Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What, or Who, Is This “Holy Spirit?”

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.  With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.  He has spoken through the prophets.
Nicene Creed

Every week in our church we invoke the presence, the assistance and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity.  References abound in scripture, prayers, sermons, even in conversation; but for all the mention, many persons have only a vague sense of what the words mean.

Some see the Spirit as a good feeling they get when they're close to God.  Some say that when the Spirit is present, there is joy and peace, believing that when the joy and peace are not present, God has abandoned them.  Others maintain that to be in touch with the Holy Spirit is to have certain very specific kinds of experiences, often authenticated by speaking in tongues.  Some say that in order to speak of the Holy Spirit it is necessary to use certain words.  Still others maintain that the Holy Spirit is a part of God that enters a person when he or she accepts Christ, and that the whole thing is a sort of legal transaction with God.  Non-Christians are usually just confused about the term, and not especially interested. 

First mention of the Holy Spirit is in the second verse of the first chapter of Genesis.  Set ages ago, long before any human memory, the earth as yet had no shape, and all was chaos.  In the midst of the primordial turmoil there moved a powerful creative force.  Ruach, the name of this force in Hebrew, means “breath” or “wind.”  Translated “Spirit" (or breath) of God, it brings order out of chaos, light out of darkness, shapes out of shapelessness, things out of no-thingness.

In the second chapter of Genesis we meet the Ruach of God again, this time breathing life into the inanimate forms of human beings, whose bodies God formed from “the dust of the ground,” the smallest imaginable particles, the stuff of the material world. 

Use your imagination for a moment.  Something came out of nothing.  Now consider that within each of the cells of your body are tiny structures called mitochondria, which divide, have some of the qualities of life, and regulate the enzymes within the cell.  Without them you could not live - your body wouldn't work.  Now consider that the mitochondria are as small in relation to your body as you are in relation to the solar system.  Then consider the particles in the atoms of your body are in relation to you about the size that you are in relation to our galaxy.  Consider further that the physical elements that make up your body were, once upon a time, manufactured in one of the cosmic furnaces we call stars, that in a very literal sense, you and I are physically made of stardust.  We are stardust, animated and given life by the Ruach of God, who brought order to galaxies, light to worlds, and life to human beings.  We believe in the Ruach, the Lord, the giver of life.

The Bible has much more to say about this divine power, claiming that this energy, which supplies the balance and harmony that makes the universe a place of order, can also power our imaginations and personalities.  This same energy is a link between our small created minds, and the unlimited mind of the Creator.  The witness of the Bible, from the first chapter of Genesis through the last chapter of Revelation, is that the same Spirit who made order out of primordial chaos chooses to become involved with us.  No wonder that, in the words of the Creed, the Holy Spirit, “who proceeds from the Father and the Son, with the Father and the Son, is worshipped and glorified.”

The whole point of the coming of Christ, scripture tells us, was to reestablish this link, which our earliest ancestors abandoned in favor of trying to do everything on their own, with no outside interference.  Most of human history is the chronicle of what happens when this link is severed.  What is this situation we humans got into?

Imagine yourself the pilot of a jetliner preparing to fly into Chicago, probably the busiest airspace in the world.  You have been taught that even with the finest instruments on board, even with the best navigator, you have to utilize the air traffic controller if you want to land safely.  But once you're airborne, and after you've flown a thousand miles with no difficulty, you decide you don't need the air traffic controller after all, and will bring the plane all the way in on your own.  You can picture the likely outcome of such a decision.

The Bible tells us our situation is similar.  We were designed to stay in contact with our Source, to be open to the voice of the Ruach.  Early on we decided to try and do it alone, and the result has been an unmitigated disaster.

God, however, was not content to let us just go our own way.  For one thing, we depend upon the Ruach simply to live.  The ancient Hebrews saw each individual as having, in effect, three parents: a mother and father to contribute the genes, and the Ruach to breathe life into them.

Beyond that, God loves us, and seeks to restore us to the purpose for which we were made.  To that end, the Ruach communicates God’s ways to us.  First, it was through persons such as Noah, who sought to live in ways pleasing to God, and listened for God’s voice.  Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we meet men and women whose minds open to the Ruach. And receive God’s words for humankind.  Thus, says the Creed, “[The Ruach, Holy Spirit] has spoken through the prophets.”

One of the prophets, Joel, foresaw a time when the Ruach would be poured out upon all who sought union and restoration with God:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit
Joel 2:28-29

Christians believe that this prophecy was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost.  In the days after Jesus’ resurrection, following his departure from their midst, the disciples were gathered in an upper room. 

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.  And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Acts 2:1-4

The New Testament was written in Greek, and it is worth noting that pneuma, the Greek word for spirit, is the exact equivalent of Ruach,  From that day on, Christians have understood the Holy Spirit to be present in the life of all believers, whether recognized or not, and available to all who seek God’s presence, guidance, comfort, strength and counsel.  The Ruach/Pneuma blows when God wants to summon us to service, when we need warning or discernment.  Our experience may be of a strong wind or a still, small voice; a clarity of thought, or an insight into a problem; courage in trial, or indescribable joy in success; words when we need them, or assurance when we are weak.

The larger message is that being a Christian is more than discovering rules and living by them.  The ethical rules are important; we must make no mistake about that.  God holds us responsible if we steal, or commit adultery, or kill, or commit any other sins, but simply avoiding those things, which we aren't supposed to do anyway, is not living the spiritually abundant life which Jesus came to bring.

Being a Christian is learning to live in communion with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that moved across the water in Genesis.  Christ’s coming was not merely to straighten us out, but also to put us back in touch with God in a way that would make our actions productive of good, not just cleansed of evil.  His purpose is that we be connected to the same energy which holds atoms together, keeps planets in their orbits, stars in their galaxies and life wherever it exists.  This same energy can enable us, if we are willing, to live lives attuned to the mind of our Creator, and moving toward the ends for which we were made.

Howard MacMullen
© May, 2012

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