A good question: Who is the Holy Spirit?
Every month we ask one question and get four answers. This month: Who is the Holy Spirit?
‘The Spirit redefines what it means to be human’
Comforter, truth-giver, inspirer, sanctifier, advocate, breath of life, heavenly dove, wind, fire, power, gift-giver, third person of the Trinity… The Spirit has been perceived in a huge range of ways, in Scripture, and over the centuries. The last 100 years have seen the particular visibility of the Holy Spirit in the rapid rise of Pentecostal and charismatic churches and movements. The Reformed tradition has had a specific emphasis on the work of the Spirit, seeing the Church as semper Reformanda –“always being reformed” – by the Word and the Spirit. The Spirit blesses the Church as the immediate presence of God, lifting God’s people closer to the glory of the Trinity. The Spirit is encountered in worship, both as the focus of worship, and in lifting people closer to God. Sunday services, baptism, confirmation, daily prayer – each is given life in the power of the Spirit.
An emphasis on the power of the Spirit can be seen as pointing to the Spirit’s impersonal nature. Yet, Scripture sees the Spirit as personal, as one of the three persons of the Trinity, and, in relating to people as persons and drawing people into relationship with the triune God, redefining our understanding of what it means to be human.
The Spirit comes as the presence of God, and yet continually points to the “otherness” of God. When I encounter the Holy Spirit, I do so, not in a way in which the Spirit becomes my personal possession, but as the one who draws me into the awe and wonder of God, who is both close to me and yet far greater than I can imagine…
‘The Spirit clothes us with power’
The Holy Spirit is the “someone” (not “something”) who most needs a radical welcome into the Church’s life! Though often ignored, resisted or misunderstood, his role is so fundamental that Jesus banned his disciples from mission until the Spirit had first clothed them with power for the task. With Jesus now seated at the Father’s right hand, it is the Holy Spirit who continues his work on earth, who makes God’s presence real in our experience and who equips us for our task. Four aspects of his role are vital for the Church.
First, the Holy Spirit is the one who brings about spiritual birth into the Kingdom of God. Individual experiences are unique, and the details of the Spirit’s activity are as unpredictable as the wind. But one fact is plain: If a person is a Christian, it is because the Holy Spirit has been at work. Nobody can call Jesus their Lord unless the Spirit has birthed that faith in them.
Second, the Holy Spirit is the one who transforms our character to be increasingly Christlike. This is a lifelong process, a journey of growth in holiness as sinfulness is pruned for the sake of fruitfulness. And, though cooperative discipleship is required, the authentic transformation occurs only because of the Spirit. Perhaps this aspect of the Spirit’s role seems most readily welcomed in the United Reformed Church… unless the call to holiness gets too close to home…
‘The Spirit enables us to recognise grace in the fabric of the world’
The Holy Spirit is the most elusive person within the mystery of the Trinity. Our capacity to encounter this person is not a question of intellect and study but of prayer and contemplation. He or she comes to us in different ways, awakening us to the presence of God in the deepest intimacy of our souls.
For me, the Holy Spirit is like the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8, the playful, feminised Spirit who was with God since before the beginning of time. Anne Carson’s poem, “God’s Justice”, evokes this playful creativity:
On the day he was to create justice
God got involved in making a dragonfly
and lost track of time.
My journey of faith has led me towards the sacramental mysteries of the Catholic tradition, where the Holy Spirit has awakened me to the shimmering presence of God within a graced creation. We humans are strange creatures – a paradoxical union of starlight and clay who inhabit the impossible inbetween of the incarnation, where heaven and earth meet in the no-space and no-time of eternity. From this incomprehensible vantage point, the Spirit enables us to recognise divine grace woven into the fabric of the world, and to say, with the poet ee cummings: “I thank you God for most this amazing day [for] the ears of my ears awake [and] the eyes of my eyes are opened.”…
‘The Spirit is the language which I know God by’
Countless books have been written on this question and numerous answers given. Many have gone straight to Scripture and said: “This is the Holy Spirit.” However, I fear that a dogmatic approach causes us to miss out on a fuller, more dynamic view and experience.
Avoiding blasphemy, “the invisible man” is what I call the Holy Spirit. We can get our heads around the idea of God even if we haven’t seen him, as many believe there is a higher being, or force, somewhere out there in the universe. Jesus is a matter of historical evidence, but Spirit?
“The invisible man” is all that Jesus says he is in the Gospel of John; he truly is our helper, our comforter and teaches us everything that pertains to life and the Christian faith.
He is also a person who acts, thinks, feels, just like us. I know this, not simply because doctrine states it, but by developing a prayerful sensitivity to and engaging with him over the years. As such, I believe I have had the privilege to get to know him in ways that Scripture alone cannot express. Think knowing your parents footsteps or the meaning of a baby’s cry before, way before they enter the room or can even utter a word…
This is an extract from the May 2014 edition of Reform.