Harrowing Of Hell
May 1, 2016

Going Down to the River – Who is the Holy Spirit?

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Today I want to talk more about the Holy Spirit. My belief is that if we better understand the Holy Spirit, we will more gracefully live in the world as it was made to be lived in. In other words, I believe that the Holy Spirit infuses us with the capacity to navigate and flourish in this networked, interconnected, yet highly decentralized, and morally uncertain world. So we are going to be talking a lot about the Holy Spirit here at Epiphany.

First, we will review why I insist on calling this the Age of the Holy Spirit. Then we’ll look at the Holy Spirit through the metaphor of a river, using the metaphor to understand two attributes of the Holy Spirit: control and connection. Finally, we’ll put our hand right here on our hearts as we meditate upon the home of the Holy Spirit in the midst of humanity.

We begin by reviewing why I call this the Age of the Holy Spirit. Two weeks ago I introduced you to William Seymour, the person God used to reveal to us the Age of the Holy Spirit. He preached on Bonnie Brea Street in Los Angeles, California, from Mr. Edward Lee’s porch. He preached of God’s agency streaming through the hearts of humanity, and people came. All sorts of people came, like fish rising to meet a hatch. They came because they felt in their bones God doing a new thing. Seymour was the catalyst that revealed the Age of the Holy Spirit. As I’ve said before, the Holy Spirit has been around from day one. But now, in the world as it is, the articulation of God known as the Holy Spirit, is best suited to bring together God’s hope with humanity’s best self.

This time had been predicted. An Italian monk named Joachim of Fiore wrote about it in the 12th century: The age of the Father, brought about by Abraham, will last 2,000 years. The age the Son, alive in Jesus, will last 2,000 years. Which brings us to today, and the age of the Holy Spirit now unleashed in the hearts of humanity. In this networked, interconnected, yet highly decentralized, morally uncertain world, the Holy Spirit seeks to draw us to God, like the ocean seeks to draw river water.

Jesus said this: “Whoever believes in me, ‘Out of their heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

So lets go down to the river. It is where we find Paul today in the Book of Acts. He had a vision to travel to Macedonia. He landed in Philippi, the capital city. And on the Sabbath day he went down to the river to pray. It is an old, well-worn path. Since the beginning of time, since the first prayers were uttered people were uttering them on the banks of rivers.

There is something about a river. The way it twists and dances like a fighter or a ballerina, with unexpected moves, yet full of grace, power, and beauty. Have you even spent time on a river? Have you ever walked its banks or let the water push up against your legs? Think about that river.

For me it is the Yellowstone River. I’ve spent some time on that river. It is the longest free-flowing river in the United States. There are no dams in its way, which means it moves and changes course over time. The land works on the river, and the river works on the land, as gravity tugs the water downhill. Rain and snow fills its banks. Temperatures impact its movement and pace. A fallen tree can change its course. A beaver may take advantage of that. Fish may rest in its shade of that tree, waiting for their dinner to float by. A fishermen may sit on that log dangling his line in the water as a drift boat floats by with the anglers dancing flies from bank to bank. A river is a home, an economy, a mode of transportation, and a place to find a drink or a meal. It’s even a playground. There are many forces that move, carve, shape, and guide a river, which makes it the perfect place to go and pray.

As we arrive at the river with Paul, let’s consider two things: control and connection. You might be asking why these things? Of the hundreds of attributes of the Holy Spirit, why control and connection? Well, one is about who is in charge; the other is about why that is good for us.

We’ll start with control. With the Holy Spirit we have about as much control as we have when we are floating in a raft down the Yellowstone River, which is to say, just enough. My family rafts down the Yellowstone a lot in the summers. I am usually the oarsman so the kids can play in the water. Rowing down a river is generally pretty easy. It is a river. It moves. You dip the paddle here and the paddle there, and that is just enough, until of course, you have to row for your life.

It happens. There is a rock, a tree, rapids, or usually all three at once. So you point the front of the raft at the most perilous danger. Then you name it for everyone in the raft, as you yell, “Hang on!” Then you row as hard as you can backward. You point toward the danger, and you row backwards. You don’t steer or maneuver; you just point and row. The river does the rest. The river is the force that moves you past the peril. It is yours to see, to name, to call out, to row away from, and the river does the work.

It is like that with the Holy Spirit. When there is peril, that is sin or pollution or pain. Name it. Point at it. Don’t ignore it. Confess it. Share it. Own it, like a rock in the river. And then row backward and let the Holy Spirit move you forward and beyond. The control belongs to the Holy Spirit. To know that can be disconcerting unless we also know we are connected.

Connection is the second attribute of the Holy Spirit I’d like us to look at. So let’s return to the Yellowstone. It starts up in Yellowstone Park, in the Absaroka Mountains, where a bunch of little streams come together, and run east for 692 miles to meet the Missouri river in North Dakota. Along the way the Yellowstone connects with the Bighorn and the Tongue and the Powder and the Gardner and the Shields and the Boulder and the Stillwater, and tons of little rivers as well.

It flows. It is connected. It moves until it meets the ocean; the ocean that accepts every river. This connection can’t be broken, but it can be clogged. In 2011 the Yellowstone suffered an oil spill from a refinery near Billings. Streams were clogged. Fish died. My brother, who is a fly fishing guide in Montana, was hired to move clean up crews up and down the river to unclog the mess. The streams of living water from the human heart can also clog. Hearts can become stagnant, brackish and thick with sediment. It happens when we forget who is in control and how we are connected.

So lets take some time to remember this today. That is why we come here, Sunday after Sunday, to remember the Holy Spirit. Let’s honor this relationship by putting our hand right here and maybe closing our eyes. Think of Jesus’ words: “Out of our hearts flow rivers of living water.”

Think of your river. Feel the power of the living water alive in you. What is it like? How does it move? What color is it? Is it clear or metallic grey or shimmering silver? That might depend on the sunlight in your life or the time of day. Is it black or muddy brown? That might depend on how much rain or snow is falling in your life. Is it high and running fast, or a slow steady trickle? That might depend on the season your in, and the state of your body.

Feel the power of the living water in you. See it moving, moving out, beyond yourself, finding confluence with other rivers, merging into a mighty river and seeking the sea. The ocean after all accepts every river.

Take someone’s hand. Imagine we’re down at the river with Paul. We’ve come to pray. Down at the river where the brackish eddies in our souls are stirred, let them move and flow.

Today we have come down to the river with Paul to pray. Hear the sound of the water rushing, resonant in your souls. See the colors, feel the power, the movement, the connection of the living waters of the Holy Spirit that is in you. We are connected; God is in control, flowing through the network of all things. And when we are in that flow, unclogged and open up, then we live gracefully, and beautifully in the world as it is meant to be.


Sermon Reflection Questions

  • What did you hear? What stood out? What surprised you?
  • Was there anything in the sermon that made you think differently or invited you to act differently?
  • What would you ask the preacher?