Making room for the Spirit

Many are fearful of the power of the Holy Spirit because they think being filled with God’s abiding as Spirit will make them do weird things. If weird means becoming extravagantly compassionate or practicing radical hospitality or taking Jesus’ teaching about peace seriously, then they are correct.

By Molly T. Marshall

St. Ignatius of Loyola sent people on mission with this instruction: “Go, set the whole world on fire and in flame.”

Fueling destruction was not on his mind. He had already seen enough of the travesty of war, having been seriously wounded in the Battle of Pamplona in 1521. Rather, he was concerned with fomenting desire for God and passion for the gospel.

History tells us that his Society of Jesus was an ardent mission movement, proclaiming grace and forgiveness in places newly discovered in the 16th century.

Stirring into flame this “holy longing” to love God and serve expansively depends upon receptivity to the Spirit of God. It is the Spirit within who wills to work through us for God’s good purposes. Yet, many Christians regard the listing ways of the Spirit with suspicion, perhaps because we can never control holy presence.

The celebration of Pentecost is gaining ground among Baptists as we become more acquainted with the rhythms of the Christian year. Wearing hues of orange and red, hearing Scripture read in several languages, viewing moving streamers, reminiscent of wind, flames and tongues, will add a rather exotic touch to worship this coming Sunday.

The more liturgical pastors will wear their bright red stoles, looking combustible as they seek once more to describe the coming of the Spirit.

One year as I was the visiting preacher for Pentecost, I heard an alarm early in the sermon, and several men jumped out of their pews for a hasty departure. Only later did I learn that they were members of the voluntary fire department.

It was not my sermon that kindled new energy for the spread of the gospel, but a grease fire down the block. If they had waited to hear the whole sermon, perhaps their enthusiasm would have warmed to the church’s mission.

Visible signs accompany the outpoured Spirit in Acts, but that is not the only way the Spirit is manifest.

In his fine book Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson warns against expecting demonstrable wonders as proof of the Spirit’s work in our lives. “When God brings us into this Holy Spirit life of participation, he [God] doesn’t make a show out of it,” he writes.

The Holy Spirit draws us into the life of God as Trinity so that we might participate in God’s work.

I think many are fearful of the power of the Spirit because they think being filled with God’s abiding as Spirit will make them do weird things. If weird means becoming extravagantly compassionate or practicing radical hospitality or taking Jesus’ teaching about peace seriously, then they are correct.

There are ecclesial traditions that believe the confirming sign of the presence of the Spirit is speaking in tongues. Others believe that this is not the sine qua non of being filled with the Spirit.

We must guard against circumscribing how the Spirit must work. At the same time, we can grow in being receptive to all drawn by the Spirit’s tether -- always more inclusive than we imagine.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann urges non-charismatic branches of the church to appreciate how those churches more open to the mighty works of the Spirit are growing. “Before the mainline churches ... and other leaders ‘quench’ the Spirit of the ‘charismatic movement’, we should all make room for the Spirit,” he wrote in The Spirit of Life.

Moltmann’s thinking prompts us to ask where Pentecost is being experienced today. Anywhere persons are aflame with love for God and others. Anywhere persons are growing in generosity, as St. Ignatius prayed, to “give without counting the cost.” Anywhere persons are laboring without expecting any reward other than to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Is God’s Spirit as active today as in the early fervor of proclaiming the resurrected Lord? Yes, if we are willing to make room for the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is God present with us, transforming us to live into the patterns of resurrection so that our hearts burn within us for the sake of the world as we travel in Christ’s company. Come Holy Spirit; set our hearts on fire.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.