The eighteenth century was an age of fascination with electricity. Scientists were experimenting with things that created current to try and understand the way electricity worked. People were playing with things called static generators: a ball of sulfur or glass spun around while rubbing a hand or a woolen cloth on the outer glass. This made for a great party trick but was little more than that, a party trick. This was also the time period when Benjamin Franklin was playing with kites during thunderstorms, something that we will talk about momentarily.
Enter two men, Ewald Georg von Kleist and Pieter von Musschenbroek. Von Kleist was a German jurist, Lutheran Minister, and physicist. Musschenbroek was a professor of mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and astronomy. The two men took differing paths to get at the same thing and in the end they both managed to create what would become known as Leiden Jar, named for the city where it was discovered. This jar was a what we would now call a capacitor, a glass jar with metal foil cemented to the inside and the outside surfaces, and a metal rod running down through the jar lid to make contact with the inner layer of metal foil. This was a way to store a high capacity electrical charge. It was a way not only to catch but to hold lightning in a bottle.
We use this phrase, lightning in a bottle, to mean something that rarely happens or something that is so unlikely that we could never expect to see it happen again. It would be like a snowstorm in Bermuda or a ninety-degree day in Antarctica. You could also throw in the Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl or the San Diego Padres winning the World Series. Notice how I rather deftly avoided talking about college football.
Spirit in a Bottle
What we are going to talk about however, is a story about another kind of lightning in a bottle, something that happened two thousand years ago and keeps happening today. For that matter, it may well have happened to you. It starts with a group of about 120 men and women sitting together in a room. I imagine there was talk of Jesus’ life and death but more likely about his resurrection and ascension. I imagine they continued to talk about having replaced Judas with Mattathias, having been chosen by casting lots. I would also guess they talked about the promise of the Holy Spirit, wondering what that would be like and how they would experience it.
Then they found out.
The way they found out reminds me of the Spirit of God as it hovered over the waters in the Creation story. In the same way that “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” the disciples were still being formed as disciples, still in the dark as to how the Spirit would work in their lives when “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Will Willimon writes, “In Genesis 2:7, the Spirit of God breathed life into dust and created a human being. In Acts 2:1-4, the Spirit has breathed life into a once cowardly disciple and created a new man who now has the gift of bold speech.”
Peter, the cowardly disciple, lost his cowardice. The others found great courage and inspiration in the Spirit and began to share the message of “God’s deeds of power.” Peter would preach a sermon that would lead the Jews who heard the message to say, “Brothers, what should we do?” with Peter answering, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
This passage, chapter two, is one of the central passages of Acts. “The main theme of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts is the coming of the Realm of God—the confidence that God is seeking to restore the present old and broken world so that all things will fully manifest God’s purposes for all to live in love, peace, justice, and abundance.” Our congregations are much like the crowd of people gathered at Pentecost that day: people of differing experiences and differing ideas all gathered together by one spirit for the purpose of proclaiming the message of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. When we are filled with the Spirit as they were filled with the Spirit, we too can be used of God to change the world around us and advance the Kingdom of God; we can aid in the restoration of Creation as we ourselves become restored in the Way of Jesus.
But back to the idea of lightning in a bottle. If we used the phrase like we normally use it, it is something rare and unlikely to happen again. If we use it to describe a Leiden jar, lightning, or electricity if you will, is very easily caught and kept. However, it won’t stay there forever. Electricity stored in a capacitor will eventually it will simply dissipate. The same is true for the Holy Spirit in us. It will remain useful in us for a time, but the Spirit cannot be useful if held internally and unused. The Spirit must be set free through our engaging in Kingdom Work for the sake of the gospel. The Torah, Prophets and Writings present the Holy Spirit as operating in five related ways: the Spirit was present and at work with God at creation; God sustains the world through the ever-present Spirit; God fills people through the Spirit, giving them the awareness that God is with them; God, through the Spirit, anoints people for special tasks; and finally, God would pour out the Spirit even more generously to empower communities to witness boldly for the Kingdom of God.
I want to encourage you to be open to the work of the Spirit in your lives, to these five things being a part of your life but also the very simple, very direct leading of the Spirit. Seek and be aware of the presence of God working around you, in you, and through you. Allow the Holy Spirit to teach us and remind us of all that Jesus has said to us. Let the Spirit testify to us that we may testify in return to others. Let the Spirit guide us in truth and glorify God through the acts that we do in imitation of Jesus. This may make people around you uncomfortable. It made some of the people in Jerusalem uncomfortable at Pentecost. They accused the disciples of being drunk, “filled with new wine.” But what they were filled with was something so powerful, so life changing, so transformative, that it altered their landscape and frightened those who could not or would embrace it. We have to choose: a life of being filled with the Spirit and having the Spirit move through us to change the world or a life without it; without that connection to God, without that connection to the Kingdom, without “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Allen, Ronald J. Acts of the Apostles. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.
Willimon, William H. Acts: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
 (Willimon p. 31-32)
 (Acts 2:11)
 (Acts 2:37-39)
 (Allen p. iv)
 (Allen p. 26)
 (Acts 2:13)
 (Galatians 5:22-23)