A Noun That Acts As A Verb
'Spirit'/'breath' can be seen as a type of noun that has the implied character of a verb. Picture the thing known as 'wind'. Do you think of it as being still? Doesn't every image the word creates have motion, activity, movement, effect? Verbs are 'action words', but then, in their own way, so are nouns like 'wind'. The Spirit is an 'action noun', too. The Spirit verbs all that exists -- the Spirit acts, moves, agitates, births, and energizes.
The Spirit is often -- and rightly -- described as 'God in action'. But the description cannot stop there, because:
- the Father and the Son act, too, and each has a presence of their own.
- what makes the Spirit a person, before anything else, is how the Spirit relates to the Father and Son. We can find out how well they work as a unit, but we have no handle on how that comes about. This relationship is part of what defines the Godhead.
- The Holy Spirit is not merely present and 'in action'. The Spirit is in action with a mission -- bringing in the re-born Creation, the Kingdom. And in a particular place -- among human beings right now. And with a direction -- unceasingly toward the Son.
The Spirit is a source of energy, but is not a divine wall socket. The Spirit can't be stored away for later use, nor saved up like money in the bank, nor sprinkled over people like some sort of champagne. The Spirit uses us, not vice versa. And the Spirit uses us for mission, together and individually, for whatever big or little mission needs are at hand.
Images of the Unseen Spirit
In the Bible, the main image used of the Spirit of God is that of wind or breath. Hebrew ruach. Greek pneuma. And generations later, the Church used Latin spiritus.
We can know when the wind is there, for it blows against us, chills the skin, leaves windburn, or blasts us with desert sand. We don't see it, yet we can feel its direct action, its unseen force on us, as we lean against it or move with its help. We can see the wind's effects on the sand that it blows into dunes, or snow that it piles up as drifts, or sailing ships it makes to glide over the sea. Wind can act with terrible force concentrated in a moment, such as with a hurricane or tornado, and then be calm in the next moment.
Breath moves in and out of the lungs through the mouth and nose. Its moisture is most seen in cold weather, just as the Holy Spirit is most easily seen when life is spiritually cold and we most need to see signs of life. Our breath operates all the time, so steadily that we don't normally even notice it. Breath brings the oxygen we need, and sends out the carbon dioxide that would kill us if we didn't get rid of it. When breath is no more, so are we. Thus each breath is an unseen grace, bearing the unseen power of visible life.
Why Our Spirit-Talk Seems So Vague
The early church had many different shades of belief about the Spirit. The Arians held God to be only what we call 'the Father'. Others were interested only in the Father and the Son and identified 'the Spirit' as being a different way of showing the Son or the Father to us. Even so, the vast mass of Christian believers clearly believed in a Holy Spirit, and that this Spirit was divine as against angelic or human. They didn't seek or want a definition. The most able theologians of the day, such as Athanasius, were busy trying to rightly describe Christ and what He did. These writings led to the ecumenical creeds, which stated the most important truths about Jesus and asserted the Spirit's place in the Trinity without comment (the Apostles' Creed) or with brief comment (the Nicene Creed). The Athanasian Creed says nothing more about the Holy Spirit than what it says about God as Father and as Son; it says the Spirit is distinct, yet chose to say nothing much about how the Spirit is distinct.
Between then and this past century, the Christian church didn't think much more about the Spirit. There's a practical reason for this: the Spirit is so hard to describe that thinking about the Spirit too much will drive you loony. Anyone who tries to describe the 'Holy Spirit' eventually finds themselves on the edge of the cliff of heresy (teaching lies about God). Even describing the presence of the Spirit is hard to do right. So, it's usually best to stick with what matters most: what the Spirit is doing with us here in this time and place. Christ is the Spirit's message, Christ's Kingdom is the Spirit's mission, and in any case, the Spirit's primary job is to bring us Christ and to bind Christ's believers together as Jesus' Body among the living. Pneumatological thought (thinking about the Spirit) really is secondary -- at least, next to actually living in the Spirit. That's not to call theology unimportant -- if you don't think, you'll fall for anything -- but the Spirit is here so we may live the Kingdom.
Link to the Unseen (Eeeery-sounding, eh?)
A link about living the Kingdom
Jesus Is Full Of the Spirit
Jesus is the ultimate example of being 'Spirit-filled'. The Spirit shows up in force in every part of Jesus' mission as Messiah :
The Promise Of the Spirit's Presence
The followers of Christ have been described (James 1:18) as being the first fruit of the new order, the Kingdom. The first fruits were a waive offering (in the temple talk of the Hebrew Scriptures), related to the Jewish day of Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit (the indwelt presence of God) was first given to the church at the Christian Pentecost, but had been seen before that: the prophets prophesied from that Spirit, and it is said of Christ that "he had the spirit without measure."
In Luke 24:49, in John 14:15-17, and again in Acts 1:4-5, the risen Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit. It took Him no more than a few days, on Pentecost (Acts 2), for Him to keep His promise. A theology of the Spirit was the furthest thing from their minds. They had their hands full coping with the Spirit's presence and activity in their lives, and having every believer experience this activity. There has been no repeat of Pentecost -- there is nothing quite like the first time -- but from that moment on the Holy Spirit would be giving people mini-Pentecosts, filling them and showing them what to do with it. In Acts (2:38-39; 10:44; 19:5-6), the Spirit comes with the beginning of faith within the person, and with the action of being baptized. Indeed, that's what Peter promised in Acts 2:38: Repent, be baptized, receive the Spirit.
- CORNELIUS' HOUSEHOLD. Acts 10:1 - 11:18. Urged on by a dream sent from God, Peter went to Cornelius to tell his own witness story about the good news of Christ, and offered forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:38-43; Acts 11:4-18). Cornelius and his household and close friends believed (Acts 11:17-18). Peter and the Jews that were with him could easily recognize the newborn faith in Cornelius' circle, but they also noticed something else: these Gentiles were speaking in tongues and praising God all over the place. The joint was jumping. This was strange to Peter and his troupe; they hadn't seen non-Jews this way. Cornelius and his household had received the Spirit, but had not yet been baptized into the church. So, Peter rushed in to have them baptized, making them a full-fledged part of the Church.
- THE SAMARITANS. Acts 8:4-25. Philip preached the gospel to them in the power of the Spirit, they believed, they were baptized, yet the Spirit didn't fall upon them. They received the Spirit later, from Peter and John, when John recognized the problem.
- THE EPHESIANS. Acts 19. Paul came upon some former followers of John the Baptist. They had received no Christian teaching or baptism. So Paul availed himself of the opportunity. He baptized them, then he laid hands on them and commissioned them with the Spirit.
Notice that the Spirit has a different timetable than the apostles or anyone else. That's because God rules, and can choose to be in the house and in effect at any time.
Back To Top
Ways Of Being Here
It appears from what Jesus says in John 16 that the presence of the Holy Spirit is something better, at least in some ways, than having Jesus alive in our midst, even in a resurrected form. (At first blush, such talk sounds like the ramblings of a venerable mystic, but then, Spirit-talk always runs that risk.) Another saying that heads off in a similar direction is John 20:29, in that those who have not seen Jesus (like us!) are blessed.
My guess at this mysterious saying goes like this. When Jesus walked the earth, it was a 'you hadda be there' experience. 'You hadda be there' because it was quite a trip to be around Him and words could not describe it well enough, if the authors of the Gospels are to be believed. But it was a 'you hadda be there' kind of thing in another way: if you were anywhere else than where Jesus was, you were not in the presence of the second person of the Trinity. He took on the limits of being a human being, including those of time and space, with the eventual reality of death. These limits go with being 'incarnate' (being a body-being).
When Jesus Christ left, "the Comforter"/"Supporter"/"Advocate" (the Holy Spirit) came in His place. The Holy Spirit is, of course, SPIRIT, and has never been a bodily being like Christ. There are some advantages to being just a spirit. The Spirit has no limit of time or space. The Spirit is able to work within minds and through people's activities, in the everyday realm everywhere, throughout the centuries. Jesus does what could only be done by a bodily being who is in the Spirit, while the Holy Spirit does what a bodily being can't do by itself. (Whatever the task is, all of God's Persons are at work in the task somehow.)
The Spirit draws us into the presence of Christ, even to the point of creating a relationship between us and Jesus Christ that can be so close that to speak of being in union with Him does not have to be blasphemous. The bond between us and the risen Jesus Christ is a bond sewn by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit won't live in someone who chooses to sin in spite of conscience, or who has no love in them. The Spirit is not found where sin has its way.
When people say God is dead or is a remote being who has fled the scene, God says otherwise in Jesus the Christ, a bodily being in full solidarity with us. And, God says it in the Holy Spirit, someone who stretches between the people, places and times to lead us forward in the relationship with God and one another. This is basic to what it means to believe in Christ. Any belief in a dead god or a remote god is belief in another god entirely.
This is a matter of sharp difference between a Christian and a mainstream Muslim. To a Muslim, God doesn't stoop to indwell in His followers; Allah is beyond that. God is not just Totally Other, but separate. When a Christian speaks of the Spirit 'indwelling', it means being in close relationship, and close relationship demands that you reveal not just will and message, but something of your very self. Islam has no room for a God who reveals himself that way. Christians believe that the heart, the character, and the love of God is revealed to us in creation, in the covenant with the Jews, and then definitively in God's Son, Jesus Christ. Getting us to grasp this is the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit is here:
- through the Prophets
- in Baptism
- in Holy Communion
- in prayer
- in revelation
- by making holiness
- in theology
- by giving people faith
The Spirit's presence is also found in certain times and places more than in others. These are sometimes described as 'sacred ground' or 'holy moments', or more currently 'thin places' (where the underlying spiritual dimension of this world has less of a cover over it). This doesn't make anywhere else unholy. It's where the presence of God that's in every time and place, the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life and in other people's lives, is most easily accessed. At any moment of God's choosing, any place and any moment can be 'thin', because the whole world has been blessed by God's presence in it, in Jesus.
The Spirit's Not Here On A Whim
The Spirit doesn't exist to fulfill our desires. Christ is not like some parent spoiling His children with presents and permission to romp around and do what they will. God is not here on human terms for human whims or even the grandest of human purposes, and can't be trapped inside our word games. Yet God is a God of gifts, a Spirit of a true freedom with the discipline and responsibility needed to be truly free, a God who wants us to dream and envision, describe and learn about, a God whose purposes are the only ones worth pursuit, a God whose mysteries are the only ones worth probing.
Back To Top