Thursday, April 16, 2009

Being Filled with the Spirit

This is another post based on modified sermon excerpts with some additional material.

At the first Pentecost we are told of the disciples assembled in the upper room that “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the spirit gave them utterance.”

What is this filling of the Holy Spirit?

The word filled implies an overwhelming experience or a complete involvement of heart and mind. In his letters St Paul urged that we “be filled with all the fullness of God”, “[l]et the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly”, and “be filled with the Spirit". The contexts suggest that all these are basically equivalent [Eph. 3.16-19 and Col. 3.16-17 cf. Eph 5.18-20].

At Pentecost the filling was waited for in prayer, as Jesus had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until power came upon them, but this was a sovereign act of God. It was not something simply caused by the people’s prayers, which had already been going consistently for over a week by this time. The Holy Spirit came upon them “suddenly” and miraculously. This reminds us that God will work in his way and his time and sometimes break in upon our devotions with an extraordinary power.

But Paul makes clear in his letters that we can choose to be filled with the Holy Spirit in an ongoing way. Indeed, he exhorts his readers in Ephesians, “be filled with the Holy Spirit”, and the Greek means “be being filled”, it is equivalent to the present continuous tense in English. He connects this exhortation with loving Christ and knowing His love for us, instruction to praise and give thanks to God, including in song, and to constant praying generally (Eph. 3.16f, 5.18-20, 6.18).

Even in Acts, people who were “baptised with the Spirit” at Pentecost could be filled again later in response to fervent prayer (4.31). Being filled with the Holy Spirit does not have to mean a once-for-all, once-only experience.

And what does the filling with the Holy Spirit result in? Fire in today’s Lesson. The Fire which represents power, purification, the comforting warmth of God’s Presence and fervour or passion. In other parts of Acts being filled with the Holy Spirit is commonly associated with being filled with joy. The Gospel appointed for Pentecost from John concentrates on the light of truth and the comfort of peace from that Fire. And so we see that the Holy Spirit ignites heart and mind, emotions and thoughts. Being Spirit-filled will usually mean consciously experiencing that Presence, power, purification, peace or passion abovementioned to a great degree at times. And it will involve an insight into spiritual things that transcends mere intellectual knowledge.

But He also gives gifts of power, with each Christian being given a gift to glorify God and edify (build up) the Church. In Acts the gifts of tongues and prophecy are often mentioned as first signs of the Spirit being poured upon believers. Many other gifts are mentioned in Acts and the rest of the Bible, including, teaching and healing, pastoring and even serving the poor. This reminds us that the Holy Spirit fills us, if we let him, not simply for the sake of our own feelings or faith, but for ministry.

So, how can we be filled with the Spirit? Above I mentioned prayer, praise, love of God and knowing His love for us. Are these causes or effects? Both! The acts of faith and love and fervent prayer that progressively open us up to God's inspiration (in the literal sense of the last word) are of course themselves enabled by the Holy Spirit. It's "grace upon grace". But along with all of this there must be a particular element: explicit desire.

A monk named Joseph came to a monk called Lot and said to him: “ Father, according to my strength I keep a moderate rule of prayer and fasting, quiet and meditation, and as far as I can I control my imagination: what more must I do?” [He’s basically saying “I’m trying my best to be a good Christian, but something still seems to be missing.”] And the old man rose and held his hands toward the sky so that his fingers became like flames of fire and he said: “If you will, you shall become all flame.” [Sayings of the Desert Fathers, quoted in The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest]

God wants us to be filled with His Spirit. He wants us to be filled to the brim, totally alive. To be like this we need not only to turn away from sin and choose to do good, we must DESIRE God. We must seek for Him with all our heart, we are told in the Old Testament [Jer 29:13]. We need to persistently pray to God that he will grow us in the Holy Spirit.

Throughout the Bible God tells us that we need Him more than anything else, and that we need to realise this and act upon it.

In the Old Testament we are also told to “Seek the Lord and his strength: seek his face evermore.” [Ps 105]

Jesus said “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. … If ye … know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” Lk 11:9-13.

We need to desire the fire! “But, to be honest,” you might say, “I don’t! I can’t manufacture those feelings you are talking about. It wouldn’t be ‘real’. So, how can God expect this of me?”

The first answer to that question is that it may not start with a feeling, but a choice. “I will seek God.” The second answer is that we can pray “Lord, I don’t feel this great want for you: but I want to want. Please give me this hunger, that you may satisfy it.” This may sound like a strange prayer, but God appreciates honesty. The third answer is that once we realise and really take seriously what God is — his holiness and perfection, that he is our ultimate source of every blessing — and we think and pray about it, we can begin to desire him.

Once we have this desire, how do we feed it, make it stronger? The answers are not exactly exotic or super-surprising! We ‘feed the need’ by getting a taste for God. Where? In God’s Word and Sacrament approached in faith and expectation at every Mass. Come expecting and trusting God will do something in you, whether you feel anything or not. Where else do we go to increase our desire for God? Bible-reading and prayer. As much prayer as possible.

I have spoken in the past about our “yes” to God. The important point to remember is that this yes is pro-active. We do not wait for God to call us on the mobile [cell-phone for Americans] and say “Do this!” so we can say “Oh, alright, if I have to.” We have already been told what to do. Seek God’s face. Be filled with his fullness.

You see, all other desires lead to eternal disappointment if we set our hearts on them as our ultimate happiness. The thing we convince ourselves we must have is always less than it seems, and temporary: except for God.

And so we pray: Lord, fill us with the living fire of your Holy Spirit. Amen


Fr. Robert Hart said...

Fr. Kirby:

Please keep it up.

poetreader said...

Oh, how I wish I'd said that! Sooner or later I shall.

Fr. Kirby,
This is among the very finest statements I've seen on this matter, and, as a former Pentecostal minister, who was also intrigued by the Anglican and RC Charismatic movements, I've read a lot of them.

I enthusiastically endorse every detail of what you've presented here, and would like to see this material as a tract with wide distribution.

Thank you!


Canon Tallis said...

Fr. Kirby,

This is just getting better and better.