John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15, Pentecost Sunday
Ascension Thursday, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday… our Easter season concludes with a crescendo. Jesus ascends. The Holy Spirit descends. And we are given a window into the ultimate mystery of our faith.
The gospels for this week and next take us into the deepest of theological waters: What precisely is the nature of God? Yes, we know the rote answer from childhood: We worship one God in three divine persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As a kid I was always comfortable with the concept of the Father and the Son, but vaguely unsure of where the Holy Spirit fit in. The name “Holy Ghost” did not help either. Casper was the only ghost I knew. And the antics of the Friendly Ghost made it tough for me to put a Holy Ghost in the same league as the Father and Son.
So much of our learning is visual. The mention of God the Father conjures up a host of familiar images, perhaps most powerfully captured by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling as the white-bearded Creator in the clouds, giving life to a languid Adam. God as the loving, all powerful parent is a concept we intuitively understand. Similarly we don’t have to reach very far for an image of Jesus… The Son, our brother, in his many familiar roles: the infant of Bethlehem, the preacher, the healer, the sacrificial victim, the risen redeemer.
Images of the Holy Spirit are nowhere near as familiar or as vivid. There is the dove hovering over Christ’s baptism in the Jordan. There are Pentecostal tongues of fire inspiring the apostles. But by definition a “spirit” doesn’t easily lend itself to visual images. The same is true for our intuitive understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit. Creating clearly belongs to the Father. Redeeming belongs to the Son. But where does the Holy Spirit fit in?
Start with the ancient Greek designation of the Holy Spirit as the “Paraclete,” literally one who stands by your side… inspiring, informing, animating, motivating, protecting, comforting, energizing, empowering. The Holy Spirit is the moving force of God dwelling in us individually and collectively. The Old Testament makes only brief reference to the Holy Spirit. Jesus introduces us to the Holy Spirit in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But it is in Acts and the Epistles that the Holy Spirit comes to the fore in scores of references. Clearly, to the apostles there was nothing vague about the Holy Spirit. In fact some scholars refer to Acts as the “Gospel of the Holy Spirit” with forty mentions in the first thirteen chapters.
Jesus promised his disciples the power of the Spirit of truth. And on Pentecost the Holy Spirit delivered. The frightened fugitives in the upper room were transformed into powerhouses of evangelical grace .Inarticulate fishermen became spellbinding preachers. Marginally literate country folk became towering evangelists. Fair weather disciples became fearless martyrs for the faith. It was all as Jesus had promised: They were filled with the Holy Spirit and nothing in the world has ever been the same.
That’s because the faith that Jesus left us is not just a set of beliefs, a philosophy or a code of ethics. Above all, Christianity is a presence… the Holy Spirit, sent to us by the risen Christ, lives within us. In baptism we put on the Holy Spirit. And in Confirmation our baptismal grace was taken up to a higher level through a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit. As fully formed Christians, we are not only blessed, but we are meant to be a blessing … an extension of the Holy Spirit, a channel of grace to all we touch and all who touch us.
The Hebrew origin of the word “spirit” is ruah, literally “breath.” The Holy Spirit is our spiritual breath of life. Through the Holy Spirit we breathe in life-giving grace and we expel the poisons collected through human frailty. As Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit will be with us not only to our last breath, but until the last breath of the whole world. Til then we are alive in the Spirit. And we pray with confidence: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.
Image: by Ann Fontaine