I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Many of us said these words at the Vigil of Easter, and many of us will say them again at the next Baptism or Confirmation in our parish. Many members of our parish said them every time they came to Morning Prayer when that was the principal Sunday morning service at St. Luke’s. These are important words. They are the foundation of the ongoing beliefs of Christians living after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus.
Yet it has always felt to me like the Holy Spirit gets shortchanged in the creeds we use in worship. Perhaps this is because early Christians found it hard to agree on the characteristics of the Holy Spirit. It’s simply difficult to pin down the person of the Trinity known most for free movement and surprising action, and the relationship of God the Father and God the Son was a more urgent thing to work out in the early centuries of the Christian Church because of the nature of the opposition that it faced.
In these later centuries, we still tend to emphasize the Father and the Son in our common prayers and in how we talk about God. This leaves a gap in our understanding of the Trinity, which I experienced recently as the youth confirmation class wrestled with the question: “What (or who) is the Holy Spirit?” All could understand the creedal statements about the Spirit, but most said they didn’t address the Spirit in prayer. I think this is probably true for many of us, and I think it has to do with how we think about the Spirit in Scripture.
As the confirmation class considered the evidence for the Holy Spirit, they found it hard to identify where the Spirit was acting and when God or Jesus was acting. Of course, the doctrine of the Trinity means that all three were acting and present, but that’s hard to see in a concrete way using the Bible. I was able to point them in the direction of passages in Exodus where the Spirit is referred to as being part of God’s guidance and protection of Israel, and in many parts of the New Testament, where the Spirit is empowering the disciples after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. I could sense there was still a bit of unease with the idea that the Spirit might act in the present and empower us to do something we never imagined we could.
Many adults in the Episcopal Church share this unease. Many of us are uncomfortable addressing the Holy Spirit in prayer or acknowledging the Spirit’s presence in our lives except as a kind of determining factor in our decision making. We don’t imagine the Spirit empowering us for ministry except in very specific church ministries. The Spirit may guide us to the right career or person to marry or college to attend, but we don’t expect a more assertive Spirit to appear to us or to empower us to do what seems impossible.
Unless you are in Confirmation class, you may be tempted to avoid thinking of the Spirit much beyond the doctrinal definitions. I hope you will think and pray further. I hope you will read the Bible and get familiar with how the Spirit works in the story of God’s people. During the season of Easter, we read many passages from the Acts of the Apostles(also known as the Acts of the Spirit) that demonstrate the way that Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples is what made it possible for them to forgive sins, defeat plots to kill them and build a communion of saints on earth and in heaven after they died. These stories are sometimes missed in our regular reading of Scripture because the Book of Acts is read liturgically during the Season after Pentecost. This mostly corresponds to the summer months when most people are not in church as much. These stories are where we see the evidence of the Spirit at work in the history of the Church. They are also where we find the analogies to our present experiences of death, resurrection and forgiveness.
The Church as Jesus founded it through his disciples exists because of the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is common for modern Christians to attribute the healings, the escapes from persecution, and the work of building the church that the apostles accomplished to the Holy Spirit while discounting how our own mission is and can be empowered by that same Spirit to do similarly amazing things. During the Great Fifty Days of Easter, I intend to pray more often to and listen more often for the Holy Spirit. I want to do this so that, when the day of Pentecost comes, I am ready to receive the power God the Spirit gives. I hope you will read the Acts of the Spirit this Eastertide, and reflect on your personal relationship with the Holy Spirit this Eastertide.
Portion of the Apostles’ Creed, as recited in the Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer p. 304