THE HOLY SPIRIT
TEXT: John 16:12-15; Acts 2:1-18
This week we move into the second part of the Creed. The first part was almost exclusively about the nature and life of Jesus, but in this second part we branch out to a listing of other Christian beliefs. The difficult piece is that the Creed doesn’t come with study helps. It assumes that those who recite it, know what is meant when they say those things. And in former times, they did. Times have changed, however, and we need to look at these lines to understand what it is we are saying we believe.
“I believe in the Holy Spirit.” It sounds easy enough. Lots of people can tell you that there is this concept of the Trinity...a 3-in-1 God that we identify as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit...or in the older language, Holy Ghost. But what is the Holy Spirit really, and what does it mean to say we believe in it?
The word in Greek, which is the original language of the New Testament, is pneuma. It is the root of our English word pneumonia and other words that have to do with the lungs and breathing, and in the Bible it has a long, rich history. Back in the Hebrew Scriptures, the word was ruach, and both words meant breath, wind, and spirit...all at once. Our current words are so sterile. Breath, to us, is biology. Wind is meterology. Spirit is theology. Not so for those who wrote the Bible. For them, the wind that blew by, some of which you breathed in, was all the Spirit of God. God was blowing in the storm; God was giving you every breath; you lived by the Spirit of God.
This idea goes all the way back to the Creation story in Genesis. When God breathes into Adam, the word is ruach. It is the breath of God that gives the first man life. In Ezekiel, in that wonderful story about Ezekiel seeing a vision of a valley filled with the dry bones of dead soldiers, it is the wind of God, the ruach, that blows over the dry bones and brings them back to life. At Pentecost, as the disciples wait for the gift Jesus promised to them, there is a mighty wind that blows...and sure enough...it is the pneuma...the breath, the wind, the Spirit...that fills them and transforms their lives.
So the first thing we mean when we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” is all of that rich tradition. In the first part of the Creed we have assented to belief in a form of God that we could see with our eyes...God as a man...Jesus. In this next line, we are saying that there is still another form of God that exists in the world, but that is known in a different and more universal way.
In Jesus, God is very particular. This man in this place at this time. Belief in Jesus affirms our belief that God is a God who will act in history. With the Holy Spirit, we also affirm the ways that God is at work everywhere with everyone at all times. God in the Holy Spirit gives life to every human being, and according to the Psalms, every living thing on the planet. We are saying we believe that God blows in with every storm and gentles us with summer breeze. As the psalmist puts it, “The trees of the field clap their hands.” When we take a deep breath, we draw in the life of God.
It has nothing to do with our merit. God is not punishing us when our house is blown away in a hurricane and God is not praising our goodness when we are allowed to take another breath. It is simply the way that God is present everywhere and with all things. And...lest you be concerned for the fish...remember your chemistry. Even water is part oxygen. When we really realize that God’s spirit moves in and through all living things, we can better appreciate how much God cares about the way we treat the environment.
But that is not all. While one part of the Holy Spirit tradition reminds us that God is there for everyone, another part reminds us that the Holy Spirit isn’t there for nothing. The breath we all are given is given for a purpose; first for the general purpose of glorifying God and secondly for purposes as individual as the creatures who breathe it in. The Holy Spirit is known by other words and other names in both the Old and New Testaments. There is a strong Jewish tradition of the Holy Spirit as wisdom or sophia, most often portrayed as a woman. Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as both a counselor of truth, which ties into the wisdom tradition, and a comforter. In both the Old and New Testaments, the Holy Spirit enables people to prophesy and to perform miracles, such as the way those in the passage from Acts are able to speak in languages that they have not learned.
So, when we say “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” we not only affirm that God’s Spirit is the force behind and within all life, but we also state our belief that the calling that God’s Spirit brings to each life differs. We say this in other ways when we talk about Spiritual gifts, which the Bible lists in a couple of places. Spiritual gifts, are gifts of the Holy Spirit, given for the work of God in the world. Everybody and everything has at least one of them, if not more, because the Spirit of God can’t show up without them, and the Spirit of God is in the breath and the wind.
The animals and the trees and plants have their own set of gifts from the Spirit of God. Takes the trees. Some of them are gifted to produce fruit, others are gifted to show God’s beauty, to provide shelter, or to teach the truth of death and resurrection as the barrenness of Winter turns to the rich foliage of Spring. Ants and bees teach about industry, deer show the virtues of gentleness and grace. Lions are given strength, while the cheetah gets speed.
For human beings, our gifts are expanded as is our responsibility. By virtue of being human we are charged with making sure that all of the other parts of creation are respected for having the Spirit of God within them and free to use the gifts God has given to them. That was part of God’s charge to Adam at his creation...to rule the earth in the same way that God rules over us: with respect, love, and freedom.
But beyond our general job to be stewards of creation, we are also specially gifted. Listen to this from 1 Corinthians 12: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all people. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and God gives them to each one, just as God determines.” God gives them to each one...not to a select few, not just to the righteous...God gives them to each one.
Now, you may not believe in the Holy Spirit. You may think that God is some detached presence that has nothing to do with life on earth. But that’s not what Christian faith teaches. I believe in the Holy Spirit. It is because I believe in the Holy Spirit that I protect woodchucks and look closely at trees to see what they have to teach me. It is because I believe in the Holy Spirit that I will stand with a black woman, a gay man, or a Muslim child and fight for their right to respect, freedom, and the same kinds of opportunities that are open to me. It is because the Holy Spirit pushed me to volunteer to give a sermon when I was 14 years old that I discovered that God had a particular gift and a particular calling for my life. I believe in the Holy Spirit.
As we sit here this morning, the Holy Spirit is here. It is within you, attaching to blood cells and coursing through your body. It is outside of you, inhabiting the air around and between you and the person next to you. It is working in special ways here, too. It is working through the gift of music given to Barb and to the choir and band; it is hopefully at work through my preaching. It is working through those specially gifted to intercede for others in prayer. It is working through those gifted to teach in the Sunday School and those gifted to support others behind the scenes.
Some have prepared the altar, others have prepared communion and brought me water to drink, others write down our prayer concerns so that we can continue to pray for them throughout the week. Still others are listening for those who might need a word of encouragement later through a call or a note, and some are preparing coffee so that our fellowship time might run smoothly. Others arrive early to be ushers or greeters, and some run vacuum cleaners and pick up papers to be sure God’s house is clean. And that is just Sunday morning!
A large measure of the joy in Christian life comes from believing that the Holy Spirit has provided you with your own set of special gifts and learning to discover and use them for God’s work. It is also a huge relief to know that we have different gifts, and not everybody has to have them all. It is all of us together that make up the Body of Christ, and it is the Holy Spirit that gives that Body life.
The manifestation of the Holy Spirit on earth is wind and breath. It is sometimes labored, sometimes gentle, and sometimes it will blow your socks off. But it is meaningless to talk of life without it, and life is meaningless if we never make an effort to discover to what purpose our breath has been given. And so I want to end with a few minutes of silence. In that time, I encourage you to experience your breath as the Spirit of God bringing life into your body. If you know the gifts you have been given, give thanks. If you need to find out, ask God how to begin your search. You may want to come and pray at the rail or you may just want to sit in your seat. At the end of the time, Barb will play Sweet, Sweet Spirit and you may either just listen or sing along on page 334. But for now, just breathe and experience the presence of God. “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
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Copyright by Anne Robertson, 2004