5th Essential: The Gracious Work of the Holy Spirit

The experience of the Holy Spirit is both subjective and objective. I have seen some unusual things attributed to the Holy Spirit.

Once, many years ago, I attended a service at a St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. It was on a Sunday night. The St. Giles choir, accompanied by an orchestra, presented a beautiful cantata, which, as I recall, was Dubois, “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” At the conclusion of the cantata, the orchestra ceased to play, and the house lights were turned down, but the choir continued to sing. Each member sang in his or her Pentecostal prayer language. Everyone was singing something different, but it was quite melodic. Some of those with me were a little bit frightened. I probably would not join a church were such displays were common, but I found the presentation itself strangely beautiful. The voices put me in mind of sparks from a campfire, ascending into the dark, leading one’s gaze into the star-spangled heavens.

I remember a time when I was more disturbed. Elayne and I had worked very hard to get two friends, Charles and Carol Jean Dockery to attend a little country church on the outskirts of Quantico, Va. where we all lived. We had attended the church for several months, and the service had always been quite satisfying. We wanted the D_______s to enjoy it as we did, because we knew that they were searching for faith. On this particular Sunday, things did not go smoothly. During the pastor’s sermon, a woman in the row just in ahead of ours, jumped out of her seat and started jumping up and down saying, “Ya, Ya, Ya, Ya.” The pastor was visibly embarrassed. He explained to those of us visiting in that morning not to be alarmed. “Nothing is wrong,” he said, “it is just that the Holy Spirit has gotten hold of sister so and so, again.” I looked at Elayne and she was disturbed. I looked over at Carol Jean and she was in tears. I looked over at Doc and he was angry. He looked like the bulb of a thermometer. His face was bright red, and the color extended right up into his high and tight haircut. After the service, I found out why the D_______s were so upset. Carol Jean had a little sister who suffered from Epilepsy. The woman’s so-called spiritual conniptions reminded Carol Jean of her sister when she was having an attack. Elayne and I changed churches, but we could never induce the Dockerys to join us in any church ever again.

I suppose it is events like this that have given the Holy Spirit a bad reputation in certain churches. When I was in Seminary, Elayne and I attended the Nicholasville Presbyterian Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky. They invited me to preach several weeks in succession while the pastor was on vacation. I preached one week, and announced that the next week I would be preaching a sermon on the Holy Spirit. One of the elders, a close friend, came to me and told me that from childhood she had always been afraid of the Holy Spirit, probably because of the King James Version’s reference to “the Holy Ghost.” I told her not to worry, that the Holy Spirit is Spirit of Christ making good on the promise of Christ to be with us always.

In the New Testament the Holy Spirit is referred to as “the Spirit of Christ.” (Romans 8:9; 1st Peter 1:11) In John chapter 7 we read that during the earthly ministry of Jesus the Holy Spirit was not yet given because Jesus himself was not yet glorified. In the language of John’s gospel Jesus is glorified when he is lifted up on the cross. Jesus Christ had to pass through our human life from the cradle to the cross and fix the personality of the Holy Spirit, before the Risen Christ could bestow the promised Holy Spirit on his disciples. The personality of the Holy Spirit is fixed, and the Holy Spirit never acts, except in Christ’s like ways. By extension, if you can imagine Jesus Christ bouncing up and down, yelling, disrupting a service, and alarming visitors, or handling and kissing snakes, then I suppose you can attribute such things to the Holy Spirit. I find that I cannot.

The Bible also uses the term, “Spirit of God,” in describing the Holy Spirit. God is love. (1st John 4:8) Therefore the Holy Spirit always acts in loving ways. In Romans 5:5 St. Paul writes, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Sprit that has been given to us.” When we find ourselves able to love the unlikely and the unlovely, including our enemies, that is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Just this week I was speaking to the mother of a three years old. Not long ago, he asked her one of the big questions of life: “Where is God?” His mother responded, “Well, God is in heaven, and he is all around us, and he is in our hearts.” Then she had an inspiration. She said, “God is love, so where ever there is love, there is God.” That is actually pretty God theology, not perfect, but pretty good.

We Moravians believe in the Holy Spirit. With the whole of Christendom, Protestant and Catholic, we believe that the Holy Spirit is the third “persona” or the third “face” of the One God who has revealed God’s Self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe in the Holy Spirit, and we believe in the gracious operations of the Holy Spirit.

The mention of the gracious operations of the Holy Spirit raises the question of what the Holy Spirit actually does. The scripture is quite explicit. Let mention just a few of the gracious operations of the Holy Spirit. This list is not complete, but it is objective, coming as it does from the Scripture.

First, the Holy Spirit is the Calling Spirit. In Revelations 22 the Holy Spirit partners with the church, the Bride of Christ, to invite those who hunger and thirst after life to come to the “living water” that is ours in Christ. In verse 17 we read:

17 The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price. Revelation 22:17

This is “Bring a Friend Sunday.” Some of you are here because one of our members handed you a Moravian candle in a star of wood, and invited you to join them in church for just one Sunday. This may or may not have been a work of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit definitely works through relationships. God has a way of putting people together for the good of both. When Robert Schuller founded Garden Grove Community Church, now the Crystal Cathedral, he knocked on 3,000 doors, inviting people to church. Most people rejected his invitation. One man asked Schuller how he kept his spirits up and kept knocking on doors. Schuller responded, “Because I never knew when I might knock on one of those doors only to find the most important person in the rest of my life.” Perhaps, for someone who is here this morning, visitor or friend, this is the most important day in the rest of your life. If so, it is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Second, the Holy Spirit is the convincing Spirit. In John 16:8-12 Jesus says that work of the Holy Spirit is to:

Convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.

In the 4th Gospel, the greatest sin is the sin of unbelief. It is a mystery why some people have faith and others do not. In the Liturgy of Adoration, we Moravians recognize the Holy Spirit is a big part of that mystery when we confess:

By our own reason and strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord, or come to him, but you call us and enlighten us through your grace.

For many of us the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit began the moment we were born, for we were born to Christian parents, and that brought us immediately into the sphere of the Holy Spirit’s operation. Like the Psalmist we can rightly say, “Since my mother bore me, though, O Lord, hast been my God.” (Psalm 22:10) The gracious operation of the Holy Spirit continued in our baptism. We Moravians baptize our children on the basis of the faith of the parents and of the church. At the baptism a child the entire church promises to join with the parents to bring up the child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Some people grow up close to God. Zinzendorf, the patron of the renewed Moravian Church, once said that at the age of five he was as certain that he was a Christian as he was that he had five fingers on each hand. Many feel like that.

For others the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit becomes apparent later in life. I have a friend who my age or a little older. One afternoon more than twenty years ago, he took a walk in the woods. He became disoriented, and realized he was lost. He did not know the way home. It occurred to him that he had spent his whole life wandering in the wilderness. He knelt in the woods and asked Jesus Christ to take charge of his life. Satisfied that he had placed his life under new management, he stood up. He heard the sound of a car horn, and he walked toward that sound. He found his way out of the wilderness and out of the woods.

Some people need a real jolt before turning to God. I don’t believe God sends the jolt, but he uses what comes. The other night I watched a VHS tape of the old Burt Lancaster movie, “Airport.” Near the climax of the movie, a deranged man explodes a bomb on a 707, blowing a hole in the side. The plane survives the blast, but it is in danger of falling apart before it lands. In once scene, the passengers are all buckled up and belted in. They are hoping for the best, and preparing for the worst. Most of them are calm, even the children. But one older man looses his composure and starts screaming, “We are all going to die.” As he screams, a priest across the isle from him stops praying, and gives the man a quick, hard back-handed right to the face. The man stopped balling, and took courage. It takes a smack in the face—some huge disappointment to turn some of us to God. Again, God does not cause it, most of the time we do; but God can use it, and God is there to help us when we call.

Others have been beat up enough already. We don’t need a smack in the face. We need tenderness like the tenderness of a mother bending over us to kiss us on the top of our heads, saying, “It’s o.k. Things are going to be alright.” Just this week Bishop Iobst commented to me about book on the Holy Spirit that he was reading. He said that he could recommend it, with one exception. The author said that a person had to be broken to receive the Holy Spirit. The Bishop said, “I do not believe that.” Neither do I. Some of us are broken enough, and what we need is for God the Holy Spirit to put us back together again, making us stronger at the broken places.

The Holy Spirit is the fruit bearing Spirit. In Galatians 5:22-23, St. Paul says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering or patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self-control. I will say more about this in the next sermon of this series. The 6th Essential deals with the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers.

The Holy Spirit is the uniting Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the lowest common denominator of our Christian discipleship. Or, as Paul says in Romans 8:9, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” All believers posses the Holy Spirit. We don’t need to seek the Spirit, just to recognize the Spirit’s presence in our lives to heal, to help, to guide, and to command. I will say more about it in the sermon after next. The 7th Essential is “the unity of all believers in Christ.” We listen to one another, we belong to each other, even though different, because we are one in the Spirit, and the Spirit one in us.

The Holy Spirit is the gifting Spirit. In 1st Corinthians 12 the gifts include tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, gifts of wisdom, and gifts of faith, gifts of healing and miracles. In Romans 12 Paul mentions the gifts of the Spirit to include prophecy, service, hospitality, teaching; administration or “helps,” exhortation; giving money, and giving aid. In Ephesians 4 the apostle wrote that when Christ ascended on high he gave gifts to humankind. His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, and some pastor-teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry. In 1st Corinthians 12 Paul says that the all the gifts are given to each one for the service of the whole body. Paul says that the gifts are important, but that love is a still more excellent way. (1st Corinthians 13:1-13) I don’t think that these passages limit the gifts of the spirit. Remember, the Holy Spirit is the Creator Spirit. In Genesis 1:2 the Spirit of God moved over the waters when darkness was still upon the face of the deep. It was only then that God said, “Let there be light.” The Creator Spirit is responsible for the creativity in human beings, too. In Exodus chapter 35:30-33 Moses tells the people of Israel that God has filled a man named Bezalel with the Spirit of God and given him ability, intelligence, and knowledge in all areas of craftsmanship—including working in precious metal, stone, and wood.

I well remember a man in my first parish by the name of Riddick Bowles. Not long after I arrived he came to me and held out a pair of shaky hands. He said, “I am no speaker. I am loath to pray in public, and I will never teach a Sunday school class; but if I can do anything with these, just let me know.” I thought at the time that Riddick would be lucky to be able to hold a hammer, much less use one with skill. I was wrong. As a hobby he produced Eli Terry Mantle Clocks, complete with wooden movements. They kept perfect time. When I saw the first of his clocks, I decided to call upon him for help. I had an antique desk chair, and one of the front legs of the chair was broken. I asked him if he could repair it. He said he could. He took it home with him. A week later, he returned it to me. He had turned and carved a new leg, matched the one hundred year old finish on the chair to perfection. I still have that chair. I still have a difficult time detecting which of the perfectly matched front legs he repaired and which is original. He was just warming up. He showed up at a board of trustees meeting and asked for $300.00 to buy some popular lumber. The chairman of the board asked, “What for.” He said, “Well, Vernon Thrift and I are going to build a twenty-seven rank pipe organ, and we need to lumber for the wind chest.” The Board knew his abilities. They gave him the money. Eventually seven men became involved in that project. Several years and 50,000 volunteer man-hours later, we dedicated that pipe organ.

I would hesitate to put a limit on what the Spirit of God can produce in any one. I do know that when God gave out gifts, he did not forget those gifts that include every manner of fine work, and creativity of all kinds!

Finally, I would mention that the Holy Spirit is the guaranteeing Spirit. In Ephesians 1:13-14, the Apostle writes:

13 In (Christ) you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

According to this, the Holy Spirit is the first guarantee that all the promises of God will someday be a reality. People ask me how I know there is a God. I tell them that though I have a sound intellectual foundation for believing in God that begins with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the most convincing evidence comes only after one believes. It is the evidence of experience. Years ago I knelt down in the living room of my apartment in San Diego, California, stuck my finger in the air like Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation Scene and prayed, asking God to touch my finger, saying that if God did, I would do anything. There was no touch, no vision of light, and no shaking of the foundations. I said, “O.K. God, I will do it by faith. I will put my faith in Jesus Christ.” I stood up a changed man. There is a sequel.

For years I said there was not touch. Then one day, I read in Luke 11:20 how Jesus said, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out evil spirits, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” I remembered it differently. Indeed, in Matthew 12:28 Jesus said, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The finger of God and the Spirit of God are used interchangeably. Thirty God did not touch my finger, but the finger of God did touch me. From that time to this, I have had a certainty about my faith. I say this, warning that I am not a saint; and confessing that the certainty is not minute by minute, or day by day, but that, at times, the conviction that God near is overwhelming. Paul was right, “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God…” (Romans 8:16) The 5th Essential is the gracious operations or work of the Holy Spirit.

Finis

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.