Keeping Up with the Holy Spirit

Art credit: Eugène Burnand 1850 – 1921 Peter and John Running to the Tomb, oil on canvas (82 × 134 cm) — 1898 Musée d’Orsay, Paris

A careful reading of all of the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospels will reveal that, in spite of Jesus’ repeated predictions of his death and resurrection, no one saw it coming – certainly not the resurrection part. Mary thinks Jesus is a gardener. Peter and (we think it might have been) John see the empty tomb and the linen to wrap Jesus’ body along with the veil for his face neatly folded. Having seen this they “believe” for, as John tells us, “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”  The wisdom of God’s way with life was always several steps ahead of even those who sought to be most intimately acquainted with it.

Even after the followers of Jesus – his disciples – receive the presence of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, they still aren’t out in front of things. Peter preaches a dynamic sermon about Jesus’ resurrection to a crowd of people from nearly every corner of the Roman world but still needs to be led by the hand to realize that the message of life that he proclaims is for all people everywhere, not just those who have been trying to keep the Ten Commandments. Even though Philip recognizes that a man from Ethiopia is reading the Prophet Isaiah’s writings, the unnamed Ethiopian man has to be the one to suggest that he be baptized – Philip doesn’t make the offer. In both of these cases, God who is the Holy Spirit has already been at work. Peter and Philip just show up to see things happening.

The pattern continues. An unexpecting Saul of Tarsus is confronted by the Risen Jesus on his way to arrest Christians in Antioch and his life is changed. But when the folks in Antioch hear about it, their first response is suspicion – even though the news comes from Jesus himself!

As we’ve already observed, Luke’s book is called “The Acts of the Apostles” but their acts are mostly going from place to place, not to make things happen, but to discover that things are already going on, that the Spirit of God has been at work, preparing people to hear and receive the news that Jesus’ resurrection has defeated the forces of death and that the rule and reign of God which brings forgiveness and life, has been inaugurated. They are merely witnesses to what God is already doing in the world. This seems to be the pattern of divine behavior.

In our staff meetings at the Division of Calling and Spiritual Life, a question that we’re routinely asking one another is, “Where do you see God at work in the world?” This is not a question that we’re used to asking. Our first inclination is to assume that if we want to get something done, we’ve got to get to it. The second inclination goes with it: we in the privacy of our own thoughts are the ones who know what needs to be done. 

What we’re discovering in asking the question is that God is not only at work in the world, but that this work is being done in others! The opportunity is to recognize it, come alongside it in cooperation, and bear witness to the life-giving creativity of the Holy Spirit, even in this time and place!

Mr. Fred Rogers was known for sharing a story from his childhood about his mother’s advice in response to scary news. He wrote, “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” This isn’t naive optimism. It’s a call to pay attention to the whole picture, to see, even in the presence of death, what life is doing. This too is the work of the Holy Spirit, calling people to lives of service.

These are challenging days to be in the University business. In days of such challenge, it might seem like a downward spiral is as inevitable as the pull of gravity and a voice that calls us to attend to the creative work of the Holy Spirit of God among us, hopelessly and unrealistically pollyannaish. It is, unless we stop long enough to pay attention and ask ourselves and one another, how is God at work in the world right here and right now. 

Pr. Jim

Rev. Katherine Museus and Rev. James A. Wetzstein serve as university pastors at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and take turns writing weekly devotions.

April 17, 2024