I’ll be honest and declare that most of the time I don’t think about the Holy Spirit that much, unless it is getting near Pentecost, which it is this week. I received an email containing an audio article from The Onion, which made me think I might be on the right track. http://www.theonion.com/audio/god-quietly-phasing-holy-ghost-out-of-trinity,20400/.
Ok, that was meant to be funny. The question remains: What do we really think about the Holy Spirit, since we don’t think about the Spirit much?
Here is Martin Luther’s explanation in his Small Catechism,
“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Christ in the one common true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins – mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give me and all believers eternal life. This is most certainly true.” (Martin Luther, “Small Catechism.” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], Third Article to the Creed, 355-356.)
Luther is saying are these things about the Holy Spirit –
“I believe…I cannot believe.”
It is a strange statement, but ultimately if we trust that God saves us and calls us to faith, even faith itself is God’s gift to us. The Spirit gives us that faith, as a gift. Faith is not something we make or do for ourselves. It is not being “spiritual without being religious” nor is it simple religiosity. Faith is a relationship with God, just as God is a relationship we are invited into sharing. (John 14:1-31)
There are a variety of ways faith comes to us – we are experiential beings. But the way we can be certain of our faith is that the Spirit calls us to faith “through the gospel” – the good news of Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection and new life promised among us. Just as Jesus called the disciples to “follow” our daily call points us to the word that is Christ himself. Later on Luther further explained the gospel is given to us in God’s word of forgiveness, holy baptism, holy communion, confession and forgiveness and (my favorite) the mutual consolation of believers, ‘where two or three are gathered’ (Matthew 18:20). (Luther, “Smalcald Articles,” Book of Concord, III.4, 319.)
The Spirit gathers us into a community, the church. The church as Luther once said is a “mouth house” where we hear God’s word and live it, reflect on it, cultivate it, nurture it, and are changed by it (Faith and Freedom: An Invitation into the Writings of Martin Luther. ed. John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne. Vintage Spiritual Classics. [New York: Random House, 2002], xxiii.). We do this in any number of ways that bring us together from worship to fellowship to study to service, and wherever else we intentionally come together.
“Enlightened me with his gifts”
The Spirit gives us gifts for the fruit of ministry; every single one of us is called, gathered and enlightened for faithful service. Read 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12 and Ephesians 4 sometime and you will hear several lists and the variety of things given to the entire body of Christ. My favorite are the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23 that we receive in Christ, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against such things.”
“Made me holy (or sanctified)”
A verse in seminary that was continually pointed out to me was 2 Corinthians 3:6, “The letter kills, the Spirit gives life.” To be holy is to have life, the life of Christ – but we first must die to ourselves so that we may be raised. However we might explain that – it is what the Holy Spirit does – kills us under the law and raises us to new life in Christ through the gospel. It is a reminder that no matter how much good we do, holiness is not dependent on our “understanding or efforts” but on the Spirit who gives life.
“Kept me with Jesus Christ in the one true faith”
The Spirit keeps us on track, focused on Jesus, as we are sent into the world. Lest we think the Spirit is just out there and unknowable; the Spirit shows us a glimpse of the world to come as we go out and serve others through our daily vocations and roles we play in this world. The Spirit does this by keeping us connected to each other and the God’s word. Luther concludes in his Large Catechism, “Therefore we believe in him who daily brings us into this community through the same word and the forgiveness of sins. Then when his work has been finished and we abide in it, having died to the world and all misfortune, he will finally make us perfectly and eternally holy. Now we wait in faith for this to be accomplished through the word.” (Luther, “Large Catechism,” Book of Concord, Third Article to the Creed, 439.)
Other traditions see the Spirit in other terms, and I do not want to take away from them or engage them here. However, I find Luther’s approach both practical and helpful. The Spirit’s role among us is to show the word, Jesus the Christ, alive among us. Surely the Spirit can operate outside that truth and call people to extraordinary things. But we can speak with clarity too – that when we encounter the word, the sacraments, and each other the Spirit is at work, calling, gathering, enlightening, sanctifying and keeping us in the life of Christ, now and always.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)