How do you imagine the Spirit? The creeds speak of God in three persons, and the Spirit is often referenced as such. Some scholars note that the creeds meant something different than what we mean when we use the word “person.” Perhaps, but it was a terrible choice.
The reason it’s not helpful to identify God or Spirit as a person is because it’s too reductionistic — too narrow and confining. God is so much more. A human person is a unique combination of body and soul, flesh and spirit, material substance and immaterial reality, brain and mind/consciousness that is confined to a particular point in time and space. The divine Spirit is not. Identifying the Spirit as a person is extremely limiting.
On the other hand, it gets no better by thinking of the Spirit like the force in Star Wars, which can be manipulated for good or evil, a kind of non-living, non-personal power that is a part of everything. God is a part of everything, but God relates to us personally. So thinking of the Spirit as a non-personal force is not helpful either.
Spirit is a word used in the scriptures to talk about God relating, speaking, engaging and working in human lives and the creation. Spirit is just another way to talk about the divine presence and power. Spirit is a wonderful word for God’s activity and involvement in the world because it’s a word that is full of mystery. We do not see the Spirit; we can only see the influence and impact of the Spirit.
The three New Testament texts selected in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost Sunday highlight three important works of the Spirit. In Romans 8:14-17 Paul highlights the work of the Spirit in affirming our identity as children of God, thus eradicating all fear. I don’t know why it is, but it seems that a kind of irrational fear of the divine has pervaded human consciousness from the beginning. One of the reasons that human sacrifice and animal sacrifice became so widespread in various cultures was out of this need to placate or appease the angry gods or god. Why that is, I don’t know, but history affirms it.
It seems from the beginning of human consciousness we have painted the divine with dark, haunting, foreboding images. You may have noticed that in the biblical stories where God manifests God’s self or where an angel of God appears almost always the first words from God or the angel are, “Fear not.” There was an ancient popular tradition among the Hebrews that said no one can see God and live. This fear of the divine has been prevalent all through the history of human consciousness.
In the Hebrew scriptures we can also see a development in thought where some of these fearful images are replaced with more positive images, like God as a mother eagle or hen caring for her little ones. And when we get to Jesus of Nazareth, we meet a God we do not have to fear. Jesus frequently used the Aramaic word Abba to refer to God, which is a term for Father that a child would use in a warm, affectionate, loving way. This way of referencing God was so cherished and valued by the early Christians that some Christians preserved the Aramaic word. Instead of translating Abba into Greek, they transliterated it (they spelled it out in Greek the way it sounded in Aramaic), thus preserving the Aramaic word. This is how we know Jesus used the word Abba to refer to God.
This text in Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of three places in the New Testament where this word Abba shows up. Here Paul says that the divine Spirit bears witness with our human spirit (divine consciousness connecting with human consciousness) to give us the assurance that we are the beloved children of God and have nothing to fear.
This is the first and most important thing about us: We are children of God, not by virtue of believing or doing the right things but simply because we are. It’s our birthright. This wonderful reality has been blurred by evangelical theology, which has emphasized original sin over original goodness. The good news of the gospel begins not: You are a sinner and deserve to die. Of course, we are sinners, but that is not the first thing. The first thing is: You are a beloved child of God who deserves to live. Claim your birthright and become who you already are!
So how might the Spirit bear witness with our human spirit affirming that we are children of God? Undoubtedly in diverse and multiple ways. The Spirit can do this directly without any mediation, and people of faith who engage in centering prayer or practice meditation on a regular basis often talk about the Spirit’s direct witness to their consciousness. For many, however, the Spirit speaks through diverse means and mediators. For Christians, the most important way is through the incarnational witness of Jesus of Nazareth.
This brings me to John 14:25-27, which highlights another important work of the Spirit. The Spirit brings to our conscious awareness the life and teachings of Jesus. I love the story of the little girl who was wakened in the middle of the night by a loud roar of thunder and bright flash of lightning. She jumped out of her bed and came running into her parents’ room shaking with fright. Her mother tried to calm her fears by saying, “Honey, you know God is right here with you.” The little girl said, “I know, Mommy, but I really want someone with skin on her face.” We Christians see God in the face of Jesus. We look to the life and teachings of Jesus to get a glimpse of what God is like and in Jesus we meet a loving Abba. In Jesus we meet a nonviolent, peace-seeking, forgiving, compassionate, hospitable, boundary-breaking God who wants our very best.
The reading from Acts 2:1-21 draws out a third important work of the Spirit in the world. The symbolism of the different languages in Acts 2 points to the many ways the Spirit compels us to break down barriers of language and culture to share the good news of God’s love. The way we share the good news of God’s love is by loving. We don’t need to convert the world to Christianity. We need a world more accepting and welcoming of one another’s differences and more committed to love one another regardless of those differences.
In explanation of the Pentecostal experience Peter appeals to a vision by the prophet Joel. In that vision the Spirit is poured out upon “all flesh” — the old and young, men and women, slaves and free people — everyone experiences the power of the Spirit. There are no exceptions or exclusions.
Anytime we think that God loves us — our faith group, or nation, or any other group we are members of more than other faith groups or nations — we have seriously misunderstood and misinterpreted our own experience of God’s love. I’m convinced that our missionary task is not to get others to believe what we believe about God, Jesus, the Bible or anything else. Rather, our missionary task is to love people wherever they are and promote an agenda of love.
Paul says to the church at Galatia: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” The reason love is first on the list is because love is the supreme virtue. Love is the umbrella under which all the other virtues fall. Paul says to the church at Corinth: “Now abide these three, faith, hope, and love and the greatest of these is love.” The writer of 1 John says: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” You see, wherever love is God is. And that is true of all faith groups or even no faith groups. Wherever love is active the Spirit is at work.
If you want to participate in the work of the Spirit in the world, it’s really very simple. Just look for ways to love people. Look for ways to take care of our planet. Look for ways to bring healing and hope to those struggling with sickness and despair. Look for ways to lift the poor out of their poverty. Build bridges, tear down walls and extend boundaries. The one who is filled with love is filled with the Spirit. The language of love is the universal language of the Spirit.