God’s spirit is one of those things like love. The more you give it away, the more you have for yourself. The apostles insisted on passing the Spirit to new Christians by the laying on of hands. What if each touch, each hug, each handshake between us carried with it a little prayer for the Spirit, for its power to work in the one we touch? Especially when someone is trying to be faithful and they face a challenge– that is the time to offer a prayer and a warm hand, so the Spirit’s power and our faithful support will help them to meet that challenge. Claim the Spirit, and share it.
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
January 13, 2019
Catch the Spirit
Acts 8:9-24 Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.
14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! 21You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” 24Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”
The Acts of the Apostles is our main record of the earliest church. It is the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, written by the same author, about the wild adventures of the apostles, who were sent on road trips to share the Good news of Jesus. Apostle means ‘sent’. In Acts, the Holy Spirit is a vital force, almost the main character. It guides the first Christians. The Spirit gives them courage and power in their mission to spread the good news.
In our reading from Acts, the apostles Peter and John are cleaning up after an eager apostle named Philip. Philip had baptized a bunch of people from Samaria. The Spirit was in that already. What would a bunch of good Jews to be doing with Samarians, an ethnic group that they hated, and thought were “unclean?” God’s Spirit had been at work in the Jewish apostles, and also in the Samaritans, healing old hatreds and fears. This was news that Samaritans would even listen to the apostles, so Peter and John went to check it out for themselves. They discovered genuine loyalty to Jesus, but Philip had forgotten one little detail. He forgot to give them the Holy Spirit with their baptism. So Peter and John took care of it. They prayed for the gift of the Spirit and they laid their hands on those new Christians, and then they were good to go.
This passage raises all kinds of questions. Is the Holy Spirit really contagious from one person to another? Could people tell? Could they feel it when they received the Holy Spirit? What difference did it make for them? What difference does it make for us? What does the Holy Spirit do, anyway?
Some people feel that there is a huge gap between heaven and earth. God is far away, and the best we can hope for is to follow God’s rules and hope to be united with God after we die. That doesn’t leave much room for the Spirit to act. Not only skeptics but faithful people, who have not experienced the power of God in their lives, or more to the point, haven’t recognized it: these people do not expect the Spirit to show up around here and make a difference. And that’s a sad thing.
Some of you probably experience what I’m calling the Spirit, but you call it Jesus’ power, or God’s grace, or something like that. And that is perfectly fine. If God is going to give us three wonderful faces for us to know and love, we have every reason to choose the face that is most approachable to us. Still, if you haven’t tried relating to God as Spirit, you might be missing something wonderful. Spirit is the power of God that acts in us and through us. In this scientific age, it is hard for some people to picture a personal God. But maybe they can picture a Force, like Star Wars, or a connection like an electrical circuit that connects us to God’s power, and that can allow God’s power to flow in us, and through us to other people.
After Peter and John laid hands on the new Christians, a fellow named Simon the Magician tries to make the Holy Spirit into a franchise. He’ll pay the apostles, if they’ll give him the power to dispense the Spirit. Before we are too hard on Simon, you should know that the apostles messed up his last franchise in magic, by converting all his customers into Christians.
Simon the Magician is a caution for us. We too can try to work the Spirit on our terms, tame it and make it serve at our beck and call. That doesn’t work. John’s gospel says: The Spirit blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.(John 3:8) Your Bible probably says “wind” instead of “Spirit” but in Greek and Hebrew wind and Spirit are the same word. Also breath, life force—all these are spirit. So the Holy Spirit is free-ranging like the wind, as essential as breath, God’s own life-force. Try to tame that!
Some people think that the Holy Spirit came to people for the first time on Pentecost. Wrong. Of course it came to Jesus at his baptism. The Spirit had also already come to prophets and leaders in Israel hundreds of years before. And the Spirit is not a Jewish and Christian exclusive. In Genesis 1, Spirit blew over the waters at the dawn of creation. Spirit sustains all life; Genesis 6:3 says that when God’s Spirit leaves us we die.
So what did the Spirit do for Christians that was special? It brought an awareness of, and access to, God’s power– to all Christians, not just religious leaders and prophets. That power shows up in many different ways. According to our bible it comes as speaking in tongues, the most dramatic gift of the Spirit, and according, to Paul, the least useful. It comes as spontaneous joy and praise of God. Spirit prays for us when we don’t know how. It teaches us truth, and is our advocate, giving us hope and strength to do what God calls us to do. It gives a variety of gifts that build up this community. Some are obviously religious, like preaching and prophesying (prophesying just means saying the things God needs us to hear). Some gifts are practical like encouraging and administration. Spirit brings us the famous nine fruits that we need for right living: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. You’ll never prove the Spirit gave you gifts like all those. But it is a backwards kind of false humility when we don’t credit God for empowering the good things in our lives. What, we did it all ourselves? So…do you have any of these gifts? If you don’t think so, pray for the Spirit. If you do, claim the Spirit!
The Spirit brought God’s power to all Christians, not just to leaders. It brought the potential to lead, to speak with authority, to make wise decisions, to any of us. It is a great equalizer, a great empowerer. No wonder some of us love the Spirit, and others don’t know what to do with it. As time went on, the early church became more hierarchical, more controlling, like the culture around it. God’s power, blowing among the common people wherever it willed, made the leaders kind of nervous. The leaders would decide who was authorized to dispense the Spirit, and to exercise churchy Spirit gifts like preaching and prophecy. Some of that was necessary—there were plenty of self-proclaimed prophets who managed to warp the Good News pretty badly. But the control of the hierarchical church stifled the Spirit in many ways. I am very conscious of one of those ways. In many churches in this country, probably the majority, I could not be ordained clergy or preach because I am a woman.
We in the UCC are not a hierarchical church. We are a congregational church. Decisions by the larger church are not binding on our congregation. You as the congregation are the final authority of the church. That is a great gift, and a great responsibility. How could you do it without the Holy Spirit’s guidance and power? The responsibility is that if we do not stay empowered by the Spirit, we do not have the weight of a church hierarchy to keep us on track—our church will die. The gift is that we as a church can respond to the Spirit as we are called, in ways that more hierarchical and rule-bound institutions cannot. So we must be deliberate about seeking the Spirit, and sharing it. It is the life of our church.
I think it is wonderful that the way the apostles shared the Spirit through prayer and the touch of their hands. Something as free as the Spirit can never be taken for granted, never tamed and passed on by a ritual alone—so prayer is required, to make sure our hearts are tuned and open to the Spirit. Spirit is invisible, so we need concrete signs like human touch, to help make the Spirit real to us. And we need the guidance of flesh-and-blood people, who themselves know the Spirit, to bring that power into our own lives. To many people, the “power of the Spirit,” like “God’s love,” is an empty phrase. And it will remain that way until we, who know what it means, share it.
The Spirit is already in us if we’re breathing, but awareness and acceptance of its power waits for our invitation, and our sharing. When the Spirit came in power at Pentecost, it came only after weeks of prayer, and it came to all the people gathered together.
I see the Spirit moving in your lives in many ways. I could list them, but it would be better if youstarted naming and claiming the action of the Spirit in your lives, and in this church. Some of you already do, in your own way. But many of you are shy about claiming that God’s power is actually doing anything for you, for us, here in this little church in Brea. I know it can be hard to do that. You don’t want to name the Spirit’s action in your life unless you’re really sure. And we can never prove the Spirit’s action scientifically. Well, maybe your naming can be a leap of faith. You don’t want to be taken for a religious nut, or a snake-oil salesman like Simon the Magician. But maybe…better that than to deny the power of God! You don’t want to single yourself out as someone who gets special favors from God. Well then start naming the Spirit acting in your friends’ lives too! No false modesty, please: we are children of God. We have great gifts and a great destiny. Claim it, and share it.
God’s spirit is one of those things like love. The more you give it away, the more you have for yourself. The apostles insisted on passing the Spirit to new Christians by the laying on of hands. What if each touch, each hug, each handshake between us carried with it a little prayer for the Spirit, for its power to work in the one we touch? Especially when someone is trying to be faithful and they face a challenge– that is the time to offer a prayer and a warm hand, so the Spirit’s power and our faithful support will help them to meet that challenge. Claim the Spirit, and share it. Amen.