ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 23, 2013
PASS IT ON
Numbers 11: 16 – 29; 2 Kings 2: 9 – 15; John 20: 19 – 23
There are many things in life get passed on. With a single sneeze, germs find their way from one host to the next. Plants are pollinated as bees move from one flower to the next with nectar on their feet. DNA is passed through generation after generation; a geneticist could tell me more about my family tree than Ancestory.com will ever know. Habits can be passed on too; when my daughter was 3 she would begin her sentences with “Actually…” I wondered where she got that from until I heard myself doing the same thing. Values are passed on through faith groups and families. Clothing is passed on from the wealthy to the poor. Knowledge is passed on from teacher to student. Passing things on appears to be a big part of life.
In the scriptures, we discover the Holy Spirit also can be “passed on”. I had previously thought the Holy Spirit always came directly from God. Either the Spirit came upon an individual such as Samson; Judges 14:6 reads, “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily…” Or Spirit came upon a group of people as on the day of Pentecost when, “…they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2: 4). Today’s readings teach us the Spirit also comes in other ways.
In the first narrative, the Israelites were in the wilderness feasting on manna every day. Even though manna tasted like bread baked in oil, after 40 years the people had had their fill of manna and were clamouring for meat. Moses was fed up with them and called out to God, “Why do you hate me so much? Why did you burden me with these people? I didn’t create them. How are they my problem? They behave like babies. They keep whining for meat – I don’t have any meat. I can’t do all this by myself; it’s too much. Why don’t you just take me out and stone me?” (Numbers 11: 11 – 15) God in his wisdom heard Moses’ desperate need for support. He directed Moses, “Assemble 70 respected men who are recognized as leaders of the people, bring them to the Tent of Presence and tell them to stand beside you. I will come down… and I will take some of the spirit I have given you and give it to them. Then they can help you bear the responsibility for these people.” (vs. 16 & 17) Moses did what God had told him (vs. 24). God came down in a cloud, spoke to Moses and then “He took some of the Spirit he had given Moses and gave it to the 70 leaders. When the Spirit came upon them, they began to shout in prophetic ecstasy.” (vs. 25) Two of the 70 leaders had remained in the camp and we’re told that the Spirit also came on them and they too began to shout like prophets. (vs. 27) Moses’ right hand man, Joshua, was aghast and insisted Moses stop them. (vs. 28) Moses refused saying, “I wish that the Lord would give his Spirit to all the people and make all of them shout like prophets.” (vs. 29)
Notice that God had called Moses to this leadership position and provided Moses with the Spirit to fulfill his calling. Later when the responsibility was divided, the Spirit was divided also. God equipped each person to fulfill their calling. Prophetic utterance was a sign of the Spirit’s indwelling, just as it would be at Pentecost. And God is not restricted even by his own instructions. Two of the men didn’t go to the proscribed place, but the Spirit also came upon them in another location. We’re reminded of Jesus teaching that the Spirit, like the wind “blows where it wishes”. (John 3:8) Finally there are always those who will want to contain the Spirit but sharing the Holy Spirit is a wonderful thing – it blesses the whole community.
In 2 Kings 2 Elijah, a great, Spirit-filled servant of the Lord, was preparing to depart from the earth. He’d asked the council of prophets to remain behind but Elisha, his disciple, insisted on accompanying him. Coming to the Jordan River, Elijah took off his mantle and struck the water which parted allowing the two men to cross. Elijah then asked Elisha what he wanted. Elisha responded, “Please, let a double portion of your Spirit be upon me.” (vs. 9) A “double portion” was the share of the estate the eldest son would inherit. Elisha wanted to be the heir of Elijah’s Spirit. The MSG puts it, “Your life repeated in my life. I want to be a holy man like you.” Elijah told him, “If you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.” (vs. 10) With this, a chariot of fire and horses appeared, a whirlwind stirred up and Elijah was taken up into heaven. Elisha is struck with awe and grief, but after a time he picked up Elijah’s cloak, turned back to the river and smacked the water while calling on “the Lord, the God of Elijah” (vs. 14). The water divided and Elisha crossed back. The other prophets who witnessed Elisha’s miracle recognized that “The Spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” (vs. 15) and they acknowledge him as their new leader.
We note here that Elijah’s Spirit carried within it the gift of miracles. Elisha showed great determination in being the recipient not just of Elijah’s power but of Elijah’s Spirit filled character. The transfer of the Spirit from master to student is confirmed by Elisha’s immediate use of Elijah’s mantle to do what Elijah had done – part the Jordan. There are many similarities between Elisha receiving the Spirit of Elijah and the Spirit’s coming in the book of Acts. Elisha requests a double portion of Elijah’s Spirit and Jesus promised his disciples they will do “the works I did and even greater ones. (John 14:12) Both Elijah and Jesus ascend into heaven and enter the glory of God; their ascension is witnessed by their disciples. At the moment of transfer to Elisha the Holy Spirit appears as fire and wind – likewise on the day of Pentecost. Both Elijah and Jesus are sought after by their disciples, however only Jesus is found in his risen glorified form.
Our final reading addresses the most significant transfer of the Holy Spirit. In John’s gospel, the risen, glorified Christ appeared to his disciples who rejoiced at the sight of him. Jesus addressed them saying, “Peace be with you” and he commissioned them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20: 21). Unlike Jesus commissioning in other gospels, Jesus then breathed on them and said, “Receive Holy Spirit” (vs. 22). Jesus shared with them his Spirit. While Luke focused on the charismatic explosion of the Spirit, John was interested in the Spirit’s relation to sin. Not only did the disciples and all followers of Jesus since their time, have the ability to forgive the sins of others, but their act of forgiveness is one with God’s reality. If they forgive, then God forgives. If the Church forgives, God forgives. At first glance John’s emphasis seems to tame the Spirit – there is nothing here of the power and sensationalism of Luke’s rendition of Pentecost. No one would mistake the disciples at this moment for being drunk. For John, the sending of the disciples to continue the work of Christ is where the excitement lies. And when Jesus breathed his Spirit into this first group of believers it elevated Jesus commission from an instruction to transformation – a new creation came into being! Christ’s body, the Spirit-filled Church was born. From this moment on the Spirit will lead the Church by nourishing them inwardly with Living Water and by affirming their outward mission to forgive and to call people to faith in Christ.
So what do we make of all this? It’s clear in scripture that it is God’s work to multiply the Spirit and pass it from one person to the next. God does not limit the ways, times or places the Spirit may come. We notice in the OT that the Holy Spirit worked in the lives of people at particular times for specific reasons. It was not until the birth of the Church that Moses’ dream of all people permanently having the indwelling Spirit became a reality. Like the gift of salvation, the Spirit is available to all who believe in Jesus.
In what ways can we work with God in passing the Spirit we have been given to others? Over time the Church has formalized some of the ways the Spirit is shared. The laying on of hands is an action that is frequently used to pass on the Spirit. We do this in the acts of ordination and when someone makes a profession of faith. In these situations we’re not passing on the authority of a role, we’re allowing the Spirit God has given us to pass into them. As Paul told Timothy, when the Spirit comes through the laying on of hands, spiritual gifts are given. Also the Spirit is shared when we lay on hands in prayers of healing. Like Jesus, we also share a portion of our Spirit when we wish others the peace of Christ. Although this is done each week as a ritual, it is still a spiritually powerful action. We’re not simply saying words, or doing a “meet and greet” but we’re extending and sharing the very Spirit of Christ with our own church family. But there are less formal ways to share the Spirit as well. In Moses’ situation God told him to gather the people into the Tent of Presence – into God’s presence. When we bring people into God’s presence we open the door for the Spirit to be passed on. Sharing our faith with love and leading people into a relationship with Christ brings them into God’s presence. Bringing friends to worship brings them into God’s presence in a particular place and time. Extending the love of God to others is also an experience of God’s presence. When we act lovingly, love grows and we sense the Spirit expanding.
How do we know the Spirit is spreading? Sometimes the passing on of the Spirit is marked by great supernatural signs. But there are more subtle signs as well. When the Spirit is shared, like Moses, we are brought into a deeper and more purposeful relationship with others and the community is built up. As in Elisha’s case, we know the Spirit is spreading when we see people growing in holiness and character, with a pure desire to serve. When God passes the Spirit on something new is born and people are re-created. Not only do they experience forgiveness, but they become forgiving people.
Many things are passed on in our world. The Holy Spirit can be one of them. Won’t you work with God to pass it on?