Thursday, June 8, 2017

Who is the Holy Spirit?

Pentecost is a feast of the church of which I have a particular fondness. I well recall my first Pentecost in a neighborhood Episcopal Church much like this one. I was not raised in the Episcopal Church so it was a new experience for me. As the choir and ministers processed down the aisle, a kite depicting a white dove trailed by flame colored ribbons swooped above the congregation.

I remember thinking to myself, “Why had this observance not been part of my faith growing up?” I of course was familiar with the story from Acts when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church, but only as a kind of curious incident in Holy Scripture. This feast raised the moment to a whole other level of significance. It did something else as well, it gave the spotlight to the Holy Spirit in a way I had never seen before.  I realized then that I had not fully acknowledged the full importance and centrality of the Holy Spirit.

It has indeed been said that the Holy Spirit is the “neglected member of the Trinity.” This has been especially true here in the Western side of the Church with the exception of the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions that have emerged fairly recently. Too often the Spirit has been a kind of afterthought. His role and identity, sadly, remains hazy to many Christians. Therefore, this morning, the Day of Pentecost, I want to address the question, “Who is the Holy Spirit?”

The first thing we need to understand about the Holy Spirit is that he is a person. Holy Scripture uses personal pronouns to refer to the Spirit. He possesses all the distinctive marks of personality.

For instance, the Holy Spirit has knowledge. As Saint Paul writes, “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” The Spirit imparts his knowledge through teaching and revelation.

The Holy Spirit has a will. He exercises choice. Our Epistle lesson speaks of the various gifts of the Spirit that he, “allots to each one individually just as he chooses.”
The Holy Spirit speaks. In fact, one of the things we confess about the Spirit in the Nicene Creed is that “he has spoken through the prophets.”

Saint Paul writes that the Spirit intercedes, “for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
Finally, the Spirit has feeling and emotion. Scripture speaks of the “love of the spirit.” It also tells us that the Spirit can be grieved. It warns us, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”

 The Holy Spirit is not some sort of inanimate power, or energy that can be harnessed or controlled.  The attempt to manipulate spiritual forces for one’s own purposes is called magic or sorcery. It is a practice that is strongly condemned in Holy Scripture. In the early days of the Church, there was a man named Simon the Magus or Simon the sorcerer who—after witnessing firsthand the power of the Holy Spirit—offered the Apostles a large sum of money saying, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ He was strongly rebuked by Saint Peter.

 Because the Holy Spirit is a person and not a commodity, we can’t get more of the Spirit, rather we develop a growing relationship with him by opening ourselves more and more to his presence.

The next thing that we should understand about the Holy Spirit is that he is God. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Holy Trinity.  We confess in the Nicene Creed that, “With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.” The Holy Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son in his divinity. He has all the basic attributes of God: Holiness, eternality, omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience.

He also does the work of God. Genesis says that the Spirit of God hovered over the formless deep at the dawn of creation.  It was through the working of the Holy Spirit that God became man in Jesus Christ. The Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most Highs will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Likewise, It is also through the Spirit that believers are born from above and made holy.

Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit as another advocate like himself who proceeds from the Father. He says, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. The Spirit of Truth.”

In our Epistle reading Paul identifies the Spirit as God. He writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”

All three persons of the Trinity are equally divine and therefore equally worthy of our worship and devotion. There is no hierarchy of divinity, with the Father first, the Son second, and the Spirit as some sort of third rate, C-list, deity. No! The Holy Spirit is our God to whom belongs all our love—heart, mind, and soul.

Finally, in order to understand who the Holy Spirit is, we must understand the work he has come to perform. The descent of the Holy Spirit described in our reading from Acts marks the beginning of the Church’s existence. It is an event that was prophesied and long expected. The Church was born of the Spirit and so we are a people of the Spirit. The Spirit’s presence is the animating force and life of the church, the breath of the Body of Christ. The Spirit is the one that unites us to Christ. It is through the Spirit working in us that we can know that Jesus is Lord. It is the Spirit who equips the Church for its mission.

As Ignatius of Laodicea said, 

“Without the Holy Spirit, God is distant, Christ is merely a historical figure, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is just an organization, authority is domination, mission is propaganda, liturgy is only nostalgia, and the work of Christians is slave labor. But with the Holy Spirit, Christ is risen and present, the Gospel is a living force, the Church is a communion in the life of the Trinity, authority is a service that sets the people free, mission is Pentecost, the liturgy is memory and anticipation, and the labor of Christians is sanctified.”

Trying to live a Christian life and be the Church without the Holy Spirit is like trying to drive a car with no air in the tires or gas in the tank. Through Baptism we each have been given the Spirit. He lives inside of us, but too often we keep him locked in the basement. We ignore and neglect him. The miraculous life of signs and wonders described in our readings is meant to be the ordinary life of the Church!

If we want to live a life of victory, strength, vitality, freedom, and mission, we need to let the Spirit loose. That is scary. The Holy Spirit is fire, wind, and a raging flood. He is dangerous but he is good. Do you trust him with your life?

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