But just who or what is the Holy Spirit and how does the Spirit work? In popular Christian life, in some circles, there is a certain vagueness about the Holy Spirit and a tendency to reduce the work of the Spirit to generating strong feelings of Christian sentiment. Clearly, the Spirit’s work involves more than our affective experience.
Today’s readings help us understand in greater particularity the nature of the Spirit and the Spirit’s work among us in the church.
In the first reading from Ezekiel, the spirit connects to flesh via the prophetic word to make for resurrected life and for restoration and return, as the house of Israel is promised to be brought to life again and to return from exile, home to their land.
In the second reading from Acts, the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost births proclamation of God’s deeds of power in raising Jesus from the dead. Jesus followers were given gifts by the Spirit to proclaim this good news in the particular languages of the many nations and cultures of the then known world.
Moreover, this en-Spirited proclamation in Acts convicts, awakens faith and leads to saving grace in baptism in joining new believers to Christ’s death and resurrection. And more, the Spirit’s work leads to life in the church, in community, characterized by devotion to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of the bread and the prayers (cf. Acts 2:42).
So, this is a summary of the Spirit’s work suggested by today’s readings. But who is the Spirit? Let’s take a look at what Jesus says as reported by John. Jesus calls the promised Spirit, the Advocate, or paraclete in Greek. The biblical Greek suggests that the Spirit is one called to aid us, to help us, to dwell alongside us, accompanying us. Hence the translation here of Advocate. Counselor is another translation. Helper may be another.
The Spirit, the Advocate, the Counselor testifies, that is, offers testimony, bearing witness to the truth of God in Jesus. I recall one of my seminary professors suggesting that the Spirit, as Advocate, is not unlike a defense attorney in a court of law. (Perhaps this perks up the ears of the many in our congregation who have been trained and who serve as attorneys of one sort or another!)
Quite importantly, the Advocate delivers a word of judgment and a word of mercy. Or to put it another way, the Spirit proclaims both law and gospel, if you will. In terms of judgment, it is the world, the cosmos, and its ways that are scrutinized and convicted. Here’s how it reads in John: “And having come, the Advocate will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” (John 16:8-11)
In terms of proclamation of a merciful gospel, the Advocate, the Spirit, offers the fullness of the gifts from God, the Father, through Jesus, the Son, and to his followers and then to us over the centuries. Again, listen to Jesus in John: “the Spirit will not speak out of the Spirit’s own authority, but will speak whatever the Spirit hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come. The Spirit will glorify me, taking what is mine and declaring it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:13b-15)
Here’s the gracious, amazing thing, for Jesus says in John: “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send the Advocate to you.”
That is to say, the fullness of the blessing and truth of Jesus will no longer be limited to the territory of Palestine in the person of Jesus of Nazareth centuries ago, but will be universally available to all believers across the world and across time in the person of the Spirit, the Advocate.
So, who is the Spirit in brief and in summary? Simply, but profoundly, our Advocate, our Counselor, one who walks alongside us for comfort, for challenge, for judgment, for grace, encouragement, empowerment, and more. The Holy Spirit is thus much, much more than our strong feelings of Christian sentiment.
Why is all of this important for us now? Jesus sent his disciples on a mission to continue the work that he began. Jesus testified to the things of God, and Jesus sent his followers also to testify to the divine truths. We are likewise sent on this same mission.
And this is a mission that we cannot accomplish on our own steam, by our own efforts, and with our own words. Hence, the crucial importance of the Day of Pentecost and the sending of the Holy Spirit to aid the original followers and us in the sacred mission. Or as it is recorded in Matthew’s gospel: “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19-20)
Thus, the small band of disciples, who were not trained in the languages of the nations, were given gifts of the Spirit to proclaim good news in those languages.
Peter was mute, silent, and shut up in a locked room before the Spirit’s coming. But in the power of the Spirit, Peter offered a first sermon, a portion of which we heard as today’s second reading.
The Spirit likewise gives us gifts to aid us in the work to which God in Christ has called us – namely, to be an advocate by the inspiration of the Spirit, the Advocate, for vulnerable, powerless people on the margins who otherwise have no advocate.
That is to say, the Spirit gives us the gifts we need for the work entrusted to us. One of those gifts, of course, is that of Jesus’ real presence made known to us in the breaking of the bread and lifting the cup as many of us return to the celebration of Holy Communion outdoors today, the first time in over a year of fasting from our sacramental feasting.
This en-Spirited, holy feast awakens and renews our faith, and enlivens and inspires our serving our neighbors in love, as we are fed so that we can go out to feed a hungry world.
All of this and more we celebrate on this Day of Pentecost as the Holy Spirit continues to come to us to guide us into all the truth. Thanks be to God. Amen.
And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:
- Recall occasions when perhaps you have known the Spirit guiding you, and us in the church, into greater truth.
- In what ways have you experienced the Spirit as Advocate, or Counselor, or Helper?
- When in your life, or in our life together as church, have you known the Spirit’s word of judgment and word of grace?