One of our favourite family films was the 2004 cartoon The Incredibles—so we are very excited the the sequel is coming along this summer. In the original, Mr Incredible and his wife Elastigirl have been superheroes, but all the superheroes have fallen out of favour, and had to go into hiding, taking ordinary jobs and living ordinary lives. Early in the film, after a frustrating day at the office, then sitting in the rush-hour traffic, Mr Incredible arrives home tired and angry, and slams his car door shut—upon which the window breaks and the door is bent. In his rage, he picks the car up (because he is Mr Incredible) but before he can do anything else, sees a little boy from next door on a scooter. ‘What are you looking for?’ he yells. ‘I don’t know—something amazing I guess!’ says the boy. ‘Me too, kid—me too’ sighs Mr Incredible, putting the car down.
Pentecost raises the question for us: what are we looking for? What are expecting from God by the dynamic presence of his Spirit? Are we, too, looking for something amazing?
This question takes three different forms, depending on where we are in our journey. For those relatively new to faith, you might simply be wondering what to expect in this strange new world of belief that you have discovered.
For those who have had expectations which have not been met, and have been living with disappointed, you might be afraid of expecting anything more. Perhaps you have prayed for something and the answer has not been forthcoming, or you have been living with a situation in which you longed for God to intervene. It has been said ‘Expect nothing from anyone, and you won’t be disappointed.’ But if you take that approach, your relationships will wither and die—and the same is true for our relationship with God.
But for those of us who have been Christians for many years, we might have just settled for a humdrum, routine kind of faith, with our expectations settling to a kind of manageable low. After all, it isn’t possible to sustain the excitement and energy through the race of life, which is a marathon not a sprint!
How do the accounts of the Spirit in Luke and Acts help shape our expectation? What are we looking for?
For many of us, when we first encounter the activity of the Spirit, it seems like something weird! I remember very clearly when I was in Israel in my gap year, and staying in Jerusalem with some Americans, who were praying for one of their number (about to give out tracts to Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall!) by laying on hands and praying in tongues. It all looked pretty weird! There is currently a video being circulated on social media of Christian leaders praying for Donald Trump—by atheists who are pointing out how weird Christians are! Last week in the middle of Archbishops’ Council, I was in conversation with someone about different traditions in the Church, and ‘charismatics’ were mentioned. ‘Yes, they are a bit weird’ was the response. ‘Well, I am one of them’. ‘Really? What’s that all about then?’
Very often those of use familiar with the activity of the Spirit forget how weird it looks—or even say to others ‘Yes, it is weird—come and be weird with us!’ But Peter’s strategy at Pentecost in Acts 2 is just the opposite. The visitors to Jerusalem think the whole thing is weird—weird that there are tongues of fire, weird that there is the sound of rushing wind, weird that they hear God praised in their different languages, and weird the things they are saying about Jesus.
But Peter’s response is just the opposite. He counters the claims of weirdness—or drunkenness, ‘It’s only nine o’clock in the morning’—and instead argues that this is total normal and just what they should have expected in the large narrative of God’s dealings with his people. ‘This is that about which the prophet Joel spoke’. If they had read their Bibles, they should not be surprised.
This is the consistent approach of the New Testament writers. The apparently weird manifestations of the Spirit are in fact part and parcel of the normal Christian life. Luke in particular has set us up with this expectation. John the Baptist preaches his ‘good news’ that the one coming after him ‘will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (Luke 3.16)—and part of his ‘good news’ is that this person will come in judgement to burn the chaff! When Jesus appears, he is ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 4.1) who leads him (or ‘throws him’ in Mark 1.12) into the desert, and after the fasting and temptations he is now ‘in the power of the Holy Spirit‘ (Luke 4.14)—which means his ministry can begin. Even after the resurrection, when he spends 40 days with the disciples teaching them about the kingdom, he does so ‘through the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 1.2). If Jesus could not teach or heal or minister without the power of the Holy Spirit, neither can we!
The close association between the Spirit and Jesus runs all the way through Paul’s theology, so that ‘no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 12.1). If you are a follower of Jesus, then you must receive the presence of the Spirit—the two cannot be separated. Whatever Jesus now wants to do, he does by sending the Spirit on his people to do his will. (This is, of course, one reflection of our understanding of God as Trinity; the three persons will and act together.)
The activity of the Spirit in our lives is something we should expect as a normal part of Christian discipleship.
Luke includes Jesus’ teaching about prayer with a particular focus on the Holy Spirit in Luke 11. Following his account of a version of the Lord’s Prayer slightly abbreviated compared with Matthew, he then records Jesus telling two parables about asking and receiving around a central saying of assurance (Luke 11.5–13). We might at first not notice, but the theme that holds the parables together is that of loving relationship.
In the first scene, Jesus is painting a picture that his hearers would immediately recognise as commonplace, and it has all the hallmarks of first century Eastern culture. It might be odd for us to have someone arrive at midnight, since we are happy to travel in the day. But in hot countries, people travel in the cool of the evening, so would often arrive late. We have the option of offering hospitality, but in a culture where hospitality is prized, the only question you ask is ‘How long would you like to stay?’ Doors in the ancient world would normally be shut with a simple bolt mechanism (the text does not actually say ‘locked’ as many English translations). And the scene is a one-room home, where all sleep together, so if the man gets up, everyone else will be woken.
But what we easily miss is the language of friendship. The three people here are not just neighbours, or acquaintances, they are philoi, people who care about one another. The word is related to one of the two words for ‘love’ in the New Testament, phileo. This episode is not one of mere practical concern; one person who cares about another asks a third whether they too care. Will the man’s friend assist him in being a good friend to his friend? It reminds us that the gift of the Spirit is a sign of the love of God for us that we might be shaped by that love so we can express that love to others.
This is further emphasised in the second parable, illustrating that, evil though we are, those of us who are fathers know something of what it is to care for our children. The most challenging verse in the Bible for any father, and probably for any parent, is Ps 103.13: ‘As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.’ I know it is supposed to reassure me about the love of God, but it also reminds me of the challenge of fatherhood—that my love should in some small way reflect the love of God for his people.
The hardest thing for any parent is seeing your children suffer and experience hardship. When your children cry or are in distress, it is excruciating, not least because you know you cannot live their lives for them. And you don’t have to be a parent yourself to understand this. The terrible case of Mark van Dongen was in the news this week, when his girlfriend was convicted of throwing acid over him that cause him such pain and suffering that he ended his life. His brother reported ‘My father used to be a big man—but now he is totally broken’. ‘As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.’
In his sermon at the Royal Wedding between Harry and Meghan, Michael Curry preached ‘The power of love; when you’re loved and you know it. When someone cares for you and you know it. When you love and you show it…’ And Paul tells us that we know the power of God’s love when we know the presence of God’s Spirit (Rom 5.5).
Notice the motivation for the request in the first of Jesus’ two parables: a friend has come to stay, and the host does not have what is required to meet the person’s need, so he goes to the one who care for him, and who has what is required in order to supply his need that he might the need of the other. That is exactly our situation as we pray for the Spirit of God.
It is no accident that Luke puts this teaching next to Jesus’ teaching about the prayer for the kingdom to come. We do not have what we need, in our own strength, to see God’s name being honoured, to see his will being done, to see his kingdom come. We must therefore pray that God gives our ‘daily bread’, not just our material need, but also the ‘bread of tomorrow’, the bread of the kingdom, the age to come, that we might bring this to others.
Two months ago I pulled something in my back, and last week I visited a chiropractor. He explained to me that our bodies are antalgic—they bend away from pain—and in my case it meant that my pelvis had turned and twisted away from the pain on my left side so much that my right leg was now in effect 3/4 shorter than my left. No wonder I had been walking with a limp! But that is how many of us are. We know the pain of disappointment, of broken relationships, of friends who have hurt us or let us down, of life that has not met our expectations—and our lives are put out of shape as we ‘bend away from pain’.
The loving gift of the Spirit of God wants to straighten our lives again—by bringing both healing to our pain, and courage as we wait of the day of healing which is still to come. Even if we do not see full healing now (sometimes we will, sometimes we won’t), he gives us the hope of that Day of Healing when ‘God will wipe every tear from our eye’ (Rev 21.4) and start to bring the reality of that day into the present.
Because this is something normal in the Christian life, because the Spirit is a gift of live, and because we need the gifts, power and fruit of the Spirit to meet our own need and the needs of those around us, Jesus urges us to be expectant—to pray with ‘shameless audacity’ (Luke 11.8), whether we are new, disappointed, or just a little jaded.
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened (Luke 11.9–10)
(This is a summary of a sermon preached at St Mary’s Longfleet on Pentecost Sunday, 20th May 2018.)
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