The resurrected Jesus is standing on the Mount of Olives with the disciples—the eleven specifically called along with several women and Jesus’ brothers—giving them a few last-minute words before he leaves. For the past forty days, since the resurrection, Jesus has been teaching them, “working in the power of the Holy Spirit,” the same Holy Spirit promised to those gathered. Despite this teaching, the disciples are still having trouble wrapping their heads around what is going on, still hung up on ideas that were common to their Jewish cultural understanding.
“Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” asks one of them.
Jesus does a verbal head shake at this telling them, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority.” In other words, it’s none of your business, doesn’t concern you. He goes on to tell them what will concern them and that is, they will be infused with power when the Holy Spirit fall on them, and they will be witnesses of the life, work, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the lands of the earth. After that, Jesus ascends into a cloud and out of sight. A couple of angels show up, kind of like spiritual beat cops. “Nothing else to see here. Move it along.”
In all of this, I think the key is found in verses four and five, “While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” I think this is what the story of Acts rests on, the idea that everything they are going to do will be done through the Holy Spirit. The movement that the disciples will continue in the name of Jesus will be a movement led by the very Spirit of God, the Spirit that empowered and led Jesus in the gospel stories and in the first few verses of Acts.
You can’t get anywhere without directions
When we talk about the Holy Spirit, quite often we really don’t end up saying very much. Outside of Charismatic circles, teaching about the Holy Spirit and emphasis on Spirit led Christianity as opposed to doctrinal Christianity seems to me to be minimal. According to the United Methodist Member’s Handbook, “The Holy Spirit is God’s present activity in our midst. When we sense God’s leading, God’s challenge, or God’s support or comfort, we say that it’s the Holy Spirit at work.” In biblical language, it is literally the breath or breathing of God, something we cannot see but feel in a way that sometimes is beyond our ability to express in words.
I think that for many people the reason it is harder to understand the Holy Spirit than say Jesus or God is that doctrines are easy. Doctrines are statements about things that define them, statements about a thing we believe or don’t. The Holy Spirit is beyond statement. It is experiential. Learning to listen to or understand the Holy Spirit, to hear the Holy Spirit over the din of our own thoughts, preconceptions, ideologies, and other noise takes work. I think it requires a level of surrender that is hard to develop and harder to give ourselves over to.
And yet, this giving over to, this surrender to the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit, is exactly what Jesus told the disciples they would do, and they did it. “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem—a sabbath day’s journey away. When they entered the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter, John, James, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James, Alphaeus’ son; Simon the zealot; and Judas, James’ son—all were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” And they did what he said for them to do in verse four—they waited.
I think the key to our relationship with the Holy Spirit is the same key the disciples learned to unlock as they waited on what would come to be Pentecost—patience. In the world of today, I think we could sum up our general stance of patience of any kind in an old adage I remember hearing a long time ago in a sermon, “Lord, I need patience and I need it now.” Our instant message, Prime shipping, immediate gratification world has no time for patience and certainly not for spiritual things that cannot be had in a half hour podcast or twenty-minute sermon. Does this make our culture a bad thing or technology a bad thing? Of course not, just often poorly prioritized and misused.
The bible has something to say of patience. The Letter of James defines the origin of patience this way, “After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance (patience). Let this endurance (patience) complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.” So, according to the writer of James, patience is necessary for complete maturity in the faith. Paul says something similar when he writes that, “We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance (patience), endurance (patience) produces character, and character produces hope.” So from Paul we understand that patience leads to character and eventually to hope.
But patience is also not simply being still and doing nothing. It is preparing for what is coming next, knowing that something is coming next. What did the disciples do after Jesus ascended? They “all were united in their devotion to prayer.” Prayer, as I understand it, is a conversation with God, a dialogue. I like to think of it as two parts listening, one-part speaking. The speaking part is where we offer praise and thanksgiving and recognize with God the difficult things going on in our world and our lives. These difficult things are not unknown to God so we are simply acknowledging with God their difficulty and asking for divine intervention where we can do nothing or divine direction where we can.
And then comes the hard part for us—listening. This is the patience part, where we wait and listen for God to speak to us through the Holy Spirit. Jesus told the disciples, “The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.” In other words, the Holy Spirit offers refresher courses in the teachings of Jesus and guidance for understanding those. I think if you aren’t listening, you aren’t hearing. Listening requires silence. Silence requires patience.
In the day and time we live, facing the things we are facing, so many people are reacting, reacting out of fear, out of frustration, out of entitlement in some cases. But I see the need to act out of patience, out of listening to and waiting on the Holy Spirit to speak to us. I see the need to be a people waiting in prayer to hear the Holy Spirit, staying connected to God but doing so in a way that is more listening than talking, more awareness. I see the church on the other side of this time of crisis as a church that is contemplative and out of that contemplation, that time in the presence of God, we become active but in a way that is fruitful for the Kingdom of God rather than the institution of religion.
My encouragement to you as disciples is this: be patient. Learn to pray as listeners to God, hearing more than you say. Out of that, consider the things of Jesus that the Spirit is teaching you and do them. Above all, be people of the Spirit, responding not the whims of culture and trends but to the guidance of the Spirit.