Luke uses a unique phrase in his Gospel and Book of Acts. Eleven different times he describes a follower of God as “full of the Holy Spirit” combined with something else, best understood as an emotion. One of the ways to recognize the Holy Spirit at work today is in a follower of Christ who is proclaiming or acting boldly or in an energetic way or with special wisdom.
Luke first used the phrase for Elizabeth, who when hearing that Mary was to be the mother of the Messiah, was full of the Holy Spirit and burst out in praise to God. Her husband Zechariah, proud at the birth of his son John, was full of the Holy Spirit and proclaimed praise for the coming Messiah. After the resurrection, Peter was full of the Holy Spirit and boldly proclaimed the Good News to the Sanhedrin. Noting his courage, they marveled that such an illiterate could speak so well. The seven chosen to be food administrators were full of the Holy Spirit and special wisdom.
Have you had a special time when, overcome with emotion, you broke out in praise to God? Or have you had a time when you needed to speak about your faith to someone somewhere, and the right words just seemed to flow out of your mouth? Or can you remember when you came up with a unique idea that solved a problem at church that was recognized as especially wise? Now you have a word for it. Then and there you were full of the Holy Spirit. Gain confidence that the Spirit is leading you. Look forward to his next special visitation.
To be full of the Spirit at special times does not mean the Spirit is gone at other times. Like the dove who alighted on Jesus’ shoulder at his baptism, the Spirit is sitting on the shoulder of believers, constantly whispering into your thoughts how to keep in step with him as you go through your day, whether you recognize him or not. An old word for the Spirit’s nudging is following your conscience.
Paul uses the image of the Spirit being poured out on someone. Think of yourself as a jar receiving the Spirit. But your jar and mine have a hole in it called sin, and our resistance to the Spirit can be strong at times, leaving the jar mostly empty. And then when he is most needed, the Spirit comes in a special way, and we become full of the Spirit again.
The Spirit specializes in changing hearts. He works on emotions, producing more love, joy, peace and boldness. Some of his people today react with hot emotions. Followers whose heritage is Northern European prefer cooler emotions.
Traditional Protestants respond better to the Spirit who comes head first in rational ways. They are cautious about those to whom he comes heart first. The dilemma for traditional rational church leaders is that most people today perceive with the heart first rather than through heady explanations. All listen better when they perceive the leader as someone who cares for them and wants to help them live a better life in this world as well as the next.
Preferences for recognizing the Spirit seem related to the socio-economic-educational level. I did a little research on churches in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland, where I grew up. The four Hispanic churches seemed full of passion. In one they seemed to be interacting with raw emotions. A congregation from a different heritage seemed very rational but with little passion. They probably had the highest educational level of any of the churches in Tremont. But churches of their heritage seem to be declining the fastest among traditional Protestants.
Churches and their leaders who operate mostly at the head level will probably not fare well in the swiftly changing 21st century. The Christian future belongs to those who with heart-felt emotions can communicate well to those who expect emotions in their church life.