Open to the Spirit: A Children’s Story

 on April 30, 2024

On the first day of Pentecost, the disciples were all filled with the Holy Spirit, we are told in the Book of Acts. But it’s a funny image, isn’t it, human beings as empty containers which need to be filled by a substance from out- side? We don’t generally think of ourselves that way.

One useful principle of Bible study is to see what words mean when they are used in different contexts. So I was curious to know how Luke, the author of Acts, uses the idea of being “filled” elsewhere in his book. The answer was illuminating.

On different occasions, Luke talks about people being filled with other things—specifically, with jealousy, or joy, or rage. Now that I can understand. I’ve experienced it, and so have you. Any time someone is filled with a strong emotion, we know about it. Their whole being changes—their facial expression, their body language, their words. It is obvious to anyone close by that the particular emotion is dominating their personality for the time being. “Boy,” we might report later, “I have seen anyone so completely joyful (or jealous, or angry). It was amazing!”

So when we come to think about what it means to be “filled with the Holy Spirit,” presumably Luke has something similar in mind. To be filled with the Spirit, as he sees it, is to be under the control of the Holy Spirit. Now perhaps that sounds creepy, even dehumanising: to be under the control of an outside force? So let me tell you a story that might help.

Children’s talks are always the most memorable. So, although I heard this children’s talk over forty years ago, I have never forgotten it. It was about the Holy Spirit, and it continues to help me every time Pentecost approaches.

Andrew, the curate, placed on a table in the middle of the church a pitcher of water and several Mason jars of different sizes. First, he picked up the smallest jar, and poured water into it until it was full. The children watched with bated breath to see if it would overflow. The speaker knew what he was about, and to their delight it did.

Then he said something like this: This small jar is ourselves when we first realise what it means to follow Jesus. Someone said, “Christianity means giving as much as we know of our- selves to as much as we know of Jesus,” and I like that. At first, we may not know much about Jesus; we may not know a lot about ourselves either, but that’s OK. Jesus fills with his Spirit as much as we offer. Then, said Andrew, we grow.

Often, as we try to be conscientious in following Jesus, we discover areas of life where we have not been living as good disciples—maybe we don’t always tell the truth, or maybe there are people at our school we are not very kind to. He probably gave some adult examples too: our business practices or our sexual morality, maybe religious hypocrisy, or buried resentments.

We discover, in a word, that the jar which is our life is bigger than we knew, and that we are no longer full. At this point, Andrew poured the contents of jar number one into the next size up. Sure enough: the water that filled the first jar didn’t even come up to halfway in the second.

Andrew went on: as soon as we hand those other areas of our lives over to Jesus to learn his way, the Spirit flows into those places and our lives are full again. He picked up the pitcher, and filled jar number two to the top—and a little bit more. The children giggled appreciatively.

And so on. To be honest, I forget how often the pitcher topped up a half empty jar. It hardly matters. You see the point. I expect that all through my life God will draw attention to those areas of my life that are not given over to God. Frequently, God will invite me to set aside my own agenda and learn from the Spirit’s program instead. And when I do that, the Spirit comes in, to cleanse, heal, guide, empower—and fill. But, I hear you protest, if I open myself to the Spirit of Jesus, what happens to me? Do I become some kind of zombie without a personality of my own? It’s natural to think that way, but fortunately it doesn’t work like that. After all, the Spirit of Jesus is the Spirit of the God who made us and who loves us. And as we follow that Spirit, far from losing ourselves, we find that we become more the selves that God knows we can become—fuller, more alive, more ourselves than we would ever have been if left to our own devices.

That’s the meaning of Pentecost, and that’s why we need it.

  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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