A few months ago, I asked during a Children’s Message, “Who or What is the Holy Spirit?”
And then I held my breath, but there was no need, because one of our young theologians answered beautifully.
“The Holy Spirit isn’t a ghost,” said Arianna. “More like, the Spirit is God, but God in a different way…”
Honestly, who among us can do better than that?
We can say theoretical things, like, “The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity,” but honestly, that’s just wading into the weeds. For me, it makes it harder, not easier, to understand the Spirit.
And that, right there, is the problem. We can’t understand the Spirit. We have to realize that we experience the Spirit.
So, how do we experience the Holy Spirit?
Sometimes, it feels like fire has come down from heaven, and is perched, right here, on your head.
Sometimes, it feels like you’re standing in a wind so powerful it takes everything you have to stay standing.
Sometimes, if feels like your inability to express yourself, your tongue-tied-ness just disappears, and instead, words—the right words—come from you. And you suspect you had help.
Sometimes, it feels like that verse from Romans: you just can’t pray, you are beyond words, but you sigh, you know that sigh is the deepest prayer you have ever prayed.
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
Our third and final sermon on the Apostles’ Creed has us exploring this last, little paragraph, and it looks kind of disjointed, doesn't it? I remember when I learned the creed as a young person, thinking: well, I guess they just lump everything they can’t find another place for with the Holy Spirit.
But that’s the nature of the Spirit. And I realized this week, that something that happens in the Harry Potter books is a perfect illustration of this. Late in the series, things have gotten grim. Harry has known since he was a baby that there was such a thing as evil, because he watched his mother give her life to protect him from it. He wears a scar on his head as evidence of it, and when evil comes near, his scar aches and burns. By the time Harry is in his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the social order is in peril because the government of the wizarding world is undergoing a takeover by those loyal to Voldemort, the Dark Lord himself.
And, as is true of social movements the world over, as Brianna can tell you from an interest group she attended at Presbyterian Youth Triennium… Young people are ready to lead the way. They start to prepare themselves for the battle they know is coming. But they have to do this in secret, because even their beloved Hogwarts is compromised: the dreadful Dolores Umbridge is their Defense Against Dark Arts teacher, and she refuses to teach them defensive spells. She refuses to teach them how to protect themselves and one another from this great evil.
So they decide to learn themselves, with Harry as their teacher. But where can they do it without being detected? How can they do it, and stay safe from the very forces that seek to re-order their society to their own nefarious ends?
Dobby the Elf tells Harry that there is a place that the House Elves call the “Come and Go Room,” because, well, it comes and goes. It’s the Room of Requirement, a magical space that appears when someone is in deep need. It can be anything from a broom closet to hide in to a large hall perfect for the spell-casting classes needed by the newly forming student army.
The Holy Spirit is the Room of Requirement of Christianity. And that why it seems as if a jumble of things is attached to this article of faith, to the Holy Spirit. But every single one of them is something that God knows we needed, something that is provided by the Spirit.
By the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the church is created. Jesus knew we needed a way to follow him, not as individuals, alone in our bunkers, but together, in a hope-filled, imperfect, love-driven witness to him, in a school for service, at a table where we could be nurtured with the bread of life, and receive God’s strength for the journey. And so, the Holy Spirit gave us what we needed: the church.
Through the Holy Spirit, God created the communion of saints. God knew that sharing the gospel had to be about connection—real connection, sharing the stories of the gospel, sharing our own stories without fear, listening to one another and holding one another up, affirming through and to and with one another the unbridled, unbounded, unstoppable love of God in Jesus Christ. And so, the Holy Spirit gave us what we needed: the communion of saints, which is to say, all of us, Jesus followers, from the very beginning, to now, to the unimaginable future.
Through the Holy Spirit we are led to God, led to Christ, and led to understand what grace really is: love we didn’t earn and could never earn. And that is where we find the seeds of what the gospel has called on us to do since John the Baptist stepped into the muddy waters of the Jordan River: to repent, in the Greek, “metanoia,” a word that means: Turning around. Getting ourselves a room with a view. Taking a new direction. And so we are assured that, through the Holy Spirit, we have forgiveness, restoration, and rejuvenation. We have the capacity to own our faults and failures. And we have the ability to bless and restore the world and our relationships through the soul-work of making amends.
God knows that what we long for is new life with God. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” And so the Spirit provides the ultimate mystery, the resurrection of the body, the reversal, ultimately, of what we know to be the natural processes God created for human life. And, the other side of that coin, “life everlasting.” Once again, I return to the Presbyterian Church (USA) Study Catechism:
Question: What do you believe when you confess your faith in the Holy Spirit?
Answer: Apart from the Holy Spirit, our Lord can neither be loved, nor known, nor served. The Holy Spirit is the personal bond by which Jesus Christ unites us to himself, the teacher who opens our hearts to Christ, and the comforter who leads us to repentance, empowering us to live in Christ's service. As the work of the one Holy Spirit, our love, knowledge and service of Christ are all inseparably related.
God is the initiator, the instigator, of everything about our faith. Whether we were baptized as infants or were ready to proclaim our faith aloud and experience believer’s baptism at a later time, it was the work of the Spirit that got us there. Whether we were tutored in the ways of Jesus by a beloved Sunday School teacher or found our way to him much later in life, the same Spirit was responsible. No matter where we are on our journey—even it if seems our journey has taken us away from our faith, or the church, or religion in general—that same Spirit is present, loving us, guiding us, continually opening pathways for us to find our way back.
All through our lives, we experience the work of the Holy Spirit in us and through us.
Sometimes, it feels like cool water on the forehead, enabling us to be present and loving even in the face of fire.
Sometimes, it feels like the still, small voice, practically inaudible, which we become aware of only when the wind dies down.
Sometimes, it feels like allowing ourselves to rest. Sometimes, it feels like the need to get up and go!
Sometimes, as poet-pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes wrote this week, it feels like singing:
I don't know what this means, but God
is singing a little song in you right now. Always.
That’s the Spirit singing within us, tuning our hearts to sing God’s grace.
I invite you to notice how the Spirit is singing in you, praying in you, reaching out in you.
I invite you to notice how the Spirit is nudging you, surprising you, moving you.
I invite you to notice all the ways in which the Spirit is comforting you, sustaining you, and providing for you, exactly what you need.
Thanks be to God. Amen.