(Acts 2:1-11; 1Cor.12:3b-7, 12-13; Jn.20:19-23)
Pentecost Sunday marks the end of our Easter season. [i] It’s also the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit entering into our world, filling hearts and transforming lives with power and purpose.
Most people today associate the Holy Spirit with fire. This is a good image, because fire warms, cleanses and enlightens, and we all need these things. As Christians, we like people to be filled with ‘the fire of the Spirit.’
But fire isn’t the Bible’s only image for the Holy Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit appears as a descending dove (Lk.3:22). At Jesus’ transfiguration, he’s a shining cloud (Mt.17.5). In Acts, he’s likened to a rushing wind (2:1-4). [ii] And in John’s Gospel, he’s called a river of living water (7:37-39).
Each of these images is dynamic: flowing water, descending dove, blazing fire, and rushing wind.
But as the Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr points out, the reality for many Christians is that the Holy Spirit is only an afterthought. We don’t really ‘have the Spirit’ at all. We simply go through the motions, formally believing, but without any fire. There’s little conviction and not much service.
That’s why the Gospels clearly distinguish between two baptisms, he says. There’s the baptism with water that most of us are used to, and there’s the baptism ‘with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (Mt.3:11), the one that really matters.
The water baptism that many of us received as children demands little conviction or understanding, Rohr says. But until that water baptism becomes real, until we know Jesus, and we can rely on Jesus, call upon Jesus, share Jesus and love Jesus, then we’re just going along for the ride.
We can recognize people who have had a second baptism in the Spirit, he says. They tend to be loving and exciting. They want to serve others, and not just be served themselves. They forgive life for not being perfect. They forgive themselves for not being perfect, and they forgive their neighbours.
We often pray, ‘Come, Holy Spirit,’ Rohr says, but the truth is that the gifts of the Spirit have already been given to us, because if you’ve been baptised, the Holy Spirit has already come. The only difference is the degree to which we know it, draw upon it, and consciously believe it.
So, if there’s never any movement, energy, excitement, deep love, service, forgiveness, or surrender in your life, you can be sure that you don’t have the Spirit. If you’re just going through the motions without any deep convictions, then you don’t have the Spirit.
In that case, he says, you’d be wise to fan into flame the gift you’ve already received. [iii]
This is important, because we are all born into this world spiritually empty, and deep down, we all thirst for God’s divine presence (Col.2:13). And if we don’t have the Spirit, then we all end up trying to satisfy that thirst with something other than Jesus Christ.
To satisfy his thirst, Bill Wilson (1895-1971) turned to alcohol. He’d had a very successful career on Wall Street, and for a while he enjoyed drinking, but by 1929 he’d become a hopeless drunk. In 1934, he checked himself into rehab, and took the advice of a friend who said, ‘admit you are licked; get honest with yourself (and) pray… even as an experiment.’ [iv]
Feeling hopeless and helpless, he fell to his knees and cried out ‘God help me!’
‘Suddenly,’ he later said, ‘the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed… that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.’
Like St Paul on the road to Damascus, Bill Wilson had a religious epiphany and never drank again. But more than that, he went on to co-found Alcoholics Anonymous, which has since saved countless lives and families.
In 1961, the famous psychologist Carl Jung wrote to Wilson about an alcoholic he had tried to treat in psychotherapy. Jung wrote that his craving for alcohol was the low-level equivalent of the spiritual thirst we all have for wholeness, for union with God. [v]
Of course, drinking alcohol is only one of the many ways that people try to fill their spiritual emptiness. But as Bill Wilson discovered for himself, only the Spirit of Jesus Christ can raise us from death to life.
Only Jesus can satisfy the deep thirst with which we are all born (Ps.23:3).
[i] The name Pentecost comes from the Greek expression for ‘the 50th day’, which in the ancient Old Testament referred to the 50th day after Passover.
[ii] Both the Hebrew word ruach (used in the Old Testament) and the Greek word pneuma (used in the New Testament) can be translated as “wind” or “spirit” (or “breath”), depending on the context.
[iii] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations 5 June 2022, https://cac.org/daily-meditations/baptism-of-fire-and-spirit-2022-06-05/
[iv] John W Stevens, Bill W. of Alcoholics Anonymous Dies, New York Times, January 26 1971. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/01/26/archives/bill-w-of-alcoholics-anonymous-dies-bill-w-oi-alcoholics-anonymous.html#:~:text=Wilson%20recalled%20then%20what%20Ebby,to%20do%20anything%2C%20anything!%E2%80%9D