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Reflection on The Holy Spirit

05 June 2020 09:53

by Peter Mitchell.  


'Come down, O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine, and visit it with thine own ardour glowing;

O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.


Last Sunday we celebrated the feast of Pentecost; in the Christian calendar, the day on which we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in Jerusalem. Luke describes that event with reference to experiences of the sound of a rushing wind and the appearance of tongues of fire, followed by the disciples speaking in a mysterious way, so that people of different ethnic backgrounds might all understand the gospel message Acts 2:1-21 (NRSVA).

Difficult to imagine

Of all the persons of the Holy Trinity (about which we shall hear more this coming Sunday), the Holy Spirit is for us perhaps the most difficult to imagine and to understand. Certainly artists have struggled to find meaningful ways to depict it, and mostly have tended to portray the Spirit as a dove; and why not, as the gospel writers all described the Spirit as being like a dove as it descended upon Jesus following his baptism (Matthew 3:16, Mark1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32), so the Spirit has been thought of in those terms since at least the first century. In our own stained-glass windows behind the altar at All Saints’, Denmead, which represent the Holy Trinity, the Spirit is shown as a descending dove.

Why a dove?

But does this help us to grasp the essence of the Spirit and to understand what it meant, and still means, for Jesus’ followers? Why a dove? In Old Testament imagery, familiar to Jesus’ first followers, the dove represented purity, innocence, gentleness, grace, peace, hope and new life. Are we then to assume that the four evangelists had these qualities in mind when describing the Spirit as a dove? Did they believe that the Spirit reflected such qualities in God and in Jesus, or somehow facilitated them in humankind; or both? And how might they have envisaged the Spirit working to bring these things about?

Great forces of nature

Rather than employ the more popular, albeit more obscure, dove image, some artists instead have taken Luke’s descriptions of a rushing wind and tongues of fire and have used them to illustrate the sense of the Holy Spirit. A few have done the same with waterfalls and lightning; using these, and other great forces of nature to symbolize the Spirit. One or two modern artists have even used electricity and radiation as metaphors for the Spirit. But why? Is it because they intend them to represent the awesome presence and power of our creator, provider and sustainer God? 

In the bible, wind is often associated with God’s life-giving breath. In Genesis, we read, ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God (‘Spirit of God’ in some translations) swept over the face of the waters.’ This was the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:1-2), inspired by God’s breath, God’s Spirit. The Psalmist sings, ‘By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.’ (Psalms 33:6); Job proclaims, ‘The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.’ (Job 33:4). Likewise, fire often symbolizes the presence and power of God; remember Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-6) and Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:36-39)? Fire, like water, was also recognized as a cleanser and purifier, preparing the way for new life. All of these associations appear to be tied up in the meaning and work of the Holy Spirit.

At work in the world

So, although it is the followers of Jesus who steadily developed a theology of the Holy Spirit, and it wasn’t until the fourth century that the whole of the doctrine of the Spirit we recognize today was formulated, we find that the Spirit has always been at work in the world. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s Spirit came upon those whom God had chosen to lead his people or to speak his word; judges, kings, prophets and others. And the prophet Joel foretold of the future pouring out of God’s Spirit on all people, men and women, young and old, free and slaves (Joel 2:28-29); it is this prophecy which Peter quotes in his speech to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, as we read in Acts.

So, we have a series of associations, which somehow are related to the Holy Spirit: cleansing, purification, innocence, gentleness, grace, peace, hope, creation, new life and the presence and power of God. And we can see that the Spirit is some sort of an instrument of God and can work both directly on its own and indirectly through human activity. But what does the Spirit actually do? How does it manifest itself? How exactly does it operate? And how do we recognize the work of the Spirit and its outcomes?

Agent for God's action

In the Old Testament we have the words of Isaiah, prophesying the coming of the future King, whom we know to be Jesus, ‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.’ (Isaiah 11:1-2). And the words of God’s faithful Suffering Servant, ‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.’ (Isaiah 61:1-2a). These were the words Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth, as he set out the mandate for his own ministry (Luke 4:18-19). Clearly then, the Holy Spirit is a vital connection between God the Father and God the Son, Jesus; and the Spirit is an agent for God’s action in the world.

Followers of Jesus

As followers of Jesus, we are called to imitate him, to grow to be more Christlike. To see, to hear and to feel what Jesus sees, hears and feels; to think as Jesus thinks; to speak as Jesus speaks and to act as Jesus acts. To seek Jesus’ wisdom and understanding, his counsel and might, his knowledge, obedience and love of God. To bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour. But we cannot do these things in our own strength alone; however good our intentions.

Happily, we are inheritors not only of the first disciples’ commission to, ‘make disciples of all nations.’ (Matthew 28:19a) but also of their gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-21). Whatever it is, and however it works, the Holy Spirit is a powerful force for good; it inspired and empowered Jesus' life, ministry and mission and it can do the same for us, both as individual disciples and collectively as the Church. 

Making Jesus real

Jesus had been a comforter, helper and supporter of and an advocate for his first disciples during his time on earth and he knew that he would be missed by them when he ascended to the Father. But he promised that they would be sent another comforter, helper, supporter and advocate in his place. This was to be the Holy Spirit, which would somehow 'abide' in and among Jesus' disciples and teach them (John 14:16-17, 26), enabling them to bear witness on Jesus' behalf (John 15:26-27), convicting those who had opposed him, proclaiming God's judgement on the world (John 16:8-11) and guiding and leading the disciples into God's truth (John 16:13). Part of the Spirit's role then is to make Jesus real, so that it is as if his followers today can meet Jesus in person and to journey in his presence, sharing his mission to establish God's wisdom and justice in the world; caring for those in need, bringing praise and glory to God and growing God's kingdom, right here.

Life in the Spirit

The Apostle Paul describes anyone in whom the Spirit of God dwells as having a life in the Spirit (Romans 8:9). And a life in the Spirit brings with it a range of gifts to be used in God's service, including wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers and discernment, all different and allotted to us individually by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7-11); we each have different talents and will express our lives in the Spirit in different ways, some dramatically, some gently, some noisily, some quietly, some practically, some verbally. But, despite those differences, we shall all be known by the characteristics of a life in the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control; described by Paul as the 'fruit of the Spirit' (Galatians 5:22-23a).

Making a difference

And the Spirit energizes and gives direction. After Jesus' resurrection, the disciples were lost and confused, fearful and uncertain, weak and hesitant; dispirited we might say. But, on the day of Pentecost, Luke describes them as reinvigorated and confident, resilient, courageous and full of purpose. Something like a rushing wind has swept through their lives; something like tongues of flame has set their hearts and imaginations on fire. The Holy Spirit makes a difference; it is transformational. But the energy of the Spirit needs to be harnessed; as the former Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, once put it, it's no good producing spiritual steam if we don't convert it into power. The effectiveness of the Holy Spirit is not measured by the drama or the good feelings it can generate but by the good it does and by the motivation it gives to drive men and women out into the world to be and to tell the good news.

‘O Breath of Life, come sweeping through us, revive your Church with life and pow'r;

 O Breath of life come cleanse, renew us, and fit your Church to meet this hour.'



Peter Mitchell

Reader (Lay Minister), All Saints', Denmead.