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When the Apostle Paul passed through the city of Ephesus, he found some new Christians there and asked them whether they had yet received the Holy Spirit. They replied, “We have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” More than a few churches still exist of which the same answer could be given. Then again there are other churches in which one might wonder if they’ve heard of anything else. How do we explain such diversity on something as central as the Holy Spirit? Well, both real and merely rhetorical differences exist, to be sure, but some the problem results simply from incomplete conversations. Discussions on the Holy Spirit are often restricted to partial subjects like “spiritual gifts” or “the priority of Christ” and so on. In this series of homilies the saintly mule wants to fill in some of those gaps, so that Christians from both kinds of churches can together celebrate The Spirit of Life.
Welcome to the Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
To understand the Christian Church’s beliefs about the Holy Spirit, we have to go back into history quite a ways—all the way to the year AD 313. In recent years the Roman Emperor Constantine has converted to Christianity, the first of the Roman emperors to do so, and has just ended the persecution of the Christians, allowing them to worship as they choose.
As you may expect Christians all over the Roman empire rejoice in this new religious freedom for it is a great good to be able to worship as you choose. But of course, the freedom to worship as you choose also means… well, the freedom to worship… as you choose. And with that freedom many voices within Christianity began clamoring to be heard. The voices of the orthodox faithful as well as those teaching strange or new ideas were suddenly both being heard. Important theological debates which had heretofore been hosted mainly in books and letters by learned men were suddenly chatted about on every street corner and in every church.
And the African-European church was wracked with tension and strife in the midst of its new found freedom. Constantine began to see that without some kind of uniformity this great political dynamo within the empire—the Christian Church—was about to fragment, taking with it a great deal of political stability.
His response was to call a church counsel with pastors from all over the Roman empire. And in the year AD 325, several hundred church pastors, bishops, and theologians met in the city of Nicea (in modern day Turkey) for would come to be known as the first great Ecumenical council—The First Counsel of Nicea—the question on the table: Who was Jesus Christ? Was he fully and wholly God? Was he fully and wholly human? How can one God be two persons?
Now hang with me. As interesting and vital as that question is, what interests us here is actually what this counsel did not discuss. In this first version of what would become the Nicene Creed, they lay out the doctrine of the trinity, and in doing so the church gained one of its most important theological constructions by which to understand the Bible—that Jesus is fully and absolutely God—of the same substance as the Father, and that he became fully and absolutely human without ceasing to be God. This was the church’s answer to the question of who the Bible says Jesus of Nazareth was? But to help see the relevant point for today, I’m going to recite this first version of the creed, and I want you to note what’s NOT there.
Part 1: We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible;
Part 2: And we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God,
begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father,
God from God, light from light, true God from true God,
begotten not made, of one substance with the Father,
through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth,
Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down,
and became incarnate, and became man, and suffered,
and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the heavens,
and will come to judge the living and dead,
And part 3: We believe in the Holy Spirit.
That’s the end of the confessional part. Yes, you did hear me right. They just spent 100 words affirming the deity and humanity of Jesus, and then dispatched with the Holy Spirit in a mere half dozen words. Oh, the presence of the Spirit was necessary, of course, in order to have a “Trinity.” Without the Spirit you’d only have…a “binity.” But who is this Spirit? What does this Spirit do? All the church seems to know is that the Holy Spirit exists. Now that isn’t actually true, they know a lot more, and the church fathers write a lot about the Spirit, but it has not yet reached a crisis wherein the whole church has to wrestle with the question—as they had with the question of Jesus, so it’s left unsaid.
But of course now you see as well as they did, the great gaping hole in Christian thought. If the Son is divine, and we are to speak of a Triune God, must we not also consider the place of the Holy Spirit within this Triune God?
And so for the next 50 years the church wrestled again… And while many hands contributed to the work, Three men are remembered in particular: St. Basil the Great of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. These three pastors argued powerfully that this Holy Spirit who was confessed in 325 was indeed a divine person of the same substance as the Father and the Son. Not an impersonal force, nor some inferior deity, but a distinct and fully divine person and member of the Trinity with the Father and Son.
So when the great counsel was reconvened some 50 years later, this time in Constantinople, they were ready to author what has become known to us as the Nicene Creed in its final form. Much of it remains the same. It is still Trinitarian in its three sections, and the middle section on Jesus remains the largest part, although it was stroked in some key places. But one of the greatest differences is in the third movement. Listen to what it now says…
We believe in the Holy Spirit…the Lord and Giver of Life.
“And we believe in the Holy Spirit…the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. And in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We believe in one baptism for the remission of sins; and we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
Wow! What has happened? I’ll tell you. The church has had a great win…a win for all Christians for all time. We now understand that when we speak of the Triune God of the Bible we are actually talking about three divine persons who, though relationally distinct, are the one divine essence—the Living God of the Bible.
They have taught us that this Holy Spirit is to be worshiped, glorified, and revered in the Christian Church. That this Spirit is vital to the life and mission of the church, its scriptures and in its sacraments, in Christian living, Christian dying, and even the Christian’s resurrection. They have taught us how to read our Bible’s correctly and sincerely. To see at work within its pages, in our hearts, and in our midst, the great Spirit of Holiness.
This homily marks the beginning of a journey. This series of homilies—on the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit— will address questions like who the Spirit is, how the Spirit is represented in Scripture, how the Spirit works in nature, the world, the scriptures, the church, and Christian.
For the remainder of this homily, the saintly ass is interested in two primary questions implied by the creed. The two questions that first burned in the hearts of our spiritual forebearers as they struggled to live out the unity of this Spirit in an increasingly divided universal church—a struggle we would do well to contemplate in our own divisive and post-denominational times.
Remember that St. Paul goes out of his way to remind that same group of Ephesian Christians that “there is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” All that we are and have as the people of God is founded first upon the Father’s will, second upon the Son’s execution of that will, but finally upon the Spirit’s presence and application of it in our midst. It is this third reality we will explore.
So what are the two great questions with which the Church struggled and for us and our sakes have answered? First, is the Spirit a Person (or just a force)? Second, is this Spirit divine?
We will here briefly rehearse some of the biblical evidence with which they wrestled so we may understand their answer: that this Spirit is indeed a fully divine person, equal with the Father and Son in power, glory, essence, and will, and wholly worthy of worship.
This Spirit is a fully divine person, equal with the Father and Son in power, glory, essence, and will, and wholly worthy of worship.
Now understand that the question of personhood was never really asked of Jesus, the Son of God. Let’s be honest, he came and walked in our midst. He ate, slept, spoke, made friends, suffered, died. These are all attributes we easily associate with persons. You might as well ask whether your own child or best friend is a “person.” The evidence is overwhelming in support of it.
But what of a “Spirit?” Is a spirit a “person?” Angels are spirits of a sort and do seem to be persons. They have names and bodies (although not like ours). But what of the Holy Spirit? Or consider the older language a “holy ghost?” Is it possible that when the scripture speaks of the “Spirit of God” or the “Spirit of the Lord,” it really only means a euphemism for God’s own self. A façon de parler—manner of speech, like when we says, “That conflicts with my spirit” or “My spirit is troubled.” We don’t mean a distinct or separate person from ourselves. It’s just a way of saying “I’m conflicted” or “I’m troubled.” Perhaps it is the same with God, when “the spirit of God” descends or moves or speaks, perhaps it is just a way of saying God came or moved or spoke.
Or perhaps we are only dealing with an impersonal force only vaguely “from” God. Something out of George Lucas dream, a cloudy and mystical dynamism that merely empowers the universe, like gravity or magnetism. Must we think of this Spirit as a person who can be met, known, loved, worshiped with integrity? Such was the first question with which our forebearers turned to the scriptures to answer.
Well, let us do the same. What do the scriptures say of this Holy Spirit? First, while there is debate as to what exactly constitutes a “person,” minimally I suppose a person is one can say “I” about themselves, that is, a “person” is self-aware—a mere force is not.
In Acts 13:2, we find the story of Paul and Barnabas being selected to be missionaries. Listen to how they were identified. “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Paul for the work to which I have called them.” In writing this story down Luke seems to have gone out of his way to treat this Spirit as a distinct self-referencing person capable of speaking and choosing.
Further in the Upper Room discourse of John 14-17, Jesus comforts his disciples in the face of his departure by saying, he is going to ask his Father to send another of the same kind as himself to be their Advocate, to bear witness, guide, teach, convict, and declare. These are all verbs associated with personal agency—as much a person as was Jesus himself… another of the same kind.
St. Paul speaks of the Spirit in personal ways multiple times in Romans 8, speaking of the “leading of the spirit,” the “help of the Spirit,” and the “witness of the Spirit.” And later in that same chapter he speaks of this same Spirit interceding for Christians when they pray as with groanings not knowing what to pray.
A quick survey of the verbs associated with the Spirit throughout the scriptures will produce a list something like this. This Spirit can be blasphemed, grieved, insulted, lied to, obeyed, quenched, resisted, and tested. And further, this same Spirit can itself convict, glorify, guide, intercede, regenerate, restrain, sanctify, commission, encourage, lead, speak, strengthen, teach, testify, and give gifts.
All of this testimony the early church heard in the midst of its questions and knew what the right answer should be. No, this is not merely an impersonal force or an effect of God or nature or chance. It is a person to be recognized, known, and loved, but….to be worshiped?
That is an additional step. That would mean something more. For again angels are persons, but they are not to be worshiped. The devils are persons, but only God is to be worshipped. So the second question is forced into the limelight. Is this person divine? Is this Spirit God? Do we do have the right and responsibility to worship the Holy Spirit?
Now at one level the problem of having more than one divine person and still having only one God was something the church had already worked through with Jesus. And once you have figured out a “Binity”, a “Trinity” isn’t a new problem. Just apply the same logic to the Spirit that you did to the Son: He is of the same substance as the Father, one in essence, will, and so on.
But ought we do this? Ought we to attribute all this to the Spirit. What do the scriptures say?
Perhaps the clearest way to see what the Bible says is to note where it attributes to the Holy Spirit things that should BE attributed only to God. For example, in Acts 5, when Ananias and Sapphira lie to the Apostle Peter about the price of the land that they sold, they are told that they have “lied to the Holy Spirit” and are thus in fact lying to God. Likewise in Matthew 12, Jesus himself warns the Pharisees against blaspheming the Holy Spirit, a concern they would have understood as a warning not to blaspheme God. Further in Psalm 139 where the psalmist talks about the inescapable presence of God, he writes, “If I go the heavens, you are there, if to the depths, you are there,” and then mentions specifically that it is this divine Spirit that is the mode of God’s presence in all these places. “Where can I go from your Spirit?” So the Holy Spirit is clearly omnipresent—a central attribute of God possessed only by God.
The Holy Spirit is also omniscient—all knowing, for Paul teaches in I Corinthians 2 that the Spirit knows the depths of the mind of God exhaustively, and who can know the mind of anyone except their own spirit. So this Spirit is here equated with God’s own divine spirit.
Finally in I Corinthians 12, Paul credits the Spirit with a divine love, generosity, and will. It is the one who dispenses the gifts of God to the people of God. The Spirit gives wherever it wills, and who can so distributes the gifts of God if not God’s own self.
I could go on, but this should be enough to show what the early church saw in the scriptures. When we speak of the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of God, we cannot help but see a clear distinction drawn between the Spirit and the Father and Son, and yet we are always still speaking of God’s own self at work in the world. Now what sort of work this is, is the subject for future homilies.
We are not coming to this series as an attempt to study a topic, but to meet a person.
But for now it is sufficient to remind ourselves that we are not coming to this series as an attempt to study a topic, but to meet a person. You don’t study persons like bugs pinned to a card. Oh, you can, it’s called sociology and that’s important and meaningful work, but any good sociologist will tell you there is a grand difference between studying people and knowing them.
Do we wish to study the Spirit of God? Well, good for us, that will make us theologians. But would that we would desire to meet this Spirit, to be introduced, to make acquaintance, to come to know it in the context of a loving relationship. That is what we do with persons—human or divine. In this series, the Holy Ass does not want to study the Holy Spirit, but to better know that Spirit.
And having done so, we shall come to stand in that long line of the faithful, heirs of those who’ve gone before us, those who understood this remarkable story of a God who desires to dwell with people—a God who has been faithful always to come and meet them—a God who IS Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I invite you to come and commune with the Spirit of Life.
We’ll see you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
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