What is the Holy Spirit?

(John 15:26–7 & 16:4b–16; Acts 2:1–21)

May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be from the Loving God who is Three-in-One; Parent, Child and Holy Spirit. Amen.

So, here we are at Pentecost, commemorating that day, fifty days after Passover two thousand years ago, when the Holy Spirit made her presence known. There are so many things to explore in these passages, but I’ll hope you’ll forgive me, being a new preacher, for choosing the most basic question: what in the blazes is the Holy Spirit?

I love languages; I love how they can open up whole new worlds of understanding. Just now, I’m getting into Hebrew a bit! This week at college, I started my Hebrew first lessons — Heather’s been teaching us the alphabet, so I can write something for you: ruakh.

[I wrote רוּחַ on a sheet of A3 paper]

In the beginning, the ruakh of G*d swept over the face of the waters, says the first creation story in Genesis; then G*d formed a human from the dust and breathed into her nostrils the ruakh of life, says the second. This is where the origin of the concept of the Holy Spirit in our faith today comes from; the Hebrew origins — the word ruakh. You might have heard the word before. Does anyone — apart from any Hebrew scholars — know what ruakh means?

[Audience interaction]

Did you know, ruakh is a feminine word? What does it say about us that we’ve made her ‘he’? And that we persist in exclusive use of male G*d images?

Here’s another interesting thing; the Greeks translated ruakh as pneuma and in Latin it became spiritus, hence ‘spirit’, but the sense of that word has drifted rather for us. Same goes for ‘ghost’, which is just from the equivalent Saxon word gast. Hence ‘Holy Spirit’ and ‘Holy Ghost’, though the same, have different connotations. They all started off meaning ‘breath’.

So, let’s think about breath. Perhaps you can remember your last cold — that awful persistent feeling of not being able to breathe properly. Or perhaps you can remember simply being out of breath?

I’ve always been asthmatic. Almost all the time, I’m fine: because I’ve always had it, I know my asthma. But there have been a few times when my breathing has been so bad I’ve had to go to hospital; the last time was when I was 18, at my best mate’s house for a party. He had cats, I had a slightly immoderate amount of cider, so, my judgment compromised, I didn’t realise it was getting difficult to breathe as soon as I could’ve. Mum was called and drove me (rightly telling me how ‘bloody stupid’ I was) to hospital, where I was quickly sorted out with a nebuliser.

Breath is so important. Yet like everything that is so important, we take it for granted until something goes wrong. Then when it’s better, we forget about it again. Breath has always been used as a metaphor for our very alive-ness — that’s what we mean by spirit. It’s not just one of those things about which we say ‘uhh, I can’t live without it!’; it’s almost the only thing you literally, physically cannot live without; once you’re not breathing at all, you’re basically dead.

I hope you’re seeing how this relates to the Holy Spirit — whom we call ‘giver of life.’ We so often take her for granted — G*d the Parent gets all the glory as creator, we’re forever talking about Christ, but the Spirit so often just feels like ‘oh, yeah, and the Spirit… I suppose.’

But nevertheless, the Spirit is life. We all have life. We all share the Holy Spirit; we cannot help it. And by we, I mean everything that is alive. We are bonded together in one community of life by and with G*d.

Earlier in John’s gospel (we heard it this morning), Christ promised to send the Paraclete — ‘the Advocate’ in this translation (meaning a comforter, consoler, advocate, encourager, helper, but not parrot) once he had gone back to the Parent; the Spirit (i.e. breath or life) of truth who will ‘testify’ on Christ’s behalf, who will show up all the world’s ideas of “sin” and “justice” and “judgment” for the madness that they are. Christ fulfilled his promise when he appeared to the disciples after he died and breathed the Spirit upon them with what I can only call an awesome warning: ‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’

Often the Holy Spirit is represented by a dove, which is also closely connected with peace. Peace is good. But the image on the front of our order of service grabs me a bit harder. The Iona community depict the spirit as a wild goose, following the tradition of the first Celtic Christians. For them it was more fitting to understand the spirit as wild and free, un-tame-able, irrepressible, uncontainable, disobedient even! Personally I’ve never met a wild goose; I come from farming country in north Essex, so I’ve met farm geese, and crikey are they fierce! G*d’s Holy Spirit in us is fierce; she is a gale, she’s passion and fire — like the mighty wind, Peter’s passion and the tongues of fire in our Acts reading; she is (as I heard another preacher say this week) the fire in your belly; she makes you care about the people around you and about our world.

You have heard it said (well, some of us might have heard it said) that the Spirit is like the bond of love which holds the Holy Trinity together (more on that next week — Trinity Sunday), but I say to you that she holds all life together in community. She is for us representative of the fact that everything we do affects one-another and all our world. She is a reminder of our awful responsibility to everything which G*d has created. She is representative of the gift of life which G*d has given us all and she encourages us in all things good. We need only listen.

Thanks be to G*d.

Dan Barnes-Davies, 21 & 24 May 2015
Given at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Arbury, Pentecost 24 May 2015

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