So it’s a week to be an Oregonian, no? I have to love it when our gas-pumping habits make the national news. On Thursday I woke up to the Washington Post headline that read “I don’t even know HOW: Some Oregonians panic about the new self-service gas law.”
Great. The rest of the country already thinks that we’re all a bunch of spoiled micro-roasted-coffee-drinking early retirees—if they watch Portlandia, that is—and now they think we can’t even manage a gas pump.
But with chagrin, I have to confess that I do resemble that Post headline. A few months ago I found myself returning from Seattle by car, and unthinkingly stopped to fill up my tank on the Washington side. So I did what any of us would do: I pulled up alongside the pumps, turned off the engine and waited.
And waited. After almost 40 years of competently pumping my own gas, and only a year of living in Oregon, I had completely forgotten how to get out of my car and pick up the pump handle. And honestly, I didn’t really want to, because it was cold and raining outside. I had to wonder, why hadn’t I just waited until I crossed into Oregon so that someone else would fill up my gas tank.
Which leads to the obvious question for followers of Jesus: where do we go for the source of our power, and who does the work of getting it to us?
I’d venture to say that, in some way, that’s what the disciples in Ephesus were asking of Paul, and also those people from the whole Judean countryside who had gathered on the banks of the Jordan River. Whatever had fueling them before—sin or fear or bondage or some incomplete understanding of themselves as children of God—that fuel had run out. And so they came seeking something cleaner, stronger, more whole.
Throughout our scriptures, the Spirit is depicted as the source of sacred energy. In the beginning—for such is the mythical origin of all things in the Judeo-Christian tradition—we find her hovering over the face of the deep with her unique creative potential. She is the wind that sweeps over the waters and augurs the coming of the light. She is the fire itself, a pillar that led the slaves out of Egypt, and tongues that inspired the bold proclamation of the first disciples. She is wisdom, she comforts and counsels, she is the one who gives the words.
And, I should mention, it’s perfectly reasonable to address her as she. Because while all the persons of the Holy Trinity—father son and Holy Spirit—surely exist beyond gender, the word translated “spirit” is a feminine noun in Hebrew and Aramaic.
In church, we use all manner of Biblical metaphors as symbols in for the Holy Spirit. Over in Kempton Hall where the families are worshipping right now, I have been told that the Holy Spirit will be making an appearance in the form of a bird-shaped kite, reminding us of the dove descended on Jesus in our Gospel lesson today.
Meanwhile, you’ll notice that this worship space is partially lit by burning hydrocarbons—that would be the candles—which are a reminder of both the illuminating Spirit and the light of Christ.
And at every baptism, we anoint new Christians with oil, sealing in the spirit and marking them as Christ’s own forever. Which is where resemblance to the hydrocarbons that fuel our cars breaks down. The Holy Spirit is an entirely renewable resource: the more we seek her, the more of her there is to be found. Which is the good news in our lessons today: for those who want her, the Spirit is already there. Waiting to fill them with power. She’s been there from the first moments of creation.
Yes, our lessons introduced us to some people repenting of sin and some other people who seem to have suffered what was an apparently incomplete baptism. And a lot of theological ink has been spilled over what kinds of personal or ritual shortcomings might have caused these various dispiriting conditions. Likewise Christians have endlessly speculated over why Jesus needed John’s baptism of repentance, if he was without sin. But I think the question of what went wrong and thereby required baptism—or a more complete baptism—as a corrective is not nearly as interesting as what the Holy Spirit does about it.
In the case of the Ephesian disciples who Paul baptized into the Spirit, notice that they were given power to prophesy. That is, to speak with God’s own authority. Speaking up is pretty classic manifestation of the Spirit, in Biblical terms. In the case of Jesus, however, the Spirit gave him a gift of listening. Her dove-like descent on that auspicious baptismal day opened his ears to hear the truest and most important message of his 30 years: “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
That’s the truest and most important message any of us will ever hear. As a pastor at Trinity I have the privilege of saying it over and over. And I’m going to say it again now: you are God’s beloved. Whatever sin or lack thereof that you bring to the metaphorical river’s edge, whatever sense of incompletion you may experience in your life of faith, God is still well pleased with you.
I know from my own experience that sometimes we are able hear that message, and sometimes we are not. Our shame and self-doubt—which are sins—conspire to make us deaf to God’s good news. I rather suspect that Jesus was not the only one at the Jordan River to whom God offered a message of unconditional love and pleasure that day. We can’t know that for sure, but what I can say with Biblical confidence is that Jesus was one who took the risk of hearing those words and of letting them shape his work on earth. The heavenly message came to him as a gift of self-understanding, and Jesus accepted it.
We don’t have to earn it, we don’t have to keep our new year’s resolutions in order to deserve it, we don’t even have to get out of the car to receive it. It is God who pumps the sacred fuel, so to speak, of unconditional love. God gives us the knowledge of our beloved-ness, which is what enables us to speak and act in extraordinarily loving ways. That is Jesus’ story, but it is also our own. It is the message of grace that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel. The Spirit hovers over us patiently, just as she did in the beginning, longing to shape the new creation that we are.
We’re not passive actors in this drama. We can contribute to the Spirit’s cause by showing up at the right place, which is often the place where the people in deepest shame and repentance are gathered. We can watch for the breaks in the cloudiness of our human condition, where glimpses of heaven can and do burst forth. We can listen for God’s graceful words and actions, trust in them, and tell other people about them. You are beloved: let yourself hear that over and over until resonates within you like voice of the Lord upon the waters, and pours out like a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.