‘We believe in the Holy Spirit’ – We say it every week, but what did the Holy Spirit ever do for us?
A lot of people would say – not very much. Who is the Holy Spirit anyway?
Not very much. Apart from creation. On Day One, the Holy Spirit was there. God was make the heavens and the earth. God’s Word was making things happen, so that’s Christ then – he was there too. And the wind of the Spirit swept over the waters. They were all there, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, right from the start, bringing the world into being. Out of the formless, chaotic waters is drawn the creative means of life. Out of the darkness comes the light. And the Spirit is there, right from the start.
And no, the world wasn’t made in six days – that’s a poem, a story, to bring it alive. The myth of science is that it was a big bang – another poem, another story to bring alive the origins of creation. But the important thing was that God was there, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the energy and imagination and instigator of all that we see and hear and touch and experience, of all that we are and know.
So the Holy Spirit was part of creation. But apart from creation, what did the Holy Spirit ever do for us? Jesus is the main man, surely – that’s how we know God, by looking at Jesus.
And in our Gospel reading, we have Jesus at the very start of his ministry, when he comes to John the Baptist to be baptized. John tells everyone that a powerful person is coming along, and Jesus turns up. And when he emerges from the water, the water of the new creation, the Spirit is there again, hovering over the waters in the form of a dove. It is a wonderful moment, when heaven makes itself known on earth, when amazing things happen, when the beyond breaks through into the here. The heavens open, the Spirit hovers, and God’s voice sounds from heaven: You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
It’s like God is quoting from Scripture, from the Old Testament, from different verses in the Psalms and Isaiah – and if you look at the original verses, the Holy Spirit is there too. Jesus knew his scriptures inside out – he would have recognised that passages in God’s message, and he would have understood that God was setting him aside as his Son, his special servant.
For Jesus, this is a turning point in his life. He turns away from his former life working as a carpenter, and from now on, he begins a ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming the kingdom of God.
But what’s the Holy Spirit doing in this story, hanging there in the air like some cosmic bauble? Is he there for our benefit, to point to Jesus and show that he’s the one we should be watching? Is he there for Jesus himself, to make it clear to him that he is God’s Son and he’s got work to do? Is he there as a promise, a reminder, that God’s Spirit is with him always?
He’s not just a decorative element in the story, the Holy Spirit. He is built into the fabric of Jesus’ ministry, there from the start.
So the Holy Spirit was there at creation and built in to Jesus’ ministry. That’s all very well, but apart from creation and Jesus, what did the Holy Spirit ever do for us?
The New Testament reading tells a story of how Paul met a bunch of believers on his travels, a group of around a dozen, and found that they had been baptised by John the Baptist. Paul listened to their story about their spiritual journey and told them how John had pointed to Jesus. So they took the next step and were baptised in the name of Jesus. Paul lay hands on them and the Holy Spirit came upon them and they suddenly blossomed with spiritual gifts. There is an outbreak of joy and praise, an openness to prophecy and people who pray out loud in strange words.
The Holy Spirit isn’t just there for the main man, for Jesus – he is there for ordinary believers. And do you know what? That means us too! When the bishop lays hands on us at confirmation, he prays for the Holy Spirit to come upon us. In the modern Christian church, the rites of baptism and confirmation have been tamed – we don’t generally experience that overwhelming joy or an outbreak of spiritual gifts. That is such a shame!
The Holy Spirit is there to guide us and protect us. Ask him to guide you and protect you. The Holy Spirit will tell you what God wants – just ask him. If you are serious about your faith, ask him. The Spirit operates in your conscience and in your deepest desires
The Spirit is not tame, not comfortable. He won’t do as he’s told. That is – if you tell him your plans, he’ll just as likely turn them upside down. So seek what he wants and you’ll be fine. In the verse that follows today’s Gospel, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to pray and reflect – the Spirit is there in our praying, and that’s one place where we have a very real relationship with the Spirit. The Spirit is like wind – like the winds of the last few days, powerful and strong. The Spirit is like fire. The Spirit is like a dove sweeping over the waters of our creation and baptism.
What did the Holy Spirit ever do for us? Apart from creation? Apart from being integral to Jesus’ ministry? Apart from being active and present in all of our lives?
And if you can’t see it – look harder, seek further, demand more strongly. When you really want him – he’s already there.