What do we mean by the movement of the Holy Spirit?

20 May

Next Sunday is Pentecost. It’s a time when the Church has much to say about ‘the coming of the Holy Spirit’, but I think in fact we are confused about what we mean by that. There’s a paradox here: because it’s not as if the Holy Spirit (God) was previously absent. The same paradox applies in Christology: the ‘descent’ of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism is not the first time he receives the Spirit—at least not according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There Jesus is conceived of the Spirit, his very being is ‘of the Spirit’.

No, what is intended here is something more like the recognition and engagement with the presence of God the Holy Spirit. This coming is new, however, in that it reaches personally and powerfully to an entire group of people. This is no ‘general’ presence. It is personal, particular and powerfully transformative.

I want to repeat here some paragraphs from an earlier blog, then take the subject further.
One of the rich resources I use for personal prayer is the Irish Jesuit’s website Sacred Space .
In preparation for Pentecost, this week it offers some delightful invitations to recognize the Spirit’s presence.

I  quote, with acknowledgment, the opening commentary from Monday’s devotion.

‘The Holy Spirit introduces no new ideas, but improves and deepens my knowledge of what I already know. (Here, reference to John 14. 26, the Paraclete whom Jesus said would ‘remind you of all I have said to you’.)
We shall sometimes, but not always, be conscious of a special divine presence. … But God’s action, though strong, is often quite imperceptible, for instance as the grace of fidelity in a time of great aridity.’

That is a beautiful invitation: to know the ‘imperceptible’ presence, and especially this naming of God’s faithful presence, the ‘grace of fidelity’ during our times of dullness, dryness, or simple crassness.

God does not give up on me! The Spirit is the encircling, nourishing and inviting presence, no matter what.
The Spirit gives life, even when we are so busy with ‘life’ that we do not notice it, enjoy it, celebrate it.
So then, this same site invited me to pray: ‘Teach me to recognize your hand at work in my daily living.’
This too is a a warm and inviting prayer. It does not repudiate my daily tasks, the realities of what we have to do. It invites us to see them as having a divine meaning as well as their very ordinary significance and value.
This is what the Spirit does: John Taylor once called it ‘bi-sociation’. He meant being able to see two levels of meaning, significance and value, at the same time. The Spirit does not replace the everyday, but wraps it with another meaning as well. It does not draw us away from ‘the real world’, but allows us to see that all too familiar world with depth, freshness and hope. It gives life to living.

‘Teach me to recognize your hand at work in my daily living.’

The question that interests me is what people actually envisage and expect when we use the idea of ‘the Spirit moving’. I’m sure there are many answers to that question. Very commonly, though, the answer has something to do with a subjective experience, often a feeling of deep welcome, acceptance, and healing. This is wonderful (literally), but it seems to me important to add that this is not what ‘the movement of the Spirit’ is all about.

The coming of the Spirit is never purely private: even if such experiences happen when a person is alone, they always empower people for a renewed form of relationship with others. In the Pentecost story, in Acts 2, the believers speak: this is a fundamentally social act. Furthermore, they speak in a way that people from other language groups hear them (in their languages). The prophecy Peter then quotes, from Joel, affirms the radically inclusive social vision of when God’s Spirit comes: previously excluded groups are included; all kinds of people are drawn into community.

There’s much to be done working out what this means for us. In my own work I’ve been trying to articulate the challenge for local groups of people, such as a church or group of Christians, to discern what God is doing in the world around us. I find it interesting that there is so little discussion of this in the circles reaching out for a renewal of the local church and its mission. In the end it is not about the church: it’s surely about the mission of God in the world today—that is, it’s about the presence and movement of the Spirit. Let’s get with that!

So we need fundamentally to discern what the Spirit is doing. The very first thing to say is that we see the Spirit (who is God) acting fully in continuity with the mission and practice of Jesus (who is God): and that means, I think we should expect to see teaching, feeding, healing, welcoming, challenging or inviting, making home (hospitality, community), giving life, bringing justice (liberation) and evoking hope in God.

Each of these things needs to be unpacked, but these at least are the kinds of things Jesus was constantly doing, and I think we can see these things as continuous elements in the life of the Spirit with humanity and the creation, through the centuries.

Pentecost is not just a day, or even a season: it is the order of things. It is the reality in which we live: if we have eyes to see it, hands to reach out for it, lives to embrace it and be taken into it.

‘Come, Holy Spirit, come and renew the whole creation.’

4 thoughts on “What do we mean by the movement of the Holy Spirit?

  1. Thank you Frank
    I love what you say about the Spirit’s involvement in our everyday life and also the almost “ordinary” expectation of the transforming nature that the Spirit invites us into through the actions of hospitality, grace, friendship, relationship, teaching, etc that should be the mark of our presence within our local community. As you know, I am aiming to commence a local presence of Jesus (church) right here where we live in Carlton and your blog states wonderfully well, my convictions of mission and the Spirit.

    • Thanks, Gayle. Love to talk about this sometime: it’s a central part of my argument in the book I’m trying to write on the church.

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