Sometimes we discover things by their absence.
On Christmas morning I made one of these discoveries. We had opened our presents. The kids were absorbed with their new toys. My husband, Alan, was making our traditional Christmas Day big, lazy breakfast. I was drinking a cup of coffee and supervising his work. Alan picked up his phone to do one of the thousands of things we use our phones for – and that’s when I saw what wasn’t there to see.
“Alan! You have more presents!”
I ran over to the tree and sure enough, blended into a pile of gifts that would go onward to other family gatherings, were two more packages for Alan. He opened the first one to find… a new cell phone cover to replace the old, clunky one.
Paul makes this same kind of discovery when he crosses paths with a dozen disciples. He must see something missing right away, because he greets them with this odd question: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”
“No,” they say. “What’s that?”
“What’s that!” I imagine Paul responding. “Are you kidding? It’s, like, the best part. Well then, what were you baptized into?”
“John’s baptism; you know, he baptized for repentance.”
I think Paul smiled then. “You guys are in for a treat.”
This is more than just realizing that there’s an unopened gift under the tree; it’s as if the one that was forgotten was the best one, the one that brings everything to a new level.
Perhaps, as you read this, you’re wondering if you have left a gift under the tree – baptismally speaking.
I write out of the United Methodist tradition, where many of us are baptized as babies. There are some good theological reasons for this, chief among them the belief that God’s grace is extended to us from the moment we are conceived. But it also leaves us exposed to the danger of never thinking carefully about that baptism and what difference it makes in our lives. We could very well grow up calling ourselves “Christians” while under-using or completely neglecting the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit.
And how do we know if we have this gift, or if we are putting it to good use?
The same way Paul noticed something was off with the disciples he meets: we discover by absence. What isn’t in our lives that ought to be there?
There are many “fruits of the Spirit,” as Paul calls them in Galatians 5:22-3. But let’s focus on the one that I think Paul found absent in these disciples: prophesy.
I hear “prophesy” and my first thought is of predicting the future – which is one aspect of prophecy. But also, prophesy includes divinely-inspired declaration of the way things really are, right now. As in, the Good News of Christ. Once these disciples in today’s Scripture are baptized in the Holy Spirit, they begin to do this. Before, was their prophesy absent? Was that the red flag for Paul? Because it is pretty weird if they aren’t talking about Jesus.
It’s like my friend Randy in Charlotte. Randy and his wife, Martha, were very involved in the church I served there. They were among the first people I met, and among the people I spent the most time with. I loved hearing their stories and learning about their lives. One day, Randy and I were talking about the boats he worked on. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but it was something like this:
Me: “You’re really good at fixing boats. Do you like to drive them?”
Randy: “Oh, sure. You know, we have that pontoon. It’s nice.”
Me : “Have you ever had… what do you call it… like a boat you could ski behind?”
Randy: “I’ve had a bunch of speedboats.”
Me: “A bunch?”
Randy: “Oh, yeah. You know I used to race them.”
Randy: “I used to race them.”
Me: “Like, against other people?”
Randy, laughing: “Yes, against other people. I won the national championship three times.”
Me, after picking my jaw up off the ground: “You’re a three-time national champion speed boat racer?”
Sure enough, Randy had the trophies and everything. It was weird to me that he had never talked about it before. I mean, that is a great back story!
Maybe a better example is to think of a hypothetical female friend. You’re not best friends, but you see her often: a neighbor, or a co-worker, or part of your tennis team. You mostly talk about small stuff, like who makes the best burrito in town, but sometimes you’ll talk about something more serious. One day, you ask her if she can come to a dinner party next weekend. “Oh, I can’t,” she says. “I’m getting married.”
Married? You didn’t even know she had a fiancée. Turns out, she’s been engaged for six months. Which leads you to wonder: If she’s not excited enough about this guy to talk about him to her friends, then is she really in love with him?
This absence can lead us to a discovery in our own lives. If we aren’t excited enough about Jesus Christ to talk about him to our friends, then how much do we really love him?
I’ll be the first to admit that there is a cultural pressure working against us in this department. I sometimes experience it, too. It’s easy to feel reluctant to talk about our faith because we don’t want to offend anyone, or because our workplaces might discourage it, or simply because we don’t know what to say.
But if we never talk about it, then is there anything there to speak of?
The Holy Spirit brings the gift of prophecy. It brought it to these twelve disciples. It brought it to the original 12-become-11, making them “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). When the Council in Jerusalem told Peter and John to stop talking about Jesus, they say that they are unable to shut up about him – and after some prayer, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31).
I invite you to look for an absence in your life. Are you prophesying – that is, are you talking about what Christ has done for you? Or, is there a noticeable lack thereof? Is it possible that the Holy Spirit is still a wrapped gift, waiting to be opened and really used?
I can’t answer that for you. It’s a discovery by absence you’ll have to make for yourself.
During worship in our church today, right after I preached this sermon, we took a few moments to reaffirm our baptisms. I had the blessing of dipping my finger in the baptismal fount and using that water to make the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead. “Remember your baptism and be thankful,” I said.
Moments like that help us to be still and open our hearts. They give us a chance to feel a presence – the presence – that can fill any absence.
May you feel that Presence so deeply, that you can’t help but tell someone else about what Christ has done for you.