The Holy Spirit
2017 02 19 – Danforth Mennonite Church
One Sunday, the minister stood up before the congregation looking slightly ashamed.
“I am terribly sorry” he began. “I have had a very busy week, and I have not had time to write a sermon. This week, we shall have to rely upon the leading of the Holy Spirit. But next week we hope to do much better!”
Recently I have been thinking a lot about the Holy Spirit, and the role of the Holy Spirit in churches.
Who or what is The Holy Spirit? Is the Holy Spirit a person, or a way of experiencing God?How does the Spirit function in the church, or as part of the Trinity? I have encountered a great deal of difference in the way that the Holy Spirit is understood and experienced. I’d like to take a bit of time to explore that with you.
The Holy Spirit was a big part of my church experience, growing up. I was raised in an evangelical and charismatic church in the East of England. My parents and their friends had begun the church after finding that the various other ministers – Anglican, Baptist, Methodist – were not interested in what they perceived as the move of God in their time.
The new church shared teaching with other similar churches around the country and often had exchanges with churches in other parts of the world, including many visiting speakers from North America. There was a desire for spiritual gifts like prophesies, speaking in tongues, and miraculous healing. You might have heard of the Toronto Blessing. This was what I was taught was the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit was the presence of God among us, shown through miracles. We expected the life of a believer to include the miraculous and supernatural. Everyone had a stock of stories about how God had answered prayers – prayers for healing, or for financial support at a key moment, or for special insight and understanding.
In fact, this was part of what it meant to be a believer. Believers were expected to seek and show some spiritual gift. The move of the Holy Spirit was embodied often in a physical experience – a feeling or action rather than an intellectual doctrine.
Prayer was our primary mode of action. We prayed to God, basing our requests on the promises that God makes throughout the Old and New Testaments, as well as the claims God makes about himself, and the various names for God. For example, God as a provider, as a shepherd, as protector. Through Jesus, we can claim these promises. And the Holy Spirit delivers them.
You can see why we would expect there to be miracles. If a believer has a true relationship with God, then it means that they have the right to ask and to expect an answer. If a believer is filled with the Holy Spirit, they have been given power and anointing. If people were being healed and prophecies were coming true, it was a sign that this community was close with the loving God, source of all good things. As Jesus said:
What father among you, if his son asks for bread, would give him a stone, or if he asks for a fish, would give him a snake instead of the fish? […] If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” – Luke 11:11 & 13
Because God loved us, and Jesus died for us, the Spirit was with us, empowered to act for our wellbeing. As a structure, it makes a lot of sense. All three Persons of the Trinity have a role – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this theology Jesus is in the role of intermediary. Because he died for our sins, when we invite Jesus into our hearts, he bridges the gap between God and humanity and sends the Holy Spirit.
This has the unfortunate event of minimizing the importance of his life on earth and his teaching ministry. In my church upbringing we heard about his miracles of healing and provision, but not about what he taught. In this theology, his purpose on earth was to die, be raised to life again, ascend into heaven, and send the Holy Spirit to be with us.
Nowadays I have been blessed to have teachers who take the words of Jesus seriously and I have learned a great deal since I found my home within the Mennonite church. In these churches, though, there is much less focus on the role of the Holy Spirit, certainly in our Sunday services. I wanted to know, what do people consider to be important about the Holy Spirit? What is their understanding of the nature and purpose of the Spirit?
The Holy Spirit appears many times throughout scripture. Although it might be more accurate to say that there are many references that we interpret as being about the Holy Spirit. The original authors and audiences likely had different sets of preconceptions than we do – the terms used can refer to a devout frame of mind, a spiritual entity that is, or represents, God, or a way of acting that accomplishes God’s purposes regardless of the worthiness of the person. Nonetheless, when we go looking for the Holy Spirit, we find a lot in the text.
In the Creation Story, God’s Spirit is hovering over the void. During the Exodus, the Holy Spirit inspires the crafters who create the Tabernacle. The Holy Spirit comes upon the more warlike judges like Gideon, Jephthah and Samson. The Spirit is said to be with men like Joseph and Daniel who interpret dreams for foreign kings. And while some of the Prophets directly speak of the Spirit of God resting on them, they are all said to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. In the difficult times of exile and loss, the Prophets spoke of a future era where the Spirit of God would be poured out on all people – regardless of class, age or gender.
In the life of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is part of his conception, and at his baptism the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and sends him out into the wilderness where he endures temptation. When he reads at the synagogue he chooses, as his ‘mission statement’, the text from the Prophet Isaiah beginning ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…’ So Jesus is seen as fully immersed in the Holy Spirit, both by his nature and his choice. In the fullness of time, he promises the disciples that he will send the Comforter, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth to them. And after he ascends into Heaven, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit is clearly an important part of scripture, and in his writings the Apostle Paul refers to the Spirit as an active agent of God’s will. This is one of the most interesting things to me. What is a Person? A person has, for example, a will, a defined identity, and the ability to make decisions and relationships.
What does it mean when we say that the Holy Spirit is a person?
You can easily read most of the Biblical references to the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force or trance, or ‘spirit’ in the sense of a way of being or acting. A geist not a ghost. But there seems to be a real importance that the Holy Spirit is a person. I know from visits to the Anglican church what the Nicene Creed states:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
That might strike you as being neither long nor detailed, but, when I did some more reading, I discovered that the original version of the Nicene Creed simply said ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit’, full stop, and then spent a paragraph condemning all the ideas about Jesus that the Nicene Council decided were wrong. So, compared with that, this Creed is quite lengthy, and it clearly asserts that the Holy Spirit is a person. “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord” – in the same way that the other persons of the Trinity are the Lord.
It names the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life, connecting with the Genesis creation stories, and says that the Holy Spirit has spoken through the Prophets. But there is not much about the functioning of the Holy Spirit in the world today, beyond being worshipped along with the Father and the Son.
Interestingly, when I read the commentary on the Holy Spirit in Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, a much more comprehensive document, there was not much more about the history of the Holy Spirit than that. We Mennonites tend to focus on the teaching and ministry of Jesus, and there is an understanding that the work of the Spirit conforms to and continues this ministry. It says “By the power of the Holy Spirit, the church preaches, teaches, testifies, heals, loves, and suffers, following the example of Jesus its Lord.” The Holy Spirit on earth today is the fullness of God available to all humanity, poured out peoples of all nations.
The life and work of the church is both inspired by and expressive of the Holy Spirit. But this does not help me to understand the role and personhood of the Holy Spirit. How is the Holy Spirit present as a distinct person? I suggest that we mostly start to think about the Holy Spirit acting when we are running out of options. Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective says “By the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church comes to unity in doctrine and action.” This, to me, implies that the Spirit is present when we are disagreeing.
It is certainly the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we look to when we can’t work things out any other way. For example, the disagreements about the place of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Christians within the Mennonite Church. When reading the Bible didn’t produce uniformity, and when appeals to the example of Jesus do not convince everyone of a common path, we continue to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and even muse on the awkwardness of people being guided in opposite directions by the same Spirit.
Why do we appeal to the Holy Spirit to find us a way out when our other ways have failed?
That might sound a bit cynical, but I have a serious point. I appreciate being part of a church where people can ask ‘how do we hear different things from the Spirit’ rather than condemning those who disagree as false and divisive. And there is something right about the notion of the Holy Spirit waiting with us in times of uncertainty and challenging topics.
Paul wrote that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”
Those wordless groans take me back to the church of my childhood. That church was formed of a generation of people who sought an authentic relationship with God, and did not find it that same desire in the mainstream churches. They were blocked, criticised, laughed at and asked to leave. Many of the leaders were women. Their whole lives they struggled against sexism in the church and in society. Sometimes when we prayed together, one or two of these women would groan as if in pain, unable to get out words of praise or supplication. But their prayers said something about how they had been silenced and excluded.
I believe that the Spirit was present with those women, interceding in accordance with the will of God. God is gracious. We have the Spirit for those times when our own spirits are weak or tired or oppressed. The Spirit is poured out on all creation as a guarantee of our redemption.
This helps me understand the Spirit as a Person. Someone who accompanies God’s church and those who seek God wherever they may be. The Spirit can so easily be defined as ‘the collective will of the Church’. The sum total of our meeting minutes and strategic plans. Yet, the Holy Spirit is not our work, although we must trust that at least some of what we do is inspired and blessed. The Holy Spirit is God present in our midst – working through us and in us. The Spirit is God choosing to be with us, to listen to us, to translate our garbled ideas and comfort us in pain and grief. And that means that the supportive words we offer each other, the outstretched hand, the subtle gift, and late night emails are part of what the Holy Spirit is doing.
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective claims that “The Holy Spirit enables our life in Christian community, comforts us in suffering, is present with us in time of persecution, intercedes for us in our weakness, guarantees the redemption of our bodies, and assures the future redemption of creation.”
As we come to understand the Holy Spirit as a Person, remember that these attributes are also specific aspects of the nature of God, as God chooses to act and be revealed in our current context.
Firstly – the Holy Spirit is abundant. God has poured out on all of creation such goodness and grace and made it available to all. Time and time again in the scriptures, the boundaries of holiness are knocked down or moved aside to allow in more people. The Spirit is described as wind, fire, and dove, and is not impeded by our walls and barriers. This is the boundless scope of God’s love.
Secondly – the Holy Spirit is still speaking. We are still to seek out the will of God because that will is still being worked out in the world. As a Person, the Holy Spirit is responsive and in relationship. We are still in conversation. God is involved in what we are doing here.
Thirdly – the Spirit may be a Person, but the Spirit is not merely personal. We encounter the Spirit through the community of believers as well as in our own lives. God is intimately involved in your life, excited by it, saddened by it, moved by it. God is also concerned with who we are as a people. We are important – that God cares about us may boggle the mind, but it is part of who God is.
And finally – the Holy Spirit is a gift, and a giver. The gifts of the Spirit are not trophies to be won to prove your holiness, but they are necessary tools for the work ahead of us – and we are using them. How do you bring life, liberation, joy and comfort? That is the work of the Spirit in you, of redemption for the world. The church needs this to be whole. The world needs this to be whole.
- For a sermon on the same topic, developed for a different church, click here