Here, every month a different contributor will give a different perspective on faith
Thought for the month of July
It is a busy time in the Anglican calendar. Ascension Day was on May 21st; then ten days later Pentecost (Whitsunday as we used to call it, a bank holiday until 1978) then this Sunday is Trinity Sunday. It is a perfect time to try to tease out what we really mean by the Trinity and, in particular, to examine what we mean by the Holy Spirit.
We all know what we mean by God the Father and God the Son, the first two members of the Trinity but the third member, the Holy Spirit, is more difficult to pin down. Two thousand years on, in a very different culture, we might have chosen to describe the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit differently. But it is only by the doctrine of the Trinity or something similar that we can represent faithfully the experiences of the first disciples and of many Christians ever since. The Trinity is also needed to do justice to the words of Jesus himself.
In his letters, St. Paul certainly treated Father, Son and Holy Spirit as inseparable. He sometimes calls the Holy Spirit “the spirit of Jesus” and sometimes “the spirit of God” apparently interchangeable. Also, where he might have written “the Holy Spirit”, he sometimes writes of Jesus “living in us” or us “living in Jesus”. These are clues to the person and the role of the Holy Spirit.
It seems that it is only a minor simplification to say that the Holy Spirit is nothing more nor less than “Jesus-at-work-in-us”. The “fruits” of the Spirit as recorded in Paul’s letter to the Galatians – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – are not abstract and isolated qualities bestowed on individuals in an experience separate from our experience of the Father and the Son. They are simply the qualities and character of Jesus made alive in us. They are the personality of Jesus himself. Similarly, the “gifts” of the Spirit – healing, prophecy, wisdom, knowledge… - are simply Jesus’ own miraculous powers described in story after story in the Gospels. Everything the Holy Spirit does is intimately bound up with Jesus, yet he is also, as we shall see, a separate person of the Trinity.
It is in St. John’s Gospel chapters 14 – 17 that Jesus explains to his disciples how inseparable he and the Father are, and then how the Holy Spirit will make it all very much clearer to them after his death. Many astonishing statements such as: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…” “All that belongs to the Father is mine…” and many others can only be interpreted as meaning that, although obviously separate from one another, the Father and the Son are almost indistinguishable and merge into one another as the first two persons of the Trinity. Similarly, in the same chapters, Jesus says of the Holy Spirit “He will not speak on his own; he will only speak what he hears, taking from what is mine and making it known to you,” making the Spirit also inseparable from Father and Son. No wonder the theologians in those first centuries devised the Trinity, three-in-one, as the only way of describing the incredible relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, separate and distinct entities, but so inseparable as to be one!
Just as the Father sent the Son into the world as His representative, His agent, so Jesus sends the Holy Spirit as his representative, his agent. Just as Jesus glorified and drew men and women to the Father, so the Spirit glorifies and draws us to the Son.
How can we make ourselves open to the workings of the Holy Spirit? God is sovereign and, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, “the spirit/wind blows wherever it pleases,” but, nevertheless, it is possible to deliberately co-operate with the process. We each have a spirit - some would call it our soul – that is our real self, which lies dormant, asleep and submerged beneath the masks we put on to help us cope with the ways of the world. When we are touched by the Spirit of Jesus, our spirit is quickened, awakened and comes back to life. The rest of our spiritual journey as Christians becomes a process of bringing our spirit and the spirit of Jesus into ever greater union, until “we live in Jesus” and “Jesus lives in us”. This is one of several ways of describing the Holy Spirit at work in us. In the course of time we may come to distinguish emotion, reason and common sense from the promptings of the Holy Spirit, which come to us with a characteristic clarity, brilliance, penetration and certainty.
We in 2020 live in unique and unprecedented times when there is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make new lifestyle choices. I am sure that we are all wondering how to react as Christians. May the Holy Spirit guide and inform our choices. As I have said, the Holy Spirit is Jesus –at - work in us but he is also undeniably separate. He is Jesus’ parting gift to us and, as Jesus explained, he can reveal to us the deeper significance of all Jesus did and said in a way that his contemporaries could not know during his lifetime.
At his baptism, the Spirit came upon Jesus as a gentle dove, because Jesus had no sin. He will often come upon us in more unsettling ways, symbolised by the tongues of fire and mighty rushing wind described in Acts chapter 2. For it is only when we are cleansed, chastened and disciplined that we can become a fit temple for the spirit of Jesus. So we will find ourselves thrown into trying and testing circumstances and situations with the long term objective, if we respond faithfully, of refining us.
In his earthly life, Jesus looked to God as his Father, and God loved Jesus as his one and only son. Through the Spirit of Jesus living in us, we too become special sons and daughters of God, included in that love that God has for Jesus and Jesus has for God, inseparable as part of the Trinity. There is a wonderful family bond here in which WE are included; a chain of love from God, the Father, through the Son, to the Holy Spirit united with our spirit. This is the true joy of the Trinity: the love between the three-in-one in which we, too, are included. In these dark days, worldwide, let us remember what God intends for us all.