Frederick Buechner Sermon Illustration: Spirit (Acts 8:14-17 )

In our blog post each Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic. This Sunday we will celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Acts.

Acts 8:14-17
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Here is Buechner's discussion of Spirit, which was first published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words.


The word spirit has come to mean something pale and shapeless, like an unmade bed. School spirit, the American spirit, the Christmas spirit, the spirit of '76, the Holy Spirit - each of these points to something you know is supposed to get you to your feet cheering but which you somehow can't rise to. The adjective spiritual has become downright offensive. If somebody recommends a person as spiritual you tend to avoid him, and usually with good reason. Inspiring is even worse. Inspirational is worse still. Inspirational books are invariably for the birds.

Like its counterparts in Hebrew and Greek, the Latin word spiritus originally meant breath (as in expire, respiratory, etc.), and breath is what you have when you're alive and don't have when you're dead. Thus spirit = breath = life, the aliveness and power of your life, and to speak of a man's spirit (or soul) is to speak of the power of life that is in him. When the spirit of a man is unusually strong, the life in him unusually alive, he can breathe it out into other lives, become literally in-spiring.

Spirit is highly contagious. When a man is very excited, very happy, very sad, you can catch it from him as easily as measles or a yawn. You can catch it from what he says or from what he does or just from what happens to the air of a room when he enters it without saying or doing anything. Groups of men also have a spirit, as anybody can testify who has ever been caught up in the spirit of a football game, a political rally, or a lynch mob. Spirit can be good or bad, healing or destructive. Spirit can be transmitted across great distances of time and space. For better or worse, you can catch the spirit of men long dead (Socrates or the Marquis de Sade), of men whose faces you have never seen and whose languages you cannot speak.

God also has a spirit - is Spirit, says the Apostle John (4:24). Thus God is the power of the power of life itself, has breathed and continues to breathe himself into his creation. In-spires it. The spirit of God, Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost, is highly contagious. When Peter and his friends were caught up in it at Jerusalem on Pentecost, everybody thought they were drunk even though the sun wasn't yet over the yardarm (Acts 2). They were.