimes we get all excited about something, or we caught up in the latest emergency, and we act before the Spirit is involved. I am especially prone to that! But there are times when we just have to wait.
And then we act with all boldness. Just because the Spirit is involved does not mean we will have success by the standards of the world. In the Gospel lesson this morning we heard Jesus say that the Spirit is “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” The world will not always understand or appreciate what we do. That is because we are led by a power that is out of this world.
The world thinks of music as entertainment. For us, it is a special type of worship. The world values prestige and power. We value the worth of every human being, especially those with no prestige or power. The world values things that produce tangible results. We value relationships before results. The world values people who have a lot. We value people who give what little they may have.
The Holy Spirit is the basis for all we do. Without the Holy Spirit, we are a musical score, without the actual music, we are a ship that is dead in the water.