Acquiring the Holy Spirit
I. “It was Thursday. The day was gloomy. The snow lay eight inches deep on the ground; and dry, crisp snowflakes were falling thickly from the sky when Father Seraphim began his conversation with me…He sat me on the stump of a tree which he had just felled, and he himself squatted opposite me.”
In the late 19th century, a Russian named Nicholas Motovilov set out to meet Fr. Seraphim, today known as St. Seraphim of Sarov. News of his holiness had spread all over the world. He was a sort of modern Francis of Assisi, a hermit who labored in prayer day and night out in the wilderness. His soul was so tranquil that animals were drawn to him, becoming calm and tame. Today, this saint is best known for his teaching: “Achieve inner peace and you will save thousands.”
In his letters, Motovilov reports one exceptional conversation with the holy man. There in the woods and snow, St. Seraphim began:
"’The Lord has revealed to me…that in your childhood you had a great desire to know the aim of our Christian life, and that you continually asked many great spiritual persons about it. But no one…has given you a precise answer. They have said to you: 'Go to Church, pray to God, do the commandments of God, do good—that is the aim of the Christian life.'…But they did not speak as they should…Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life…The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God…Fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ's sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God... ‘Son, give Me thy heart,' [God] says, 'and all the rest I Myself will add to thee’…for in the human heart the Kingdom of God can be contained…this is the throne on which He loves to sit’…”
II. What is the aim of the Christian life?
I apologize for spending so much time on the life of a man. Our focus must be the Lord Jesus Christ. A sermon’s purpose is to expound on the Holy Gospel. Yet, what the saints give us is a little glimpse of Jesus Christ in our lives. Why, after all, do we paint hallows around them but to show the light that they reflect from Jesus. It’s not their light. It’s God’s light pouring through them. The saints, like St. Seraphim, are a witness to Jesus Christ with us now.
Christianity in America is lost. We’ve missed the point. We’ve flipped religion upside down. We’ve hijacked the word ‘Christianity’ to describe something foreign, our real religion: consumerism. For some, church has become a place to be entertained. For others, it’s a place to fulfill our righteous obligations (a pat on the back, so to speak). For some others still, church is an escape, a way to find quiet, so we will condemn anyone who keeps us from getting that quiet, that product, that fix. Other times, church becomes a social club, where we can associate with “my kind of people.” If “other kinds” arrive and get under my skin, well, I’ll just pack my bags and find another church. There are many extremes, and that’s all very well, but they aren’t Christian.
III. So what is Christianity?
Why do we come to Church? We come to abandon our selves to God, our bodies, minds, and souls, and let Him change us inside out. We come to acquire the Holy Spirit, that is, to let God’s spirit transform us inside out and shape us so that we begin to look a little more like Him. The moment we’re baptized and chrismated, God sparks a flame in our hearts. It’s a little flame at first. It’s so small that you might not even realize it’s there. But everything in your life hinges on your determination to let the flame grow, to kindle it, fan it, guard and strengthen the flame. Everything depends on that.
If our hearts are cold, then the flame will keep flickering, but make no difference in our lives. We’ll be the same dead men, the same sleepwalkers that we were before. If we believe the actions of our past make up for the present, then we’re equally sleepwalking. God isn’t concerned about your past. He’s concerned about your present. Some of us spend years nurturing that flame, but then fall asleep. Again, the flame has no affect.
Have you ever camped out by a campfire late on a winter night? Your fingers and limbs are numb. All you can do to stay warm is to keep tossing on firewood. When you start dozing the fire goes out. You need to keep throwing on timber to keep the light alive. You have to stay alert.
In the same way, we have to feed that flame every fiber and sinew of our hearts.
IV. There are a many analogies.
Jesus Christ gives us two today in our gospel reading. He spoke the following parable:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32).
Have you ever planted a tree? In Virginia, this was easy. You can just about put anything into the dirt and it sprouts. It’s not so easy in Texas. I’ve been here for three years and still can’t figure out how to keep a garden alive. The soil is clay and sand. The weather is hot or cold. I don’t know how a mustard tree would grow here, but I know it wouldn’t without effort. You’d have to enhance the soil with nutrients, water it diligently and shelter it from the sun. It would take constant monitoring.
This too is how our soul works.
V. Christ gave us the parable of yeast and flour.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough” (Matthew 13:33).
Your heart is the flour. Christ is the yeast. We have to work it “all through the dough” till it does its work.
In his second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul wrote, “If any one purifies himself from what is ignoble, then he will be a vessel for noble use” (2:21). The bread isn’t any good if the yeast wasn’t mixed well. The finest, all-natural, organic, non-GMO mustard seed is useless if the soil is never watered.
VI. But we get stuck.
We lose our joy. It becomes a burden. We get locked in a place of grumbling. We can become so acquainted with that grumble that it becomes a fire in itself. It goes on and consumes everything we see. For this reason, Christians can become grumpy, irritable, or judgmental people. We lose our first love. We blame it on circumstances, and there’s always plenty to dig up if you want to, but deep down the heart has gone cold. Church no longer gives us gratitude but a headache. We’ve let the fire die down. When Christianity becomes a burden we’ve fallen off the bandwagon. We need to put Christ back into Christianity.
“The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God…Fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ's sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God... ‘Son, give Me thy heart,' [God] says, 'and all the rest I Myself will add to thee…for in the human heart the Kingdom of God can be contained…this is the throne on which He loves to sit’…”
Jesus Christ came to give us the ‘glad tidings.’ When we abandon ourselves to those glad tidings then joy spreads everywhere and floods the heart. Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas…we are entering into a holy season. May God give us a holy, fresh start, kindling our heart with the radiant flame of His Holy Spirit.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.