The History of the Spirit Is a Portrait of God
The Spirit as Guarantee: Living in Faith, Hope, and Love
The Holy Spirit in Acts: Four Examples of Discipleship
Remember, Ask, and Wait
The History of the Spirit Is a Portrait of God
God is beyond human understanding. Yet the Jewish-Christian tradition insists that God dos not stand aloof from creation but freely chooses to relate to the world out of love. How then can the actions of this unknowable God be expressed? Only through limited human language. We must employ images drawn from human experience to describe God’s action in our midst. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God, but they are the only words we have.
When we examine the descriptions of the Spirit of God in the scriptures, we should remember that they are efforts to express the inexpressible God. In both Hebrew and Greek the word which we translate as “spirit” indicates “a movement of air.” Thus “the Spirit of God” could correctly be translated “the wind of God” or “the breath of God.” This invisible movement of air is an inspired image for God’s presence and action among us.
The scriptures use this image consistently. God’s Spirit is found in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis and the last chapter of the Book of Revelation. Over time the Christian tradition has come to recognize that the Spirit is a person, the third person of the Blessed Trinity. But the scriptural descriptions of the Spirit are less concerned with essence and more with action. The scriptures are always showing us what the Spirit does. Tracing those actions is important, because what the Spirit does tells us what God does. A history of the Spirit’s actions etches a portrait of our invisible God. We can identify seven actions of God’s Spirit within the scriptures. God’s Spirit creates, sustains, saves, judges, inspires, equips, and guides.
There is a fundamental continuity regarding the Spirit which spans both Testaments in our bibles. Even though the New Testament differs from the Old in the central importance it places upon Jesus Christ as the Messiah of God, the new builds upon the old. What God’s Spirit does in the Hebrew scriptures is developed and specified in the New Testament in light of the revelation of Jesus.
God’s Spirit Creates
It is through God’s Spirit that all things come to be. In the first chapter of Genesis, before God says, “Let there be light,” we are told that “a wind (spirit) from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). When God creates the first human, again the image of moving air is used. God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). Psalm 33:6 proclaims that God created through the Spirit: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their hosts by the breath of his mouth.” Job 33:4 speaks of creation in personal terms: “The spirit of God has made me, the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
The New Testament asserts that God will establish a new creation inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Jesus. As at the first creation, God’s Spirit is instrumental in bringing about God’s intentions. At present, creation is in labor pains. Christians possess the first fruits of God’s Spirit as the new creation is born (Rom 8:22-23). God has bestowed the Spirit as a guarantee of the new creation which in Christ has already begun (2 Cor 5:5, 17).
God’s Spirit Sustains
God’s Spirit does not only create life but also sustains it. If God’s Spirit is taken away, life ends. When God’s Spirit is sent forth, life is renewed (Ps 104:29-30). Job 34:14-15 asserts that if God “should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.”
In the New Testament the Spirit of God sustains those who believe in Christ. Paul reminds the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16). Paul tells the Galatians, “Live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16). God’s Spirit also sustains the Body of Christ, activating all the gifts of the community (1 Cor 12:11).
God’s Spirit Saves
The Spirit saves God’s people. In the exodus God turns the sea into dry land by a strong wind (Exod 14:21-22). But God most often saves Israel by bestowing the Spirit upon great leaders who rescue the people. Moses (Num 11:17), Joshua (Num 27:18), the judges of Israel (Judg 3:10, 6:34, 11:29), Saul (1 Sam 11:6), and David (1 Sam 16:13) all receive the Spirit. The ultimate savior, the Messiah, will possess the Spirit in its fullness (Isa 11:2).
The New Testament proclaims that Jesus is God’s Messiah. Therefore his saving work is accomplished through the Spirit. Jesus is conceived in the Spirit (Luke 2:35). The Spirit descends upon him at his baptism (Mark 1:10). At Nazareth he defines his mission in the Spirit (Luke 4:18). Paul asserts that Jesus’ resurrection occurs through the Spirit (Rom 1:4) and that all believers have been saved “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).
God’s Spirit Judges
What is contrary to God’s goodness cannot endure. God will judge the evil of this world and destroy it. The “breath” of God will “sift the nations with the sieve of destruction” (Isa 30:28). Those who do evil rebel against God’s “holy spirit,” and God will fight against them (Isa 63:10). God judges the world through the Spirit which will be poured out from on high and establish justice on the earth (Isa 32: 14-16). The Psalmist understands that it is through the Spirit that evil can be removed from the human heart (Ps 51:10-11). Jerusalem will be cleansed by “a spirit of judgment and a spirit of burning” (Isa 4:4).
The New Testament applies that burning judgment of the Spirit to the mission of Christ. John the Baptist announces that Jesus will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11). It is the Spirit as Paraclete who proves the world wrong about sin, justice, and judgment (John 16:8-11). In the Spirit the church can judge which sins will be forgiven and which retained (John 20:22-23). Every disciple is challenged to fight against evil with the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17).
God’s Spirit Inspires
To communicate with humanity God chooses prophets to speak the divine message. God’s Spirit inspires these chosen men and women to announce God’s words. It is God’s Spirit which opens Balaam’s mouth to pronounce a blessing on Israel (Num 24:2). The Spirit places God’s words on David’s tongue (2 Sam 23:2). It is in the Spirit that the prophets teach God’s law (Zech 7:12) and Micah (3:8) declares Israel’s sin. Joel promises that in the fullness of time all humanity will prophesy in the Spirit (Joel 2:28-29).
The same Spirit of God inspires men and women in the New Testament to speak of the mystery of Christ. Filled with the Spirit Zachariah pronounces a canticle of praise for the Messiah (Luke 1:67) and Elizabeth blesses the mother of the Savior (Luke 1:42). Peter teaches in the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8) and declares that the promise of Joel has been fulfilled (Acts 2:17-18). Stephen and Agabus are inspired by the Spirit (Acts 6:10; 11:28). The entire community speaks in the Spirit (Acts 4:31), and it is only in the Spirit that the individual believer can say, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3).
God’s Spirit Equips
The Spirit prepares men and women for service, granting them abilities and gifts. Intelligence, knowledge, and artistic ability are the Spirit’s gifts (Exod 31:3-5). Joseph and Daniel possess wisdom in the Spirit (Gen 41:38-39; Dan 5:14). Indeed true understanding and wisdom flow from God’s Spirit (Job 32:8-9; Sir 39:6; Wis 9:17).
The tongues of fire at Pentecost indicate that the Sprit’s gifts are given to every believer (Acts 2:1-4). It is the Spirit who equips the Church with every gift (1 Cor 12:7-11). Through the wisdom and revelation provided by the Spirit the believer can come to know the Father (Eph 1:17) and speak to God in prayer (Rom 8:26).
God’s Spirit Guides
The Spirit is not idle when decisions must be made, but guides men and women according to God’s will. It is God’s Spirit which leads Israel through the wilderness (Neh 9:20) and provides a new heart so that right decisions will be made according to the law (Ezek 11:19-20). The Psalmist prays, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path” (Ps 143:10). The guidance of the Spirit is not always subtle. Ezekiel is lifted up bodily and carried away to speak to the exiles of Israel (Ezek 3:12-15).
In the New Testament Philip, like Ezekiel, is transported by the Spirit on his mission (Acts 8:39). The same Spirit leads Simeon to the Christ child (Luke 2:27) and guides the mission of Peter (Acts 11:12) and Paul (Acts 16:6; 19:21; 21:4). The Spirit directs the church at Antioch to commission Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2) and the church at Jerusalem to ease the burden of the law upon the Gentiles (Acts 15:28). The Spirit as Paraclete reminds believers of all that Jesus said (John 14:26) and guides them into all truth (John 16:13). All Christians are directed by God’s Spirit (Gal 5:25), “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Rom 8:14).
A Portrait of God
The images of the Spirit within the scriptures establish a remarkable continuity between the two Testaments. They paint a portrait of our unknowable God. What does this portrait show us? Our God creates all things and sustains them. Our God judges evil and brings salvation. Our God does not remain aloof, but inspires creatures to speak the good news, equips men and women for service, and guides us through the journey of life.
The Spirit as Guarantee: Living in Faith, Hope, and Love
The resurrection of Jesus stands at the center of the Christian faith. Easter is the central celebration of the liturgical year. Yet the full significance of the resurrection is too seldom appreciated. Jesus’ rising from the dead is more than a great miracle of the past. It has a specific connection to the present and future of our world. It relates directly to the kingdom of God. Jesus preached the coming of God’s kingdom when all evil would be destroyed and the goodness and justice of God would permeate the earth. The scriptures understand Jesus’ resurrection as the first step in establishing God’s kingdom.
Christ as the “first fruits” of the kingdom
In chapter fifteen of 1 Corinthians, Paul lays out a clear description of the relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and the kingdom. Paul looks forward to the day when God will destroy every evil, when every power opposed to God will be conquered—even death (1 Cor 15:26). On that day the kingdom of God will be realized. God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). This hope flows from Paul’s Judaism. Most Jews of the first century were expecting God’s reign to come. What makes Paul’s hope new is his belief that God has already begun to establish the kingdom through the agency of Jesus as the Messiah (1 Cor 15:24). Jesus’ victory over death began a process which is moving towards a final victory in which evil and death will be destroyed forever.
To illustrate this mystery, Paul employs an image from agriculture. He calls Jesus, “the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor 15:20). The first fruits were the first part of the harvest which was offered to God. By definition “first fruits” imply that more fruits will follow. Therefore, if Jesus as the first fruits has triumphed over death, we can expect to share in a similar victory on the last day (1 Cor 15:23). The resurrection of Christ has, therefore, revealed a particular pattern in God’s plan: salvation is already but not yet. We are already saved in so far as Christ’s resurrection has begun. His victory is one which cannot be turned back. However, we are not yet saved because we await the full promise of salvation when all creation will share in Christ’s glory.
The Spirit as “Guarantee”
The Spirit of God plays a special role in the pattern established by Jesus’ resurrection. As we look forward to the ultimate victory of God, we are not left alone. “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Cor 5:5). The Spirit is our down payment for the kingdom, a “first installment” of the final victory in Christ which is to come (2 Cor 1:22).
We are in the Spirit and the Spirit dwells in us (Rom 8:9). Because we have the Spirit, we can expect to share in the resurrection of our bodies when Christ returns (Rom 8:11) and our present sufferings will lead us to final glory (Rom 8:17). Like Jesus the Spirit is the “first fruits” of the kingdom, guaranteeing that the hope for which we yearn will be realized (Rom 8:23). As we await God’s kingdom, the Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us before God when we cannot find the words to speak (Rom 8:26).
Therefore, the Spirit of God orientates us in the process of salvation which Christ inaugurated with his resurrection. Paul mentions three gifts which are necessary for the Christian life (1 Cor 13:13). We call these gifts the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. Each virtue relates to a specific aspect of God’s saving plan, and each is infused by God’s Spirit.
The Spirit Grounds Our Faith
By faith we believe in what God has done in Christ. Faith looks backward on Christ’s victory over death, allowing us to accept its validity even though we have not seen the risen Christ with our own eyes. Faith establishes our existence as Christians, for unless we can believe that Christ suffered, died, and rose again, we have no good news to profess.
God’s Spirit grounds our faith. If the message of the gospel is to be more than mere words, it must come “in power and in the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:15). “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). Faith is impossible without the Spirit: “No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). It is only in the Spirit that we can call out to God as our Father (Gal 4:6).
Faith is sometimes a struggle. Christ’s resurrection cannot be proven by scientific demonstration. We desire to see with our own eyes rather than trust upon God’s word. The more we learn about the world and its functioning, the more we are challenged to square our intellectual knowledge with the gift of faith. In a culture which thrives on what can be measured and quantified, the claims of spiritual power can seem weak and unconvincing. We may at times sympathize with the disciples on Easter morning who received the announcement of the resurrection as “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11).
When doubt threatens our faith, we can turn to God’s Spirit. The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and overshadowed us at our baptism has the power to sustain our faith. Turn to the Holy Spirit when faith begins to slip. Pray to the Spirit in the words of the father who seeks Jesus’ help in the gospel, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
The Spirit Strengthens Our Hope
If faith looks backwards to what has been already accomplished in Christ, hope looks ahead to the final victory which is yet to come. Although the process of our salvation is irrevocably begun, it is not complete. Evil, sin, and death still characterize our world. Christians must therefore look forward in hope to the time when God’s promises will be fulfilled and when God’s kingdom will be realized.
The Spirit of God strengthens our hope. As the one who gives us faith, the Spirit turns that faith towards the future: “For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Gal 5:5). Final glory will be the “ministry of the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:8), and we wait for it in the Spirit’s power (Rom 15:13). Indeed the Spirit is transforming us now, leading us to that final victory (2 Cor 3:18).
It is not always easy to hope. The evil in our world all too often seems to hold the upper hand. Violence and war fill our media. Greed and corruption characterize our culture. Who says the kingdom is coming? When we experience personal loss through rejection, divorce, or death, we can begin to think that God has forgotten us. When we encounter injustice and prejudice, it becomes a challenge to trust in Christ’s final victory. When evil touches our lives, despair can insinuate itself into our hearts.
God’s Spirit is given to us to keep our hope alive. It is the Spirit who points us forward to the final victory which God has promised. Reminding us of Christ’s lordship, the Spirit strengthens us to persevere even in the presence of evil and death. Even when it seems that all is lost, the Spirit prompts us to hope for what we cannot see, waiting for God’s salvation with patient endurance (Rom 8:25).
The Spirit Animates Our Love
If faith looks backward to Christ’s resurrection and hope looks forward to Christ’s return, love is the present life of Christ’s body. Love never ends (1 Cor 13:8). The promise towards which we strain is the promise to see God face to face. God’s love is both the goal and the means by which we attain it. That is why Paul calls love the greatest of all the gifts (1 Cor 13:13). Those who live in love abide in God (1 John 4:16).
God’s Spirit animates the love of believers. Paul assures us that all of God’s gifts to the church are manifestations of God’s Spirit (1 Cor 12:7) and love is better than any other gift (1 Cor 12:31). Love is listed first among the fruits of God’s Spirit (Gal 5:22). “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5), and it is through the Holy Spirit that Christians can express their love for one another (Col 1:8).
We all know the challenges of love. Love must be patient and kind. It cannot be envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. It will not insist on its own way, nor will it be irritable or resentful (1 Cor 13:4-6). We all fall short in loving. People easily get under our skin. We find it difficult to be patient and to forgive. Time after time we harbor grudges and hurts. Even though we know better, we strive to please ourselves and forget the needs of others. As a result, our lives do not display the love which the gospel requires.
God’s Spirit is the Spirit of love. God’s Spirit can animate our hearts with the power of loving. When love seems impossible, the Spirit can infuse us with the gift of divine love, the very love of the Father and Son. Then, with the Spirit’s help and guidance, we can love one another and live as the body of Christ.
Our salvation is already but not yet. We look back on the victory of Christ’s resurrection and forward to the final triumph of God. The Spirit is our guarantee of God’s activity and promise. The Spirit is first installment of God’s kingdom, enabling us to live in faith, hope, and love.
The Holy Spirit in Acts: Four Examples of Discipleship
The Book of Acts follows the development of the Church from Pentecost to Paul’s preaching in Rome. The spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to the center of the Roman Empire is propelled by the work of God’s Spirit. Acts describes many leaders in the early church who contribute to the expansion of the gospel. They are instruments of the Spirit. Examining their activity provides a useful description of what discipleship entailed in the first century and what it entails today.
Philip: A Disciple Is Called to Follow
Chapter eight of Acts describes Philip’s missionary work in Samaria (Acts 8:4-25). Once that work was completed Philip is told to go to “the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (Acts 8:26). On that road an Ethiopian eunuch, who was a court official of the queen of Ethiopia, is returning from worship in Jerusalem in his chariot. The Spirit of God then tells Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it” (Acts 8:29). It is a peculiar request. Philip does not know the eunuch and has no reason to expect that his sudden presence would be welcomed by this influential stranger. But Philip follows the Spirit’s directions and discovers that his arrival has been carefully prepared. The eunuch is already reading the prophet Isaiah and wondering about its significance. When Philip offers to explain, the eunuch invites him to enter his chariot. Philip’s explanation leads the eunuch to faith and eventually to baptism (Acts 8:38). A new Christian believes because Philip follows the Spirit’s prompting.
We like Philip should remain open to the Spirit’s call. The Spirit may inspire us to phone an old friend, to bring flowers to a spouse, to stop into a daughter’s room for a talk, or to try again for reconciliation with a family member. When the Spirit is active, we will discover that the circumstances have been prepared for our actions and that God’s grace will abound. We can never predict when the Spirit might call us to act. The disciple therefore lives in readiness. At any moment the Spirit may call us to go. Then, like Philip, we should follow.
Peter: A Disciple Is Called to Change
In a lengthy narrative found in Acts 10:1—11:18, Peter comes to a dramatic realization. As a good Jew, Peter was careful to maintain a separation between himself and Gentiles. He refrained from eating food which was not permitted by Jewish dietary laws. The Spirit of God had other ideas. Peter receives a vision informing him that all the animals of the earth are suitable to eat (Acts 10:9-16). God’s Spirit then sends him to the house of a Gentile, Cornelius (Acts 10:19-20). There he preaches the gospel and his Gentile listeners speak in tongues through the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:45-46). Peter baptizes them. The action of the Spirit reveals God’s will to Peter. God’s plan runs counter to Peter’s expectations. But once the plan is clear, Peter is willing to change.
None of us can serve God without clear beliefs. Our honest convictions guide our life and ministry. God, however, frequently desires to lead us to a new place. Disciples of Jesus must be willing to move with the impulses of the Spirit. The Spirit might call us to revise our opinion of a co-worker or in-law. We may be led to step back and attack a project or family problem from a different angle. God’s Spirit might expose a destructive habit or entrenched prejudice and enable us to set it aside. The Spirit is always renewing the earth. We are called to participate in the re-creation. To do so, we must be willing to change, like Peter.
Barnabas: A Disciple Disagrees
Barnabas and Paul developed a close and productive relationship. It was Barnabas who first introduced Paul to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27). Barnabas and Paul were set apart by the Holy Spirit to do missionary work (Acts 13:2). Together the two apostles preached the gospel with great success in a journey through Cyprus, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. But when it seemed time to initiate another journey, the two apostles could not agree. Paul did not want to include John Mark on the journey, because John Mark had left their first missionary journey before its completion (Acts 13:13). Barnabas believed strongly that John Mark was called to such service and should be included. Since Paul and Barnabas could not resolve the issue, they went separate ways. Paul traveled with Silas to Syria and Cilicia, whereas Barnabas went to Cyprus with John Mark (Acts 15:39-41). The two apostles never worked together again.
Both Barnabas and Paul were inspired by God’s Spirit. Both were great apostles of the church. Yet they did not always see eye to eye. Barnabas was able to speak the truth as he saw it, even if Paul could not accept it. Holiness and God’s gifts do not guarantee unity. God’s will can unfold through different insights and positions. Barnabas took his own stand and accepted the consequences.
The example of Barnabas reminds us that the Spirit can work through our differences. Keeping a false peace is not the gospel. Virtue is not always “giving in.” God’s Spirit can lead us to speak a truth which will disturb others, challenge another to adopt a better viewpoint, or end a relationship which has no future. There is no question that the Spirit of God fosters unity. But honesty and truth cannot be the casualties of community. A disciple, like Barnabas, must have the freedom to disagree.
Paul: A Disciple Prepares
In chapters 20-21 of Acts the Holy Spirit prepares Paul for the suffering which is to come. Paul tells the elders from Ephesus, “The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me” (Acts 20:23). The prophet Agabus binds his own hands and feet with Paul’s belt and prophesies in the Holy Spirit that Paul will be so bound and handed over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:11-12). These dire warnings dismay the communities which treasure Paul as their apostle. But Paul himself does not despair. The Spirit of God not only informs Paul of what is to come but also prepares him with courage and faith. Strengthened by the Spirit Paul can say, “But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).
The Spirit of God works in our lives offering glimpses of difficulties to come. We have moments in which we anticipate the pains of aging, medical conditions prevalent in our family history, or the inevitable approach of death. God provides those moments not to frighten us but to prepare us. We are given time to remember that whatever happens to us, God will not abandon us. As with Paul, God’s Spirit will accompany us in our darkest hours and give us the courage to pray, “Thy will be done.”
The action of God’s Spirit pervades the Book of Acts, influencing the work and experiences of many of its central characters. Examining the actions of Philip, Peter, Barnabas, and Paul provides insight into the ways God moves in our own lives. God’s Spirit leads us to follow God’s invitations, changes us into new agents of the kingdom, and emboldens us to speak the truth. God’s Spirit prepares us for what is to come, giving us strength in the time of suffering and courage in the face of death.
Remember, Ask, and Wait
God’s Spirit is more than an object for intellectual inquiry. We believe that the Spirit is a person of the Triune God. In the Spirit, God’s living presence abides in us. Therefore, as we work our way through the reading guide this month, it is important not only to engage our minds but also our souls. Each passage of scripture which we examine can deepen our relationship with the God who dwells within us. Each day a dimension of the Spirit’s activity will be drawn from the scriptures. As you appreciate it, also personalize it. This can be done in three steps: remember, ask, and wait.
The Spirit is your possession. So as you read of a particular way in which the Spirit acts, remember how you have already experienced such an action in your life. For example, when it is said that the Spirit gives us strength, recall a time when you knew that God’s strength was with you. In this way you will be able to recognize the undeniable presence of God which has already been manifested to you.
Once you have remembered, then ask. Ask for what you need today. Identify a concrete situation or need in which God can help. “Holy Spirit, I know you are my strength. Give me the strength to face this problem at work, this person in my family.” Asking is necessary. Asking actualizes our relationship with the Spirit who dwells within us. Asking opens our heart to allow the Spirit to work through us.
Once you have asked, wait. Wait for God’s Spirit to act. Do not expect a dramatic miracle. The sea will not necessarily part before you. But the Spirit will work, influencing your day, guiding both your heart and the hearts of others.
If you follow these three steps of remembering, asking, and waiting, your reading of the scripture will not only increase your knowledge. It will also change your life.
Genesis 1:1 to 2:3—The Spirit Creates Order for Our Lives
There are many ways one might picture the creation of the world. The first chapter of Genesis offers us a particularly powerful description. Before God begins to create, there is only a “formless void” with darkness covering the waters. Then God speaks, and there is light and sky, dry land and seas, plants and animals, and finally humankind. Where once there was chaos, darkness, and formlessness, God creates light, order, and beauty. God declares that all that has been made is very good (Gen 1:31).
The Spirit of God (literally the wind of God) animates creation. As God begins to act, it is the Spirit who hovers over the chaos (Gen 1:2). It is through the Spirit that order and beauty emerge. This work of the Spirit is good news for us. We often require God’s Spirit to work in a similar way in our lives.
Even though creation is established, pockets of chaos persist. Such chaos can flood into our lives from a serious medical diagnosis, the turmoil which surrounds us in a family crisis, or the void which suffocates us as we grieve a loved one. At times we may feel that our world is unhinged, that creation is undone. In those moments, we should remember that God’s Spirit is hovering over the chaos of our lives, sweeping like a strong wind through all those things we fear and cannot control. There will always be challenges to face and crosses to bear. But our world still stands on its foundations. The Spirit who at the dawn of creation brought order from chaos is near us, bringing light from the darkness and beauty from the waste.
Reflection: Is there any place in my life where I face fear and chaos?
Prayer starter: Holy Spirit, you gave form to the world around me. Give form to my life; give me confidence in God’s love.
Numbers 11:1-30—The Spirit Can Lighten Our Load
Poor Moses had his hands full! His job was to lead six hundred thousand stubborn, dissatisfied, and hungry people to the Promised Land. He was ready to give up. Death would be better than this impossible task (verse 15). Yet Moses knew where to turn. He spoke to the Lord. In that honest prayer, Moses complained that he could not do it alone. God revealed that it could be done differently. God’s Spirit which rested on Moses could be shared. God bestowed the Spirit on seventy elders to help Moses (verse 25). Moses might have thought that God’s mission was his alone to carry, but God’s Spirit grew in power when it filled many hearts.
Many times we, like Moses, become overwhelmed by our responsibilities. We rightly recognize that the Spirit enables us to do our work, raise our family, serve the community. What we may forget, however, is that the Spirit can be shared. If we were to take the time to come before the Lord and ask for guidance, great things could happen. We could be led to ask for help, teach another what we know, or enable someone to assist with the mission. The task might not be done as we would do it. But as long as it was done in the Spirit, God’s work would be accomplished.
The Spirit can be shared. When it is, our load is lightened. Our prayer might not be as successful as that of Moses. He reduced his work seventyfold. But even if we can lessen the demands upon us by half, it is still worth asking the Lord for guidance. The Spirit is power. So spread the Spirit around.
Reflection: Is it possible to ask someone to share in my responsibilities?
Prayer: Spirit of God, help me to see that your work can be done even by other hands than mine.
Numbers 22:36 to 24:20—The Spirit Places Truth on Our Lips
Balak, the king of Moab, saw Israel as a threat. He called upon a diviner named Balaam to curse Israel. Three times in today’s reading Balak offers sacrifices to prepare for Balaam’s curse which he believes will undermine the strength of Israel. Three times Balaam pronounces a blessing on Israel instead. When Balak complains that Balaam is not doing what he was asked to do, Balaam explains that he cannot say anything contrary to the word of the Lord (Num 24:13). This fidelity to the word of the Lord is guaranteed by the Spirit of God (Num 24:2). Balaam can only speak the truth which the Spirit places on his lips.
All of us can remember times when we spoke the truth without intending to do so. In a conversation with a family member, in an argument at work, at a party where the wine flows freely, what we really believe can jump out. Such surprises might be seen as a “Freudian slips” or a mental lapses, but they also display a spiritual dimension. There are truths within us, the truths of what we believe and know is right. These truths come from God’s Spirit who is the Spirit of Truth. They are gifts which the Spirit impels us to speak.
We might, like Balak, wish that a contrary word be spoken. But such designs are doomed to failure. In the power of God’s Spirit “the truth will out.” Faithful believers understand this. They do not hinder the Spirit but, like Balaam, open their lips to proclaim God’s true and living word.
Reflection: Am I conscious of any truths within me which I am afraid or unwilling to express?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, you instill God’s love and truth in my heart. Allow me to reveal God’s love in what I do and express God’s truth in what I speak.
Judges 14:1-20—The Spirit Surprises Us with Strength
The stories concerning Samson contain many primitive conceptions which, if incorrectly understood, could lead to disastrous conclusions. For example, we might suppose that God’s Spirit gives us warrant to kill others to pay off our debts (verse 19)! The vivid scene with Samson and the lion, however, offers us a truth which is both valid and life giving.
When a young lion surprises Samson in the vineyards of Timmah, Samson finds himself in mortal danger. No human is a match for a roaring lion. Unless he can successfully flee, Samson is certainly facing dismemberment and death. Then God steps in. The Spirit provides Samson with a superhuman strength, and he tears the lion apart as if it were a young lamb (verse 6). When it was necessary, Samson received a strength which exceeded his own resources.
We all anticipate the crises which are to come. We witness others dealing with a serious sickness, the loss of a job, the death of a parent, or their own death. We cannot help but wonder, “Where will I find the strength to face such challenges?” If we measure ourselves today, we realize we do not have the patience, the courage, or the love to deal with such burdens. We can, however, deal with the future if we remember the story of Samson and the lion. Sooner or later an overwhelming threat may indeed stand roaring before us. But today’s passage assures us that God will not abandon us. God’s Spirit will provide us with the power we need. We have been promised a strength which is not our own.
Reflection: Have I ever been surprised by a strength I discovered in a difficult situation?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, calm my fears about the future. When my crises come, let me trust in your strength.
1 Samuel 10:1-13—Rapture in God’s Spirit
The root meaning of the word “ecstasy” is to “stand outside of oneself.” In such a state a person leaves normal life behind and is caught up in another dimension. Such an experience is both frightening and glorious. One is no longer in control. A higher power takes over. This kind of rapture is frequently associated with God’s Spirit.
In today’s passage Saul is taken over by the Spirit and enters a prophetic frenzy (verse 10). Similar experiences were granted to saints of the Christian tradition such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Such rapture is a participation in the divine. It also produces a result. Saul becomes a different person (verse 6). Because he was taken up into the rapture of God, he was better suited to be the king of Israel.
Few of us experience the ecstasy of Saul or Teresa of Avila. But every Christian should remain open to those moments when the Spirit of God takes over in a deep and powerful way. Such moments can occur at liminal events such as the birth of a child or the death of a parent. They can also happen in the midst of an otherwise normal day. We suddenly see more deeply. We realize we have stepped outside of our usual routine. When accepted in faith, these touches of rapture are gifts of the Holy Spirit. We emerge from them shaken but different. We are more aware of the mystery of life and the sweep of God’s power. We are more ready to do God’s will.
Reflection: Have I ever experienced an ecstatic moment? Am I open to accept one?
Prayer: Spirit of Mystery, rule my life. Let me experience your presence in the usual and the extraordinary, in the commonplace and the ecstatic.
1 Samuel 16:1-13—God Chooses the Lowly
God sends Samuel to the house of Jesse to choose a new king. Jesse has seven healthy sons of good stature. Following the customary procedure, Samuel begins with the eldest son and examines each one. But the Lord rejects every son which Jesse places before the prophet (verse 10). Confused, Samuel asks if Jesse has any other sons. He has. He calls for the youngest son who is out in the fields tending the sheep. His name is David, and he is God’s choice. Samuel anoints him, and the Spirit of God rushes upon David.
The choice of David confirms a pattern found throughout the scriptures. God is not bound by our perceptions and values. God does not choose the firstborn, the strongest, the most attractive candidate. God chooses the youngest, the overlooked, the unexpected. God prefers Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers, Mary over those in high places (Luke 1:52). God calls the lowly.
Unless we appreciate God’s ways, we can easily misunderstand our role in the plan of salvation. We can always find people who are better parents, more effective leaders, more insightful thinkers than we are. Their excellence can discourage us. Why should we parent, lead, or create when their abilities so clearly outshine ours? Inequalities in the gifts we have been given are obvious, but they are not the only truth. Each person receives a call from God, and God provides the gifts needed to carry out what each of us is asked to do. This insight should both inspire and motivate us. Our flaws and weaknesses are real. But so is God’s Spirit. And God’s Spirit lifts up the lowly.
Reflection: Do I permit my shortcomings to discourage me in God’s service?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, the Father calls me in your grace. Let your power compensate for my weakness and enable me to serve you.
Psalm 139—The Spirit is the Environment of Life
This famous psalm asserts that God’s presence surrounds us. God’s presence comes to us in the Spirit. The Spirit’s influence touches every aspect of our lives. We cannot escape it. From the highest heavens to the depths of the underworld, God is there (verse 8).
This psalm tells us that God’s presence is not passive but active, not aloof but immediate. Even though it employs images of space and distance, the psalm defines presence chiefly in terms of relationship. The constant alternating of the first and second personal pronouns (you, your, I, me, and my) emphasizes the close connection between God and the person who prays. God watches with care as our bodies form in the womb (verse 15). God knows our words before we speak them (verse 4). God sees our days before we live them (verse 16). God can search our hearts (verse 23). There is no place, no moment, no part of ourselves which God’s Spirit does not touch.
This pervasive presence of God should give us comfort. God is never distracted from any aspect of our life. God is present in our joys and successes. God is present in our darkest moments. When our friends desert us, when our health leaves us, when we feel totally alone, even then God is there. God follows our every move with love. If we can remember God’s presence, then we can find hope in any situation. The Spirit is the environment of our lives. God surrounds us not in a room but in a relationship, not through a space but through a loving presence, not as a theory but as the Spirit of God.
Reflection: When is it difficult for me to remember that God is near?
Prayer: Spirit of God, your presence fills my life. Help me to remember both in joy and in sorrow that I am never alone.
Psalm 143—God’s Righteousness Is Our Hope
The psalmist prays Psalm 143 for help. He is in dire need. His enemy is pursuing him. Whether that enemy is a human person or an evil such as sickness or death, his life is crushed to the ground (verse 3), his spirit faints within him (verse 4). He calls out to God. He asks God to lift up his soul (verse 8), to send God’s Spirit to lead him on a level path (verse 10).
This psalm does not only display the need of the petitioner. It also offers the reason why the prayer will be heard. The petitioner may be sinful, but God is holy. The one who prays may be flawed, but God is good. God will act not because of the psalmist’s virtues and good deeds, but simply because God is just. No one is righteous in God’s sight (verse 2), but God will give ear to human need because God is faithful and righteous (verse 1). God will save us for the sake of God’s own name (verse 11).
The message of this psalm is both practical and necessary. When we look at our own faith and virtues, we always come up short. In times of need we can therefore rightly ask, “Why should God help me? I often fail in my service to God’s people.” This psalm reminds us that God does not save us because of who we are but because of who God is. Therefore, we can always ask and expect to be heard. God delivers us from evil not because we have been so good, but because of God’s steadfast love (verse 12).
Reflection: Have I ever felt too unworthy to ask for God’s help?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, guide my life today, not because I deserve your love but simply because you are God.
Isaiah 11:1-10—The World’s Peace Depends on God’s Spirit
Two revelations are made in today’s passage from Isaiah. One displays God’s future goal for the world. Another shows us the means to attain it.
God’s goal is peace, peace on earth. We have become so accustomed to violence and war that we suppose that peace is unattainable. We read the papers; we watch the news. We shake our heads. Day after day the killing continues, the innocent suffer, lives are snuffed out. Isaiah offers a contrary vision. God will raise up a leader filled with the Spirit. His rule will bring righteousness and peace to the earth. In a series of images which have shaped the best hope of humankind, God promises a different order from the violence which surrounds us. The wolf will live with the lamb (verse 6). The lion will eat straw like the ox (verse 7). The child will put its hand on the adder’s den without harm (verse 8). God’s purpose is clear: not violence but harmony, not war but peace.
But if God’s peace is to be attained, work must be done. God’s leader comes equipped with the gifts of the Spirit by which God’s kingdom can be established. Christians believe that this promised leader is Jesus. Through his gift of the Spirit we are called to participate in his mission. It is from this passage that Christians derive six of the traditional seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, and fear of the Lord (verse 2). These gifts allow us to build God’s peace. Therefore, if God’s goal is to be reached, we must not only possess the gifts of the Spirit but also use them.
Reflection: What gift have I been given to build peace in my family and in the world?
Prayer: Spirit of Peace, preserve me from discouragement in face of the violence of the world. Make me a peacemaker according to God’s will.
Isaiah 42:1-9—God’s Spirit Gives Us a New Kind of Justice
Whereas yesterday’s passage from Isaiah presents God’s Spirit as the means to peace, today’s passage connects the Spirit with justice. God’s servant, who is filled with the Spirit, will bring justice to the nations (verse 1). God’s justice is not a mathematical fairness. It is an active concern to address the needs of those who are weak and disenfranchised. Even if some people are marginal and have little to offer society and its projects, they are not expendable. God’s servant will protect the weak. He will not break off the bruised reed nor snuff out the smoldering wick (verse 3). He will support the value of the blind and the imprisoned (verse 7). This stance towards the marginalized is not an act of charity. It is a requirement of God’s justice.
Christians see Jesus as the servant of God. We hear in his teachings a reaffirmation of the justice which Isaiah presents. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). Isaiah rightly calls this justice “a new thing” (verse 9). It is not new to anyone who understands the Jewish tradition, expressed by Isaiah and confirmed by Jesus. But it is new to those who see themselves as righteous while ignoring those who lack the essentials of life.
As followers of Jesus we must promote God’s justice. We cannot become content with a world in which the poor are neglected. The fruit of justice is peace. As Pope Paul VI has forcibly asserted, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
Reflection: What concrete choice can I make today to promote the justice of God?
Prayer: Spirit of Justice, change my heart. Allow me to let go of the possessions I do not need and share them with those who struggle.
Ezekiel 11:14-25—The Spirit Can Change Our Hearts
Ezekiel was a Jewish aristocrat who was taken as an exile into Babylon in 597 B.C.E. (Ezek 1:1-2). He spoke the word of the Lord to his fellow exiles, calling them to holiness and hope. In today’s selection he assures the exiles that God will not forget them. God will gather them again from the nations in which they have been scattered and restore them to the land of Israel (verse 17).
But this change in location is to be accompanied with a change of heart. God will not only alter their surroundings but also increase their faithfulness to the law. Their hearts of stone will be changed into hearts of flesh, capable of obeying the Lord’s commands (verses 19-20). They will be given “one heart” (sometimes rendered “a new heart”). With this heart they will follow God’s will with undivided loyalty. This change of heart is made possible because God will place “a new spirit” within them (verse 19).
We all know that God calls us to a life of faith, hope, and love. Living that life, however, is a challenge. Despite the clear call of God, we still give in to impatience, jealousy, selfishness, pettiness, and prejudice. Bridging the distance between the call to holiness and the lives we lead can seem overwhelming, even impossible. This is why the message of Ezekiel is so important. We cannot change our hearts or our lives without the power of God’s Spirit. Holiness is more than dedication and effort. It is a gift with which we must cooperate. Fortunately for us, this gift of the Spirit is one which God freely bestows.
Reflection: In what area of my life should I ask the Spirit to change my heart?
Prayer: Transforming Spirit, change me. Where I am selfish, allow me to give; where there is hurt, allow me to forgive; where I hate, allow me to love.
Ezekiel 37:1-14—The Spirit Lifts Us from Despair
Today’s passage from Ezekiel contains one of the most powerful images in all the scriptures. By the power of God’s Spirit a field of dry bones comes to life. With a rattling noise the dead bones connect, joint to joint. Sinews and flesh cover them, and God breathes life into them (verses 7-10). This oracle is addressed to the exiles in Babylon. The death symbolized by the lifeless bones is not physical death but a future devoid of hope. Separated from their own land the exiles cry out that their bones are dried up, that their hope is gone, that they are cut off completely (verse 11). Yet by the power of God’s Spirit, life replaces death, hope drives out despair.
This image from Ezekiel addresses every believer in time of darkness. When those we love reject us, when health problems surround us, when death strikes at our family, we can feel abandoned and alone. A depression sets in. The future looks bleak and we can find no reason to go on. We need God’s Spirit in those times. God’s Spirit shapes our future and promises us goodness. Even though we cannot visualize how the Spirit might bring us from our darkness, the promise has been made, and it will occur.
Christians validly recognize in this passage an anticipation of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. Through the power of God, death will lead to life. The Lord has promised to raise us from our graves of death and despair. “I have spoken and I will act,” says the Lord (verse 14).
Reflection: Where in my life do I find it difficult to hope?
Prayer: Spirit of God, you guide me into the future. Help me to see that there is no sorrow you cannot turn to joy, no dying you cannot transform into life.
Joel 2: 18-29—All Creation Receives God’s Spirit
The preaching of the prophet Joel was occasioned by a plague of locusts which had devastated the land. Joel interprets the attack as the sign of the impending judgment of God. Yet the preaching of the prophet quickly turns from warning to promise. God will have pity on Israel and restore the ruined land. The presence of God’s mercy and faithfulness is expressed as an outpouring of God’s Spirit (verse 28).
What is noteworthy about Joel’s description of the Spirit is its scope. The Spirit will not be limited to a select group of prophets or leaders but will fill every human heart. Male and female, young and old, slave and free will possess the Spirit of God (verses 28-29). Moreover, God’s promise overflows humanity and imbues the rest of creation. The soil, the animals of the field, the fig trees and vines all rejoice in the gift of God’s promise (verses 21-22). The goodness which God has in mind will extend to all creation. Christians rightly see in this oracle a foreshadowing of the new creation which flows from the resurrection of Jesus. Luke understands this connection. He refers to this passage from Joel as Peter preaches on Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21).
It is all too easy for us to imagine our salvation exclusively in personal terms. We imagine that God’s focus is fixed primarily on our needs and desires. The prophecy of Joel asks us to broaden our perspective. God’s salvation will come to all things. God’s Spirit will infuse all creation. Joel anticipates the encompassing view of Paul who pictures Christ’s final victory as the day when God is all in all (1 Cor 15:28).
Reflection: Do I recognize that God’s care extends beyond myself and includes all that God has made?
Prayer: Holy Spirit your life will be poured out on all creation. Help me to witness to your presence by the manner in which I respect the earth.
Wisdom 9:9-18—The Spirit Guides Our Actions
The Wisdom of Solomon is probably the latest book in the Old Testament. Written in the first century before Christ, it speaks frequently of the importance and qualities of God’s Wisdom. Wisdom is given a personal quality. She is not so much described as an attribute “of God” as being “with God.” Wisdom is presented as “a breath of the power of God” (Wis 7:25). In the introduction to this reading guide we discussed how “spirit” can be translated as either “wind” or “breath.” Thus the Book of Wisdom connects God’s Wisdom to the Spirit. This connection is confirmed in today’s passage where wisdom and spirit are closely related (verse 17). Holy Wisdom, like the Holy Spirit, is used in our scriptures to express God’s action in the world.
Therefore, the action of Wisdom in this passage is an amplification of the action of the Spirit. It is through Wisdom that God guides us according to the divine will. Wisdom knows all things and will guide the one who follows her and guard the believer with her glory (verse 11). In a manner similar to God’s Spirit, Wisdom helps us to make the decisions which will lead us to life.
It is not always easy to discern what God desires of us. Is this the person I should marry? Is this a job which I should consider? Is this the vocation through which I can do God’s will? Yet God does not abandon us. God sends Wisdom. God sends the Spirit to show us the paths to follow. Our role is to open our hearts and respond.
Reflection: Where do I require the guidance of the Spirit in my life today?
Prayer: Breath of the power of God, breathe on me. Fill me with God’s Wisdom so that I might choose rightly how to live this day.
Sirach 39:1-11—God’s Spirit Interprets the Scriptures
This passage from Sirach describes the work of the scribe who is privileged to study the scriptures. The traditional divisions of the Hebrew Bible are mentioned: the law, wisdom, and the prophets (verse 1). Sirach makes clear that the proper understanding of God’s revelation is not simply the result of intelligence and study. The scribe must rise early in the morning to pray and to ask forgiveness for sins (verse 5). If then the Lord is willing, the scribe will be filled with the Spirit of understanding. It is only through this Spirit that a true interpretation of the Holy Scriptures can take place. It is the Holy Spirit who leads the scribe from prayer to the understanding of the scriptures and then back to a prayer of thanksgiving (verse 6).
In the ancient world interpreting the bible was limited to scribes, for few beyond that select group had the ability to read and write. Today many people are literate. We can and should apply the description of the scribe in Sirach to ourselves. Not only should we appreciate the miracle of literacy, but we should also rejoice in God’s willingness to communicate to us through the written word of the bible. Every time we open its pages, we should remember that true insight into its meaning depends on more than our mental abilities. We must open our hearts to God in prayer and ask for the gift of God’s Spirit. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that God’s eternal word will emerge and the good news of Christ will shape our lives.
Reflection: What steps can I take not only to read the scriptures but to pray them?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, you inspired the human authors of the scriptures to express God’s word. Inspire me to understand that word and live it.
Matthew 3:1-12—The Spirit Purifies God’s People
The Holy Spirit is frequently associated with the waters of baptism. Less frequent is the imagery of fire which occurs in today’s passage from Matthew (see also Luke 3:15-17). What is the gospel attempting to convey by the use of this image? The answer is found in chapter four of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah presents a vision of a new and purified Jerusalem. All who remain in the city will be washed clean of the filth of their transgressions “by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of burning” (Isa 4:4).
John the Baptist draws upon the imagery of Isaiah as he announces the coming of the Messiah. Jesus will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (verse 11). Jesus will come as judge. He will use his winnowing fork to separate the wheat from the chaff, good from evil. He will gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn in unquenchable fire (verse 12). The image of Jesus as judge is not comforting. But it is necessary. If God’s people are to be holy, they must be purified. What is evil must be burned away.
Becoming the people we should be often involves pain. Habits of addiction enslave us and can be loosed only through struggle and anguish. Destructive relationships must often be terminated, breaking our hearts in the process. Poor judgments and sin cause damage which leads to grief and turmoil of the soul. The way to holiness leaves its scars. But the way to wholeness is guided by the Spirit who intends not to hurt us but to purify us for God’s service.
Reflection: Where do I experience evil holding me back from growth and service?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, you destroy all that is contrary to God’s will. Destroy whatever hinders me from the holiness to which I am called.
Matthew 28:16-20—The Spirit Compensates for Our Weakness
Matthew’s gospel ends with this scene often called “The Great Commission.” After his resurrection, Jesus appears to the eleven on a mountain and sends them out to spread the good news. This scene emphasizes that the triumph initiated by Jesus’ resurrection is not complete until the kingdom of God is established in its fullness. Disciples of Jesus are to build that kingdom by spreading his teachings and baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (verse 19). The Spirit, then, plays an essential role in facilitating the work of every disciple.
What is noteworthy about this passage in Matthew is that those who are commissioned are far from perfect. When the risen Christ appears to them, they worshipped him, “but some doubted” (verse 17). Yet Christ commissions them all and sends them out with the Holy Spirit. This can only mean that the Spirit will compensate for the weakness of the disciples. Jesus might have preferred robust followers who believe without hesitation, but he is willing to send the disciples as he finds them. He counts on the Spirit to accompany them and guide them.
The gift of the Spirit eliminates any excuse from service. We cannot beg off, pointing to our inadequacies and fears. We will always be able to point to others who are more qualified, more motivated, and more holy than we are. But such comparisons are not to the point. Jesus knows all our flaws and sends us anyway, for he knows that the Spirit is able to make up the difference between our abilities and our call.
Reflection: What weaknesses should I ask the Holy Spirit to help me address?
Prayer: Spirit of Strength, I will not come to you with excuses of why I cannot serve. Christ has called me and you are with me. I will help to build God’s kingdom.
Mark 1:9-11—The Spirit Confirms Our Identity
The gospels relate that Jesus began his public ministry with a dramatic event at the Jordan River. Baptized by John, Jesus emerges from the water and sees the heavens open and the Spirit of God descend. He hears a voice which proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (verse 11). As one fully human as we are, Jesus modeled in his own life the truth we must live. Before he began his work of salvation, he publicly appropriated his identity as God’s Son. We are not a Son of God in the same sense as Jesus, but all of us through water and the Spirit are truly children of God.
We cannot effectively serve the kingdom unless we appropriate our true identity as God’s sons and daughters. The crosses we carry, the ministries we assume, the problems we must resolve can wear us down unless we remember our relationship to God. Our relationship is not as a slave or employee, but as a beloved child. When we remember the delight which God takes in loving us, we can find the strength to follow God’s will with energy and joy.
The Christian tradition has derived from this passage the image of the Spirit as a dove (verse 11). There is no clear consensus on why the gospels employ such an image, but a reference in the Jewish Talmud is suggestive: “I heard a divine voice cooing like a dove” (Ber. 3a). This quotation implies that God gently comforts us with the knowledge of our identity. The voice which softly speaks to us our true name is the Holy Spirit.
Reflection: When do I tend to forget my dignity and worth as a child of God?
Prayer: Spirit of Truth, you reveal my true identity. Allow me to believe that I am a beloved child of God and celebrate the wonder of your gift.
Mark 3:20-30—It Is Possible to Reject God’s Spirit
On first examination today’s passage seems to say that “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” is a particular sin which is so heinous that it can never be forgiven (verses 28-29). Devout readers immediately begin to wonder what this horrible sin might be. Could it be pride or greed or some sexual deviation? However, when this passage is read in context, a different understanding of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” emerges.
In this passage, Jesus’ entire ministry is being challenged. Some in the crowd are claiming that his work is not of God but of Satan (verse 22). What is at stake, therefore, is much larger than any particular sin. The presence of God’s Spirit in Jesus’ teaching and deeds is being rejected. This rejection is not the result of honest doubt. It is made by those who know full well the validity of Jesus’ mission but purposefully close their hearts to it. Such blasphemy cannot be forgiven. This is not because God is unwilling to forgive, but because those who blaspheme in this way are not open to the forgiveness which is offered.
The possibility to reject Jesus’ mission underlines the seriousness in which God holds human freedom. God is at work in our world to save it. God takes every step to offer love and grace. But God will never force anyone to accept such gifts. Every person has the power to recognize God’s blessings or to reject them—not out of doubt but out of willfulness. As foolish and as destructive as such a choice would be, God’s love can be refused. Doing so is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.
Reflection: When have I opposed God’s will, not out of weakness but willfulness?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, you are the presence of God in every time and place. Help me realize that I have the freedom to accept your light or to live in darkness.
Mark 13:1-13—We Are Instruments of the Spirit
Chapter 13 of Mark’s gospel is sometimes called “the little apocalypse,” for it relates a series of events which accompany the end of time. Many of these events are fearful: wars, earthquakes, famines, trials before councils and kings. But these frightening occurrences are not an end in themselves. They precede the establishment of God’s kingdom. This is why Mark refers to them as “birth pangs” (verse 8). A new world is being formed.
The disciples of Jesus have a role to play in this emerging kingdom. They are to be witnesses to Christ as the tribulation unfolds. They will have to face interrogation, but they will not be alone. The words they will speak will not be their own. Words will be provided by the Holy Spirit (verse 11). God’s Spirit will use those who speak them to accomplish God’s will.
Even though the final days are not yet upon us, the Spirit still uses us as instruments of the kingdom. If we remain open to the Spirit’s promptings, we can accomplish good things in ways we never intended. A few extra minutes with our children might provide the love they need to heal a difficult day at school of which we are unaware. Inviting an elderly woman to move ahead of us in the checkout line might be a kindness that saves her from despair. Volunteering to assist in a community project might provide the expertise which raises the common effort to a higher level. The Spirit is always using us in ways we cannot foresee. Any action might be the Spirit’s movement. Any word might not be our word, but the Spirit’s own.
Reflection: Have I ever been surprised by an effectiveness in my actions which exceeded my intentions?
Prayer: Creating Spirit, you are always at work shaping the world according to God’s plan. Use me as your instrument. I open my heart to your will.
Luke 1:26-38—The Spirit Makes the Impossible Possible
Christians point to the annunciation of Jesus’ birth as the moment of the incarnation. When Mary accepts her role as the mother of the Savior, Jesus is miraculously conceived in her womb. God had been active for centuries, preparing for this moment: revealing divine mercy and faithfulness to Israel, instilling hope for a future in which evil and death would be destroyed. These actions of God were guided by the Holy Spirit who moved through history as God’s gentle wind. Therefore, the Spirit of God is present at the annunciation, bringing God’s plan to fruition.
When Gabriel announces the wondrous birth, the scope of God’s plan unfolds before Mary. She questions how she could participate in such a miracle of love (verse 34). The angel quiets her question with the promise of the Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (verse 35). Mary need not fear. What is too amazing to imagine can happen. What is too immense to conceive will occur.
Our role in God’s plan of salvation is not as central as Mary’s. Yet the same Spirit of God is given to us. The Holy Spirit has the power to redefine what is possible. An estrangement in our family may have festered for decades. A destructive habit may have been a part of our personality since childhood. Grief may hold us in its grasp for years, stifling our joy. Any of these burdens may appear to us as fixed aspects of our lives. Changing them might seem out of the question. Yet we have God’s Spirit, and nothing is impossible with God (verse 37).
Reflection: Do I believe that God is able to achieve what to me seems impossible?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, you are the power of God. Help me to measure my future not by my strength but yours.
Luke 4:14-30—God’s Spirit Opposes Oppression
Jesus’ visit to Nazareth in the Gospel of Luke is distinctive. Luke’s account is longer and more complex than the versions of Matthew and Mark (Matt 13:53-58; Mark 6:1-6a). Moreover, Luke relocates the story, placing it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Luke intends this visit to serve as a overture to Jesus’ work of salvation. To capture the essence of Jesus’ mission, Luke searches the scriptures and draws upon Isaiah 61:1-11. He places Isaiah’s words on the lips of Jesus who reads them in the synagogue and then announces that they have been fulfilled (verse 21).
Using the vision of Isaiah, Luke insists that Jesus’ work is not to provide an escape from the world but rather a transformation of it. All that vies with God’s kingdom will be undone. The poor will hear the good news. Those who are imprisoned will be set free. The blind will see. Every form of oppression will cease (verse 18). This is the good news which now unfolds in the power of God’s Spirit (verses 14 and 18).
The mission of Christ will not be complete until every evil is destroyed. Followers of Jesus must continue the work which he began. Wherever there is poverty, we are called to be agents of life and human dignity. Wherever there is sickness, we are called to reach out with a healing touch. Wherever there is violence, we are to be Christ’s presence, working for justice and peace. Oppression in all its forms strikes against God’s kingdom. But we who follow Christ possess his Spirit. That Spirit motivates us to proclaim God’s love and to set the captives free.
Reflection: How would I define oppression? How could I be Christ to those who experience it?
Prayer: Spirit of God, you are opposed to whatever is contrary to God’s will. Allow me to build justice, hope, and freedom today.
Luke 10:21-22—The Spirit Promotes Simplicity
This small prayer of Jesus to the Father is both insightful and practical. Overcome with the beauty of truth, Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit. It is God’s Spirit who reveals the truth: the most important matters in life are simple. What matters most in life is not the complex computations of advanced minds nor the impressive accomplishments of those in power. In fact, those who live entirely on that sophisticated level may never appreciate life’s deepest treasures. The most basic truths can remain hidden to the wise and intelligent (verse 21).
A child can perceive what is essential to life: fairness, compassion, and the power of love. These values become apparent when other desires do not clutter our lives. The drive to accumulate more prestige, more influence, more possessions does not clarify our existence but complicates it. Bigger egos, larger homes, deeper bank accounts do not necessarily free us. They can enslave us. We find ourselves managing what we own rather than living who we are. We have more options but less life, more possessions but less joy.
How can we keep our hearts fixed on what matters? We can cooperate with the prompting of God’s Spirit. The Spirit reveals the illusion in the shallow promises of life and focuses our souls on the gifts of faith, hope, and love. The Spirit gives us the freedom to let go of those things which will never satisfy us and to hold tight to the values which bring us joy. It is a gift to be simple. God’s Spirit knows this and allows us to embrace life as children of God.
Reflection: In what ways is it possible for me to simplify my life?
Prayer: Spirit of Truth, you know well the things which matter. Allow me to see your truth and live in your joy.
Luke 11:9-11—The Spirit is the Answer to Prayer
Jesus’ teaching on prayer is both a comfort and a problem. He assures us that if we ask, we will receive; if we seek we will find (verse 9). Jesus’ words are reassuring. We have so many needs in our lives. It is comforting to know that our prayers will be heard. There is, however, a problem. From experience we realized that many of the things for which we pray are not granted. How can we square Jesus’ promise with the reality of unanswered prayer?
The things for which we pray do not lie at the heart of prayer. The foundation of prayer is a relationship, our relationship with God. That relationship is trustworthy. Jesus’ words emphasize such trust. We might ask for a fish (and we may not get a fish), but we will not receive a snake. We might want an egg (and not receive an egg), but we will not be given a scorpion (verses 11 and 12). Jesus is telling us that if we ask for a good thing, we will receive a good thing. It might not, however, be the particular good thing which we requested.
Prayer, then, is an act of faith, a request for God to act on our behalf. We might pray for better health, reconciliation with a friend, or that our daughter be accepted in the college she desires. Even if what we request is not granted, we have asked in faith, and God will not ignore us. This is why Jesus says that we will always receive the Holy Spirit (verse 13). Regardless of the outcome, in prayer we receive God’s very self.
Reflection: Have I ever been surprised by the way in which God has responded to my prayer?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, even when I do not receive what I have asked for in prayer, make me thankful for the gift of you.
John 3:1-21—The Spirit Is Not Ours to Control
Nicodemus knows that Jesus is from God. But Jesus astounds Nicodemus when he asserts that the ability to believe is a gift and one must be born from above in order to possess it (verse 3). Discipleship is not the result of study and discipline. It is a response to God’s word which is freely given. It is the Spirit who grants faith and leads the believer to the waters of baptism (verse 5).
The evangelist John emphasizes the freedom of God by consciously pointing to the Spirit as “the wind of God.” The wind blows where it wills. You cannot determine whence it comes or where it goes (verse 8). God’s will always remains a mystery. We can never fully understand it. We are unable to direct it. The Spirit is essential for faith, but the Spirit is not under our control.
At times we are discouraged when we are unable to pass our faith to others. A daughter or son sees no value in church attendance. A coworker questions the validity of our belief in God. We watch as a friend faces death without the hope which only faith can offer. We would like to take our faith and make it grow in the hearts of others. But even though we petition God and lead by example, faith is a gift we cannot give. We can only entrust those we love to God’s care, believing that faith may yet emerge. We can only believe that in God’s own time the hearts of others may yet glow with the same Spirit who inflames our hearts with love.
Reflection: Who do I know who needs the gift of faith?
Prayer: Spirit of Faith, I thank you for my ability to believe. Keep all those who do not believe in your care.
John 20:19-23—The Spirit Is the Agent of Reconciliation
The mission of Christ is reconciliation, conforming all things to the will of God. The risen Jesus appears to the disciples and commissions them to carry out his work. As the Father has sent him, so now he sends them (verse 21). They are to take up Jesus’ work and reconcile humanity to God.
The agent of this reconciliation is the Spirit of God who is also the Spirit of Jesus. Drawing upon the image of the Spirit as God’s breath, Jesus breathes upon the disciples (verse 22). He imparts to them his presence and authority. Such authority is real. It can be exercised through the judgment of those who receive it. In the Spirit the followers of Jesus have the power to both forgive and retain sin (verse 23).
We are the followers of Jesus. We have received his Spirit; we possess the authority to reconcile the world to God. Our call, then, is to bring people together. When we encounter division and estrangement, we are to offer paths to healing. When we face selfishness and sin, we are to encourage repentance and generosity. Wherever God’s will is frustrated, our work is to change human hearts.
Is this task beyond us? It is. The work of reconciliation is God’s work. This is why Christ has breathed his Spirit upon us. The very power of God is our possession. Because God’s Spirit has been given to us, we can heal, we can reconcile, we can change hearts. In the Holy Spirit we can address a broken and violent world with the words of Jesus: “Peace be with you!”
Reflection: Where can I be an agent of reconciliation in my family, work, or community?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, through your power the world can be renewed. Conform my heart to God’s will so that I might become your agent of peace.
Acts 2:1-21—The Holy Spirit Is My Fire
Luke uses drama to describe the descent of the Holy Spirit. He gives us a sudden windy noise, tongues of fire, and the miracle of a language which all can understand. But such theatrical skills are used to communicate a truth about the Spirit of God. Fire is the sign of the Spirit’s presence. Luke tells us that the tongues of fire came to rest upon “each one” of the gathered disciples (verse 3). This indicates that the gift of the Spirit comes to us as individuals.
The personal gift of the Spirit does not negate the communal nature of the Church. Yet this passage insists that being Church is not like making sausage, where all our particular talents and skills become ground together into a indistinguishable mix. The gift of each individual is important in spreading God’s reign. Therefore, we must not use the communal nature of the church as an excuse for inactivity. We should not disqualify our own gifts by comparing them to those of others. It is easy to find someone who is more prayerful, more generous, more insightful than we are. Seeing this superior capability in others can tempt us to sit back and do nothing. The Church is impoverished when we refuse to use the gift we have been given.
At Pentecost each disciple is marked with his or her individual flame. This dramatic image does not simply report an event of the past. It is Luke’s way of showing us how to build the Church today. If the gospel is to cover the earth, we must each find our particular fire and use it.
Reflection: What gift has God given to me? How well do I use it?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, enkindle your fire in my heart. Lead me to use the gifts you have given me in God’s service.
Acts 5:1-11—The Spirit Will Not Tolerate Deception
This dramatic story from the Book of Acts does is not included in the Lectionary. Therefore, it remains unfamiliar to many believers. The early Christian community agreed to hold their possessions in common (Acts 2:44-45). Profits from commercial transactions were given to the community to help those in need. Divesting oneself from such worldly possessions was a sign of a believer’s faith.
A married couple in the early church, Ananias and Sapphira, sold some property but wanted to keep some of the profit for themselves. They were free to do this, but they conspired to give the impression that they were offering their entire profit to the community. Their sin was not one of greed but one of deception. They wanted to appear completely generous, even though they were not. Their deception was not simply against the community but against God (verse 4). They lied to the Holy Spirit (verses 3 and 9), and their punishment was severe.
This story reminds us that there is a connection between honesty with God and honesty with others. We all know that God cannot be deceived. God knows us better than we know ourselves. But at times we assume we can fool others. We imagine we can lead others to believe that we are more creative, successful, or generous than we are. We attempt to put on a false front, believing that others will respect us more if we do. Such deception is dangerous. In time the truth will out, and the loss can be fatal. Deceiving others is not a game. It is an offense to God’s own honor. It is a lie to the Holy Spirit.
Reflection: Have I ever tried to give a false impression for my own benefit?
Prayer: Spirit of Truth, help me to live in the truth. Allow me to live as the person I truly am—a child of God.
Romans 8:12-27—The Spirit Prays for Us
Normally we envision prayer as words we say to God. Today’s passage from Romans presents a much deeper understanding. Paul tells us that it is not we who pray to God but that the Spirit prays to God for us. Our ability to cry out to God as our Father (Abba) is only possible because God has freely made us daughters and sons. As God’s children we possess God’s own Spirit. Therefore, when we pray, it is God’s Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are God’s own (verse 16).
The words we use in prayer are important, but they are not essential. Because God’s Spirit prays through us, we can pray even when words fail us. When the depth of grief freezes our heart or the weight of fear paralyzes our soul, the Spirit prays for us. When the pain is so deep that faith eludes us or the doubt is so real that hope forsakes us, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf. When joy overwhelms every attempt at expression or surprise at God’s goodness overwhelms us, the Spirit cries out in thanksgiving, “Abba!”
On the deepest level we are not in charge of our own prayer. God is. Prayer does not depend on our mood or our abilities. Therefore, we can pray in every place and in every circumstance. Our relationship to God is deeper than words. It lies on the very level of our identity. We are children of God, and God is always with us. God is both the One whom we address and the One who speaks from the depths of our soul.
Reflection: Have there been times when I have been unable to pray in words?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, you ground my relationship to the Father. Speak to God for me, when I can find no words to say.
1 Corinthians 12:1-31—The Spirit Makes One Out of Many
We are the Body of Christ. We are Christ’s presence in the world. In order to be Christ’s body, the Spirit of God has provided each one of us with a gift, some ability to build God’s kingdom (verse 7). The gifts of the body are not equal. Some have greater and some lesser contributions to offer. But even the weaker gifts are essential, if God’s work is to be accomplished (verses 22-25).
It is human nature to assume that because some are less gifted, they are less valuable. We can easily write off those who are poor, rude, or troublesome. We are tempted to believe that we will be ahead with a few strong players rather than a multitude of the weak. God’s Spirit calls us to view each other in another way. Each person is necessary because each person has a gift—a gift which comes from God. It is only when every gift is treasured that we can function as who we are: the Body of Christ.
With all this variety, it is the Spirit of God who holds the church together. It is the Spirit who shows us that, through all our differences, we still need each other. Even though our abilities are mixed, our care for each other must be consistent (verse 25). Those who have been given the greater gifts are to be valued. But no person is expendable. No one can be left behind. The task of building God’s kingdom has not been given to a small group but to the universal church. All are necessary because all belong. The many become one in God’s Spirit.
Reflection: Do I consider the gift I have been given necessary for the life of the Church?
Prayer: Spirit of God, you create unity from the variety of gifts. Lead me to use my gift for the common good.
Revelation 22:12-21—The Spirit Says, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Since the Kingdom of God lies at the heart of the gospel, it is the hope of every Christian that God’s reign will be established soon. The kingdom will be fully realized only when Christ returns on the last day. On that day every evil will be destroyed and God will be all in all. It is, therefore, appropriate that the canon of the New Testament closes with the Book of Revelation. At the end of that book Christ makes the promise that he is coming soon (verse 12). For Christians, therefore, the bible ends on this note of hope.
Hope is necessary. Evil still seems to hold sway over our world, and its power can stifle our trust in Christ’s final victory. When we look at the wars which span the globe, when we see the violence which ruins too many homes, when we recognize the suffering of millions from poverty and malnutrition, our hope can be undermined. Even if we do not give up, we are tempted to prepare for the worst. Perhaps Christ’s promise is too optimistic. Perhaps the scriptures have overstated the case. Perhaps we should settle for a better neighborhood rather than a new world. Such downsizing of our expectations eviscerates the gospel.
It is the role of God’s Spirit to keep hope high. It is the Spirit who joins with the church, the bride of Christ, to say, “Come” (verse 17). Come, Jesus, into this broken world and set it straight. Come into this home of death and roll out your life. Come into this place where fears flourish and establish your reign. Come, Lord Jesus. Come soon. So be it! Amen!
Reflection: What role does hope in Christ’s return play in my spiritual life?
Prayer starter: Holy Spirit, you are my guarantee that Jesus will return. Let me burn with the hope that God’s love will rule the earth.