When I have spoken with folks about their understanding of the Holy Trinity I found that most Christians have a pretty clear idea of who Jesus is and what it means to call Him Savior. When they think of God as Father, that relationship is equally clear. But when I ask about their relationship with the Holy Spirit I frequently get back only blank stares.
And that is not just among the laity. I have heard more than one sermon where the Holy Spirit is referred to as an “it” implying that the Holy Spirit is only a power. That is a grave error.
Given that the Church has taught throughout the centuries that right belief in the Holy Trinity is necessary for our salvation, it is no inconsequential matter to be confused about God the Holy Spirit. Sure the Trinity is a mystery and it is also true that God is incomprehensible. But Jesus also taught us that God is knowable and that includes God the Holy Spirit.
First let’s clear up the mistaken notion that the Holy Spirit just another name for the power of God. That particular teaching was declared a heresy by the early Church. The Holy Spirit is more than power, He is a Person, just as the Father is a Person and the Son is a Person. Thus the Holy Spirit is correctly referred to as the third Person of the Trinity. Of course we are not talking about a flesh and blood person but rather Personhood.
He was present at creation, hovering over the abyss (Genesis 1:2). He spoke through the Prophets (2Peter 1:21). He can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30). He prays for us with groaning too deep for words (Romans 8:26). He is sovereign (2 Corinthians 3:17). Power alone can’t do or be those things. Electricity is not Lord and cannot be grieved nor can it pray. So let’s settle among ourselves, once and for all, that the Holy Spirit is more than a power, He is a Person. And we do not call Him “it” because that is blasphemous.
Because the Holy Spirit is a Person we can have a relationship with Him just as we can have a relationship with God the Father and God the Son. But what does that relationship look like?
We have to be careful in answering that question because there is a lot of squirrely stuff out there that is attributed to the Holy Spirit but does not pass the smell test. Religious fervor and group- think can result in some significant manifestations but just because there are manifestation does not necessarily mean that they are from God. There is a vast difference between seeking a relationship and seeking an experience. I have seen videos of meetings where people are shaking violently, laughing uncontrollably and even barking like dogs. I have seen a preacher who claims to be filled with the Holy Spirit wave his suit jacket over a congregation and a whole section of people fall over. When Beth and I were first married we lived in a little town on the edge of Chattanooga that had a Pentecostal Church in which they handled snakes. And yet we read in the Scripture that God is a God of order and not of chaos. So again we need to exercise caution.
One of the safest places we can learn of the Holy Spirit, and how to relate to Him, is in the teachings of the undivided Church and understanding what the Church has confessed for over 1,700 years. Of course I refer to the Nicene Creed.
“And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord…” Just as we call the Father “Lord” and we call the Son “Lord” so we are to call the Holy Spirit “Lord.” And that is more than an honorific title, that helps defines our relationship with Him.
What does that look like? The feudal system gives us insights in what it means to call the Holy Spirit “Lord.” To have a Lord is to be under His authority. When you have a Lord you swear allegiance to Him, which is in part what we do every week when we recite the Creed. When you have a Lord uou look to your Lord as Provider and Protector. When you have a Lord you seek to honor Him by your faithful service. In the feudal system you did not own your own land, but were a steward of that which belonged to your lord. In the same way as Christians we see ourselves as stewards of the Lord God because everything in our lives belongs to Him. “All things come of Thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.”
A daily practical way that we can apply this confession of the Holy Spirit as Lord is as we submit to His guidance. Because He is our Lord we do not take His directions merely as quaint suggestions. We have to mature in hearing Him, because He often speaks in a still small voice, but when He speaks to us, we shouldn’t debate Him. We say “Yes Lord” and we do what He has called us to do. And such obedience is not a burden because the Lordship of the Holy Spirit is rooted in pure love because God is love. And that love equips us to obey and casts out our fear.
We need to be aware however that love does not make obedience easy. Jesus never promised easy. Priest and Theologian Henri Nouwen was absolutely correct when he said, “One of the most arduous tasks is that of giving up control and allowing the Spirit of God to lead our lives.”
We confess the Holy Spirit not only as Lord, but also “giver of life.” This truth weaves its way through Holy Scripture. As I said earlier the Spirit was present at creation. And at the creation of man, Adam became a living soul when God breathed His Spirit into him. God promises through the prophet that He will remove our hearts of stone and replacing them with a heart of flesh by putting His Spirit within us. I love the story of the valley of dry bones where the prophet is told to prophecy to the wind so that the spirit would come into those who were slain and give them life. The resurrection of Jesus is attributed to the Holy Spirit and the text goes on to say, “he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” It is the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life that enables us to walk in the newness of life. It is the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life who produces in us the life giving fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
It is important for us as a body to embrace the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life because it is possible for a church to be doctrinally sound but as dead as doornail. Beth and I visited a church a few years ago that was of a very dour Scottish heritage. Their theology was sound in its core but let me tell you there was no joy in Mudville. I know I am exaggerating, but not by much, as I tell you my overall impression of the church. It felt like the opening prayer was about what miserable sinners we were, the hymns were about what miserable sinners we were, the sermon was about what miserable sinners we were. And would you like to take a guess about the theme of the closing prayer? No absolution was offered, no Sacrament was given to unite us with Christ. So when we got in the car I told Beth that I felt like jumping off the nearest bridge. As vital as it is to have right doctrine it is equally important to be open and receptive to the Giver of Life so that we worship not just in truth, but in Spirit and truth.
The next thing that we confess is that the Holy Spirit “proceedeth from the Father and the Son.” This is important for two reasons. First, while the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are all One, they are also distinctly separate Persons. This carefully chosen language of “proceedeth from” upholds that truth. Thus only the Son is Begotten while only the Spirit “proceedeth.” The Son and the Spirit are One, but they are also distinct.
But the second thing that is important about confessing that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son is that He proceeds from them to us, the Church. After Jesus’ resurrection He appeared to the disciples and said. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you withhold forgiveness they are withheld.” This is referred to as “the keys to the kingdom.”
The authority that Jesus received from the Father, He in turn conferred upon the Church through the sending of the Holy Spirit. In fact there would be no Church without the Holy Spirit. It is by the Spirit that we are baptized into Christ’s Body at our baptism. It is the Holy Spirit that equips you for your ministry at your Confirmation. It is the Holy Spirit who consecrates a man to be a priest or bishop. It is Word AND Holy Spirit that consecrates the Bread and Wine to be for us the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit that inspired the Holy Scriptures. Thus it is through the Spirit empowered proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Spirit empowered Sacraments that the Church utilizes the keys to the kingdom and proclaims the forgiveness of sins. So it is not an accident in the Creed that immediately following the confession of the Holy Spirit that we say that we also believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
“Who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified….” This is a confession of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, who is equal God with the Father and the Son. This confession answers a question that I have been asked many times. “Is it appropriate to pray to the Holy Spirit?” The answer is “Of course.” Since the Holy Spirit is worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son, then the Holy Spirit receives our prayers as does Father and the Son. One of my favorite parts of the ordination service is when we chant a prayer from the 9thcentury called Veni Creator Spiritus. This is part of the prayer. “Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire. Thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost thy seven-fold gifts impart. Thy blessed unction from above, is comfort, life and fire of love.”
Lastly we confess that He “spake by the prophets.” The importance of those few words cannot be overstated. Divine inspiration is why we call “The Word of the Lord” the Word of the Lord. And we believe that the Holy Spirit continues to speak to us today through the Holy Scriptures. The new catechism puts it this way. “As I prayerfully learn Holy Scripture, I should expect the Holy Spirit to use it to teach, rebuke, correct and train me in the righteousness that God desires. This nourishes my soul toward the service of God and my neighbor.”
It is through the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. It is through the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit shows us the path of life. It is through the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit teaches us about the nature and character of God. It is through the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit makes us wise unto salvation. We don’t need to make a pilgrimage to Machu Pechu to come in contact with the Divine Spirit. We don’t need to listen to self-proclaimed prophets to find God’s direction for our lives. And we most certainly don’t need to look to the stars to know what lies ahead. We just need to open the Book and allow the Holy Spirit to speak.
The confession of the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed instructs us in how we may develop a relationship with the Holy Spirit. St. Paul tells us to be filled with the Holy Spirit so if you have never purposely sought a relationship with Him I encourage you to do so. What you will pleasantly discover is His graciousness. You will also find that His principle ministry is to point us to Jesus just as Jesus points us to our heavenly Father. They do this to reveal a relationship of love and then they invite us into that relationship.
I want to conclude with a beautiful prayer of invitation that was written by Brennan Manning. He wrote it addressing the Father but since the Holy Spirit is also God it is appropriate to also address this prayer to Him. Let us pray.
“Holy Spirit, I surrender my will and my life to you today, without reservation and with humble confidence, for you are loving. Set me free from self-consciousness, from anxiety about tomorrow, and from the tyranny of the approval and disapproval of others, that I may find joy and delight simply and solely pleasing you. May my inner freedom be a compelling sign of your presence, your peace, your power, your love. Let your plan for my life and the lives of all your children gracefully unfold one day at a time. I love you with all of my heart and I place all my confidence in you.” In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen