By the Rev. Dr. John Lewis
Many of us had our first conscious introduction to the Spirit when we heard the story from the book of Acts with its images of violent wind, tongues of fire, and a babble of strange languages.
Not everyone in the early church, however, had such an extraordinary and public experience of the Spirit. Neither do we today. In fact, the encounters with the Spirit described in the New Testament reflect a diverse and rich understanding of the Spirit’s shifting roles in our lives, a reality captured beautifully in the Catechism of the Episcopal Church:
- The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, God at work in the world and in the Church even now.
- The Holy Spirit is revealed in the Old Covenant as the giver of life, the One who spoke through the Prophets.
- The Holy Spirit is revealed as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ.
- We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.
- We recognize truths to be taught by the Holy Spirit when they are in accord with Scripture
(Book of Common Prayer, pp. 852-53).
This short article will focus on some of the ways the first Christians encountered, acknowledged, and understood the role of the Spirit in their lives.
The Spirit is Life-Giving Power from God
In the Gospel of John, the Spirit comes to the disciples of Jesus in a very private way. As the risen Christ appears to his disciples inside a locked room, he “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). The same Greek verb translated as “breathed” also appears in Genesis 2:7, where God formed the earthling from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the earthling became a living being. Jesus breathes on his disciples the breath of life (see also John 6:63), the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of John the Spirit represents Christ’s ongoing presence in and with the community of believers.
So, too, Paul describes the Spirit as the life-giving power of God: “…the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). “The first man, Adam, became a living being; the last Adam [Jesus Christ] became a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45; see also 1 Peter 3:18).
The Gospels also acknowledge the Spirit as the presence of the life-giving power of God. In the birth narratives, Mary is found to be pregnant from the Holy Spirit that comes upon her (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:34-35). So, too, the Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 3:16-17; Luke 3:22), empowering and inaugurating his life-giving ministry. The Spirit then “drives” (Mark 1:12) or “leads” (Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1) Jesus out into the wilderness, where he is tested by Satan and found to be faithful.
The Spirit is Mysterious
The early Christians understood very clearly that the Spirit is mysterious and unpredictable in the ways it works in people’s lives:
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit . . . Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind [Greek: pneuma] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit [Greek: pneuma]” (John 3:5-8).
John offers a wordplay on the Greek word pneuma to emphasize that the Spirit moves and works like the wind that blows through our lives every day. Countless Christians through the ages have caught that wind or Spirit. It’s much like jumping on board a speeding train passing through your station, not knowing where it arrived from, and having no clue as to where it will take you, trusting only that an encounter with God’s kingdom awaits you.
The Spirit is God’s Teacher and Agent of Revelation
In the letters of Paul, the Spirit serves as God’s divine agent of revelation to the Christian community: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God,” for “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:10-12). “To each person is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
In the Gospel of John, after Jesus ascends to heaven, God sends the Spirit to teach the community everything and remind them of all the things Jesus said to them (John 14:26). So, too, Jesus cautions them that the Spirit will not just confirm past traditions:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12-13).
Over time the Spirit has taught, guided, and challenged many Christian communities to perceive what God is now doing in their lives: sometimes confirming their old and valued traditions, and at other times leading the community in the direction of new ones.
Not All “Spirits” Come from God
Paul and John both remind us that not every “spiritual experience” constitutes an encounter with God. As we saw above in 1 Corinthians 2:10-12, Paul distinguishes the “spirit of the world” from the Spirit sent from God. The same is true for John, as he instructs his community: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but prove the spirits through testing, to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
In any given moment, it will be crucial for a Christian community to try to discern whether a powerful spirit moving among them truly represents something of God, or reflects the influence of a spirit of the world. The work of spiritual discernment in a community is not scientific. It requires the exercise of patience and humility at each moment in this dynamic and fluid process of discerning faithfulness.
The Rev. Dr. John G. Lewis is Co-Director of The Work+Shop in San Antonio, Texas. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2013 edition of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
For you own reflection:
The prayer book is rich not only in liturgy but also in statements of our faith and prayers for various occasions.
If you are not familiar with “the back of the book,” now is a good time to peruse it.