Friday, November 26, 2010

Spirit of God

In the wisdom writing of our faith there seems to be a progression of understanding about, and experience of, God’s Spirit. In one of the creation stories found in Genesis the Jewish writers suggest that in the beginning, before anything else was created, the ‘ruach’ of God moved over the waters. This Hebrew word ‘ruach’ is sometimes translated into English as a ‘wind from God’, and sometimes the ‘Spirit of God’. I think both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ of God are helpful terms to have in our mind as we look at God’s Spirit expressed in Old and New Testament writing.

Old Testament
In Genesis the ruach of God is powerful and creative, giving order to chaos and breathing life into an imagined first man and woman(Genesis 1:2 / 2:7). In the Old Testament the Spirit of God seemed to be given to certain individuals to enable them to do great and strange things. It enabled David to triumph against Goliath, and the Philistine army (1Samuel 17:40-51), but also led him to dance almost naked through the streets of Jerusalem (2Samuel 6:14-16). God’s Spirit gave enormous strength to Samson who in one day is said to have killed 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey! (Judges 15:14-17).

God’s Spirit enabled Moses to challenge Pharoah and lead the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt to a promised land (Exodus). Many of the prophets of the Old Testament were repeatedly called by God’s Spirit to challenge the injustice and unfaithfulness of Jewish Kings and the Jewish community: Nathan challenged David (2Samuel 12:1-13); Elijah challenged Ahab (1Kings 18:20-46); Jonah challenged the people of Ninevah (Jonah 3:1-10); Micah suggested to his community that the most important thing that God wanted was not animal sacrifice… but a way of life (Micah 6:8). There are more fantastic prophets to read about in the Old Testament and these include Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Amos and Hosea…

New Testament
The earliest documents written in the New Testament are the letters of Paul ‘though sometimes it is easy to forget this because the Gospels are at the front of the NT and are usually given greater emphasis in worship. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we read about the Holy Spirit giving different gifts to different people (1Corinthians), and that the most important gift is love (1Corinthians 13). Then in the letter to the Galatians it is suggested that though different people have different gifts all people are to grow in the nine fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generousity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22-23).

When Peter visited non-Jewish people in Joppa the Holy Spirit came upon those who believed in Jesus before they were baptized with water (Acts 10:44-48), and when Paul visited believers in Corinth they received the Holy Spirit after they had been baptized with water (Acts 19:1-7).

In many ways John the Baptist stands in the Old Testament tradition of being anointed by God’s Spirit to challenge the people of his time to repent from sinful living and start living in a way that honoured God (Mark 1:4-8). Jesus quoted from the prophet Isaiah when he stated, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’ (Luke 418-19). Now that is a powerful mandate!

But in the Gospels Jesus also promised to send the Holy Spirit on ALL believers not just the chosen few (John 14:25-27) and this is a really significant shift in experience. The experience of the Holy Spirit coming as wind and fire on the day of Pentecost was not just for Peter and John… it was for all of those gathered in the house (Acts 2:4).

Over the last two thousand years of church history there have been times when church authorities have forgotten that the Holy Spirit is for all people who believe in Jesus… but happily the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the breath of God, however we want to name it… simply is.

There is another aspect to Spirit that is important to name and that is mystery. As human beings we use words to name our world and communicate with one another. Inevitably we also use words to name our experiences of God and communicate with God but there is so much we do not understand and cannot express adequately. For example I could go with a group of friends and listen to a beautiful piece of music played by an orchestra and afterwards find that each of us experienced the performance differently. I’d suggest that God’s Spirit is like the most beautiful piece of music we can hear…

In humanity’s experience of God’s Spirit many people have used words to express thoughts and feelings while others find words inadequate and prefer silence. In silence and stillness there can be an astonishing sense of the presence of God (1Kings 19:11-13), and that awareness can be extended into everyday living. Paul expressed this well to the Greeks when he said, ‘In Christ I live and move and have my being’ (Acts 17:28).

In our church community we have a number of people who have been gifted by God as artists. Two years ago I asked one of them to work on a large mural panel titled ‘Spirit’. To help prepare for this work we asked each congregation to write down words and symbols that they associated with Holy Spirit and people responded with the following rich collection of words:

“Love, energy, power, joy, patience, peace, breath, goodness, self-control, humility, wholeness, flame, guide, reconciliation, gifts, prayer, hope, mystery, life.”

The panel was on display inside the church when it was completed but is now mounted on a wall in the church breezeway. The background is red and this is the Church’s traditional colour for the flames of Pentecost. The traditional Spirit image on the panel, flying amidst all the words, is a dove, and the contemporary image is of four electrons orbiting a nucleus within an atom. At the time one study group had done some work based on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal. This insight from sub-atomic physics suggests that electrons do not orbit around a nucleus in the way that planets orbit the sun but are rather everywhere and nowhere at the same time! There is mystery here that informs and inspires… and puzzles… and just is.

In conclusion I want to affirm that I believe God’s Spirit creates and gives energy for life. That God’s Spirit is for all people and in all people. That all people are gifted differently and most are called to share those gifts in community / relationship with others. That in God’s Spirit there is mystery, energy, hope, and a call to relationship.

Looking back at your life have there been particular times when you have had a sense of the presence of God? When and where have they been?

In what ways do you think that God has gifted you? What do you love doing? What do other people say that you’re good at?

The nine fruit of the spirit described in the letter to the Galatians are really to do with character: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generousity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22-23). What particular fruit would you like God’s Spirit to develop in you at this time of your life?

I look forward to hearing from you either by email: or blog:

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven;
May your sacred name echo through the universe,
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world,
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings,
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us,
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever.

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