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I grew up in a church that referred to the Holy Spirit as “it”, and eventually I became a member of a cult that reinforced that understanding. What they called “holy spirit” was just stuff, a sort of power, a bit like electricity, nothing personal about it.
It has been a wonderful pilgrimage, therefore, to discover and experience the Holy Spirit in all his complexity. All Christians – understandably – have some difficulty in grasping the concept of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost he fell like fire, filled men and women and caused them to speak in languages they did not know – though others knew them, and heard the word of God proclaimed in their own tongues with the promise that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21). This was a new phenomenon, but the Holy Spirit himself was not new. He had been there from the beginning (Genesis 1:1-2); his work is described in Psalm 104 as central to creation (104:30). It is his work that brings about the intricacy and wonder of all creatures, “large and small” (104:25), even the mysterious leviathan that frolics in the vast and spacious sea (104:26, 24). We see a joyousness there which we ourselves have probably experienced from him.
In John’s gospel we find glimpses of the Godhead that incorporates Jesus and the Spirit. Some of Jesus’ last words to his closest followers, on the night before his death, revealed some of this complexity. He and the Father are one; to have seen Jesus is to have seen the Father (14:9); the Father lives in Jesus, and Jesus in the Father (14:10-11). And there is the Counsellor, the “Spirit of Truth” who will come to Jesus’ disciples and indwell them (14:15-17), and yet it is Jesus himself who is to come (14:18). The Holy Spirit, as with the other persons of the Trinity, is not to be understood, but experienced and worshipped.
The apostle Paul, with his analytical, lawyer’s mind, writes in detail about the role of the Spirit, in Romans 8. In the final verses of our lectionary passage, however, he focuses on the Spirit’s work in relation to our salvation and our divine sonship. The Holy Spirit is an essential for Christians; “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (8:9). It is his presence within us that enables us to live according to God’s will, not according to the “sinful nature”. When we accept God’s salvation through Jesus, when we become aware that we belong to God, it is by means of the Spirit that we do so (8:15-16).
The Spirit is one, therefore, who can fall on us and fill us, giving us an overwhelming experience of God’s glory. He is also the one who dwells quietly within us, guiding us in God’s ways. He cares for us, wanting us truly to be God’s children. Yet he was also there in creation, wielding enormous power. He is both intimate and completely beyond us. We need never try to understand the Holy Spirit; even if we try, we will not understand the answers to the questions we might ask. Instead, may we, with the Psalmist, rejoice in the Spirit’s power that causes the earth to tremble and the mountains to smoke (104:31-32), and sing praise to the Lord as long as we live (104:33).