“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:4
On this Pentecost Sunday, let’s think about the Spirit.
“I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Readers from higher liturgical traditions will recognize this phrase as coming from the Apostle’s Creed. To be honest, it sounds a little paltry. A single line. A simple affirmation. No further description.
Not so with the “God the Father almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth!” Stand under a starry sky and you’ll think of the greatness of God. Nature surrounds us with evidence of the Father. Just take a look around you. God almighty! The Father has left His imprint all around us.
The Creed goes into even more depth with the Son because of the advantage of history. He was conceived, born, suffered, crucified, descended, risen, ascended, and He’s coming back. Four books of the Bible detail the life of the Son. God stepped into history, and divided time. We can relate to Jesus. In the incarnation, He was a child of the dust just like we are.
Do you see the theological inequity here? It’s understandable really. The Spirit is hard to wrap our minds around and hard to pin down. Milder traditions have always been a little suspect of the Spirit, not wanting the Spirit to break loose and make us talk funny, jump pews, or faint.
Even the Greek language adds to the uncertainty. Greek nouns have gender: masculine (like father and son), feminine (church is a good example), and neuter. Guess what gender the word spirit is? That’s right. Neuter. Grammatically you would be correct to refer to the Spirit as “It,” but being grammatically correct and theologically correct are not always the same. The Spirit is personal, and our personal pronouns are he and she. Refer to the Spirit as either, but not “it.”
The word for spirit can also be translated as breath or wind, both invisible, which doesn’t help our search for precision. Even Jesus acknowledged the difficulty of pinning down the Spirit. He said the Spirit is like the wind. You can’t see where it’s coming from or going to. No wonder our ancient author kind of limps in with a simply stated, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
The Spirit, much more than the other two parts of the Trinity, highlights the immeasurable mystery of God. While Jesus, in J. B. Phillip’s words, brought God into focus, the Spirit is a constant reminder of how radically different God is, how beyond our vision and focus He will always remain.
Jesus, Himself, did flesh out the Spirit much more for us when, in the Gospel of John, He referred to the Spirit as the paraklete, a word often translated as Comforter. Comfort is a good word. I like it because I so often need comfort.
However, I hate to disappoint you, it’s really not a good description of the Holy Spirit. (WARNING: More word study ahead) It was a good translation back in the 14th century when Wycliffe coined it. But the word back then meant something different than it connotes today. ComFORT is built on the Latin word for courage or bravery, which is a little different from modern usage.
Wycliffe had it right, for a paraklete in ancient Greek culture meant an advocate for someone facing a serious charge, or to offer an expert opinion in a difficult situation, or to inspire dispirited troops facing a threatening enemy. In other words, the paraklete is a powerful character who appears in a time of trouble to offer assistance and hope.
And that’s why I need the Holy Spirit! We know the Father and Son mainly for what they’ve done in history. We know the Spirit because of what He does right now.
Life can beat us up in a thousand different ways. In talking to people in all kinds of situations, this theme is the most common. People are hurting, and they’re often full of fear and doubt. The Holy Spirit is not just Someone to pat us on the head and say “there, there.” He tries to infuse us with courage and energy to keep moving.
That’s why the New Testament portrays the Holy Spirit as wind, breath, and fire. The Holy Spirit quickens our prayers. He reminds us of Jesus’ teachings and promises. He accompanies us. Our bodies, in fact, are His temple. In short, the Spirit is energy. Where the Spirit is, life flourishes, change occurs, our own spirits revive.
In fact, change is the best indicator of the presence of the Spirit. Wind is silent and invisible until it comes into contact with an object. It bends a tree, or even topples it. It can add or take away an hour of flight time in a plane. It cools and refreshes us. Wind drives the weather around the globe.
In matters of our spirit, the Holy Spirit produces even more powerful change. Paul called these the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the resources we bring to fearful times through the energy of the Spirit. Rather than inventorying the presence or absence of this fruit in others, we do best by taking a look inside to see if the fruit is present and if we need to give more access to the Spirit to challenge and change us.
The great secret in life is not to constantly search for some new insight or method for coping. The answers to the most important questions are always clear. Our greatest need is to be reminded of who we are and what God has made available to us. We can open our hearts and minds, stop intellectualizing, and simply grasp what we already have.
Thus “I believe in the Holy Spirit” is completely sufficient because of the Spirit’s very nature. Come Holy Spirit!
Dr. Terry Ellis
May 15, 2016