Luke’s story of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples is highly dramatic and very powerful. I think Luke is drawn to the dramatic, to powerful signs and wonders, and for many this is a very exciting and empowering story. It shows the transformation that the Spirit can work in the lives of ordinary people. I remember an elderly woman ask me ‘Can people really change?’ She was a child psychologist, and her question surprised me, because I thought that someone in her profession would have good hope that people can change and grow through the counselling and therapy they offer. But it clearly worried her and she doubted it.
However, when we see the impact of Jesus’ ministry in healing sick bodies and minds, and turning people whose lives were set on a destructive course toward the light of God’s love, we do see real change. Luke narrates Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road which is perhaps the most dramatic of all.
So yes, I do believe God can turn people’s lives around for good, that God can effect change in people, and Luke’s story of Pentecost is yet another example. Here were a group of people who had been through the mill emotionally. They had seen their beloved leader and mentor, tortured to death on the cross, and with his death all their hopes and dreams were dashed. It’s very understandable that they tried to make themselves a small target, hiding away from the authorities behind locked doors, and worrying about where their future might be: ‘Would they be safe? Would they be labelled forever as trouble makers or worse, rebels?’
The story of Pentecost describes how the disciples found within them and among them a deep sense of intimacy with God, a sense of God’s presence indwelling them, loving them, forgiving them, and above all chasing away the fear that lurked in their hearts and minds.
John later described the power of God’s love as that which chases fear away (1 John 4:17), and Paul wrote that God did not give us a spirit of fear, but rather a spirit of power and of love… (12 Timothy 1:7). The result of all this is that, knowing they were loved, even cherished, empowered them to walk out into the public arena and live their lives to the full.
One of the images I have sometimes used in preparing couples for marriage and talking about dealing with conflict, is to draw a simple house plan, and talk about the different areas of conflict from politics, finances, sex, relationships, family and friends, even religion. When a couple decide not to work through any of these areas together its like shutting a door in the house so as not to enter it. When that becomes a pattern we end up living in only one or two rooms and our lives become smaller. The story of Pentecost is about God opening up the doors and inviting us to live expansive lives; lives of welcome and generosity, of sharing the intimacy and love we receive from God with warmth.
In focusing on the power of the Spirit, Luke teaches us that the Holy Spirit is mysteriously unpredictable and untameable; that the Holy Spirit is holy Other and so able to effect change in us, but that the Spirit is also Helper, Counsellor, Advocate and Comforter, who has our best interests at heart, and deeply desires that we grow into the fullness of all that God has made us to be.
God is there to help us (sometimes through our friends, and often through the support of others skilled and equipped for this purpose) to deal with our fears, and guide us in our relationships, and empower us to be forgiving, merciful and just in all our dealings. When we practise these virtues with the grace of God, we do grow in both faith and love.