By the Rt. Rev. David Reed
I remember how surprised I was the first time I saw a picture of the headwaters of the Rio Grande, 12,000 feet above sea level in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, a small stream of clear water, fed by snowmelt, just beginning its 1,800-mile journey to Brownsville. I grew up in Brownsville, at sea level, where the river is wide, slow-moving, and muddy as it enters the Gulf of Mexico at Boca Chica Beach. At the headwaters it was the same river, but so different, so unassuming at the start, from the river I knew as a boy.
I think of that when I celebrate our annual Feast of Pentecost, standing 2,000 years downstream from the event which birthed the Church, and set it on its journey and mission. Powerful and life-changing as that day of the Holy Spirit was, it was still relatively small and localized: it happened in Jerusalem, and the Spirit came like wind and fire upon the disciples and then to others gathered there that day. Probably no one went home that day and announced they’d witnessed the birth of Christianity or said they’d experienced the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Who would stand beside a pretty little stream in Colorado and, without prior knowledge, foresee a great river affecting millions of lives across several centuries?
When St. Luke is writing his account of Pentecost in Acts (Acts 2:1-11), what is he seeing? What does he make of the Holy Spirit’s invasion on that day?
I think he sees it, and the early Church understood it, as evidence that whatever the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ mean, they are a truth and a reality of unending significance, pressing outward through time and geography. That is, the sending of the Holy Spirit means that the Good News of Jesus is not just for a particular time and place, not for a particular people and nation. That’s why Luke is so careful to tell us of all the people gathered in Jerusalem that day “from every nation under heaven.” Jesus had opened up a way (and now will always open up a way) for a new kind of life, a new depth and fullness of living for those who choose to follow him on that way.
In our weekly confession of faith (usually the Nicene Creed, but the Apostles’ Creed at the Daily Office, baptisms, and confirmations), we affirm that the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Son. As with most Christian doctrine, it was the experience and faith of early Christians that led to the articulation in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and Son he is worshiped and glorified.” The Church’s experience of the Holy Spirit from Pentecost onward has been that, by the power of the Spirit, through “living in the Spirit,” the person of Jesus is accessible, present, and powerfully life-transforming. The work of the Spirit is the work of Jesus Christ because the Holy Spirit is the on-going presence of the crucified, risen, and ascended Son of God. The Spirit is sent, not as some lesser messenger boy on an errand from God, but as the presence and power of Christ himself. When we do things that look like the work of Jesus, then we can be sure we’re living in the Spirit.
The New Testament and the early Church seem particularly concerned with the relationship of the Spirit to the Church and to the mission. Even St. Paul’s consideration of “gifts of the Spirit” bestowed on individuals (I Corinthians 12 and elsewhere) is primarily about the working out and use of those gifts for the sake of the whole community of faith and the Church’s mission. The Spirit gathers the Church into being, and the Spirit sends the Church to do the Kingdom work of Jesus. (We certainly have plenty of opportunity to practice what we preach about the Spirit—this is the pattern of our worship: gathered and sent.) Theologian Emil Brunner wrote, “The Church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.” We cannot truly and faithfully be one without the other, and it is the wind and fire of the Spirit that gathers us, forges us, and propels us beyond our settled selves.
Of course, the Holy Spirit is not the “invention” of Christians, any more than there had never been a spiritual experience before that first Pentecost. The Church’s teaching about the Spirit is consistent with, and founded upon, the understanding of God’s Spirit in our Old Testament. Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures is not a person or a definite thing. Rather it is a way of describing how God is active in his creation, and maybe particularly in individuals who fulfill his purposes.
Two different Hebrew words get translated as “spirit” in the Bible. Nephesh means “breath,” and it is used just as we would use it, though in the later Old Testament writings it came to refer also to a person’s character (his or her “spirit”). The other word is ruach, which means “wind.” (The Greek equivalent from later Judaism, carried over into New Testament writings, is pneuma.) In the Genesis story, it is God’s ruach that moves upon the face of the water, creating all that is, and sustaining it continually. Psalm 104 describes beautifully the dependence of all living things (including us) upon God’s continual life-giving breath:
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures…
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.
You hide your face, and they are terrified;
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.
You send forth your Spirit, and they are created;
and so you renew the face of the earth. (vv. 25, 29-31)
But this same Spirit of God that keeps life living, also moves in particular ways to form and direct persons in their response to God.
The prophets in particular were understood to be speaking God’s words, inspired and filled with the ruach of God. Isaiah speaks of a messianic king coming from “the stump of Jesse,” and “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Is. 11:1-3). And in one of the readings appointed for Pentecost Day (and quoted by Peter in Acts), the prophet Joel says for God: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the servants, I will pour out my spirit” (Joel 2:28-29).
Jesus takes over and embodies this prophetic movement of ruach when he stands in his hometown synagogue and reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19, from Is. 61)
The Pentecost proclamation is that in and through the sending of God’s Holy Spirit, the person and mission of Jesus Christ continues to be on the move, not bound to a particular time and place, but unbound, unfettered . . . and bound for all times and places and all people. As St. Luke sees it, the Church is born for mission. We can no more separate one from the other than we can fire from burning. Just as Jesus’ mission is to all people, so too is the Church’s.
The coming of the Son of God is the culmination of God’s divine and saving work in history, and the Holy Spirit is the continuing presence of Jesus in the world, not just some day, but this day; not just some place, but this place; not just ultimately, but intimately. The Spirit poured out on the day of Pentecost — the Spirit Jesus had promised to send his disciples — is the gift of the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord. It is his on-going gift of his Spirit, his own life — as near as our own breathing.
This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2013 edition of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
David finds that Psalm 104 gives a beautiful description of the “dependence of all things upon God’s life-giving breath.”
Looking through the psalms, which ones seem to connect you most clearly with your need of God?