There’s a popular joke at theological college which has a number of variations but which goes something like: there’s a knock at a man’s door and he goes and opens the door and there standing in front of him is a man and woman both beaming from ear to ear and seemingly filled with joy and delight at being alive. One of them says to the man who opens the door, “hello! Would you like to know the power of the Holy Spirit in your life?” And the man without even thinking for a moment says, “no thank you, I’m an Anglican!”
Who or what is the Holy Spirit, and what difference if anything does the presence of the Holy Spirit make in our lives? The Church of England has always been a little bit anxious about talk of the Holy Spirit, I guess for fear of either turning our religion into a sort of set of spells and conjuring tricks by which the Holy Spirit is the power or the magic dust which makes everything happen, or out of fear for being perceived as like one of the more extreme charismatic movements where almost everything seems to be done accompanied by great movements of the spirit, which involve people dancing and falling over and various other manifestations which probably seem rather alarming to English Anglican Christians.
But of course the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to our belief. Without wanting to anticipate next Sunday’s sermon on the Holy Trinity, without the Holy Spirit there would of course be no Trinity. Without the Holy Spirit we would be binatarians, believing in two Gods, the Father and the Son. The Dean preached a fortnight ago on the perichoretic dance of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together, the three persons of the Trinity interweaving, interrelating and modelling for the Christian believer the sort of community that God is not only interested in, but that God is. God is community, and part of that community is the Holy Spirit. But who or what is the Holy Spirit, and how are our lives different because of the spirit? What do we gain by the presence of this Spirit of God, other than the excuse to wear the lovely festal red set of vestments!
But of course part of the answer is in that question, “who or what”. There is a great temptation to refer to the Holy Spirit as an “it”, you know as if Holy Spirit is not a person but a sort of force or power or mechanism by which God, or maybe Jesus, does things. You know a bit like the web that Spiderman shoots from his wrists, God goes around squirting the Holy Spirit here and there to make things happen. Very easy to fall into that kind of belief because we tend to refer to the Holy Spirit as quite a mechanical thing. And the Bible does that as well a bit. The Holy Spirit is poured out here or there, the Holy Spirit inspires somebody to do something. I wouldn’t blame you if that’s how you think about the Spirit most of the time; a lot of the time that’s what I do too. It makes us all heretics of course. The heresy in question in this case is that of subordinationism, making the third person of the Trinity subordinate, less than, or a vessel of, the other two. It’s one of the reasons why the eastern church doesn’t like that line in the creed, “who proceeded from the Father and the son”, but it seems to make the Father and the son higher ranking, or superior to the Holy Spirit. They simply don’t include that line. It’s part of what the great schism which separated Eastern and the Western Church was all about.
We get closer to the truth if we try to get into the discipline of referring to the Holy Spirit as he, or she, rather than it. That might be a bit of homework for all of us. She is a very good pronoun for the Holy Spirit, because the word for the Spirit in both Hebrew and Greek is feminine. ‘He’ is probably more common, and certainly the traditional pronoun for the Spirit, but traditions are sometimes there to be gently nudged aren’t they?!
So why is there a Holy Spirit? Well I could take you passage by passage through Scripture and show you the activity and presence of the Holy Spirit, all the way from creation through to the back end of the New Testament in the developing life of the church of God, we could extrapolate together some doctrines from that. But I want to focus instead on two key roles of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church today.
If we had three readings at the Eucharist, or four as it would have been today, which you may be quite pleased that we don’t have, then we would have heard the story of the Tower of Babel this morning as our Old Testament reading. You will remember the story of Tower of Babel, it comes right early on in the book of Genesis and is the story of the arrogance of humanity. Humans at this point are all living in the same place and sharing therefore the same language, and they say “come let us build a tower with its top in the heavens” so that they can be like gods. And God, seeing the arrogance of humanity knocks the tower over, and then scatters people all across the face of the earth. He confuses their language, hence the use of the word Babel, or babble, so the humanity can no longer easily understand one another and therefore not work together again to achieve such an arrogant and self-destructive end. It is of course a myth about the origin of language, and of different communities and ethnic groups. It’s set for the day of Pentecost because what happens at Pentecost of course is that the apostles are given the gift of tongues. They are given the gift of communicating in a way that everyone can understand. And so the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is often read as a reversal of the myth of the Tower of Babel. It’s read as the gifting to the church of the potential for unity.
The Holy Spirit is the way in which God moves in his world to bring unity, common working, compassion, care for the other, all those values by which we become more than we were before. The Holy Spirit reunites.
One of the schools of which I am a governor has three core values: courage, compassion, and commitment. And some of the material supporting those three values draws links with the three persons of the Trinity. And the value which we associate with the Holy Spirit is that of commitment. The Holy Spirit is God’s commitment to his world. Jesus said to the disciples, immortalised for those of us who adore choral worship by Tallis’ splendid anthem, “if ye love me keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father and he will give you another Comforter.”
The Holy Spirit is no more and no less than God active and committed in the world, and in the lives of his people. The Holy Spirit is, in the words which sadly never made it into the modern liturgy, “the breath and the kiss of God within you.” The Holy Spirit is how you know God, and how God knows you, because the Holy Spirit is God. When you feel the tug upon your heart in prayer or in worship, that is the Holy Spirit. When you feel outraged and angry by injustice in the world and motivated to do something about it, that is the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit: God’s commitment to his world. And Pentecost, God’s reversal of Babel.
And at those wonderful moments that mark the Christians journey: our baptism, our confirmation, for some ordination too, it is the Holy Spirit who is invoked: “confirm, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit”.
And in a moment we will sing the creed, and we will sing about the Holy Spirit, who “with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified” equal as God, but unique as God. God as we know him, God as we know her. In the words of Patriarch Ignatius of Sweden,
Without the Holy Spirit: God is far away, Christ stays in the past, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is simply an organisation, authority simply a matter of domination, mission a matter of propaganda, liturgy no more than an evocation, Christian living a slave morality. But with the Holy Spirit: the cosmos is resurrected and groans with the birth-pangs of the Kingdom, the risen Christ is there, the Gospel is the power of life, the Church shows forth the life of the Trinity, authority is a liberating service, mission is a Pentecost, the liturgy is both memorial and anticipation, human action is deified.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!