3rd of the Year, 23 Jan 22
Have you ever said referred to someone as he or she and the person you’re speaking to says “Who’s she - the cat’s mother?” My mother would say it to me if I referred to someone by saying “he” or “she” rather than their name and especially if that person was in the room. I don’t know where on earth the saying comes from but it was meant to instil politeness, using someone’s name rather than just referring to him or her over there.
I fear the Holy Spirit suffers a similar fate: sometimes not even referred to as “Him” as is correct, but sometimes “it.” How rude can you get?! I want us to spend some time thinking about the Holy Spirit and see if we can know Him better. First, just a reminder about God the Holy Trinity. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons and one God. Normally in mathematics, 1 + 1 + 1 = 3 but when it comes to God, 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. The doctrine sounds too bonkers to get our heads round but it is actually the only thing that makes sense. For, if God the Father had sent His son who was less important than Him to sort our our sinfulness and to die on the Cross, we would have been more indebted to a second independent and lesser being than we would be to God. The way round this is for God not to send someone else, a third party, but to come Himself, in substance of our flesh. This is the Incarnation we have been celebrating at Christmas. God sends His Son.
God is also personal, we call Him Father, Son for this is what He is, but this must also be true of the Holy Spirit, whom our Lord refers to as the Comforter or the Paraclete as some translations have it (St John 14:26). He is the one, Jesus says, who will lead you in to all truth (St John 16:13). In our Gospel today, St Luke tells us Jesus arrived full of the strength and power of the Holy Spirit. This is not some abstract force but God Himself.
In that Gospel passage, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61, ”The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me.” There are a series of descriptions of the suffering servant in the prophecy of Isaiah and this is one of them (see for example also Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6 and 52:13ff). He was someone who would both in the short term lead to the solution of the problems the people of God faced, and this person was perhaps King Cyrus, whose tolerance of the worship of God meant the people could return to Jerusalem. In the long term, this suffering servant is our Lord and Saviour, born in Bethlehem, who turns water into wine and founds the Church on His Apostle, Peter, the Rock. Jesus comes bringing good news, hence the need for our joy in our hearts as I preached about last Sunday.
Often in the Old Testament we encounter the Holy Spirit as wind or air. Right at the beginning of the Bible we hear the earth was “a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Here then appears the Spirit of God, sometimes translated as a “wind from God,” sweeping over the face of the waters of primordial chaos. The same language is there in the second description of the creation of humanity in Genesis 2: God takes “the dust of the ground and breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being,” (2:7). And if not breath and wind, then flame. Remember how God appears to Moses first in the burning bush, which would never be consumed by the fire (Exodus 3:1-6). Moses is told to remove His shoes for the place on which He is standing is holy ground, like indeed the ground we stand on now.
And then at the Baptism of the Lord the Gospel writers suddenly describe a dove, coming down out of Heaven, accompanying the voice of the Father, pointing us to a person, His Son. The dove then becomes the symbol above all others for the Holy Spirit, often even in scenes of the Annunciation when a ray of light is seen coming from such a bird to the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary as God dwells within her womb, ready to be born for the world at Christmas. And this then also informs our sense of what is happening when we hear of the dove being sent out of Noah’s ark (Genesis 8:6-12). The second time the dove returns with an olive branch, a sign the waters have subsided. This wooden branch held by the dove and brought to the ark shows the waters have subsided and is itself seen by the Church as a prefiguring of the Cross on which our Lord died and to which we are united by the waters of the Baptism.
These depictions of the Holy Spirit in Scripture perhaps explain why we struggle to understand Him as one with whom we should be in a personal relationship. In our second reading today, Paul throws in another image which seems to confuse things even more: “In the one Spirit we were all baptised … and one Spirit was given to us all to drink.” Remember last week Paul was saying how we’ve all been given different gifts but it is the same Spirit at work in each one of us? Well, today’s reading just continues from that and encourages us to to consider the Spirit at work within us.
In C S Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas appears, you may remember, and gives Peter, Susan and Lucy presents. It seems a bit dramatic for these three young children who have ended up in this weird land with talking animals, to be suddenly presented with a sword, a bow and arrows, a horn to call for help and a potion to heal the sick. But the gifts will be needed in the future battle with the White Witch. So often in our life we look at what problems confront us, what needs resolving, how others need helping and we are all too quick to think, “No, I can’t do that: it’s not for me.” We have an assumption that we can’t do it and someone else might be able to help but that is nothing really to do with us.
How about living with an assumption that we are part of the body of Christ, as Paul presents to us in that second reading? For, as part of the Body of Christ, does our Lord really give us situations that we’re not going to be able to face? With Christ for us who can be against us? (Romans 8:31) Nothing is impossible with God and the Spirit of anointing who comes to work through Christ as He proclaims in that synagogue in Nazara is offering an end to adversity for those who would otherwise have no hope: the captives, the blind and the downtrodden.
But also this image of the body reminds us that we individually are not given the skills to do everything ourselves. We have to work with others to do it. Sitting by ourselves at home trying to solve all the problems others have is sheer folly and arrogance. But working together as the Body of Christ in this place and transforming where we spend the rest of our week, now that is the unravelling of the glory of Christ our Head, in which we, His Body, are to be engaged. So, when next we can’t do something to help we should automatically think, “But maybe I know someone who can, who else is in the body, the Church, whom I can commend for this work?” This connection with others, this confidence in and awareness of others’ abilities is an essential characteristic of our life together as the Body of Christ. Maybe you’re a young person with an interest in a particular subject at school or a an older student who is studying something at university. Well, you should be coming together under the roof of the body of Christ. Maybe you need a painter or are yourself looking for a little job. Speak to others and maybe you’ll find someone you need. And if you think “I don’t need anyone, thanks very much,” then I’m afraid you’ve not really understood the analogy of the body St Paul gives us.
The Spirit ordering our worship recognises the needs of others. We don’t just come to Church when we feel like it but because there’s an obligation to, because we all need God’s help but also recognising that someone else needs us to be here. We need to extend the hand of kindness to someone here, maybe we need to pray for someone who cannot be here. I try to be aware of others’ preferences when, for example, I choose the hymns. I can’t stand the hymn “Morning has broken” but I still choose for it to be sung once or twice a year and I sing it heartily so that the worship of God happens and encourages others. We don’t just sit reading the Bible readings privately to ourselves but they are read out loud so that our encounter with Christ through the Scriptures is assisted by another, just as we heard in Ezra’s day in our first reading.
The Spirit working through another does not lessen the truth that the Holy Spirit is a person (meaning not a human being, but an individual). The Holy Spirit working in this way is a big part of an emphasis we see especially in Eastern Christianity in what’s called theosis or divinization. This recognises that the Spirit of God working in us means the character and person of God begins to overwhelm us. Think if you will of Ezekiel getting deeper and deeper into the waters in the vision he receives in Ezekiel 47:1-11. Or think of Paul’s reflection in Galatians 2:19-20: “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” As we die to self so we become not non-existent but fully alive with the life of God.
May the Spirit of God anoint us afresh this day. May we know Him better and knowing the Spirit may we approach our community of faith differently for He works in us and those we see around us and we should be glad always for His activity and His gifts. Amen.