Where do you feel the spirit? Is it in the music? The sermon? Is it through the company of friends and family? David Barnes explores our deeply personal relationship with God, and how we struggle to define our relationship with The Holy Spirit.
David Barnes preaching at Calvary: "Be Filled With the Spirit."
Posted by Calvary Presbyterian Church on Sunday, May 21, 2017
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. It was Easter morning 1990 and I was in a room that was considerably different than the one I am in now. Different people, too. To be honest I was in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and had been sober for just about a year and it was not going well. I was tired; angry and full of self-pity and all that hope that had welled up in me that fateful day when I had committed myself to dealing with that most insidious of diseases was exhausting. As I sat there I could feel myself sinking to a whole new bottom – not a physical or mental bottom, but a true spiritual emptiness.
It was at that moment what something inside me broke.
Unlike other breakings I had experienced, this broke me open and not apart. Author and theologian Parker Palmer talks about the two ways the heart breaks: apart so that the pieces fly into some infinitely smaller pieces and are never reconciled, or broken open so that the light and that Spirit of Truth can get in. That was my heart that day…
I sat there and thought about my life and thought about my life truthfully. My decision-making up to that point had been disastrous and it was a true miracle that I was still alive. Miraculous enough that it was not that hard to imagine there might have been some divine intervention. I continued to think this forward and came to an understanding that if I was still alive that it had less to do with me and more to do with what I had been calling my higher power. At that, I had a moment of clarity and considered my own old truth to be mistaken: that God had left me and to acknowledge the fact that if anyone had left, it had been me. In that moment, I felt the anger dissipate. And the higher power became God.
I would like to say that I left that meeting a brand-new person. Happy and God-fearing and skipping down the street like I didn’t have a care in the world. And if I told you that it would be a lie. I still had an issue – or five – to deal with. But, while not brand new, I was altered enough to re-imagine a relationship with God. The Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, or even the Holy Ghost. However, you imagine this third aspect of the Trinity. I knew the presence of God in my heart.
I don’t think it would surprise anyone here if I said that I have friends who are spiritual but not religious. I try to see the positive in their willingness to consider their own smallness in a world of staggering size. I see the desire for true humility that not only allows for empathy and care for others, but encourages a heart that is not quite settled unless it considers the plight of others in whatever community one considers home. That to me is where that spirit nestles. And like an unborn child, that spirit kicks, moves, hiccups as a reminder that there is something in us that requires more of us.
After finishing our confirmation class not long ago, I was once again reminded of how hard it is for our youth to grasp the fullness that is our God. The memories of their earlier days in church when God had a face, gender, etc. are still there somewhere to muddy the waters. The stories, if they are remembered, recall the God of Abraham, Noah, and of Moses: often quick to anger, powerful beyond understanding and, mostly, a total mystery.
Jesus, fully human, fully divine also poses some challenges to their understanding and it wasn’t until we focused on his human side that they began to connect the dots. Jesus is someone we can see through the lens of others in our lives. Caring for those who need it the most and in a way that, while not easy to follow, is at least easy to understand. They do acknowledge a resonance with the way the Son led his life and the way he showed a path toward openness and welcome to all and, while not all that easy to do, also the message – love God, love your neighbor something that works for them. But what about the Holy Spirit?
Going back to a different confirmation class some years back, I remember a conversation we were having about when or where they felt they experienced the presence of God. I asked one of the young men who had been quiet until then when, if at all, he felt God’s presence. Now, this was a young man who was 13 at the time so what came next was a surprise. He told us that it happened when he ran marathons. This brought a certain stunned silence to the group as we pondered the idea that this young man – quiet and unassuming – had done something that the rest of us were barely able to fathom. Run 26 miles? At one time? His credibility with the group rose significantly and got us all thinking about the trinity and which face of God we felt most closely connected with. Which brings me to today’s scripture reading…
Depending on the translation you are reading, the spirit is described in the bible as an advocate, friend, comforter, or companion. While all those words have something in common, I’d like to add an additional word thanks to our youth. And that is conscience. In trying to come up with language to define the Holy Spirit, that was the word that kept coming up, and that feels right to me. Right, because that truly implies a God who is always with us, helping us to navigate our lives. With us in our decision-making and helping us to keep our lives oriented toward being obedient to God and being the hands and feet of Jesus. Because the Holy Spirit lives inside us, the spirit is with us both in our mountaintop and dessert moments, wherever they might be.
The epiphanic moment at that A.A. meeting has carried me forward and continues to do so. Close to 30 years of sobriety, a church that is truly home, and a relationship with the Triune God who sustains me, lifts me up, allows me to be here this morning as a child of God.
And I am not alone. Somewhere inside each of us is a voice crying out in our own wilderness. A voice that calls us to be in relationship with God in a manner of God’s own choosing. A way that is with you when you wake up and with you again when you go to sleep. A voice that you, like Samuel, might initially deny but will eventually come to understand.