For the disciples, receiving the Spirit was like Jesus was with them again. Except as they travelled around and spread across the earth, as they’ve been told to, he was still with each one of them. He could now be everywhere, including inside each of their hearts and minds speaking tenderly to them and empowering them for the next test.
After his resurrection Jesus gathered his disciples to give them his parting instructions and pass on his mission. Each of the gospel writers summarise his words a little differently but they all include what Luke calls “the promise of the Father” (Luke 24).
Matthew records it as a promise that Jesus would be with them until the end of the age, Mark that their preaching would be accompanied by miracles. Luke speaks about them being “clothed with power” and John tells how Jesus acted out what would happen to them soon after by breathing on them and telling them to “receive the Spirit.” (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20).
Jesus was reminding them of what he’d already been at great pains to teach them. In order to complete the task he had given them, making disciples of all kinds of people, they needed the Holy Spirit.
He was clear with them that even after he had gone back to be with God, they shouldn’t launch straight on with the task he gave them, but should wait for the Holy Spirit, who he’d called their “helper”.
On the face of it this seems a bit strange. If my manager at work gave me an important task to do and there was a sense of urgency about it, my natural inclination would be to get straight on with it, or at least find out which of the rest of my work I can stop doing so I have time to do what she needs. I would be confused if after giving me the task, spelling out what needs to be done, and impressing the urgency of it on me, she then made it clear that under no circumstances was I to start. I was to sit tight and wait for someone to help me. I’m sure I’d appreciate help, but I’d feel faintly patronised. Surely I can start, at least, even if I need some other resources?
The disciples have been given a really important job to do, with a sense of supreme urgency about it. They have a whole world to tell about Jesus, why wouldn’t they just get on with it?
Jesus was emphatic. “Don’t go yet, you can’t start without everything you need, so wait until you’ve got it all.” He is like a drill sergeant, surveying his fresh—and slightly deluded—new recruits who are raring to race into a mock battle. The sergeant cautions them against rushing straight in, until he’s given them each some basic training and their weapon. We can be a lot like that, eager to surge ahead without picking up the basic equipment we need to be effective.
“Receiving the Spirit” was all that they were going to need. If we want to follow Jesus and fulfil his mission, presumably we need that too.
A couple of years before, Jesus and his disciples were at the Feast of Booths. This was when the Jewish people remembered God providing water for them when there were wandering in the desert, and it was when they looked forward to the Spirit being poured out like water in the future. On the last day of this festival, Jesus stood up in the Temple courts and shouted:
If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”
Everyone was dismantling the structures they had built for the festival and getting ready to return home. Jesus was saying “the water you’ve been celebrating is available all the time, and the eventual gift of the Spirit you’re expecting has arrived. You can get it through me.” It’s an enormous claim.