Drinking In Spirit

But I will send you the Advocate*—the Spirit of truth. He will come to you from the Father and will testify all about me.
-John 15:26

What’s the one thing all Presbyterians do? Worship!  Worship is the one thing that centers not only our congregations but our denomination as well. If you want to know how healthy a church is, attend its worship. Vibrant worship usually means a vibrant church.  As we continue to search for our voice, perhaps the best place to start is in worship. Do we have Spirit filled worship?  In every Presbyterian Church with purpose, in the local congregation or the national denomination, the Holy Spirit is the engine under the hood laying rubber down where it meets the road.

A priest is driving down to Florida from New York, and gets stopped for speeding on I-95. The state trooper smells alcohol on the priest’s breath and then sees the empty wine bottle on the floor of the car.
He says, “Sir, have you been drinking spirits?” “No officer, just water,” says the priest.
The trooper says, “Then why do I smell wine?” The priest looks at the bottle and says, “Good Lord! He’s done it again!”

Have you been drinking spirits? There is more than one way to understand that question. For
many Presbyterians, drinking spirits is what we do when we get away for the weekend, or
gather with friends for a good meal at our favorite restaurant. But for some Christians, especially those in what’s called the neo-evangelical traditions like Pentecostals and Charismatic believers, drinking in the spirit can mean something very different.

About five years ago, I read a book written by two Presbyterian pastors, Ted Foote and Alex Thornburg. The book was entitled Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt. In many ways, it has served as an inspiration for semi-normal pastors, like me, to sit at our computers and try this thing called writing. Thanks pastors!

“Laughter is the beginning of prayer.”
-Reinhold Niebuhr

The book tells of a young Presbyterian who attends a Pentecostal worship service with a friend, and is shocked at some of the things he witnesses. “People were clapping and dancing in the aisles, some people had their hands in the air waving them around and saying “Alleluia.” One or two people were shaking on the ground and saying strange words that sounded like gibberish.”1 There was much drinking of the spirit going on, and this young Presbyterian was disturbed by what he saw. It was probably much the same as I imagine early worshippers must have thought at the site of the early apostles under the influence of the same spirit. The question the young man asks himself in the book is one that might have perplexed you at times. This question is the chapter title in the Foote and Thornberg book; “Do Presbyterians have spirit, or do we just drink them?”

In many of our churches, Pentecost is sort of the official day of drinking in the spirit. Pentecost is the day when we remember our seemingly “drunk” apostles first encounter with the Spirit. We remember strange languages being uttered, and we recognize the birth of the church. Scripture tells us it was the Holy Spirit that made all that possible. But what do Presbyterians actually believe happened that day in the Holy Spirit? Is there any chance some morning at your church that someone might be drinking in the Spirit (the Spiritual kind) and moved to act as the early apostles did? Or is that something limited only to the early church or Presbyterians at wedding receptions?

To answer that question, perhaps we need to go to scripture to see what Jesus taught about the Holy Spirit. Did Jesus drink in the Spirit? John’s gospel has incredible insight for us in the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters.

Before we get there, let me set our text up in context for you. At this point in John, Jesus is moving ever more quickly toward the cross and things are really coming to a climax. You remember Jesus told the disciples things were changing, and they had to change too. Now Jesus is finishing the preparations for his departure, by introducing the Holy Spirit.

And Jesus says, when I leave you, God will send you the Advocate; the Spirit of truth,
which we have come to know as the Holy Spirit. Jesus teaches that the Spirit comes with three distinct missions. These missions are not of the Spirit alone, but are an extension of Jesus’ mission on earth. Jesus says the Spirit will come from God the Father, and will testify all about him.

If we want to know what happened so long ago as the church found its purpose or even if we still drink in the Spirit today, then we need to look a little closer at the purpose of the Spirit.

The first mission of the Advocate is related to the passion of the Christ, and is about to end things. Imagine the great cosmic court battle between God and humanity. We are being convicted of our sin and sentenced to death as we deserve. Notice all the legal language here in John’s gospel.

As things develop, the Holy Spirit comes and testifies on our behalf about the work of Christ. Our Advocate proves the world was wrong in convicting Jesus. The sin of non-belief in Jesus is exposed. The Spirit shows the virtue of the cross, and proves what Jesus accomplished for each of us in staying faithful to his mission. Finally, the Advocate demonstrates how in the final judgment, evil is overcome and stripped of its power to destroy us and we are acquitted on all charges. The first purpose of the Holy Spirit, according to Jesus, is about salvation.

The next mission is about the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus says the Advocate will guide us in all truth. It is the Holy Spirit that is present when the words of scripture were first inspired. It is the Holy Spirit that is with us when sermons are preached, and with us when we read scripture together. It is the same Spirit that is with us even when we read our Bibles as individuals. It is the Holy Spirit that gives us faith and empowers us to live in obedience to what Jesus taught. The Advocate is our teacher in the faith and so the second purpose is about instructing us in and preserving the truth.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, Jesus says the Advocate comes to bring glory to Jesus’ name. When we gather for worship in Jesus name, sing hymns to God and offer our praise in prayer and thanksgiving, it is the Holy Spirit that carries our worship to the Almighty God. Whenever two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ, it is the Advocate who comes to testify to the presence of Jesus. The Spirit is that unexplainable force that makes unexplainable things happen for all of us. Therefore the last purpose is about glory and worship.

It is specifically this last mission in the drinking of the spirit that the apostles experienced at Pentecost. Jesus promised them they would receive the Advocate and they did just as he said they would, with great power and mystery. And the church is born; a church that exists by the force of the Advocate. A church that continues in the same three purposes Jesus lays out for the Advocate; salvation of humankind, teaching the truth and the glorifying of Jesus Christ. This is what is happening as the apostles are drinking in the spirit.

You may not know this, but at one time our Presbyterian faith had one of the strongest concepts of the Holy Spirit. John Calvin wrote, more than any other reformer, about the workings and importance of drinking in the Holy Spirit. He dedicates one entire book of his Institutes of the Christian Religion to it. Calvin wrote that “the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ unites us to himself.”2 Other Presbyterian theologians followed Calvin’s lead and furthered developed the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
But in recent years, something has happened in our Presbyterian tradition. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit has diminished and has taken a back seat to other things.

If you want to accomplish the goals of your life, you have to begin with the Spirit.
-Oprah Winfrey

Perhaps our faith has become increasingly intellectualized. This Spirit “thing” sounds a little too hocus pocus for many Presbyterians to take too seriously.  Maybe people want to focus more on other attributes of the Trinity, the creator God or the savior Jesus. For liberal Presbyterians, God the Creator seems to be increasingly the focus in celebrations such as Earth Day and in focusing on the diversity of our planet created by God. For Conservatives who seem to believe not enough theological ink is being spilled for Jesus, they have tried to correct this transgression by focusing on this aspect of the Trinity. For many churches the only day we ever talk at all about the Holy Spirit is Pentecost. That’s about fifty-one weeks a year less than it should be.

I believe our loss of the Holy Spirit is more cultural than theological. In the end it is a reaction to other faith traditions. Pentecostal and Charismatic churches emphasize the importance of the individual experience so much more than we do. For Presbyterians, it’s about the community more so than the individual. For them, drinking in the Spirit becomes proof of faith, and the intensity of the reaction becomes the measure. Theirs is a genuine approach to worship. The proof is what happens to our apostles at Pentecost. We can not just ignore what happens to the apostles at Pentecost. Unfortunately, some churches have such a “hyped up” version of Spirit- filled worship that it makes us “frozen chosen Presbyterians” uncomfortable. We assume that if we don’t worship with our hands in the air or falling around in fits of tongues then we must not believe in the Spirit.

That is not what Jesus says the Spirit is all about. That is only one subsection of the third mission; glorifying Jesus. The Holy Spirit is a whole lot more involved than that. It’s also about our salvation and Jesus teaching us the truth through scripture and prayer. As Calvin taught, it’s absolutely crucial to our Christian faith. Perhaps it’s time we reclaim some Presbyterian understanding of the drinking in of the Holy Spirit. If we don’t, I fear we have given up what makes faith meaningful and powerful.

For example; without the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Bible is just a historical book about faith, and nothing is very probable to happen for us through it. Any person whether they are in the faith or not can read the Bible. But with the Holy Spirit, when you open a Bible you are in contact with Christ’s purpose for your life and the life of the church. Drinking in the Spirit makes all the difference.

Without the presence of the Advocate, like any other speech you might hear, preachers are just talking and you are just listening; But with the Spirit, preachers and their congregations are embodying Jesus Christ right there in the midst of their churches bringing the healing and transforming power to all who are present. They then take that Spirit out with them to the needs of the world. Without drinking in the Spirit, there is no power in preaching or in worship, no matter how good or bad the preacher or the congregation hosting the service.

The Holy Spirit is not limited only to worship. Without the Holy Spirit, church events, like Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, are just gatherings of children—like the gathering of children at the local parks and recreation centers for soccer games or arts and crafts camp. But with the Holy Spirit, we trust that some children will come to know Jesus Christ maybe for the first time. There is nothing wrong with events for children in other places, but the promise of the awesome power of the Holy Spirit is what makes the difference in transforming the event into something sacred and special.

In every example we might name, in the coming and going of the church, in events held on the church campus or wherever Presbyterian Christians might gather, it is the power of the Holy Spirit that makes all the difference. Do Presbyterians have Spirit? You bet they do... maybe not in the way some might see the Spirit. But in the way Jesus called the Spirit to be present in our lives none the less.

As we Presbyterians search for our voice, the Spirit will be what gives us the words and the conviction to use it. We must reclaim our voice in the Holy Spirit, and center our activity and energy on worship through the power of the Spirit. Our Presbyterian Church, like every other church, receives our power in this way. Our voice is the voice of the Holy Spirit. Believe that, and live to find your voice.

Tattooing and piercing signify a need to be deeply marked. This talks about a spiritual hunger. Gen- Xers use these piercings and tattoos as their own sacramentals, partly because religious institutions today are unable to provide for deeply marking, profoundly experiential encounters.
-Thomas Moore Beaudoin

One other thing about the Spirit; just as with Baptism and the understanding of God’s call on our lives, Presbyterians have another sacrament that helps us understand what happens with the Spirit. At least once a month in most churches and more often in some, Presbyterians participate in what is perhaps the most visible way to drink in the Spirit. It is Holy Communion. We take common elements like bread and grape juice and ask the Spirit to be present in them. When the Advocate comes, a common meal is turned into the means of grace. Salvation is offered, the truth of Jesus life is proclaimed, and we experience the glory of our Christ together with every Christian around the world who also celebrates the Lord’s Supper. Oh and by the way, they all do.

Presbyterians drink in the Spirit. We celebrate and experience the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit. If you can’t be excited about being in church and drinking in that kind of excitement, then I fear something is really wrong with you.

When Presbyterians have shared together the bread of life and the cup of salvation, may we all declare together, “Good Lord, you’ve done it again!”

1 Ted V. Foote Jr. and P. Alex Thornburg, Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt. Geneva Press, Louisville KY, c. 2000
2 Calvin: The Institutes of Christian Religion 1. Editor John T. McNeil, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville KY, c. MCMLX, p. 538


  1. Thanks, Chris, for articulating so well what is so mysterious for so many of us -- in other words, thanks for putting the cookies on the low shelf where more of us can reach them!
    Beth McCaw


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