In Praise of the Holy Spirit
A rushing wind, rattling through a home
Tongues of fire blazing in the empty air
Living water bubbling up to revive the thirsty
The form of a dove hovering over the River Jordan
A man or a woman testifying to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ
Each of these images is a Scriptural rendering – a verbal icon if you will – of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Each is revealed to help us know and love the Spirit who is from God and who is God; the Spirit whom the Gospel of John calls the Paraclete – the Comforter, the Counselor, the Advocate.
The season of Pentecost is a time to praise the Spirit. Whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not, each of us is utterly dependent upon Him. His work is necessary; His work is essential. Apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit, Christian faith, hope and love do not take root and flourish. And unless we are clothed with power from on high, the gifts of the Spirit do not fill our hearts and minds. Strive as we might, we will fall short. Our natures were made for the life of God, but under the shadow of Adam’s fall they do not move naturally towards it.
This is why the Father sends the Son who bestows the Spirit. The coming of the Spirit among us is a gift of life-giving confidence, yes, but it is also a summons to true humility. The Spirit falls afresh on us because we are still in the making. The Spirit flows through us as a gentle reminder that everything we are we have received from another. Our life is a gracious gift of Almighty God, and even our good works are prepared for us beforehand. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” explains Christ. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
The great feast of Pentecost is many things, but at its heart it is a reminder that this astounding statement by Christ is true. His Spirit leads us and guides us even down to the simplest acts of Christian faith and worship, and outside the endless circle of the Spirit’s light all our best spiritual efforts come to naught. We rely on the Spirit to open and understand the Word. We rely on the Spirit to seal and deliver us in Baptism. We rely on the Spirit to bless and receive the Eucharist. We rely on the Spirit to love God and neighbor. Pentecost attests that we are Spirit all the way down.
In the Letter to Titus (3:4-7), St. Paul describes our trust in the Spirit in this way:
When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
In the Letter to the Romans (8:14-17), St. Paul also insists that the Spirit’s power is working in us and bringing us into adopted sonship in and through Jesus Christ,
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
If our reliance upon the Spirit is in any doubt, these two passages offer abundant clarity. They show us that, in the words of Fleming Rutledge, “our life in Christ is not about the triumph of our spirit, but about the triumph of God’s Spirit.” They show us that our faith in Christ is a testament to the outworking of the Spirit’s power, and that our faithfulness to Christ is the result of the sanctifying effects of the Spirit’s indwelling. As St. Paul reminded the congregation in Corinth: no one can truly say Jesus Christ is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit. (2 Corinthians 12:3)
To someone hearing of the Holy Spirit for the first time, this testimony may not be received initially as good news. The Spirit might sound instead more like a shackle or a fetter, a source of endless subordination and deferred dignity. But nothing could be further from the truth. As the Scriptures abundantly reveal, our reliance on the Holy Spirit never leaves us bereft of authority or power. Instead, within the all-encompassing embrace of the Spirit, we discover that we are always being made new. We are always being made more than we are. The Spirit illumines. The Spirit emboldens. The Spirit comforts. The Spirit equips. It is the nature of the Spirit to give abundantly.
Because, in the end, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. He is the Spirit who speaks the glad tidings of God’s undeserved, unmerited, unexpected grace. By the Spirit’s power, this Gospel spreads through the world even now. Through the Spirit’s witness, this Gospel enters human hearts and minds and makes men and women co-heirs with Christ and citizens in a Kingdom that is not of this world. When Nicodemus doubted this, Jesus insisted that it had to be so. “What is born of the flesh is flesh,” says the Lord, “and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6)
So, let us praise the Spirit. And let us remember that we make no claims before Him. In the light of Pentecost, we greet the Him only as supplicants, and we look upon Him only with the innocence and wonder of children. For in the Holy Spirit, we are all like those newly born, and by His grace and mercy, we cry out with the very same breath He has placed within us.