Seeing is believing
I have always been fascinated with the mechanical workings of God’s Creation. Whether it is the physics behind the crashing of the waves or the intricate beauty of a flower, I could easily spend hours wondering about the nature of nature itself. One of the great marvels of nature is the human body itself, uncountable cells working together in tandem to create a system that is itself, a habitation for the spirit of man. Within that system, a smaller system allows the greater one to perceive the world around us in a unique way: the ability to see.
Sitting on the front of our skulls are our eyes, a pair of specially designed orbs filled with all kinds of mesmerizing parts. Two lenses sit on the front of the eye one that begins to focus light and a second which refines that even further. Behind that, an iris holds the pupil which opens and closes to control how much light gets in. A series of muscles around the edges expand and contract to flatten or round the lenses and focus either close or far away. The light then goes through a sort of fluid and onto the retina which has layers of blood vessels (to supply the eye with blood and nutrients) and specialty cells, some that allow us to see things in poor light and others that allow us to see color and fine detail. When the light hits these specialty cells, it sends a signal to the back of our brain where a special nerve interprets the image into what we see.
The process happens constantly, over an over, to allow us to understand visually what is around us. But we are more than our physical senses. Within us, we have another form of sight, a set of spiritual eyes that see into a different realm of being. I believe these spiritual eyes begin to open as we grow into an awareness of ourselves, probably around the time most of us begin to form permanent memories. Some people think of these spiritual eyes opening at what they call the age of accountability but in the Wesleyan tradition, we believe God begins to call us, through prevenient grace, from the moment we breath our first breaths. John Wesley wrote about this saying, “Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world.” This first look through spiritual eyes, this prevenient grace, is our initial encounter with the Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of God, Holy Ghost, the Advocate – is a doctrine that is often – unless you are a Pentecostal – left out of Christian conversation or thrown in as an afterthought. According to the Articles of Faith brought to the UMC by the Evangelical United Brethren, a part of our theological understanding as well, “We believe in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from and is one in being with the Father and the Son. He convinces the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment. He leads men through faithful response to the gospel into the fellowship of the Church. He comforts, sustains and empowers the faithful and guides them into all truth.” Our confession of faith sees the Spirit as pouring out divine grace to human beings and leading them through the way of salvation (ordo salutis). The pouring out of grace leads to what I see as the primary function of the Holy Spirit, to bear witness to the Word of God. The writer of John’s gospel referred to this in Greek as The Logos, the living embodiment of God in the form of a human being, the one we call Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus tells us that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you,” he is giving us a basic job description of the Holy Spirit, namely to continue the work of discipling us on Jesus’s behalf, his main office being his work in believers. In fact, the entire work of salvation – from prevenient grace to justifying grace to sanctifying grace – is operated within us by the work of the Holy Spirit as it renews the hearts and lives of people. The Spirit acts as an illuminator, revealing or illuminating the soul through this process, making us aware of who we are now and who God would have us to become as imitators of Jesus.
While this is the main work of the Holy Spirit it is not the only work of the Holy Spirit. When we look at Acts chapter 2, we find that the Holy Spirit is a spirit of fellowship, bringing together those whose hearts have been warmed by the fire of God’s presence I their lives, calling them from isolation to be one body. As the flames of the Spirit fall on those gathered for the Pentecost celebration some fifty days after Easter Sunday, the assembly of believers in the life, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus – those who will come to be called Christians – begin to testify to the risen Jesus and the possibility of change and resurrection in the life of those who hear the message. As they move from that moment into the beginnings of a new movement, they are guided by the Spirit of God to a different way of life,
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
This change is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit renewing the despairing, divided, restless heart and leading those who heard and accepted the message to a peace that Jesus promised would be beyond their understanding. As Emil Brunner writes, “When God’s Spirit enters a life something miraculous always takes place.”
Holy Spirit is also the creative force of the godhead. When we look at the Creation story in Genesis, it is the ru’ach (the Hebrew word for wind or spirit) that is at work when, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” and the Spirit “swept over the face of the waters.” But the creative spirit not only works from God personally but through the people of God as well. When God was ready for the people to build the tabernacle and altar in the wilderness, the spirit moved in the heart of a man named Bezalel.
See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: 3 and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, 4 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 5 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.
And again, when the writer of Luke’s gospel is explaining the birth of Jesus in chapter one, we read, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
What we are seeing in all this is a glimpse into the work and nature of the Holy Spirit, a scratching of the surface. Bearing witness to the life and work of Jesus, calling us to walk the path of salvation, being the spirit of fellowship, being the creative force in Creation itself, all these are but the beginning to seeking and understanding of the Holy Spirit. The real means of learning, understanding the Holy Spirit, however, is simply engagement. “…we believe that through the Holy Spirit we are drawn in the very life of God through the mediation of God’s son Jesus Christ.” It is in living life with and in the Spirit of God that we truly come to a knowledge of the third member of the Trinity. This how we know and understand the godhead – father, son, and holy spirit – through the continuing and refining work of the Holy Spirit.
Arndt, William F., F. Wilbur Gingrich, F. W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bellito, Christopher M. 2002. The General Councils: A History of the Twenty-One Church Councils from Nicaea to Vatican II. New York: Paulist Press.
Brunner, Emil. 1954. Our Faith. New York: Scribner and Sons.
Campbell, Ted A. 2011. Methodist Doctrine. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Church, The United Methodist. 2016. The Book of Disciple of the United Methodist Church. Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House.
Collins, Kenneth J. 2007. The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Hauerwas, Stanley, and William H. Willimon. 2015. Holy Spirit. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Hefele D.D., Charles. 2014. A History of the Councils of the Church, Vol. 1. San Bernadino: Veritatis Spendor Publications.
Seitz, Christopher. 2001. Nicene Christianity: The Future for a New Ecuminism. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.
Tillich, Paul. 1963. Systematic Theology. Vol. 3. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago.
 (Collins 2007, p.74)
 (Church 2016, Kindle Loc. 2002)
 (Campbell 2011, p.47)
 (Arndt, et al. 2000, p.598-601)
 (Collins 2007, p.121)
 (Brunner 1954, p.88)
 (Collins 2007, p.122)
 (Brunner 1954, p.89)
 Acts 2:43-47
 (Brunner 1954, p.87)
 Genesis 1:2
 Exodus 31:2-5
 Luke 1:35
 (Hauerwas and Willimon 2015, p.85)