The six weeks after Easter Sunday must have been exciting for Jesus’ disciples. For forty days, Jesus, now risen from the dead, continued to appear to them, preparing them to go out and proclaim the gospel to the world. Then, just before he ascended into heaven, he promised them something even greater. “In a few days,” he told them, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. . . . You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:5, 8).
Ten days later, on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the promise came true. Amid the spectacle of a loud rushing wind and mysterious tongues of flame, the apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4). Just as Jesus had promised, something dramatic happened, and the disciples’ lives were never the same again.
Peter told the crowd that gathered that day that what they had just seen was not just for the apostles. “The promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off” (Acts 2:39). Every one of them—and every one of us—can be filled with the Holy Spirit. So this month, as we prepare for the feast of Pentecost, we thought it would be good to examine what it means that we, “those far off,” can be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Baptized with the Spirit? The phrase “baptize with the Holy Spirit” occurs in all four Gospels and in the Book of Acts (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; Acts 11:16). But as often as it shows up, it is not always clear what the term means. Then, to add to the confusion, the term has become a popular way for Pentecostals and people involved in the Charismatic Renewal to describe a spiritual awakening they have experienced. How can someone who has already been baptized and who has already received the Holy Spirit be “baptized” with this Spirit again?
Similarly, the idea of being “filled” with the Spirit is very common—especially in the Gospel of Luke and in the Book of Acts. But how can we be filled with the Spirit, when the Spirit already lives in us? So perhaps it might be best to start by talking about what it is not.
First, the experience of being baptized with the Spirit is not the same as sacramental Baptism. When we are baptized in the sacrament, our sins are washed away. We become adopted children of God and members of his Church. We are made citizens of heaven and heirs of Christ. We even receive the Holy Spirit as “the first installment of our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:14). In short, Baptism makes us into a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
By contrast, being baptized or filled with the Spirit is more like a release of the grace of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It doesn’t introduce anything “new” into our lives in the way Baptism does. It is more a matter of our experiencing what we already have and experiencing it in a new, more powerful way.
Similarly, the idea of being filled with the Spirit is about an experience of God’s love and presence so powerful that it fills our hearts with a new sense of joy or peace or love for God. The good news is that God wants all of us to be filled with his Spirit. He wants to give all of us life-changing experiences of his love and his grace.
The “Creative Force” of the Spirit. According to Pope Francis, the Holy Spirit is “the presence living and working in us” (Angelus, August 14, 2016). He calls this presence “a creative force that purifies and renews, that . . . transforms us from within, regenerates us and makes us able to love.”
Francis talks about the Spirit renewing our hearts and the Church—waking us up to the power of faith, making our experience of God feel new again. This kind of renewal can be strong enough to change our hearts and to teach us how to love people we could never have loved before. His renewing, transforming power helps us to say no to temptation and yes to Jesus. And as we say yes more frequently, we find our lives changing.
But Francis is also quick to point out that this transforming work of the Holy Spirit isn’t like magic. It doesn’t just happen to us. We have a critical role to play. “If we open ourselves completely to the action of this fire which is the Holy Spirit, he will give us the boldness and the fervor to proclaim to everyone Jesus.” But “if the Church does not receive this fire, or does not let it inflame her, she becomes a cold or merely lukewarm Church, incapable of giving life, because she is made up of cold and lukewarm Christians.”
This is not a new teaching. It goes all the way back to Jesus and the apostles. But since we can be so prone to give in to the temptation to put the Holy Spirit aside, we need to be deliberate about our decisions. We need to be careful about the way we live our lives. Otherwise, we risk getting swept up in the demands of the day.
God’s Work and Our Work. So what does being filled with the Spirit look like? What does it mean, as Pope Francis says, “to be set on fire by the Spirit?” As we said above, there is no one perfect definition. But perhaps the closest we can come is this description from St. Paul: “The love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5). It is an inner conviction, an interior realization, of how deeply God loves us. It’s an experience of his love that we know did not come from us but that has welled up from the depths of our own heart.
In the next verse, Paul wrote that “while we were still helpless,” Christ “died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person. . . . But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-7, 8).
There are two dimensions to this passage. First, Paul says that the Spirit’s work of revealing God’s love is something personal and private. It’s something that happens in “our hearts” (Romans 5:5). Then he goes on to say that the proof of this love is based on a historical fact: Jesus’ own death on the cross (5:6-8). When we are filled with the Spirit, the historical facts of Jesus’ death come to life within our hearts. Just as Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit wants to take these facts and “declare” them to us in a new and life-giving way (John 16:14).
An example might help. Marriage is both a legal fact and a personal experience. There are both a marriage license and a bond of true love between a man and a woman. Now, if a couple were to decide to live together without any legal commitment, either one of them could feel free to walk away at any time. You need the sense of commitment involved in a binding marriage to solidify your relationship. At the same time, a legal marriage devoid of love is not really a marriage at all. It’s little more than a formal, distant living arrangement.
Likewise, an experience of God’s love without some understanding of the gospel message and the reason for his love could leave us picking and choosing which part of his commandments we will follow. At the same time, if we know that Jesus died for our sins but don’t experience his love personally, we’ll assume that the best we can hope for is a distant, impersonal relationship with God based on rules and commands.
The Spirit Is for Everyone. On that first Pentecost, Peter told the people that the gift of the Spirit was not just for them but for everyone and in every generation. The Acts of the Apostles is one joyful story after another of how Jesus made good on that promise for people throughout the world. We see another outpouring of the Spirit a short time later in Samaria (Acts 8:17). Then we see the fire of the Spirit coming to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile (10:34-49). Then we see it happening in Ephesus (19:1-7). Finally, Acts ends with Paul in prison in Rome, freely meeting with anyone who will listen to him talk about Jesus (28:30-31). Can you imagine him not inviting them to receive the Holy Spirit?
What did Peter, Paul, and the other apostles hope to achieve by helping people be filled with the Spirit? The same thing that God wants for all of us: an outpouring of God’s love into our hearts. An experience of love that brings the historical facts of Jesus’ cross and resurrection to life. That’s how the Spirit melts our hearts. That’s how he builds the Church. That’s how he transforms our lives.