Usually people who cop the line ‘I’m a spiritual person but not religious’ mean either ‘I’m too lazy to commit to a community trying to follow Jesus’ or ‘I’m surprised a Messiah who calls sinners would net a community of imperfect, mean and effed up people.’
I don’t have much patience for the ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’
For one, Christianity properly understood isn’t a religion at all. The message of grace, classically understood, is the defeat of all human attempts at religion.
For another, Christians aren’t spiritual either- at least when ‘spirituality’ is vaguely and universally conceived.
Christians aren’t spiritual because we believe Spirit to be a very particular person.
This week brings us to the end of Eastertide, to Pentecost, and the promised arrival of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disappointments better known as disciples.
As a preacher- and a Christian- I would judge my biggest deficiency with how infrequently I make reference to the Holy Spirit.
My reluctance, while not intentional, I suspect stems from my frustration with how most Christians/Pastors speak of the Holy Spirit to baptize whatever whim, wish or work they’d already determined to bless (See: Osteen, Joel).
The Holy Spirit too often becomes a theological term for what everyone calls our conscience.
Or our Id.
The Holy Spirit, as ‘she’s’ most often spoken of by Christians is every bit as vague and universal as ‘spirituality.’ Popular misconception treats the Spirit as something no more defined than the ‘force’ in Star Wars. The Spirit gets reduced to a spirit. The Spirit, many assume, is something like our inner-voice, our conscience, the divine spark in us, a little dashboard Jesus whispering in our ear, an emotion, the source of passion.
By way of contrast, it’s a mistake to think the Spirit doesn’t appear on stage until Pentecost. The Spirit is active through out scripture, work which gives the Spirit every bit as much particularity as a Jew from Nazareth.
In our misconceptions we’re tempted to ask: What is the Holy Spirit?
The proper question to ask, however, is: Who is the Holy Spirit?
In the Nicene Creed we name the Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of Life.”
With that brief phrase, Christians claim the Spirit to be the fullness of God. As much as the Son is divine so is the Spirit. The Spirit’s home is in the Trinity just as much as the Son belongs to the Father.
By naming the Spirit as the ‘giver of life’ the creed quite explicitly ties the Holy Spirit revealed in the New Testament to the manifestations of God’s Spirit in the Hebrew Bible. Christians can mistakenly presume that the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is a new development in God’s revelation or that the way in which the Spirit works with the believing community is distinct from how the Spirit worked through Israel.
In fact the attributes which mark the Spirit’s work in the New Testament find former echoes in the Spirit’s appearances in the Old Testament.
The Spirit in the Old Testament too is the giver of life. In Hebrew, the word for ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ are the same: ruah. So in Genesis 1 when the breath of God sweeps across the formless void and brings forth life, it’s the Holy Spirit giving life.
The Spirit is the source of Israel’s fruit and gifts. The Spirit gives gifts of wisdom and skill to the wandering Israelites in the Book of Exodus (31).
For Israel, the Spirit is a source of comfort. David sings of the assurance of forgiveness provided to him by God’s Spirit (Psalm 51).
The Spirit is an advocate on Israel’s behalf, giving courage to the downtrodden (Haggai 2).
In the Spirit there is a new creation according to Ezekiel, who attributes new life from death to the Spirit (37).
The Spirit restores hope to God’s people (Joel 2).
Most significantly, perhaps, is the role the Spirit plays for Israel in commissioning servants to speak out for and restore justice when the poor and the weak find themselves oppressed by the wealthy or the powerful (Isaiah 11).
Far from making its first appearance at Pentecost after Jesus has ascended to heaven, the Spirit appears and works throughout the Israel’s history. And what the Spirit does through the Church is what the Spirit has already been doing with Israel. These parallel attributes between the testaments allows Christians to ‘see’ Jesus in the narrative of the Old Testament. If the Son is eternal in the Trinity and the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus then what the Spirit does is what the Son does.
Just as its incorrect to think the Spirit appears for the first time in the New Testament, it’s wrong to think the Spirit does not reveal itself in the New Testament until after Jesus departs following the fifty days of Easter. One, good way to read the Gospels is to read it as a narrative of the work of the Son and Spirit.
The Spirit, after all, by is what empowers the nativity story itself by empowering Mary’s conception. Just as the Spirit creates from nothing in Genesis, the Spirit creates from nothing in Mary’s womb.
The Spirit empowers not just Jesus’ birth but Jesus’ ministry too. It’s the Spirit, in the form of a dove, that rests upon Jesus at his baptism by John in the Jordan River. It’s the Spirit that drives Jesus into the wilderness to be tested for forty days following his baptism. Having returned from the wilderness, it’s the Spirit that anoints Jesus, in his first sermon, to preach and fulfill Isaiah 65 and bring gospel to the poor (Luke 4).
The Spirit is the giver of life in the New Testament. In Acts, the Spirit comes down, as promised by Jesus, like breath, wind and fire to create the Church. Luke’s account in Acts is a deliberate echo of the Genesis story. In the Church’s birth we are to see yet another creation story. In the understanding amidst many languages that takes place at Pentecost, Luke intends us to see the undoing of Babel, where God looked upon a prideful humanity and confused their speech. The Spirit not only gave life to the Church it never stops giving life. It’s the Spirit that convicts us and gives us the grace necessary for us to be born all over again; so that, like Peter or Paul before us the Spirit can begin a new, good work in sinners like us.
The Spirit is the giver of fruit and gifts according to Paul (1 Corinthians 12-14). Such gifts, just as they were for the Israelites while they journeyed towards the promised land, serve for us as a foretaste of the New Creation we will enjoy fully at the End.
The Spirit is an advocate and comforter to us, making present the past benefits of Christ’s work (John 14).
The Spirit is the Spirit of freedom and truth (Galatians 5). As Paul makes clear, the Spirit does not simply create new life in individual believers. The Spirit is about bigger things. The Spirit makes new and all of creation and history is the Spirit’s canvas. The Spirit doesn’t just make Paul new; the Spirit makes Paul’s world- his society, his assumptions, his prejudices, his conventions- new.
The Spirit makes it possible that no longer do the divisions and distinctions of our world (Jew/Greek, Slave/Free, Male/Female) matter. The Spirit sets us free from those categories to create a community which transcends them. The story of Peter and Cornelius is but another illustration of Paul’s point (Acts 10). It’s the Spirit’s work among Peter and a Gentile, Roman named Cornelius that breaks down the taboos that otherwise would have held them apart.
The Spirit moves ahead of God’s People in the world, anticipates the Church’s work and sends the Church in to the world (Acts 8). The story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 show the Spirit to be at work in places and in people well before the Church, Phillip in this case, arrive. Acts 8 caution the Church from every constraining our imagination or vision, and it forbids us from thinking God only works through God’s People. Very often the Spirit uses people, outcasts and sinners like the eunuch, to stretch, convert and transform God’s People.