Led by the Spirit
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Guffey
In the Name of the One, Holy, and Everliving God. + AMEN.
Have you got the Holy Spirit? Have you got the Holy Spirit?
I had a number of Pentecostal or charismatic friends growing up who seemed to enjoy asking this question. One friend I remember from college had a sort of manic happiness on her face when she would ask me that question that made me worry she was in danger of actually bursting from giddiness.
And when I was a younger man, I wondered. I wondered what it might mean to have “got” the Holy Spirit. I talked with people and read about speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy: all of those talents or gifts that our charismatic friends see as sure proof that we have “got” the Holy Spirit. I wanted it all. Having recently decided that God was all-in on me, I figured I ought to be all-in with God. And if that meant “getting” the Holy Spirit, well, then, I wanted the Holy Spirit. If there was more of God to experience, if there was some way of relating to God I had missed, I wanted it.
I regret to have to tell you, I never did “get” the Holy Spirit. That is, no flames of fire ever descended from heaven to rest over my forehead. No angelic or divine language ever issued from my lips. I’m pretty sure I’ve never healed anyone. And I’m quite confident I’ve never been the conduit for someone to be slain in the Spirit. And no Peter has ever had to assure onlookers that they need not worry; that I am not drunk as they suppose, because it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. (I love that line. Although, my roommate in college pointed out that in college, that’s not an airtight argument.)
But that’s not to say that I am unfamiliar with Pentecost. It’s just that, what my well-intentioned Pentecostal friends and I had wrong, was the notion that somehow we can “get” the Spirit, that we can call down some supernatural force that makes us something other than human. My misunderstanding was the notion that I could “get” the Spirit. The truth is, it is the Spirit that grabs hold of us.
Paul says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” I know everyone loves to pick on Paul. And sometimes he does really deserve it. But this is where Paul is spot-on. To be a follower of Jesus means to find ourselves caught up in something we didn’t start, we don’t control, and we can barely anticipate. To be a follower of Jesus means to be swept up by the living God, into a life we did not envision for ourselves, speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, and turning a deaf ear to the fears that keep us from giving our whole lives to God’s work in the world.
Being led by the Spirit means that we see possibility and generosity where we once saw only necessity and limits. Because the Spirit of God is the Spirit of life that renews the face of the earth, when we are led by the Spirit we are free to live fully, and to live fully not really for ourselves, but for others. Living by the Spirit does not necessarily mean being happy, because freedom is greater than happiness. But we need to understand freedom: I do not mean free from the threats of our enemies who want to kill us; I mean the freedom to live without enemies. The freedom of the Spirit is not freedom from others, but freedom for others.
In the rock-opera, RENT, which was very popular when I was in college, there is a scene that is part of a Life-Support meeting for people living with AIDS. The scene leads to the beautifully tragic song, “Will I?” One character, Gordon, begins, but eventually everyone on the stage sings in a round,
Will I lose my dignity?
Will someone care?
Will I wake tomorrow, from
This song always rips through me, because it gives voice to a deep truth: At the heart of so many “others”—our enemies as well as our loved ones—is pain, hurt, fear. Being led by the Spirit means being free to see past the hurt others cause to the pain that’s driving them, and being free to respond—you guessed it—in love.
And that can be hard work, because God doesn’t just take us over: God’s Spirit does not fall on the unwilling. We’ve got to want it. And we’ve got to be willing to accept the cost.
There are some things I have been hesitant to speak about in these first few months I have been with you. Mostly because I wanted you to get to know me a bit first. But it’s about time.
Let me confess that I am conservative in habit. That does not mean I am a Republican. What I mean is, I generally don’t like things to change. And when they have, I usually want them to change back. I am not a natural adventurer. I prefer managed risk to unmanaged risk. I like knowing the answers and sticking to them.
I also know my Bible very well. That was something I was known for during college, too. Some of my friends, all in good humor, called me Jesus Boy. So I am well-aware of what the Bible supposedly says about homosexuality. And I will admit, there are a few difficult verses there, though not nearly as many as one might suppose. For years, I tried to hold a line that said of course gay people are loved by God, but that doesn’t mean they should be in church leadership. After all, the Bible says…. But the more queer folk I met, and the more queer Christians I met, the less certain I was that I had read my Scriptures faithfully, the more clearly I heard that “ALL who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” That’s not to say I misunderstood what I had read, but faithful reading of the Bible is more than understanding what we read. Faithful reading of the Bible is reading the texts with the experience of the Spirit ever before us. It is no good understanding the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, or being able to cite chapter and verse, if it causes us to stray from loving God or loving our neighbor, or trapping the living God in a text. And I began to become aware that my reading of Scripture had done just that.
I was putting the emphasis in the wrong place. I was looking for rules and regulations, rather than, well, the living God. Pentecost, beloved, is all about the living God. The God who is not only alive and well, but also invested in us and in this world—invested in the sorrows and the joys, the heartaches and the laughter, the cold injustice and bright mercies of these lives of ours. And so, gradually, and all too unheroically, I began to wake up to the work of the Spirit—stirred by the cries of my queer loved ones, by the work of the Spirit among them, and by the work of the Spirit in my heart at prayer. I learned, like Peter from the Acts reading a few weeks ago, to call nothing unclean that God has declared clean.
And I realized that I needed to get out of the way. The Holy Spirit has got plans, and I was in the way. And once I was out of the way, the Spirit reached back and grabbed me by the collar (pun intended), and said, “You’re not done yet! The Church has caused my queer children pain, and we’ve got to do something about that. The Church has told them they are not worthy of Me; we’ve got to tell them the Church was wrong. The Church has told them they need to change; we’ve got to tell them God doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes. The Church has told them they are too far for me to find them; we’ve got to make it known that there is nowhere where my love cannot find my beautiful, beloved, queer children.”
Friends, I do not feel I am worthy to say these things. But I am compelled by the Spirit that frees us to live in love.
What I’m saying is this: in my life, Pentecost has proven to be an adventure, or, if you like, and exploration. Being led by the Spirit sounds a great deal like what T. S. Eliot says in “Little Gidding”:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Pentecost is coming home by the long road. Being led by the Spirit means learning to follow the living God into strange places, and returning a different person. Pentecost is a dance. Maybe you’re thinking, yes, but a dance has rules, right steps and wrong steps. Maybe. But the point of dancing isn’t to get it right, the point of dancing is just to dance. And, as Mary Oliver wrote,
As long as you’re dancing, you can
break the rules.
Sometimes breaking the rules is just
extending the rules
Sometimes there are no rules.
(“Three Things to Remember”)
Are you afraid that Pentecost has passed you by, that you have not “got” the Spirit? Well, you’re in luck. As Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Because Pentecost happens all over again today and tomorrow and the next day, and the next, and the next. Your invitation to join the dance never expires. The Spirit is always willing to join us to the dance. Whenever you’re ready. Just put one foot in, and away we go.