The Gift of the Spirit

A Sermon for Tenth Pentecost

It didn’t say what I thought it said! Our Gospel reading for today contains some very familiar passages. It starts with the Lord’s Prayer, which we know well; followed by the story of a man having an unexpected guest, and going to his neighbor at midnight to get the necessary food to feed his guest; and this is followed by Jesus’s comments about parents giving gifts to their children and our heavenly Father and us. This is where it didn’t say what I thought it said.

I thought Jesus said, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” But that isn’t what Jesus said. He said, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

Jesus had been talking about giving food to our children—eggs and fish—but now he is talking about the greatest gift of all—the gift of the Holy Spirit. Certainly it isn’t wrong to pray for the necessities of life. In the prayer Jesus taught his disciples is the petition for “daily bread”, and in another place Jesus assures his disciples that their heavenly Father knows their physical needs, and will provide.(Matt. 6:31,32), but the gift of the Holy Spirit is of a different order entirely.

God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of his presence. Christ has given himself back to us through the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit is presence, and it is power. It is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to the disciples on the night before he died, “I will not leave you desolate. I will come to you.”(John 14:18) We don’t need to doubt the presence of the Holy Spirit. We can trust Jesus’ promise that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”(Matt. 18:20)

We associate the Presence of the Holy Spirit with peace and joy in worship. “Hear the brush of angel’s wings; see the glory in each face. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place” as Helen sang so beautifully two weeks ago in the Great Hall. And surely the presence of the Lord is here in worship, and we do right to rejoice in it.

But the Spirit is also present in unexpected times and places, times of everyday problems, times when we are confused and struggling. Alan Jones, the former Dean of Grace Cathedral, has suggested that the Holy Spirit is most present at three open spaces in our lives: “in the unpredictable, in the place of risk, and in those areas over which we have no control.”(1) Most of us are not very comfortable with the unpredictable, the place of risk, and in those areas over which we have no control, yet the Holy Spirit is there waiting to guide and empower us.

“The wind blows where it wills,” Jesus said of the Holy Spirit that night when Nicodemus sought him out (John 3:8). We can’t see the wind, but we know it is present by its effects. So also, we know the presence of the Holy Spirit by the fruits of the Spirit, which are listed in the book of Galatians. They are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. . . .If we live by the Spirit, St. Paul writes, let us also be guided by the Spirit,”(Gal.5:22,23,25) The effects of the Holy Spirit are a more dependable guide to the presence of the Spirit than any particular emotional state.

Barbara Brown Taylor comments “How often, in the church, do we try to say where the Spirit may or may not be blowing, when the only thing God has asked us to do is to try to keep up with it wherever it goes.”(2)

The gift of the Spirit is a gift to us in order that we may be a gift to others. It is worth noting that after the Apostles had received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost they did not shut the doors and congratulate themselves on having received the Spirit. Immediately they opened the doors, and began to share the Good News. Later, as Peter and John went to the temple at the hour of prayer, they encountered a crippled beggar at the temple gate. Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but I give you what I have.” What did he have? Through the Holy Spirit Peter had the presence and healing power of the Lord Jesus. To the lame man he said, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk;” and the man was healed.(Acts 3:6)

The gift of the Holy Spirit makes us participants in the saving, healing, redeeming work of God. “But not,” Eugene Peterson cautions, “in the sense of a commodity that we can get and then use as we like, and not in the sense of a skill that we can acquire and then do with as we please.” We do not use the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit uses us to give witness to God: “to serve, to praise, to help, to heal, to care, to love.”(3)

The Holy Spirit is present in all aspects of our lives; our relationships, the way we treat each other, our individual ministries, both within and outside of the church, and the ministries of the church as a whole. Here at All Saints’ we think of Rebuilding Together, Feed a Family, the Prayer Shawl ministry, the Eucharistic Visitors, the Healing Ministry, the care and prayers of the Daughters of the King, the Altar Guild, and many other ministries. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.

In our Gospel reading today after Jesus taught his disciples what we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer, he told them a story about a man with an unexpected guest who woke up his neighbor at midnight to obtain food for his guest, and was successful only because he was persistent. Jesus said “Ask, search, knock . . . for everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened.”

Here is an emphasis on persistence in prayer. Why is this? Jesus has told us that the heavenly Father is more willing to give us the Holy Spirit—which is the root and source of all other gifts—more willing even than we are to give our children good gifts. Why then do we need to persist in prayer? You may remember a few weeks ago our Old Testament reading was about Elijah in contest with the prophets of Baal. Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal when their prayers were not answered, saying “Perhaps your god is asleep and must be awakened.”(I Kings 18:27) Our God is not asleep! God hears our prayers, and He knows what we need even before we pray. We do not change God by our prayers. We are changed by praying. As we continue in prayer, the Holy Spirit changes us to become more and more like Jesus “being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is Spirit.”(2 Corinthians 3:18)

In the current Christian Century magazine, Rhonda Lee has an excellent paragraph on why it is important to persist in prayer. She writes, “Be the annoying person who rouses his friend in the middle of the night so that an unexpected guest can be shown hospitality. Be the innocent child who looks to his father to meet his need, whether for food, a clean diaper, or a hug. Risk trusting others because you believe you can trust God. By practicing persistence you will have learned to pray. Ask over and over for what you need, and thank God for the gifts you have received. You’ll deepen your intimacy with God and realize your utter dependence on God.”(4)

The best advice I know about prayer is just this: Keep it simple, keep it honest, and keep at it. The Holy Spirit invites us to pray, leads us in prayer, and when sorrow or joy or just confusion takes away our words, “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words”(Rom.8:26). What a wonderfully comforting thought! Even when we have no words, we can be in prayer, the Holy Spirit praying on our behalf.

There is no limit to what the Holy Spirit can do. We have to keep praying. We have to keep paying attention. We have to keep responding. “Some people call it intuition. Others call it inspiration. Forever and ever, the church has called it Holy Spirit.”(5)

Amen.

SOURCES

1. Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Cowley Publications,1997) p.69
2. Taylor, p.79
. Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010) p.199
4. Rhonda Mawhood Lee, Christian Century, July 24, 2013. p.19
5. Taylor, p.73

—Mary Young
July 28, 2013