Growing up in a mainline tradition, I never learned much about the Spirit. We prayed to and sang songs about God (presumably the Father) and learned all about how Jesus came and lived among humans. Flannel boards were filled with images of the kindly Jesus welcoming children to him. The church festivals all seemed to revolve around Jesus and his earthly life, death and resurrection. I can’t remember any celebration of Pentecost prior to high school.
Later, during my years worshiping with evangelical churches, I heard much more about the Spirit’s role in our lives and in the living out of our faith. One of the key distinctives that attracted me to Lutheran Christianity in my late 20s was the dual emphasis on celebrating what God has done throughout the life of the church in the past, and celebrating how we all are guided by the Spirit to do God’s work with our hands today. The lectionary passages for this week help us focus on the Spirit’s movement in the life of the church.
As Jesus came to the close of his earthly ministry, he delineates his responsibilities and that of the Spirit: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all the truth; for she will not speak on her own, but will speak whatever she hears, and she will declare to you the things that are to come. She will glorify me, because she will take what is mine and declare it to you” (the Greek word we translate as “Spirit” is gender neuter, but the Hebrew word used for God’s Spirit is feminine, so I used feminine pronouns for John 16:12-14).
The Spirit is actively trying to fill up my heart with love,
so I can love God and my neighbor.
I love that Jesus is sensitive, even as the hour of his death approaches, to not overwhelm his disciples. They aren’t ready to process all the instruction he wants to give them. Jesus chooses, instead, to withhold part of what he desired to communicate, trusting that the Spirit will do the job when the disciples are more able to hear his words. This work of the Spirit doesn’t lessen Jesus’ importance. On the contrary, because the Spirit declares the words of Jesus only when the disciples are ready, she brings additional glory to Jesus. This passage reveals not only how Jesus and the Spirit work seamlessly together for the good of the disciples, but also how God acknowledges and works around our human frailties to fully reveal God.
In addition to declaring Jesus’ words, the Spirit communicates God’s love for us. In the classic discussion of God’s activity in Romans 5, Paul points out that another role of the Spirit is to pour God’s love into our hearts (Romans 5:5). These are the words of Scripture, but in none of the churches or denominations that I grew up in was I told that God wanted to pour love into my heart. What a revelation! This, for me, goes beyond gracious pardon of sin, or even God’s love for me while I was still a sinner. The Spirit is actively trying to fill up my heart with love, so I can love God and my neighbor.
Finally, Proverbs 8 gives us a view toward the Spirit’s other activities. I want to be forthright in pointing out that the concepts of Holy Spirit and Lady Wisdom don’t map onto each other perfectly, and that the genre of Proverbs is not aimed at ontological descriptions of God. Still, the image of the Spirit personified as wisdom in and through creation helps me, at least, imagine the Spirit’s personality. Proverbs describes the wise Spirit as a skilled companion at creation (8:31). Instead of a critical architect, however, the word we translate as “delight” appears twice in verses 30 and 31. The same root שחק can mean anything from laughing and playing to dancing. I appreciate how these words round out the picture of the Spirit as not only one who teaches wisdom and holy words, but also performs the deep wisdom of playfully rejoicing in the Lord’s presence.
As we think about the Spirit, it can be easy to slip into theological formulations and diagrams, but I’d like to challenge us to reflect on the Spirit’s work in our lives as the teacher of God’s words, the bestower of God’s love and the playful celebrant of God’s creative power.